Finding New Solutions in Old Philosophy

As a graduate student at Harvard University, one of my main influences was the Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argued that many philosophical statements, and indeed, much of philosophy itself, became preposterous when applied to the real world. Since completing my doctorate in philosophy, I have been a professional programmer for more than twenty years, and I have learned a lot about applying philosophical thinking to design and development. Philosophy offers deep and profound insights about subjects like knowledge, meaning and justice. Insofar as computer programs concern these subjects, philosophy can be a fantastic source of ideas – and often is. Reading philosophy books has given me ideas for writing useful computer programs that span multiple industries, from healthcare to business, which contradicts Wittgenstein’s belief. After all, if philosophy can guide the design of profitable products, it must be meaningful. Ideas and techniques from such varied philosophers as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rene Descartes, Karl Marx, and W.V.Quine can advance UX development and design. In this article, we’ll explore three software challenges, and the solutions philosophy inspired. Solution#1: Descartes and Austin complete sales Every point-of-sale (POS) transaction faces the same challenge: how do we bring users through the sales funnel and complete a sale? We know we must provide enticing content and a positive experience, but how? A certain number of prospective customers are expected to leave without purchasing, but the designer of a POS system wants to keep that number as low as possible. In order to reduce the number of times users abort a POS transaction, we consider an idea from the philosophy of knowledge. Descartes, in...

Digital Literacy, Part 1: Cadence

What does it mean to be literate in a digital age? While “literacy” conventionally implies reading and writing, we can also apply the concept to new media. By scrutinizing how we use our digital creations, designers can better understand their ability to effect change. It’s been called a publishing platform and a conversation medium, but it’s also been used as a collaborative encyclopedia, a code playground and a canvas for art. Is there anything the web can’t do? And should there be? Analog media (e.g. books, magazines, newspapers) were relatively simple, after all. Everything we needed to know in order to think critically about them came down to reading and writing (or so we believed). But the web is different. Not only does it allow us to create new ideas along existing channels—we can publish and share the digital equivalent of books, magazines, and newspapers, for example—it also allows us to create new channels altogether, such as Twitter. So what does that mean for our conventional definition of literacy? Media theorist Clay Shirky offers a clue. In his foreword to the the book Mediactive, Shirky provides a media-agnostic definition, suggesting that “literacy, in any medium, means not just knowing how to read that medium, but also how to create in it, and to understand the difference between good and bad uses.” This definition resonates with me—indeed, I might go so far as to say it should resonate with all user-centered designers—for not only do we, as designers, strive to understand the way the web is created and consumed, we also wish to understand what it means to create a...

Reimagining the 21st-century Classroom

Education in America faces tough challenges. Innovative solutions to these challenges can be found when teachers and students apply service design to the classroom, solving short-term problems while also giving students long-term skills. The 21st-century, American classroom faces major challenges. The threat of the privatization of schools1, the lack of funding, and the erosion of traditional societal institutions, has forced schools to take on the roles of “priests, psychologists, therapists, political reformers, social workers, sex advisers, or parents.”2 Now more than ever, schools are expected to not only teach children subject matter, but to teach life skills as well. This, in turn, fundamentally changes the teacher’s role in the classroom. Further, legal mandates for test-based performance evaluation have not only trickled down to the teacher’s workload, but threatened their very job. After all, if a computer can teach individualized math better than a teacher and students get higher test scores, why are teachers needed?3 This threat is most acutely manifest by the proliferation of online courses. Michael Sandel of San Jose State University recently foreshadowed the future of higher education in an open letter to fellow professors stating, “Let us not kid ourselves…administrators at C.S.U. are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”4 For teachers at all levels, overcoming internal and external pressures and continuing to provide fundamental value requires an innovative re-envisioning of the classroom and making it a shared experience, one that cannot be replicated by an automaton. Teachers must overcome the digital-age metaphor of learning, one which compares the human to a computer, putting knowledge into memory, emphasizing logic and measurable outcomes. Teachers...