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Some thoughts on the art of apps for change

Some thoughts on the art of apps for change


To begin, I’d like to take up the call from Amid Ayobi‘s paper and expand the path of phenomenological investigation in HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), by examining its foundations.

It is the mark of popular art that its artistry remain out of conscious focus, bringing us closer to ‘pure experience’. None of us want to see the stitching on Gandalf’s beard. The problem with aspiring to pure experience of the artwork is that this interaction is necessarily passive and the experience, no matter how intense, quickly fades. I cried the first time I saw “Love Actually”; the thirty-seventh time? Not so much.

The trade-off is that by forever obscuring its artistry, the artwork also obscures the mechanism by which we may make repairs or discover new affordances in our interaction. Every Christmas tear-jerker is doomed to the same fate in the long run (except for the small fraction of us who hack new affordances despite what the artist intended, for instance doing a shot every time Hugh Grant’s character looks embarrassed).

On the other end of the spectrum we have metafiction, and a whole other tradition of art that draws attention to itself and often involves the viewer. A Bertol Brecht play or a Gertrude Stein poem connects less deeply with my sense of the world, but it affords a wider range of experiences, which likely change with every interaction. ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ may well feel like a new book every time I dip into it, but nobody gets lost in its pages on their beach holiday.

Along the spectrum we have work like ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’ by Damien Hirst and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles: work which both entertains us and alerts us to its presence, provoking thought (assuming we are interacting in a certain context and with certain knowledge, as I’ll discuss).

‘Entertainment’ is too narrow a label for this force, just as the common label of ‘difficulty’ is too narrow a label for the opposing force. Rather than talking about how ‘difficult’ or ‘entertaining’ a thing is, I will borrow from Heidegger the terms ‘readiness’ and ‘ obstinacy’.

I know I’ve been using ‘tool’ and ‘art work’ interchangeably. With apologies to Oscar Wilde, I don’t think this is a significant distinction to make here. We may think of an art work as a tool for bringing about some emotion in us or inspiring some insight. Just in case you’ve just flown into a rage, let me refer to both as ‘artefacts’ and be done with it.

In his scathing polemic about personal informatics, ‘To Save Everything Click Here’, Evgeny Morozov argues that personal data is a curse rather than something that can improve our lives because developers and HCI researchers are focused on (in my formulation) maximising readiness, at the expense of personal exploration and social values. He champions DiSalvo’s concept of ‘adversarial design’ as a radical measure to reverse the trend. A light switch that only works some of the time could lead us to make ‘political’ insights about our energy usage.

I agree with the thrust of Morozov’s argument but there is nothing radical about his proposal. Anna Cox and Ian Renfree have briefly surveyed a rich variety of ways in which designers and researchers are already using ‘Design Frictions'(a popular media term for obstinate features) to enhance user experience. For instance, there is the research that if you pause to take a photo of your food before you eat it, it helps you to reach your diet goals. Then there are artefacts like the ‘Chatterbox’ installation, which got the staff in a workplace to reflect on their online communication by collecting the text of their work emails and assembling the words and phrases into new sentences. Cox and Renfree’s own research details how the obstacle of an extra screen to go through could improve self-reflection in contexts like online shopping. Similarly, the app RescueTime gives you fifteen seconds to confirm that you absolutely do want to visit that distracting website.

In short, HCI is ready to adopt the readiness-obstinacy spectrum as a design consideration.

However, as I hinted earlier, obstinacy on its own won’t necessarily enhance the user experience. From my bus I can see a print of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ hanging on the wall of a travel agent. It’s doubtful that customers are drawn to reflect on the nature of warfare on seeing the print. This is a problem. Another (inverse) problem comes from Morozov’s critique.

Though I disagree with Morozov’s diagnosis as to the scale and depth of the problem, his criticism is still worth considering. We sometimes just accept and even fetishize our artefacts instead of using them to make insights (Ian Renfree talks about the dangers of this dependency). Kate Crawford gives the example of misusing bathroom scales: ‘self-measurement becomes the substitute for diet’.

In his paper on ‘lived informatics’, John Rooksby chronicles the dynamic ways in which we hack artefacts to fit them into our lives. Rooksby showed that far from being turned into automatons in the way suggested by Morozov, most users of self-tracking technology use them for reflection within a much broader context of personal meanings and values e.g. communicating with family or preparing for a marathon. But there is a mystery in Rooksby’s research: why do even some experienced users stop using the technology? This too is a problem and I’d argue that much of this is owing to the ‘Love Actually’ effect described earlier.

I think my readiness – obstinacy spectrum, together with a traditional phenomenological focus on knowledge and context, could illuminate all three of these UX problems. I have represented context and knowledge together since contexts are external knowledge sources e.g. a museum vs knowledge of a historical period.



  1. The holiday planner who sees ‘Guernica’ interacts with an obstinate artefact but may not have the knowledge to experience it as intended. This could be changed if the print was in a Spanish Civil War museum or if the customer was a modern art enthusiast.


  1. The dieter who fetishizes weighing himself instead of changing his diet has a fair amount of knowledge but the bathroom scales are not obstinate enough to spur insight.


  1. The expert who stops using the artefact may feel like it has given her everything it’s going to give her: like its readiness is too high.


My hypothesis then is this: user experience can be optimized if users with little knowledge interact with an artefact with high readiness and then experience increasing levels of obstinacy as their knowledge increases: for example, finding new features unlocked. This can be seen on tools like Habitica (which evolves from a simple to-do list app to an RPG with quests, pets and special abilities).

Let me finish with a brief discussion of some of the things that are wrong with my graph.

a) There is no context-independent experience. It is not possible to have no knowledge or complete knowledge.

b) It’s not clear what kind of knowledge is called for: its sources are incalculable and its acquisition is unlikely to be linear.

c) Though the x axis on my graph refers to the artefact and the y axis to the user, this distinction is quite superficial. Andy Clark and Dave Chalmers point out that the “internal/external” dichotomy is often unnecessary when it comes to phenomenology. For instance, why should an address I look up in my long-term memory be considered distinct from an address in an address book: the function and outcome are the same; both, they argue, are extensions of my mind. In any successful sustained interaction the user will likely internalize functions and information from the artefact as well as offloading them onto the artefact.

Am I missing something?

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