IxD16 — “Practical Abstractions”


Boris Anthony: Practical Abstraction from Interaction Design Association.

Slides & Write-up

Hello! Thank you Peter (Bihr–host, conference co-chair & friend, gave brief intro), thank you IXDA for this great event and opportunity to speak. And kiitos Helsinki! I’m always so happy to visit this city who’s deeply humanist heritage of design has been a great inspiration and the spirit of which led to much of what I hope to talk about here today.
By way of a quick intro… My name is Boris Anthony, I come from the Open Web. On the left you can see some of the marvellous people, projects and organisations I’ve had the good fortune of working with… and some words that try to describe sort of what I do. My current focus is founding Rebus Web Books. We aim to bring books to the open web. But I am not here to talk about that.

Section I

What do I mean by “Practical Abstractions.” I think of Practical Abstractions as tools for creating and working with concepts, ideas.
What do I mean when I say “abstractions”? For this I like to paraphrase Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”:

“When we abstract a thing, we’re not so much eliminating details, as we are focusing on specific details. By distilling complexity to it’s essential meaning. In this form, we can much more easily work with it.”

When we do this with “real world stuff”, we end up with Theories and Models which are the materials of working at large scales of size, complexity and impact. They allow us to tell the big stories succinctly using illustration, metaphor & allegory. Why are these important?
  • They allow us to rise up above the devil-in-the-details and see the bigger picture.
  • They can point to potential futures; towards what we don’t know yet, from what we do know… and
  • They can guide decisions on which avenues to explore, discover, innovate… and to take action.
I’ll start with some examples from science. This is a theoretical model of gravitational waves, which were big news recently. We finally managed to detect and record some!
This started 100 years ago, with Einstein in 1915 formulating the Theory of General Relativity. He used the highly abstract tool of mathematics to document his theory, and at some point someone was able to make visual models of what some implications of the theory might look like. This is spacetime distorted by gravity…
Gravitational waves were one of the phenomena that the theory “pointed to.” Scientists, after the physicists, said to themselves: “ok, well, if the theory is true, there should be these waves of gravity… so we should design experiments to try to the detect them…” So they set about doing exactly that; designing experiments. This is the one that I guess made most sense…
So they built it. They got some money, some architects and engineers, and they built the experiment. Two of ’em. One in Louisiana, the other in Washington State.
And sure enough, it worked! This is amazing. What can we do with these waves? Maybe they’re a new energy source?
Who knows where we’ll go… when Elon Musk gets his hands on ’em.
Another example from science. This is the Periodic Table of the Elements, as first assembled by Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1871. Charting all known elements had been attempted before but this is the one that stuck. It is based on the theory that we structure the chart of elements based on their number of protons, their electron configurations and recurring chemical properties. In 1871, the chart was about half empty. Scientists looked at those empty slots and figured: “Theoretically those should be filled. There should be elements with those properties. Let’s look for them!”
This is the Table today. Sure enough those elements existed, we found ’em, and we found a good many more. The chart had to be expanded, and in more than one dimension. These discoveries fuelled the industrial revolution, gave us all the amazing technologies we have today… for better or for worse…
Here’s a table perhaps closer to our reality here, at an Interaction Design conference. This is based on the theory that we can chart service experiences based on, in the vertical, by depth of specificity of user request to the system, and whether it is a “view” or “create” case. The rows separating different data object types—things like User Profiles, Posts, Collections, Place Details, anything.
A practical example of using this method, I did a comparison of Facebook’s mobile clients—iOS, WP8 & Android—from 2013 & 2016. This chart revealed that Facebook had harmonized the three apps to a stunning degree; almost identical across three very different host OSs. This means they ignored the host operating systems’ UX guidelines and paradigms and did it “their way.” Why? Well, remember in 2013 we heard rumors of things like a Facebook OS and a Facebook Phone. It would make sense strategically, if the company was heading in that direction, to develop and deploy a unique, branded and harmonized User Experience across all its “touchpoints”. “You, dear user, are now in Facebook. Forget iOS/Android/WP…” (Even the “splash screen” at the time—that screen when you open the app and it takes a moment to load—communicated this… it was like a warp into “Facebook world.”)
Fast forward three years, to last week in fact. I redid the comparison. We can see a few things here. First of all the visual is much lighter, not so much heavy blue. We see Messenger is gone, yanked out into its own standalone app, with only notifications and a people picker to bring you over to it. If we look closely though we see that they removed the strategic mandate to harmonize though. The apps are allowed to adopt their host OS’s UI paradigms. The teams building these apps each go their own ways, while the core offerings (“value propositions”) remain the same. Why? Well, we can venture a guess, a thesis. No more Facebook OS and devices to carry it, so no need for an overly-enforced “branded experience”, just make using Facebook as great as it can be on as many platforms as possible.
This is an example of a metaphor tool. Some work I did for a service startup recently. They had scaled up very rapidly, expanding from web to mobile offerings. They had started feeling the challenge UX harmonisation across products in production.
I conducted a few stakeholder interviews which revealed that behind that production challenge was a great confusion of culture; key language and metaphors referring to product & UX concepts had different interpretations for each person I spoke with. A Tower of Babel. To address this, we need to do a few things, one of them being to create a visual language to illustrate the core concepts of the product portfolio.

Section II

These are examples of Strategic Design work. Looking forward, and not only at Product or Service itself. We work here with abstractions; theories. Critical questions, the so-called “powerful questions”—how? why? what if?—are key tools for creating theories. We can find answers both in research and experience (“hunches”). Questioning “thought experiments” lead to theories that can and should be tested and explored.
There are many flavours of structured questioning. I often find myself in a model like this one, where “why” allows us to go up, up, up; and by asking “what if”, we can change parameters, elements, and explore possibilities.
Strategic Design goes up with “Why?”, Speculative Design could be said to go exploring with “What if?”
When we do this we start to escape the traditional problem spaces of design. We go beyond Usage & Making into the Values and Ethics.
For example, instead of focussing only on making that Uber app experience perfect, consider how to design Uber to help those people who invested their futures and their children’s futures, in being taxi cab drivers, or the city governments who invested citizens’ taxes into public transport services. We may then also need to figure out how to fix the moral corruption which values individual wealth and comfort over everyone’s general prosperity.
As we rise in this stack, the nature of Design changes also. It grows up, from simple craft and discipline, into a science, and a philosophy. These aren’t just jobs, these are life pursuits! These are activities that generate value for society & humanity, not just commercial consumers.
Design needs tools to effectively operate at these levels. Tools like “practical abstractions.”
Design’s processes also change as it grows up. For example here, how might we combine a classic design process with a philosophical one? This whirly illustration is a form of Practical Abstraction. It’s a first draft, but it allows you to start to grasp a pretty complex concept.
What it depicts is also close to the Scientific Method.
The outcomes of all this work, of practical abstractions, are essentially models. I think we need lots of new models. Why? Because the world and humanity are on rickety old tracks at the moment and we need to change them, not just as designers, but as homo sapiens. As Bucky says: To change things, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.

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