The Scaffolds

Since 2005 I have been involved in approximately 25 interdisciplinary design research projects. Many of these projects are in the area of humanities visualization. Humanities visualization typically involves experimental interface designs that show complex displays and tools for dealing with digital collections of texts or images. I have worked extensively with Rich Prospect Browsing Theory (RPB)—co-published as Visual Interface Design for Digital Cultural Heritage: A Guide to Rich-Prospect Browsingthrough Routledge (2016) and, through my dissertation, I attempt to extend the theory into the design of interfaces for manufacturing decision support and contribute new principles and tools back to RPB.

During my PhD studies I became interested in the space co-created by the intersection of feminism(s), computer-aided decision making, and critical design. Simply applying a constellation of feminism(s)-emergent principles to design does not guarantee a design that challenges the status quo, or that engages critically with economic, political, and cultural issues. The need for design that is iterative—involving steady refinement of designs based on user testing and other evaluation methods—has long been recognized; however, I am interested in iteratively applying a rigorous interpretive analysis cycle throughout the interface design process, thus providing systemic, concrete, and evidence-based discussions of what is present (and what is absent) within a given design. One way to interpret Rockwell’s point (2003) that we “learn not by thinking in isolation but by building and looking and rebuilding and looking again”, is to consider no design, no artefact, and no approach whole beyond the exact moment in which it is made. Another, is to consider it never whole—each instance existing within an ever-present process of re-creation.

My work is intentionally interdisciplinary, typically with no two members of a project sharing a common disciplinary background. I have worked, so far, with colleagues in approximately a dozen disciplines, including computer science, psychology, humanities computing, sociology, visual communication design, city planning, political science, pharmacy, communications studies, English literature, library and information studies, and chemical and materials engineering. Our research projects have ranged from teams of six to eight local members (www.tapor.ca), to as many as fifty researchers at seven universities (www.inke.ca). My typical role is in the area of experimental interface design—the conceptualization, realization, iterative testing, and development of novel, web-based tools. Experimental interface design typically proceeds iteratively through a research life cycle that includes three phases: conceptual and theoretical work supported by sketches; prototyping informed by user study; and production and implementation, with further information provided by analysis of logs. The objective of this research is not primarily to implement current best practices, but rather to help invent the next generation of best practices.

In May 2015 I completed my Interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Alberta in Modern Languages and Cultural Studies and Humanities Computing. I already hold a terminal Master Degree in Design, also from the University of Alberta, and an Honours Bachelor Degree in Visual Communication Design from NSCAD University. My PhD dissertation examines the potential value of applying particular theoretical approaches, emergent out of the humanities, to the design of new computer interface prototypes that support human decision-making within a manufacturing context.

Why It Matters

In his 1973 edition of Design for the Real World, Papanek calls out industrial design for being one of the most harmful professions, and advertising design for its lack of authenticity. He states that, while advertising designers persuade “people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have”, industrial designers create unsafe, unnecessary, “tawdry idiocies” to be “hawked by advertisers” (Papanek, 14). Papanek’s judgment on these areas of design goes even further. He calls design in the age of mass production “the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environment (and by extension, society and himself)” (ibid. 14), then accuses it of putting “murder on the level of mass production” (ibid. 14). As evidence he points to the industrial process and product-use that create exorbitant waste material, pollute our air and water, and are capable of causing injury and harm to a cross-global population.

Human-Computer Interfaces (HCIs), including interactive tools, human-machine interfaces, web sites, and computer applications, embody aspects of both industrial and advertising design: some have the tangibility of industrial design, while others the promotional qualities of advertising. And some embody the negative aspects of both. Though most interactive objects are not the outcome nor the mass producer of industrial design, many enable mass production, distribution, purchasing, and obsolescence on a scale that does not have its equal in a physical counterpart. Take amazon.com as an example. In 2014, Amazon reported almost US$89 billion in net sales (Statista 2015), with almost 114,000 total office and warehouse units, 181.12 million unique monthly visitors, and 305,258,547 unique products (ibid). While Amazon is not responsible for manufacturing all these products, the company and its web site do provide unprecedented access to them in terms of availability and lower cost, with little substantial information regarding the products’ origin or value. If we wanted to know which specific sheep helped to make my sweater, for example, we would be out of luck.

A Note on Dissemination

As you are likely to note many of the items listed in my CV are multi-authored. I am proud of this fact;
I have been mentored in, and actively engage multi-disciplinary, collaborative scholarship. My community is generous in its inclusion and has been very supportive in my development as a scholar.