Haptic Charades, Bots and Politics at UX Ireland 2016

Perhaps it’s thanks to the organisers themselves, or maybe it’s the strength and depth of the UX community there, but either way, in it’s first year UX Ireland put on a warm, entertaining and informative conference.

Talks and workshops covered everything from messenger apps to the psychology of magic, and I found my brain buzzing with inspiration after nearly every session. There was also no shortage of people to talk to, or to drink with, and I want to thank locals (especially Kathryn Parkes) for making me feel so welcome.

A somewhat misleading selfie, as the conference wasn’t at Dublin castle.

I hopped over from Paris specifically to hear John Kolko, Brenda Laurel and Frank Long. But I also enjoyed Alastair Somerville’s workshop on sensation, Benjamin Keyser’s talk on message threads, Sara Buxton’s storytelling workshop, Kevin Cannon on magic, and James O’Brien on complexity. I wish there were more women in this list, but female representation was the one area that could be improved. On the Friday, apart from Laurel’s keynote, there was only one other woman presenting. Hopefully, the organisers will make a concerted effort to improve the balance next year.

I don’t want to give you a full report on every session, so I’ll just stick to a few themes and connections I found interesting.

First some interesting facts I learned:

  • The senses process input at different speeds, and faster senses trump slower ones. (Alastair Somerville)
  • Blind people can use smartphones thanks to proprioception — that’s perception of your own body, your ability to touch your nose or navigate in the dark. When a manufacturer changes the form factor, they screw up that proprioception. (Alastair Somerville)
  • Multitasking lowers IQ by 15 points. That’s more than smoking pot. (Benjamin Keyser)
  • Jump cuts in VR make people vomit, which is why you need to give people at least 2 seconds in a portal between scenes (Brenda Laurel)
  • The shutter feature on the early iPhones was actually there to distract the user from the slowness of the camera (Kevin Cannon)
  • Facebook stopped using a custom loader gif on their app, because people blamed them when the app was slow. When they switched to a native loader, people blamed their phone instead. (Kevin Cannon)
  • Ireland didn’t have postcodes until recently (Coleman Walsh)
  • The statue of Queen Victoria in Sydney’s CBD was a gift from the Irish government in the 1950s. Why did the Irish keep the statue for 30 years after independence? Because they thought it was so incredibly ugly. (Little Museum of Dublin)
Only a victorious revolutionary could love this statue.

Stories feed creative spaces

In his “4 Unsecrets of Creativity”, John Kolko proposed that managing designers is about giving them freedom, harnessing ambiguity and acknowledging the passions and frustrations of making things. But it’s also about telling stories.

Most people confuse having a vision with having an answer. Then, rightly, they doubt their ability to visualise (let alone communicate) the destination of a design process, before the journey has even begun.

A design manager’s job is not to have an answer, it’s to be able to tell two stories:

  • Story 1: how we got here

This story reconnects us with the data, the insights and the decisions we’ve made so far. This story helps reassure us, despite the messiness of the design process, that progress is possible.

  • Story 2: why it’s worth going on

Design is an always an emotional rollercoaster, and the emotional strain often outweighs the risks we take or the pay we take home. That’s why having a reason to believe is critical to a high-performing design team. This shouldn’t be a prediction, so much as an opportunity.

“Visualise the strategy just enough to set a trajectory” -John Kolko

In this way, good design managers build trust, not just in the manager, but in the team themselves. Good design managers tell these stories, but great design managers help their team tell these stories themselves. A typical team spends 30% of their time on their craft. Design managers should ensure that some of the other 70% can be spent by the team on creating and communicating these stories.

Respect contraints, ignore rules and requirements

The other big message from Kolko’s talk was that designers should respect constraints and ignore rules and requirements. Constraints are somehow “inside” the project, which requirements and rules come from “outside”. It’s hard to tease out the difference, but it’s important to. I object to imagining there’s a secret language which only designers understand. “If you have to ask, you’ll never know” is not helpful.

Here’s the best I can come up with. Constraints are internal to stories we tell about our project. If there’s a connection with “why we’re here” or “what we’ve learned” it’s a constraint. If not, it’s a requirement or a rule.

(As an aside, I’ve always found John Kolko’s work to be deeply philosophical. But from talking to him he seems not to see a connection with European philosophy. Perhaps this interpretation, more American pragmatist than French existentialist, is more appropriate.)

Bots and foreigners

“Internal constraints rather than external rules” also summarizes Benjamin Keyser’s excellent talk on messenger bots. If you stick to generative grammar (a universal set of linguistic rules), the only bot you’ll end up with is Microsoft’s Tay.

Microsoft’s Tay, who famously devolved into racist rants just hours after launch.


Bots only do well within “strong guardrails”, within a very clear context. — Benjamin Keyser

Keyser pointed out that, like bots, people need clear contexts to be effective, which is why all high-performance contexts — like hospitals, football pitches and professional kitchens — are very constrained.

These are usually professional contexts, though, not social ones. Social contexts are amorphous and evolving. So bots struggle in messenger apps, because they do not offer a constrained context at all.

Unfortunately, this is at odds with the hype around bots, which promises to bring shopping experiences into the heart of the chat. Or what they call “social shopping”.

So Keyser warned us that bots will never live up to their hype, unless they can somehow distinguish and constrain the context they are working in.

For my part, I feel a lot of sympathy for the bots.

I really do. Their experience is very similar to my own, working in a French-speaking office for the last six months. My French is fairly advanced, and I can participate in most conversations about the work. But often I’ll sit down at lunchtime, and eat in silence, because I simply cannot track the conversation reliably enough or respond fast enough. I may have something to say, but I run the risk that the conversation has moved on, or that I’ve just misunderstood.

The only effective strategy I’ve found is to control the conversation. If I am telling the story, I can engage others in a constrained context, where their responses are much easier to interpret. By telling a story, I can create a space of constrained interpretations.

Of course, it’s impolite to dominate the conversation, and it comes across as arrogant. Yet, this is perhaps the model we have of human-computer interaction. As Keyser puts it, “computing exists in boxes, and many transitions between boxes makes things hard”. I’d turn that on its head. What makes it hard is that each box is purpose-built, dominating the conversation, and we have to transition between boxes to change the subject.

The Intelligent Garden

But what if that transition was as simple as walking to another part of the garden? This is the vision that Brenda Laurel shared — an augmented reality garden to educate children about the earth and our relationship with it. She pictured a child moving through the garden, asking questions. Different AR systems drew attention to different aspects of the garden or events taking place within it. Her vision is entirely possible — just picture a series of Amazon Echoes scattered around a space.

But here’s the thing:

it’s the garden, not the speech processing, that makes this work

The garden provides a constrained context. Indeed, you could say that’s just what we do when we educate — we build virtual contexts (now maths, now science, now this topic, now that) to augment the reality of the classroom, and unlock a different class of questions. Or, as Laurel would say, a different class of “intents”.

I’d love to know what Brenda Laurel thought of the Design and Violence exhibition down the road at Trinity College, including this immersive experience of being a refugee at sea. (The Weight of Water, Elaine Hoey, 2016)

Haptic Charades

We don’t often think of touch as a storytelling space, but Alastair Somerville’s workshop of sensory experiences showed me that it is. As a kind of “haptic charades”, Somerville challenged each group to communicate with a blindfolded team-mate using only touch sensations. Our mission was to get this person to ask us a specific question, and the only information they had was that they were in an office.

I won’t tell you what the question was, or how we did it. That would spoil the workshop for others. But two things were very interesting. Firstly, we saw that freedom of movement was strongly correlated with a sense of ownership. And secondly, we saw the impact that a loss of freedom had. The emotional impact was quite striking. When we guided our team-mate’s hands to his chair, just to help him sit down, his first thought was that we were handcuffing him.

But what was really interesting was how the same sort of loss of freedom made it easier to interpret the scene. We hadn’t planned on it, but we succeeded quite quickly because our strategy had a narrative arc — two discrete “acts”, separated by a small shock. Teams who relied on techniques from traditional charades — symbols and word games — found they had a much harder time. The narrative helped constrain the number of possible interpretations.

This little vignette doesn’t do justice to the depth and breadth of Somerville’s presentation, but “haptic charades” may be a useful technique for triggering and practicing storytelling skills.

(Edit: Somerville has actually published his own summary of the workshop in a piece called Fairytale Moments.)

Folk Love and State Love

Coleman Walsh’s hilarious lightning talk about the frustrations of being a designer in Ireland was a highlight. But even his light-hearted critique of Ireland’s infuriating bike lanes and postcodes had a serious side. Walsh called on Jürgen Habermas, who distinguishes between societies driven by state love — the love of institutions and rules — and those driven by folk love — fraternity and symbolism. Walsh would like to see the balance in Ireland shift back towards state love, because this will drive better service design.

Jürgen Habermas. Image credit: Wolfram Huke, CC-BY-SA-3.0

In the shadow of Trump’s victory in the states, this is a big question, and the right question for a designer to ask. For my part, I can see the importance of both. Societies without folk love can be legalistic and cold. And design without a call for empathy can easily become abusive and dismissive of difference.

But the real danger is probably confusing or collapsing the two. We shouldn’t confuse insights with facts, or focus our public services on building folk love, rather than defending the vulnerable.

“Politics by any media necessary”

Brenda Laurel also talked about the politics implicit in our approach to Virtual/Augmented Reality. A veteran of VR/AR experimentation since the 80s, Laurel sees technology evolving through an interplay of technical capabilities and human intent. At the moment, when discussing VR/AR we seem to have a narrow range of intent. We see the opportunity for training, science, journalism, entertainment or simply making money. Laurel wants us to be more ambitious. She sees a great opportunity for the good — for compassion, reason and harmony with nature among others. For Laurel, how we use VR/AR is a political question. If we believe in progressive values, then we should look at how we can use VR/AR to cultivate those values.

There is actually a book called “By Any Media Necessary” (May 2016), on civic and political agency in a digital age.

Power or Empowerment

Somerville’s workshop also had a political aspect. I mentioned above that an emotional shock can have the effect of narrowing the range of interpretations (in haptic charades). Somerville pointed out that emotions always do this. That’s their evolutionary purpose. By overlaying sensations with emotion, we can more quickly jump to a plausible conclusion, and respond.

The flipside of this is that emotion can blind us to possibilities, and reduce our range of action. He didn’t put it in these terms, but this made me think of BJ Fogg’s three-part model of action — trigger/capability/response. We usually think of these three parts as independent. However, as Somerville pointed out, attentional design — creating compelling triggers — can be the enemy of designing for capabilities. Abusing emotional triggers can actually de-skill your audience.

There’s a connection back to the gendered space of VR/AR. Kathryn Parkes relayed her experience of trying Oculus Rift for the first time, and being immersed in a terrifying scene inside the basement of a derelict hospital, surrounded by the screams of children. This is a space where emotion is at the service of delivering a “powerful” experience. But power here means sensory and emotional domination of the visitor. It doesn’t empower them. It overwhelms them. And often the only alternative is the reverse: learning to dominate an environment, often in the form of a first-person shooter.

Lastly: a rant.

The corporate capture of UX and design conferences has become a widespread problem. Large consulting firms have decided that a conference is really just an opportunity for product placement. This was one reason I gave for choosing UX Ireland over the Web Summit in Portugal. It’s a testament to the quality of UX Ireland that only one session (presented by a major sponsor) was like this. Ironically, in the same session, the presenter suggested that one of the three enemies of good design was “wasting people’s time.”

Here’s a tip for consultancies: when you waste people’s time at a conference telling them that your firm poops rainbows, you only demonstrate a lack of respect for professional development. You don’t enhance your brand, you diminish it.

I don’t blame the organisers for this. It’s up to the sponsor to ensure they are contributing to the community. Otherwise, their sponsorship is just paid advertising. Treat me like paid eyeballs, and watch me change the channel. I’ll be walking out of the next talk like this.

Nonetheless, I want to congratulate the organisers on a great conference. I will certainly be recommending it to folks here in Paris, and back in Sydney.

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