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“Don’t make it perfect, make it messy!” — Interview with Vikram Singh, UX Lead at Lightful

Vikram is who I want to be in the future. Not only does he have significant knowledge in theory and practice, but he also uses it for social enterprises at Lightful. In this article, we asked him about how he weaves theory into his UX practice, why he started his newsletter ‘DisAssemble’ and how writing is reflexive for him, his framework of post-Human-Centered Design practice and more! Enjoy! 🍀

Vikram Singh, UX Lead at Lightful

I know you are a theory-based UX researcher and designer at Lightful. How do you switch from being a hands-on practitioner and an academic?

What we need to do as practitioners and academics is to learn how to have this theoretical underpinning, not treat technology as something that is a given.

It’s really tough, but I think there’s a false binary between being an academic and a practitioner. As a UXer, you have to think conceptually in an embodied way — that is, thinking by sketching or prototyping. You also have to understand different concepts, patterns and psychologies.

Yet I find very few practitioners study theories that underpin what they do, why they do it and what their designs’ impacts are. They just design. And that just seems really dangerous to me, because it’s caused all these socio-technical quagmires, like those involving surveillance, manipulation, and addiction. When we don’t think about theories, this happens.

But at the same time as practitioners don’t think about theory and academic concepts, academics don’t put their theories into practice enough. They often have a very limited understanding of how their ideas work in practice, in the real world. There are constraints in reality — technical constraints or viability constraints — that academics often ignore or aren’t privy to.

What we need to do as practitioners and academics is to learn how to have this theoretical underpinning and practical know-how, and not treat technology as something that is either a natural ‘given’ or as just a concept.

What we need to do as practitioners and academics is to learn how to have this theoretical underpinning and practical know-how, and not treat technology as something that is either a natural ‘given’ or as just a concept. So I think we need to work to understand how to use theories to reflect on not only the way people and technology interact with the world, but also how we as designers interact with design and the world. It is very difficult, but I think it’s something that we need to treat as required.

Have muscles of both theoretical underpinning and practical know-how.

That’s why I’ve created my newsletter — DisAssemble — because hopefully, it allows me and other people to think about this. In writing my newsletters, thinking about theory allows me to clarify concepts in the work that I’m doing. It allows me to uncover stories. It allows me to see patterns. I’m forced to give examples of how theories might work.

DisAssemble will investigate areas between the practical and the intellectual. (Image: Screenshot of DisAssemble)

I could see how you think and design your UX designs from your writing.

When I’m writing, I’m also thinking about that topic by writing.

Thanks. It’s so funny because it’s so reflexive, really everything is. I think reflexively by ‘doing’ and designing but I can do that by writing as well. When I’m writing, I’m also thinking about that topic by writing.

This is discussed a lot by David Kirsh, who talks a lot about how thoughts generate insight when they’re forced to take form, it forces you to clarify and articulate your ‘thing’ because it’s no longer an amorphous idea, it has a permanence that now requires a sense of coherence and a sense of narrative.

So, in that sense, it’s so useful to write it out, because you understand your own thoughts better. And you can then enrich them and enlarge them in ways that allow you to use them effectively and share them with people.

Do you have a way of structuring your writing? And is that something you think is similar to how you approach UX Research and Design practice?

Externalise — get everything on the page. I acknowledge that makes some people uncomfortable. But you have to get through that first mess, you have to immerse yourself in it.

Yeah — externalising. I find some people need to have things structured but I find it’s much more useful just to get everything on the page. When I’m running workshops or when I’m doing design I say, “Just get stuff down, don’t make it perfect. Make it messy, get it on the page, don’t try too hard.” Because trying for cleanliness is trying for a level of articulation that isn’t appropriate at this point.

Just get stuff, don’t make it perfect, make it messy, get it on the page, don’t try!

Immerse yourself in the chaos of your thoughts and ideas.

What we want are your messy almost precognitive thoughts that aren’t fully formed yet. We want them all on the page and then we can find connections. Then we can make coherence. Then we can start making sure the pixels are perfect.

I acknowledge that makes some people uncomfortable. I know it makes me uncomfortable sometimes because I want to immediately ascribe a kind of coherence. But you have to get through that first mess, you have to immerse yourself in it. Go through it once, twice, three times, add a bit more, change it, learn more, and shift what you’re talking about completely.

Otherwise, you start trying to find solutions before you’ve fully immersed yourself in the problem. You start closing the windows to all of these areas.

Could you tell me about how you work in the way of ‘More-than-Human-Centred Design’?

Start by thinking about people (and animals!) who are secondarily impacted by your designs […] I’ve implemented some different frameworks to help my team think about what kinds of things we want to constrain, enable and provoke.

That’s a really good question. It’s very difficult to put ‘More than Human-Centred Design’ into practice, but I still think there are ways that we can think about it.

Start by thinking about people (and animals!) who are secondarily impacted by your designs. A good example would be Ofo bikes, where it works okay for the users, but they’re littered everywhere, they annoy non-users — they’re just like the scooters you see across Europe.

I’ve implemented some different frameworks to help my team think about what kinds of things we want to constrain, enable and provoke.

What do we want to enable?

What are we trying to constrain or prevent from happening?

What are we trying to provoke?

I think provocation is the most unique and perhaps important aspect here. A lot of technology is about getting the task done. But it doesn’t require you, as a user, to reflect on why you do it or on the system involved. You don’t think about why you are seeing these videos on YouTube as ‘related videos’. There’s no indication of that. You’re forced to guess.

Designers now need to design not only interfaces but also the systems involved, and that includes the systems in which they work. How can designers better understand these systems, or help users understand them better?

How can designers better understand these systems, or help users understand them better?

There’s actually a field of study called Transition Design which helps us move toward better systems, better futures. I’m nowhere near that, I don’t think any designer is. It’s rarely put into practice. But again, that lens is starting to be incorporated into things like B-corps.

Transition Design is a new area of design research, practice and study that proposes design-led societal transition toward more sustainable futures. It is led by Carnegie Mellon University. (Image: ©School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, 2014)

And design can help move that needle, and that’s when the frameworks I’ve discussed will really come into play. But again, you can’t just do it on a single level, you need to be someone who thinks about wider structures and fields — like those involving society, technology and business. And every year that I’ve been a designer and researcher, that’s become more true for me. I would hope that that’s true of all UXers.

Do you have any discourses you’ve seen in academia that you think should be brought into practice?

I think the idea of external cognition is very interesting. Not even how we use things to help us think, but how we literally think with things. How things embody our thoughts.

There’s what’s called 4E, which is four different theories: Embodied, Enacted, Extended, Embedded. Essentially, they discuss how — to varying degrees — we think with things. And how we perceive objects in the world as, more often than not, sort of enacted memories.

So, I think it’s really important to think about this in the industry because we don’t design things in ways that enable us to use them as thoughts. What do I mean by this? I give the example of how bookmarks have barely changed in 25 years, which strikes me as almost unbelievable. Because they are our embodied memories, but they could be much more effective in terms of how we think and how we remember particular things in the world.

And they could be manipulated, they could be personalised in so many different ways; they could be tagged, have themes, you could use machine learning to create groups, to create suggestions, all of these things. Almost like an extension of our thoughts on the web. There’s nothing that really helps you save, curate your own thoughts online. I’ve tried so hard to find a way to highlight and save text — that’s such a basic tool — yet they are rare and largely ineffective.

Why has website design advanced so much when bookmarks haven’t changed for decades?

And why has website design advanced so much when bookmarks haven’t changed for decades? Because there is an incentive to push more and more stuff at you, rather than helping you curate your memories in ways that allow you to extend your thoughts into technology. It creates an impermanence, where everything just disappears. It never stays with us. Even services like Pocket still don’t do too much to mitigate this.

It points out our inability to think things through and the need for everything to be new and immediate, and for everything to just disappear from our view when it’s been a few minutes.

What future developments are you excited about in our industry?

There’s a lot of work to move in the direction of provoking thought, of thinking beyond Human-Centred Design, of thinking about how we externalise our thoughts.

That’s a good question. I think it’s good that these conversations are beginning to happen more and more about design ethics, inclusivity, diversity. They were unheard of 10 years ago, nobody cared. Tech was very much a young white men’s club 15 years ago, and that’s changed.

But I still do think there’s a lot of work to move, as I said, in the direction of provoking thought, of thinking beyond Human-Centred Design, of thinking about how we externalise our thoughts. And to varying degrees, I see those improvements, and I think that this post-Human-Centred Design is probably the most important.

What I would be really excited to see is these new design techniques being implemented in new ways, which I haven’t seen that much, to be perfectly honest. I’d love to see Transition Design used more in organisations.

I’m really excited for FutureFest to start again here, which is run by Nesta. I am looking forward to hearing the different talks there.

FutureFest is a great platform that lets you explore possible futures. (Image: Screenshot from FuturePlayer’s website)

But other than that, I can’t think of too much, which just speaks to the fact that it’s important you and I are trying to talk about it.

Interviewed by Misato Ehara
Edited by Misato Ehara and Vikram Singh
Illustrations by Blush
Edited with Google docs
Published on 30 April 2021

Interviewee:
Vikram is a UX Designer & Researcher based out of London, UK. He’s been working in UX for over 8 years and has a Masters in Human-Computer Interaction. He’s written about how we interact with technology for Interactions magazine, the Startup and UX Collective. He’s worked for clients such as Santander, Citizens Advice, and Virgin Trains East Coast. Vikram is currently Lead UX at Lightful.

Interviewer:
Misato Ehara is a founder of The UX Review, former design Strategist at Gensler. She has just completed a Masters in Curating Contemporary Design and currently working as a Junior User Researcher at Honest Research.

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