Next Generation Alchemy

Talk by @driesderoeck at UX Antwerp

August 29th 2017

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Before I start my talk, I wanted to refer to this twitter thread by Lucy Morris. Lucy calls out to various communities that meetup organisers often hide in the background, but do commit a lot of time (and money) to the organisation of a meetup and keeping their communities alive. Therefore, I wanted to explicitly thank the team behind the UX Antwerp meetup for pulling this off every month. Thank you Isabelle, Paul and Jan. 👏

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My name is Dries, I work at the creative agency Studio Dott in Berchem, Antwerp. I work on and lead mostly non-commercial projects there, focussing on research related to emergent domains. To some extend this image of 3d printed flowers in a 3d printed vase represents a little of how I often feel in my work. Trying to blend novel, odd, technologies into mundane, everyday, environments.

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Outside of (and during…) my day job, I like to explore fields related to my profession in some way - but drag me out of my comfort zone enough to discover totally new domains. So when it comes to job titles, I listed some alternatives here, those things together should give a good idea about where my interest lie.

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My divergent palette of geek interests, also happens to be the spark that led up to putting this talk together. When chatting with @bosmet, a good friend and former colleague of mine, way back in 2013 he stated “You know, you do remind me of an alchemist sometimes. Putting a lot of time in trying out stuff which you don’t really know what it will lead up to or what the larger plan is”. That statement stuck with me, and triggered me to write an initial blog post on Next Generation Alchemy. In this talk, I want to revisit that statement. Ever since I sporadically went down the rabbit hole of Alchemy, and I started to see some more profound parallels between what user experience designers do today and what alchemist used to do. It took me 4 years to finally put some of those thoughts in a slide deck. My goal is to hopefully inspire some people to look at their professional practice from another point of view in order to constantly question the relevancy of what it is we are doing as “UX” designers.

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I want to put forward two disclaimers before I start unravelling this further. The first one is my interpretation of user experience. I’m looking at this from the point of view that everything around us is experimental. If I pick up a glass of water, I get a certain sensation - even when it is a very mundane one. The same goes for when I turn off my alarm in the morning on my mobile phone. I interact with a digital interface, and it gives me a specific experience. What I want to set straight is that for me, user experience design (UX) is a lot more than creating user interfaces on screens (UI). I did a podcast with Johan and Xavier some time back, in which we explored that more in depth. Another resource on that is the UI vs. UX twitter account - which is a bot account that places random images besides each other. One is labelled UI, the other UX. There is no deeper something behind it, the people that created the account were just fed up with the UI/UX discussions I think.

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Second disclaimer. I know very little about alchemy. I have been reading and listening left and right, trying to knot strands of knowledge together. I have never studied this in depth, and realise that I’ll probably only be scratching the surface in this talk.

I did find this podcast / interview by Nathalie Kane and Thomas Revel about alchemy an extremely good source to uncover some deeper links and more profound pieces of writing. Make sure to check it out if you want to learn more about alchemy in a much deeper and structured way.

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This being said, let us dive in at the deep end!

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Alchemy. Something with a very long history, as well as a very though thing to define.

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The wikipedia page on hermeticism has quite a good definition. What I like about this definition, is that it shows that alchemy goes beyond the factual and the observable. There is something more out there and it should be considered seriously.

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Another quote sums it all up in a different way, from a higher level. When I heard this quote on the haunted machines podcast, it did make me think that approaching or looking at the world in a different way is what people in creative industries constantly do - but perhaps we don’t think about it consciously.

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I wasn’t going to talk about alchemy alone, no - this talk is about “next generation” alchemy.

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It is not this kind of next generation. obligatory pause for laughter

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What I mean by next generation is based on an evolution in the type of products we are increasingly confronted with. They are partly digital and partly physical. The thing about this type of product is that people in design and development are very much in the process of trying to figure out how to go about making them.

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This a very early example of such a product, the Nabaztag which was released in 2006. This basically was a wifi router, but it could speak to you. Also you could move the ears of the rabbit and send that ‘ear position’ to a friend’s rabbit. Even after more than 10 years, it remains a good example to use when talking about the interplay between physical and digital interaction.

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So in the remainder of this talk, I will do an attempt at drawing parallels between thoughts accumulated based on reading about alchemy and specific elements I see happening in user experience design processes related to products that consist of both digital and physical elements. In total, I will cover three remarkable parallels.

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I did struggle to use the overused “E” [Empathy] word here, but I went for it anyway. The first parallel is about understanding stakeholders, and realising that some things can’t be quantified or measured using objective measuring systems.

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A core element, perhaps the core element of alchemy is the philosopher’s stone. The philosopher’s stone is supposed to be the required element to transmute lead into gold. A transition of materials for which alchemy is known best.

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Interestingly, when looking a bit closes at the symbolism used in alchemy to describe the philosopher’s stone, it is very similar to the way our current industry talks about user experience design. The rationale leading up to the philosopher’s stone consists of 4 parts:

- The self

- Context or world boundaries

- Aether

- The universe

It is super interesting to read a bit further on how these parts have been described by various sources

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I was particularly triggered by the description of the ‘Tria Prima’, which is the same triangle representing Aether on the previous slide. What I like about this, is that this tria prima is described as a combination of Anima, Spiritus and Corpus. It is interesting that alchemy values Corpus (the physical or body) equally compared to the Spiritus (the spiritual) and Anima (the mind or mental). Spiritus and Anima being clearly the elements that are a lot harder to describe.

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So, how does this relate to UX design?

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It are these ‘intangible elements’ that user experience design practice stresses on. When approaching user experience design from an academic point of view, the theories very much align with what is being said in alchemy. Hassenzhal for instance, talks about three facets of UX:

- UX goes beyond the instrumental, the focus of UX design should not be on ’task completion’ alone - but encompasses implicit values as well. (eg. ‘beauty’)

- The experience a person has when using a product depends in the internal state of that person. (tria prima)

- The context of interaction (world boundaries of the philospher’s stone) defines how something is perceived or experienced in context.

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I like to use the image of this product, GrowGuard, to make that point more tacit. This product is a connected hardware product, which is basically a printed circuit board that you stick into your vegetable garden’s soil. It keeps track of various parameters related to the soil and the environment, and sends its data to a database for further analysis. However of a technical marvel this might be, isn’t it weird dat the creators of this product chose to show it as a bare PCB stuck in the soil? To me this shows what happens when user experience is neglected and the context of use is not considered (outdoors, rain, moisture,…). Ok, this is a prototypical example, but it is something that happens all the time in de design and development of digitally connected physical products.

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The second parallel I’d like to draw between alchemy and user experience design is systems thinking or designing with systems.

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Another well described aspect of alchemy is the idea of the Microcosm and the Macrocosm. It basically comes down to the understanding that everything related to our bodies, and the context around those is the microcosm. The larger world around us is the macrocosm. There is a clear relationship between the micro and macrocosm, as they are directly related. Any action in either of them impacts the other.

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This image relates to the micro-macrocosm, it illustrates the well known quote by Hermes Trismegistus : “as above, so below”. Which points out that any action we do in the observable world is mirrored elsewhere. In itself this loops back to the different levels laid out in the Philosopher’s stone, meaning that that any change on any level (body/context/aether/universe) also means a change on every of the other levels.

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So, what’s the parallel to user experience design here?

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I will use as an example to explain this. We are increasingly designing and creating products that have a visible and non-visible side. Or a physical and digital side. Thingful is a website which makes all the invisible stuff, visible. It is a collection of devices, sensors, actuators,… basically anything which is addressable via the internet.

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When you zoom in, as I did here, you can find more detailled information. For example, this is a screenshot of the availability of bicycles at the bicycle sharing system right outside the central station in Antwerp. When you take a bicycle from that station, it triggers a digital action (publishing it on this platform) without you realising it does that. What I want to stress is that we, as UX designers of the products of tomorrow, need to be very aware of which actions are triggered by our products. Do we need to control these actions or not, are they privacy sensitive, etc. As the products around us become systems of physical objects and digital services, we have a responsibility to consciously take that into account at design time.

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Another example is the Nest ecosystem of products. What is interesting here is that each of the products in the Nest ecosystem impacts the other, without the ‘users’ of these products consciously being aware of it. For example, the thermostat might get information from the smoke alarm that all house inhabitants have left the ground floor. Based on that information, the thermostat can lower the temperature in the living room. So by just walking through the house, a constant - invisible - interaction happens between people and product. As above, so below.

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The third and last parallel is about processes.

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In alchemy, another principle is ‘solve et coagula’. Which means that you should try to dissolve the fixed and coagulate the volatile. Or, break down what is solid and re-solidify what is not solid. It is represented by a snake eating its own tail, because this is something that never ends. In alchemy, breaking down things and building things up again had everything to do with changing and augmenting the ‘state’ of the elements.

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Again, what’s the parallel here?

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Behold, the mother of all design processes - the double diamond. To me, this is still a very good overview of any type of design process. You start by analysing a potential problem area (discover), make conclusions about what it is you have to solve or where the opportunities lie (define), you then propose solutions/prototypes to ‘solve’ the problem (develop), based on the gathered insights you work towards a final result (deliver). Iterate where needed.

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To make this more tacit, an example. When designing for experience, a tool often used is journey mapping. In a journey map, you break down the whole process in which a product is used. Starting from ‘acquiring’ the product and resulting in ‘disposing’ it. By breaking things down in very small pieces, you are forced to think about everything in a very conscious way.

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Also related, is the IoT ideation card deck which we have designed at Studio Dott. We use this card deck to help people defining internet connected products. What we do in such a design process, is to break down the whole system in smaller parts. Which persons play a role in our product, which environments and which objects are needed. Once that inventory is put together, we start defining interactions between people, objects and environments.

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Doing this leads to these system mappings, which are very visual overviews of how a product that involves digital and physical components works. It can be used to communicate with technical people as well as marketing people. This toolkit is heavily inspired on modelling languages, but recreated in a format that it can be used in a very versatile way.

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These three parallels are very nice Dries, but what I do with this random shit you are telling me? I can imagine there are at least a few people reading this wondering what the next steps are.

Firstly, identifying these three parallels have been super interesting for me to do. When I was putting these slides together, I felt that it was somehow clear that history does indeed repeat itself all the time.

But I can imagine not everyone will find this interesting in the same way as I do. So I have tried to identify how these three parallels are already influencing the way that we do UX work. By understanding this better, you as a UX professional can be more aware of the actions you do and the motivations of why you do certain things.

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I started this talk talking about alchemy. Alchemy was hot topic in Europe during the 12th through 15th century (a good chunk of the middle ages). At that time, there was no ‘clear’ distinction between different sciences as we know today. Alchemy for sure laid out the foundations to what we today know as chemistry, psychology and medicine (amongst others).

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So I would dare to transpose this to what I previously called ‘next generation’. There are lot of new professional domains involved here, for which we currently do not have a ‘real definition’. I did an attempt at making a list here, but in order to tackle these next generation challenges it is clear a very diverse skillset is required. Let me get into a closing set of three examples to illustrate my point.

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Who know what this is? A PCB, a motherboard (…). For someone, this is the product they have been working on.

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When I tell you that this is the motherboard inside of this car, I hope it becomes clear that the person making the motherboard will need to be aware of the large system this component is a part of.

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Related to the same car, it is probably one of the first cars with a changelog. What I found very interesting about this changelog, is that it contains both software improvements (calendar app) as well as hardware changes (automatic emergency braking). Each of these system updates are created with the drivers in mind (Empathy). Without regarding your product as a system (Systems, Process) it is impossible to create a product like this.

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Second example. Anyone recognise these icons?

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They are part of the font awesome iconset, which is currently going through a big update. When you look at an iconset like this, I found it interesting to see that it is created as a ‘blended’ product. There is no real focus on developers nor designers, they seem to address a new type of designer/developer - someone who doesn’t really care whether part of the product involves visual design and the other part includes coding (Systems). To me, this blending of skills is what ‘next generation’ is all about.

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A third example. This is a servo motor, they have been around for a very long time. The graph on the right shows a way of measuring the accuracy of the servo motor, by counting revolutions. Mechanical engineers use graphs like this to select which servo falls within the specifications of the product they are working on.

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Interestingly, this graph was made in relation to this product - called line-us. The line-us is a small drawing robot, which uses servo motors to move a pen over a piece of paper.

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Two slides back, I was talking about mechanical engineering - but the line-us product can not function without a digital interface. You make a drawing on a tablet or phone, and the robot draws your image on whatever surface you choose. This shows that products are systems, with hardware and software together. If the guy choosing the servo motors makes a different choice, it will impact the way the product works. On the other hand, the software developer creating the app has a clear impact on how the product is used as well. (Systems)

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To close, let’s recap what I have been talking about. Based on reading up on alchemy, I saw some clear parallels between the messages alchemists were trying to bring across in a distant past and the message user experience designers tend to bring to the table when designing and developing the products of tomorrow. There are three parallels that stand out:

- Systems: Every action that takes place when using a product or service has an impact. Pushing a button can trigger a whole chain of events or actions. It is important to be aware of this in order to know the actual impact of your design actions.

- Empathy isn’t enough: When creating a product, realising that sticking merely to the measurable and observable is not enough. There is a part of ‘experience’ that remains intangible and heavily depends on feelings and emotions.

- Process: Making a product is a process, there should be room for iteration. Using a product is a process as well, and the design process should carefully take care of every step in that process.

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Note: I want to use this slidedeck to trigger conversation about the role and abuse of user experience design. It is not just something you put on a business card because you know how to use It ought to go deeper. I’d love to engage in conversation, refine and expand upon the points raised in this talk. I’m also totally game for giving variations of this talk to other audiences, also outside of the design and user experience realm.

About me: Dries De Roeck is a designer and researcher at Studio Dott. He is currently pursuing a PhD on design processes for hybrid product service systems at the universities of Antwerp and Leuven, Belgium. In his work, he questions how design processes change when digital and physical products become increasingly intertwined. He is the creator of the IOT ideation cards and sporadically hosts local Thingscon events.

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