Degrees of Freedom

I have been working on some more interaction design problems, and it occurred to me that almost all computer applications seem like big multiple choice tests. How do you save a file? Well, you have a set of buttons, and menus, pick the correct answer by clicking, and then the next answer by clicking, and if you get a perfect score, you get to save the file. Sometimes there are more than one right answer to a question, sometimes questions are dependent, but in any case, it got me thinking about a not often talked about aspect of interfacesâ“degrees of freedom.

Degrees of Freedom for the Cognitive Science Student

I had a professor at MIT who first introduced me to this concept. Being a Cognitive Science major, the words seemed to make sense instinctually, but I never applied them with such extension as in his class.

Degrees of Freedom taken from mechanics is easy enough to understand. You have a point in space, how many ways can that point in space move? 3 ways = 3 degrees of freedom. You have a real object in space, now how many? You have 6 ways: 3 translations and 3 rotations. You have an object with a pivot point, the DOFs increase. Then he took us to simple mechanical or mathematic systems, and calculating those DOFs, and finally into organic objects such as trees, forests, ecosystems. The interesting thing was that as you move towards larger systems in our world, you realize that they have less DOFs. He made this statement in the context of Cognitive Science to imply that our brains have limited structure, limited ability, and are still very versatile, because the world that we live in provides a rather strict structure to grow and learn in, and without this strict structure, we wouldn’t be as smart. But luckily, we don’t have to be that smart, because we are just a part of a larger intelligent system.

Degrees of Freedom for the Knowledge Worker

As a designer, knowledge worker, or person who makes stuff with signs, symbols, objects, or thoughts, there is an interesting implication to this concept concerning the tools we use to make things in the world. As I type this post, I’m writing in Droid Sans Mono Typeface as straight text in MarsEdit on a Mac. For each letter I type, there are exactly two ways to make that letter: lowercase, and CAPITAL. Since I’m writing in markdown I could write *a* which translates to a or **a** which translates to a, so in actuality I have 4 questionably semantically different ways to type a single letter and there are only 26 letters, most have no meaning anyway. If I moved to RTF I could include underlining, super and subscript, color, size, font, probably bumping 4 up to 10 to 100 different expressions of a single letter. If I took out a pencil and paper, that number would skyrocket. Now looking at individual words in text, I have a similar amount of freedom. Moving to the expression of ideas, for the purpose of this blog, I’m limited to text. If you consider the ways we as human can express thoughts in meatspace, the calculation for degrees of freedom is impossible. If I wanted to protest the inclusion of Facebook in iTunes in real space, how could I go about doing that? I could paint a picture, I could ride my bike around the world screaming, I could blow up the Facebook headquarters, or Apple, I could sing a song, produce a visual documentary, create a sculpture. Here, on this blog, I have text. Text that is laid out from top to bottom, left to right. Measuring the number of logical combinations of words to express that thought is doable, measuring the possibilities in meatspace is impossible, and even an absurd concept.

So What?

So what? So think about your system. You know the system I’m talking about. Think about your storage of dreams, concepts, reference material, correspondences. Think about the mediums of communication and information storage we cling to today. Compare the number of ways can you express your love to your spouse over Twitter to the number of ways you could in the real world. The “so what” is the consideration that the medium in which we think has to influence the way we think. If I’m expressing a thought in Twitter, that thought has a limited Degree of Freedom. If I’m expressing that same thought in meatspace, my mind expands to the possibilities. The same criticism against multiple choice tests in education applies to life afterwards.

Consider Your Systems

I’ve been considering this because there have been many blog posts recently about text. I now have my whole life in markdown. Everything syncs between my douche bag iDevices, and I have this great sense of calm that all my knowledge is accessible all the time. But is it? What is the difference between knowledge and information? What is lost between the notebook and the .txt file? How many degrees of freedom are there in expressing an idea on a piece of paper versus an email? I’m not saying dump everything digital and go back 100 years, I’m just saying think when you need degrees of freedom, and when don’t you need them or can’t have them, and let’s build systems for both.

Design is Strategy

design noun …the art or action of conceiving of and producing such a plan or drawing… purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object…

strategy noun ( pl. -gies) a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim…

Directed Storytelling: Designers are Fakers

Nuts and Bolts

First, what is it? Well it’s a research method for designers by Shelley Evenson at Carnegie Mellon. From her article “Directed Storytelling: Interpreting Experience for Design”, it is a method useful for helping teams get to the three to five most significant ideas or themes that are central to an experience. And is useful when time or budget are limited.

The nuts and bolts are fairly simple (for an in depth look at how to do it, google that article). Basically you have a design researcher and a participant. The design researcher will start the conversation with an opening question like “Tell me a story about [insert topic here]”. The participant will tell an anecdotal story, and the researcher will guide the story to uncover the who, what, when, why, where, and how of the story. By asking such an open ended question, the answers will obviously vary a lot and may seem off topic, but that’s great. One strength of this method is that you aren’t looking for a specific answer to a specific question. By asking for a story, you are asking the participant what was salient or important in that experience. Doing this onsite is great too, as it helps jog the participant’s memory. Asking to use props is also great. The more involved the storyteller, the more depth the story will have.

As you collect data about the experience, you write down each idea, concept or salient point in time on a sticky. Then you put the stickies up on a white board and move them around, clustering them into themes.

The results of this method vary, but it’s great for getting consensus within a design group and getting to a few major themes of an experience quickly. After you get the themes it’s really up to you to decide how to deal with that information, but if you want some quick and dirty results, look for that article (I’ll try and find it and link it) and try out Directed Storytelling for yourself.


So that’s the nuts and bolts of the process. I was going to talk about the history of the method and how it’s mainly derived from ethnography and Contextual Inquiry but figured you could read about that somewhere else. Instead of giving you some research paper about it, I figured this space could be used for me to talk about whatever I wanted within the space of Directed Storytelling of course.

So this post has brought up something I learned from Shelley Evenson. She told me “Designers are fakers”. Sometimes she says things that are so fundamentally true, that the statements cannot be refuted, and this is one of them. She didn’t mean to say it in a negative way, what she meant was really that we are great at faking. To design is to create, and creation is fundamentally in that space of imitation and innovation. When we design for pregnant women, we put on “fat suits” and are fake pregnant women. When we want to create a new type of cell phone, we make a fake cell phone out of cardboard and foam. To me, Directed Storytelling is fake ethnography and fake Contextual Inquiry (CI), and that is where it’s strengths and weaknesses are as a method.

Contextual Inquiry is rigid. When you get all those stickies in a CI you put them into clusters, but each cluster has to have no more than four stickies. You then cluster those clusters and so on creating a hierarchy, but that hierarchy can be no deeper than four levels. Coming from Human-Computer Interaction, I am all too familiar with the CI process, but sometimes I’ve got a cluster that has 5 stickies, you feel me?

The strength of Directed Storytelling is in the adaptability to different situations. It’s in taking the general and applying it to the specific. But the disadvantage in my opinion is that the looser the method, the harder it is to get better and refine that method. Directed Storytelling is also fake ethnography. In the most abstract sense, ethnographers are relativists at their core, and realize that the information gathered should never be handled outside of context. Designers on the other hand can take a more positivist approach (read). What this means concretely is that its harder for a designer to go out and do research with a completely clear slate. Even with casual Directed Storytelling, I definitely felt like I ask questions which could have been more open, less leading.

We are designers, we look for answers, and it’s hard to start looking for perspective and individual truth in place of a solid answer. What I find are general experiences, and I also find out what some of those findings might mean to the people doing the experiencing, but I don’t find out what those meanings mean. In other words, there was a level of depth that I cannot penetrate beneath mostly because of time constraint, but also because in the spectrum of observer to participant, designers are always a bit closer to the observer than an ethnographer.

And because of where we stand within that spectrum, there are two “sub-reasons” that our insight is limited. They are limited first, because of our perception of the participant. To allow yourself to be completely relativist, to see and understand and more importantly believe views of the world which are unlike yours, is a true talent that ethnographers have developed far more than designers, and the second is because of the way the participant views us, still as outsiders.

So I would say that Directed Storytelling is fake ethnography, because true ethnography is not just a set of methods, but also a philosophy and a perspective, and you can tell when someone is just going through the motions.

So just to repeat, designers are fakers. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing, it’s just a thing. The lesson to be learned is for many occasions, faking it is good enough, but in some instances, it’s not.

I Don't Care about Your New Framework

At every design conference someone “invents” a new framework for looking at users. In more understandable terms, people continue to make up ways to divide someone’s life into little pieces. For some reason, they think their scissor cuts of work and play, digital and physical, or love and hate are better than others… I have no idea why.

Let’s Take a Look at a Few

So you know what I’m talking about, here are some “ethnographic observation frameworks” I’ve collected over the years. If you’re the dutiful user-centered designer, you’ve probably seen many of these before, and probably right now are building a mental matrix relating them to each other even before finishing this sentence.

Dramatism by Aristotle

  • Act
  • Agent
  • Agency
  • Scene
  • Purpose

Shelley Evenson’s Five Ps

  • Process
  • People
  • Products
  • Place
  • Performance


  • Processes
  • Roles
  • Tools
  • Space
  • Technology


  • Journeys
  • People
  • Propositions
  • Systems
  • Value

Spradley’s Dimensions

  • Space
  • Actors
  • Activities
  • Objects
  • Acts
  • Events
  • Time
  • Goals
  • Feelings

Doblin Group AEIOU

  • Environments
  • Users
  • Activities
  • Objects
  • Interactions


  • Atmospheres
  • Actors
  • Activities
  • Artifacts


  • Territory
  • People
  • Stuff
  • Talk


  • Situation
  • Person
  • Activity
  • Objects
  • Time

So What?

So now that you’ve scrolled through, saw similarities and differences, picked favorites, why am I showing all of these? Well there are two points I want to make.

Arts versus Techniques

There is a difference between an art, skill, method, and technique. I could be wrong in the nomenclature or specific hierarchy, but that’s not the point, anyway it goes something like this: empathy is an art, asking thought provoking penetrating questions is a skill, asking questions based on a canned framework is a method, and including long pauses, nodding, and smiling are techniques. Most design blogs, design conferences and design-ers, just like other knowledge workers, are stuck in the zone between methods and techniques. We already have many methods for observing, but we are losing focus on what we are actually trying to do and what we actually care about. We are losing sight of the why. I don’t want to get better at nodding, well I do, but really I want to get better at being empathetic. I want to get better at understanding someone else’s world, their values, their beliefs, their loves and hates. I want to love what they love and hate what they hate so that when I make something for them, I can conjure up that entire world of existence and use that as inspiration. Where are the conversations about the arts of design? Where are conversation about truly connecting with other human beings? With the thoughtfulness in making a thing that’s going to exist in the world?

My only theory is that those conversations are hard. They don’t have hard edges, they don’t fit into nice lists, pretty pictures, or are easily transferable. Because of a few cognitive biases, we gravitate to lists, dualism, metaphors, and other mental techniques of simplification and tidying up.

I’m not You

The second point is that I can cultivate a great framework for understanding twenty-somethings' understanding of home ownership. I can work it every day for 3 months, revise it, create a tidy little shortcut made of only a few words. Maybe those few words even spell something cute like E.N.G.A.G.E., so that I can remember each part of my framework. That’s great, the problem is that you are not me. You did not spend those three months adding meat to each one of those letters, you don’t understand how I got there, what the boundaries of each framing is, or how some parts of the framework are actually relic code carried over from another framework. You didn’t read that entire 12 page spread in Design Issues on what it means to facilitate, and you didn’t read Richard Mckeon’s definition of the term “commonplace.” Yeah sure, take my framework, use it, think itâ™s great, just don’t think that I am adding anything meaningful to the conversation other than another starting place. Don’t think you will know the depth of each term, of each process, or the sweat that went into it. Don’t think it matters. So I apologize if I don’t care about your new framework for distinguishing the differences between UI designers, interactive designers, and interaction designers, or your new definition for Service Design, or your new framework for understanding family dynamics. There are people far smarter than us, who have worked harder than us, at developing frameworks for every damn thing, and honestly, I don’t think we need anymore.

Richard Buchanan COINs and Design Keynote Speach

Richard Buchanan was a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Design School before leaving for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western. He’s a personal hero of mine, and one of the few people moving design into spaces that were previously owned by business and management. He recently gave a keynote talk at COINs and you should definitely check it out on livestream here.

The general gist of the talk informed the audience of the true nature of design, design thinking, and how it’s going to make it’s way into management.

One thing Dick does well and does often, probably because of his philosophy background, is define terms. Having taken a few classes with him, I have found a new appreciation for definitions. So I just wanted to note a few he said during the talk and what they mean.


All that has and will happen

This was to say that no one can understand a full system. No one can understand the full extent of an organization, an industry, even a pencil, because as he put it “only God knows that”. The implication of this statement is one that made me choose Service Design. Service Design and Interaction Design are experience driven, designing an organization is not. When you help shape a group of people, no one, not even yourself, will ever feel the product that you made. People don’t feel systems, they feel their paths through those systems.


Anything made by man

It’s time to stop thinking design is about posters and toasters. Anything that is made by a human is a product of design. It’s time to expand our understand of what it means to make something, and the mental processes which govern that process.

Interaction Design

How people relate to others through the mediation of products.

Interaction design is NOT about computers. It’s about people. Also, the reason I’ve been slowly removing myself from Service Design, is that this definition places Service Design is a subset of Interaction Design, and honestly, I think that design is fragmented enough as it is. Someone once described the difference between Interaction Design and Interactive Design to me, and I wanted to shoot off my face at how inane the distinctions made were. Dick uses a division of design disciplines called the Four Orders of Design borrowed from Richard McKeon’s previous division which I’m sure I’ll talk about later.


Inventing an idea and developing it in innovation that brings benefit to an organization and the people served by an organization

This ladies and gentlemen is what Dick thinks Design will become in 10 years. Design will transition to Design Entrepreneurship as a way of bridging the gap between design an management. It will shuck off all the old baggage of the term “design” and take on a whole new skepticism of individuality and ego and competitiveness as we move into the next decade. It makes sense. Entrepreneurs come up with ideas, build business models around them, make shit happen. That’s what I do now, only everything thinks I should be sticking to my wireframes.

Skeptical Dialectic

I think this deserves a whole post on it’s own.

Almost forgot

Check out the transcript and mp3’s Jeff Howard put together over at Designing for Service

The Dumb are Mostly Intrigued by the Drum

As a Designer, I make plenty of presentations, and having made plenty of presentations, I’ve gotten pretty good at making convincing presentations. You can tell when your watching a presentation made by a designer. You’ve got a lot of white space in documents, and huge full bleed images of “the user.”

Big pictures, impactful emotional quotes, videos, are all great tools at conveying a message, but when do we move from making an argument and showing an audience about a current set of people to pulling on their heart strings and taking advantage of our human nature?

To me, Masta Killa of Wu-Tang Clan fame said it a decade ago:

The dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum.

I keep repeating it over and over again, not to say that the people watching my presentations are dumb, but to say we are all dumb. We still have our lizard brain, the one that’s all about danger and passion and excitement. We all love rhythm. We all love drums. It’s not our fault, it’s part of what makes us human, what makes us animals. The problem is when we use these effective methods of persuasion unknowingly on our audiences to prove a point. Large images of “the user” are great, but when are we taking advantage of our Identifiable Victim Bias that shows that we don’t make accurate conclusions when given decisions where the image of one particular person, usually an extreme case, is used to represent a group? When are we telling someone what we found, versus telling someone about what we found? When are we placing the pieces in front of them for them to make their own decision, versus making a decision for them, and convincing them that it’s right through cognitive biases and manipulation?

We aren’t evil. Every designer I’ve worked with has been amazingly optimistic about the world and our species, but just because we don’t know we’re doing it, doesn’t mean we’re doing it.

The Shift from Modern to Post Modern in Design

Design was about something. There were constraints of technology, constraints on production, limits on time and resources that could be devoted to projects which in turn would be products. Design disciplines, such as graphic and industrial, had heuristics–rules of thumb. Domain knowledge was acquired. Designers were masters of a trade. They were technical, efficient, and knowledgable. Disciplines also developed ethical standards which are still relevant today. For example, in graphic design, information should be presented in an honest manner, not used to deceive the reader. We, as designers, had the users of our products in mind. We cared. Using graphic design as an example again, we knew that line lengths shouldn’t be too long, otherwise, it made it too hard to read. We knew these things. Each design discipline knew, for a fact, what was good for the user. And that was the problem.

Over the last century, design existed in a modern world where we knew what was best for the people we made products for. We knew how high your chairs should be, how you should hold your pen, where controls in airplanes should be placed to reduce error. But we don’t live in that time anymore. No one is going to die from the next online social platform and there is no reason to have a single chair that is optimized for the average user. In fact, the average user shouldn’t even exist. It doesn’t exist. We made it up. Limits of technology in Interaction Design change every 6 months, the domain of knowledge changes equally as fast.

This post was prompted by Richard Buchanan’s talk at IxDA, where he talked about design having a lack of principles. It’s true, design was about something. I consider myself an interaction designer, and everyday I have to figure out what that means. I feel as though my profession has no body of knowledge, no domain to be an expert in, just a set of guidelines about transient concepts and technologies and methods that bubble to the surface of conversation in one month, and fade in the next. My argument is that we don’t need to have a new set of principles to replace those from the modern era. We don’t need a set to replace aesthetics, efficiency, and proper use of current technologies. The new “something” that design should be about, or rather, the new somethings that design should be about are the people using our products. The new code of ethics should be replaced by empathy. Our goal of controlling users should be replaced by supporting the users in reaching their personal goals. I agree with Dick that as designers we are servants of society. I disagree that we need a new set of principles. What we need instead is the ability to connect with the people who use our products, and principles will only get in the way. Any sense of truth or set of facts or absolutes will only take us further and further away from people. If we want to replace those principles, we shouldn’t create one set of beliefs to replace the old, they should be replaced by conversation, compassion, and a love for the people we serve. If we want to be better designers, we will help people create the world they want to exist in. And their world is theirs alone. We just help make the stuff to get them there. Be inspired.