nonsensical demarcation

disappearing things

Good design is invisible.

It's counterintuitive, we build and design things so people can forget about them when they are using it. 1 We've all experienced this, it's how we engage with the world. In phenomenology, a discipline in philosophy that studies the structure of our conscious experience, they describe this as an object becoming transparent. Heidegger, one of its proponents, even goes on to say that we, as a subject, also become transparent and what's only happening is the ongoing activity.

This seems like a wild proposal, but it's true, right? When a piece of software slows you down is a frustrating experience, the artifact becomes visible, your train of thought gets diverted, and suddenly you are there, standing in the check-in line at the airport, looking at a shitty interface.

How to disappear completely

The capacity to disappear artifacts allows us to engage with the world in meaningful ways, but it's only possible when good design is in place. So, how can you make good design? And more importantly, how can you make good design... repeatedly?

People normally talk about a single design, how it's usable, that the UI is elegant, the amazing attention to detail, or how it disappears when you use it (I'm mocking myself), etc. but this is problematic. We begin to relate good design with the artifact when in reality the tangible product is just the result of a very complicated process.

Industry leaders such as Jared Spool and Scott Jenson have emphatically talked about the design process as a team effort. It is only when a team agrees on a shared understanding that they are able to, as Jared Spool defines design, render an intent. If you are in this industry, you know this by experience, teams are interdisciplinary and we improve ideas together as a group. But if this is true, that good design is a team effort process, then what's the designer role about?

Designer's role

In a book about Communicating Design, Dan Brown,2 stresses how the relationship between the designer and the team is mediated through a series of artifacts that the designer produces. These things, deliverables or diagrams, are crucial to create said shared understanding as they allow everyone to improve our working model, assumptions, mistakes, and opens up the space for new and better ideas.

Yet to produce these documents there are a lot of processes going on in the conscious experience of the designer, as they/me/we have to wrangle so many different parts of the problem in a way that help us accomplish the goals we are working on. Jon Kolko dispels this process in the book Exposing the Magic of Design, in it, he explains how a designer uses certain methods to move from data to information and then to knowledge, and they do this thanks to three key cognitive aspects: synthesis, sensemaking, and abductive reasoning; he also explains how the designer uses other methods that engages their capacity for empathy to move from knowledge to wisdom. 3 Therefore, the designer's ability to do their work will depend on two major constraints: their own experience and the project itself. Please note how utterly human this process is.

If we go back to how a good design becomes transparent, it will become clear that we don't use these objects for the object themselves, we use them for a particular purpose which is itself embedded in our own life, and consequently the social place we have in the world. Or how Richard Saul Wurman thought about it, "people in a place engaged in a process".4 That's what Design is all about: enabling a new way of interacting with the world. And the more we know about that world: the person using it and their personal goals, the organization or business goals, the underlying technology that allows it to happen; the better our design is and consequently the more smooth that technology will fit in the life of its users.

Subversive technologies

In the digital rights space, there are several constraints that complicate the design process. Using Kolko's framework, the constraints could be mapped the following way. Some constraints are due to the quality of the data and information we can gather, which will affect the knowledge we can produce and which will skew our sensemaking and re-framing capabilities. Others are due to the in-depth technical nature of the projects, the more we understand the technology and what it does the more we can propose new ways of thinking and interacting with it. And lastly, these technologies exist in a context which is very different from ours and the more we understand the context of each country the better we understand the tensions that arise between authoritarian governments and their citizens.

I would now like to expand a little more on the nature of these constraints as they inform the challenges of creating good design in this space:

Lack of context (social and technological):

Social: Normally these technologies are used in concert to safeguard individuals that take a stand against their governments. This makes recruitment in research especially hard as they are people who are at-risk and want to keep their profile low. Due to lack of access to these individuals, sometimes we have to interview people best-close to them in terms of the context they operate in. Or do research with people who have fled their country and live outside the control of the authoritarian government. I have also found it very useful to do secondary research in sources such as KeepItOn, Freedom House, and Reporters Without Borders as they allow me to have a general understanding of each country.

Technological: Because authoritarian governments don't make public the methods of control they are deploying, we have to invent ways to study those strategies. From reverse engineering the DNS filtering apparatus of the Great Firewall of China, or encourage people in their country to run tests and see which websites/apps are blocked and how, to interviewing VPN providers to understand the problems they face when they provide their service in a censored country, or by doing continuous technical research and testing.

Technical nature of the software:

People wanting to leverage their rights, will have to learn how to incorporate technical software into their lives. This knowledge will become the basic building block to improve the user's agency and the benefit of using the software. However, the technology is normally tailored for advanced users who employ the features to their fullest extent. Thus to new users, it can be overwhelming as they are filled with terms and advanced settings that don't make sense to them.

In many cases the software is not commercial and is supported by an Open Source community that is highly technical in nature and which has little resources to improve the project and attend to the myriad needs people have. Yet there are exceptions with popular software such as Tor Browser or Signal, where they have a stable team that works on the project. Less structured projects might depend on communities all around the globe that guide and help people in how to use the product or to improve it. Additionally these types of projects don't normally have a designer on the team, so whenever there's one, that person must also have to learn the technology (what it does, how it works, its shortcomings, its opportunities, why people use it, etc.) to be able to improve it.

Behavioral change:

Adopting a new technology it's essentially the same as creating a new habit, it's hard, but even more so in this context as users have to learn and incorporate other related concepts to maximize the benefits of using said technology, such as having a threat model, having good data/cyber/security hygiene, etc.

good design is a team effort

The challenges sketched above can't be solved by the designer alone as what we are solving is not a visual problem but rather a social one, aided by the technology we are trying to create. Thus the more we define the problem together and understand it, the more we can render an intent that could solve it.

Finally, in my experience, good culture makes good design. However, I won't expand on this further as I believe it deserves an article on its own.

  1. I've been fascinated about this phenomenon for some time. During the pandemic, I wrote two essays about how our eye-glasses and spatulas disappear when we use them.

  2. The book, and also his blog has been hugely influential in my career.

  3. Following the DIKW pyramid (data, information, knowledge, wisdom).

  4. This quote was taken from a podcast where Dan Brown interviewed Dan Klyn, both information architects talking about their field. Which by the way, the quote is basically an insight that the philosophy of Heidegger put forth.