Parallels is critical design

"Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life."

- Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby


Parallels is ambiguous

"The most important benefit of ambiguity [is] the ability it gives designers to suggest issues and perspectives for consideration without imposing solutions...[It provokes speculation, and] as a result of this speculation, we form intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, and moral judgements that can become available for self reflection. The result of this process can be experiences that are uniquely personal: delightful, disturbing, or both."

- William Gaver, Jacob Beaver, and Steve Benford

Parallels is slow technology

"The design should give time for reflection through its slow form-presence and invite us to reflect through its clear, distinct and simple material-expression. It is a combination of simplicity in material with a subtle complexity in form focusing on time as a basic element of composition. Technology should bring forth the material, not hide it."

- Lars Hallnas and Johan Redstrom

Parallels is reflective design

"We believe that, for those concerned about the social implications of the technologies we build, reflection itself should be a core technology design outcome for HCI. That is to say, technology design practices should support both designers and users in ongoing critical reflection about technology and its relationship to human life."

- Sengers, Boehner, David & Kaye

Parallels promotes sustainable interaction design

Eli Blevis defines design as "an act of choosing among or informing choices of future ways of being" and focuses "primarily on environmental sustainability and the link between interactive technologies and the use of resources, both from the point of view of how interactive technologies can be used to promote more sustainable behaviours and -with more emphasis here- from the point of view of how sustainability can be applied as a critical lens to the design of interactive systems, themselves."











Parallels

vs. Parallels

It is important to distinguish the project called Parallels, and the product called Parallels. The project called Parallels as a critical design is not directed at a group of people, but a sensibility. It is for those with an interest in sustainability, commodification, and pop culture. One such could be someone who is apathetic about humanity's social and environmental situation, another could be someone with a keen interest. The product called Parallels is created for those living in our value fiction scenario, that embrace technology as a solution to sustainability problems.
About Critical Design Contact
How it works Slow Technology ©Parallels 2010-2011
Form Ambiguous Design
Evaluation Reflective Design
References Sustainable Interaction Design






About the project

Parallels is a critical design system, meant as a probe to explore a value fiction scenario (Dunne & Raby, 2001). In this scenario, as in our reality, it has become irrefutably clear that human growth, as it currently stands, is no longer sustainable. (McKinney, Schoch & Yonavjak, 2007) In media and societal view, individuals are said to be to blame for this occurrence, due to their physical and mental disconnection from the ecosystem in which they exist. Human intellect and technology have allowed us to create tools and artificial environments that allow us to thrive in what would otherwise be a more hostile and taxing world. Yet, these same vehicles for our subsistence separate and alienate us from our connection to this ecosystem, while continually drawing from its resources and sucking it dry to the point of imminent collapse.

There is currently a movement in design towards solving such problems with high-tech consumer products that impose a system of values upon the user. These values are supposedly reflective of "good" or benevolent design practice, yet are inherently sinister and Orwellian in their insidious method of conditioning the user to being monitored in their behaviour, and in turn, rewarded or punished according to their consumption versus supposed overuse of resources. Parallels is one of said products, designed to re-establish an empathetic and considerate relationship between the user and their ecosystem.

Physically, the system is a hydroponic grow box wirelessly connected to an electricity and water use monitor in a home. If the user consumes more electricity in a day than their daily average, the basil plant in the box is deprived of light for a day. If they consume more water in a day than their daily average, the plant is deprived of water for a day. There are several forms of slow and real-time feedback as to the user's consumption. The user develops a relationship with the plant and their consumption, based on their personal interpretation of this feedback.

As noted above, it is important to distinguish the project called Parallels, and the product called Parallels. The project called Parallels as a critical design is not directed at a group of people, but a sensibility. It is for those with an interest in sustainability, commodification, and pop culture. One such could be someone who is apathetic about humanity's social and environmental situation, another could be someone with a keen interest. The product called Parallels is created for those living in our value fiction scenario, that embrace technology as a solution to sustainability problems.


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Critical Design

"Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this who have never heard of the term critical design and who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate." -Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby (2007)

For more information, see Dunne and Raby's Critical Design FAQ: http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/bydandr/13/0

See Parallel's design strategies: Slow Technology, Ambiguity, Reflective Design, Sustainable Interaction Design.


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Slow Technology

"The design should give time for reflection through its slow form-presence and invite us to reflect through its clear, distinct and simple material-expression. It is a combination of simplicity in material with a subtle complexity in form focusing on time as a basic element of composition. Technology should bring forth the material, not hide it."

The majority of designs produced by the interaction design and HCI communities are examples of fast technologies. These designs promote ease of use and aim to "take away time both in terms of making the user more efficient in working and making the artefact as such as fast and easy to use as possible." (Hallnas & Redstrom, p. 203) This way of designing applies best in the creation of tools to accomplish well defined tasks, which rely on ease of use and transparency to allow concentration on the task at hand. Slow technology does the opposite, and can be "slow in various ways as it takes time to learn how it works, understand why it works the way it works, apply it, see what it is, and find out the consequences of using it." (Hallnas & Redstrom, p. 203) One of the most important and valuable aspects of slow technology is creating time for reflection through slowness in learning, understanding, and presence.

This principle is central in the design of Parallels. By operating in a way that creates time for the new activity of reflection, Parallels steps away from the conventional approach of consumption monitoring systems. All attempts at behaviour modification through reinforcement (negative or positive) are abandoned in favour of a much more lasting thoughtfulness. This is an expression of the current outlook on sustainability in the majority of initiatives which follow the idiom of less bad is good (Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough & Michael Braungart. 2002). As a system that could be awkward to use if taken as a simple tool and one that amplifies the presence of time, Parallels exhibits properties of two of the main aspects of slow technology as outlined by Hallnas and Redstrom: Reflective Technology and Time Technology.

In Parallels the death and life of the plant and the food it produces is an expression of the system's functionality rather than its objective.

See Parallel's other design strategies: Ambiguity, Reflective Design, Sustainable Interaction Design.


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Parallels is ambiguous

"The most important benefit of ambiguity [is] the ability it gives designers to suggest issues and perspectives for consideration without imposing solutions." (Gaver, Beaver & Benford. 2003, p. 240)

As with fast technology, clarity is the norm in interaction design and HCI. Ambiguity is viewed by many as the antithesis to good design, a sentiment most pronounced in the development of tools; as it clouds understanding and reduces efficiency. Unfortunately reducing ambiguity means limiting the actions of the user, and encourages them to think within the constraints of the designed system. An ambiguous system asks users to "interpret situations for themselves, it encourages them to start grappling conceptually with systems and their contexts, and thus to establish deeper and more personal relations with the meanings offered by those systems." (Gaver et al. p. 233) In this sense, clarity is synonymous with effective interfaces, whereas ambiguity is synonymous with affective interfaces.

Parallels shares the major similarity of the examples presented in Gaver, Beaver and Benford's paper in that its "use of ambiguity makes [it] evocative rather than didactic, and mysterious rather than explicit." (Gaver et al. p. 235) More specifically, it falls into the three of the types of ambiguity identified: ambiguity of information, ambiguity of relationship, and ambiguity of context.

Ambiguity of Information is summarized as an ambiguity that "asks us to project our expectations into an interpretation of incomplete information." (Gaver et al. p. 237) Parallels takes very clear information regarding energy consumption and uses the plant as an imprecise representation to emphasize uncertainty, requiring the user to fill in the gaps in information. When the output displayed by the states of the plant is compared to the more precise daily water and power meter, it occasionally exposes inconsistencies in the information to the user to create a space for interpretation. Combining these two tactics not only presents the user with inaccurate information with the possibility of reflection, but actively invites them to consider the inaccuracies.

Ambiguity of relationship is summarized as an ambiguity that "evokes a projection of our subjective experiences and attitudes onto new situations." (Gaver et al. p. 237) It provokes speculation, and "as a result of this speculation, we form intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, and moral judgements that can become available for self reflection. The result of this process can be experiences that are uniquely personal: delightful, disturbing, or both." (Gaver et al. p. 237) Parallels uses a plant to introduce death as a disturbing side effect of use. Humans have an empathetic connection to plants, and their observation, care, and consumption is immediately appealing, but taking responsibility for their lives has disturbing implications both in the immediate sense and in terms of human's views of themselves as masters of the planet. By removing the immediacy of the effects the user has on the plant and connecting it to a larger scale raises questions about the balance of ethics and desires.

To incite consideration of the personal importance of events related to the system, Parallels borrows the tactic of pointing out things without explaining why. Though the feedback of the system is quite clear, numbers and concrete measures are left out entirely, creating a relationship that is intuitive rather than rule based. This "encourages [users] to reflect on the meaning of this aspect of their environment, aesthetically, culturally, and - especially - personally." (Gaver et al. p. 239)

Ambiguity of context is created by "Blocking the interpretation of a product or system in terms of an established discourse." (Gaver et al. p. 238) Parallels accomplishes this by enclosing the plant in an environment the user doesn't directly control. By totally removing the functionality and interaction methods of a typical household plant, it separates it from its native genre while maintaining its status as a plant. This encourages users to approach the system with an open mind, and discard the assumptions they have surrounding the role of plants and technology.

"Ambiguity is a powerful design tool for raising topics or asking questions, while renouncing the possibility of dictating answers. By virtue of this balance, ambiguity both offers an inspiring resource to designers and shows a deep respect for users." (Gaver et al. p. 240)

The real world is ambiguous, and as a system of reflection on the real world Parallels embraces this ambiguity.

See Parallel's other design strategies: Slow Technology, Reflective Design, Sustainable Interaction Design.


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Parallels is Reflective Design

"We believe that, for those concerned about the social implications of the technologies we build, reflection itself should be a core technology design outcome for HCI. That is to say, technology design practices should support both designers and users in ongoing critical reflection about technology and its relationship to human life." (Sengers, Boehner, David & Kaye. 2005, p. 50)

Every new technology holds within it an implicit set of values, created through the obstacles and affordances in their design. These values may consciously or unconsciously affect the lives of the people who use said technologies. It is important, in the world of technology design, to provide opportunities to reflect upon the behaviour-modifying nature of new interactive products, to critically reflect upon the social and personal implications of the adoption of these behaviours.


Reflective Design Strategies

Parallels provides an appropriately complex and contradictory set of values to afford a reflective engagement between user, designer, and object. The technologies in the design of the Parallels system have been strategically implemented so as to allow for as much reflection upon the interaction as possible, following the strategies made available in the paper "Reflective Design" (Sengers, et al.. 2005, p. 56-57).

1. Provide for interpretive flexibility. Parallels provides only ambiguous feedback to the user. While the feedback given by the system is controlled by breaking down the water and electrical consumption of the user to a basic set of rules for providing said feedback, the user has to determine for themself what their average consumption is and how they may have consumed above said average, and if this feedback is accurate or communicative or even manipulative, supporting reflection on the part of the user.

2. Give users license to participate. The familiar and empathetic relationship of human to plant, and the usefulness of basil for cooking gives the user several reasons to engage with the system.

3. Provide dynamic feedback to users. While the growth and death of a plant are slow in terms of dynamic feedback, the health of the plant can be seen as feedback as to the behaviour patterns of the user. Basil has been chosen as the optimal source of slow plant feedback as it reacts relatively quickly to environmental changes, compared to other plants. Also, there are several other real-time and visual cues given to the user in the form of changing lighting patterns given the electricity and water consumption of the user, allowing for several time intervals by which the user may reflect upon the system.

4. Inspire rich feedback from users. Parallels attempts to encourage value-change in the user, as well as behavioural adjustment, based on dynamic, yet ambiguous feedback. It is up to the user to determine their level of engagement with the system, and whether or not they agree with the imposed values. The fact that the life of another organism (a basil plant) impinges upon the user's behaviour affords emotional reaction and a more complex relationship with the system, providing an opportunity for a more robust feedback from the user.

5. Build technology as a probe. Parallels has been designed as a tool for interpretation and evaluation of similar technologies and the value system and behaviour modifying properties inherent in their design. It provides an opportunity to reflect upon the practice of designing and selling self-monitoring devices for self-improvement, as well as the feasibility of so-called "sustainable" high-tech products.

6. Invert metaphors and cross boundaries. Some cues have been provided by the design of the Parallels system to engage the users through familiarity and enticement. Parallels' form is an abstraction of a globe to a more useful form for harbouring a hydroponic grow box. This form provides the user a familiar visual metaphor for the earth and, at the same time, alters this metaphor, affording playful interpretation. The system also subverts the familiar plant-human relationship (conscious provision of light and nutrient to the plant) by connecting the plant's life support to the user's unconscious actions (consumption of water and electricity).

See Parallel's other design strategies: Slow Technology, Ambiguity, Sustainable Interaction Design.


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Parallels promotes the principles of social and environmental sustainable

interaction design

To encourage further reflection and as an initiative in itself, Parallels follows the principles of sustainable interaction design introduced by Eli Blevis. Blevis defines design as "an act of choosing among or informing choices of future ways of being" (2007, p. 503) and his focus is "primarily on environmental sustainability and the link between interactive technologies and the use of resources, both from the point of view of how interactive technologies can be used to promote more sustainable behaviours and—with more emphasis here—from the point of view of how sustainability can be applied as a critical lens to the design of interactive systems, themselves." (p. 503) Though Parallels is not has a limited amount of software, many of the principles outlined by Blevis apply.

In its final iteration, Parallels relies on power consumption information provided by the users energy and utility suppliers. This is a future technology that is currently being introduced in British Columbia. (Torrevillas, 2011) By relying on consumption information provided by the energy company instead of its own sensors, Parallels indirectly enables the recovery of previously discarded material. Though Blevis specifically refers to physical material, in this case the salvage of digital material prevents the creation of further physical material, limiting its impact. Furthermore, when discussing his principle of linking invention & disposal, Blevis points out that software is material that prompts physical qualities. In this case, the software (the power monitoring information) is stored on remote servers and downloaded each time it is accessed. This provides an opportunity for upgrading of hardware instead of replacement, and because the vast majority of the hardware (servers) is not in view of the owner of the device, it still allows for our culture of affluence's perceived need for newness. As it is being upgraded instead of replaced, the hardware behind the scenes is cheaper to maintain and can look old; while the constantly updating information that is delivered to users is always new.

Blevis describes his principle of decoupling ownership and identity as "a broadly construed principle about fashion, the commons, security & privacy, and sense of selfhood in the context of globally changing conditions for the construct of identity as these motivate relationships to the materials of consumption, especially with respect to the possibilities for sharing for maximal use," (p. 506) Parallels is a communal object of the environment it is monitoring. It is impossible to "own", as everyone who uses any water or power is given an attachment to the object. These forced relationships give ownership to anyone in the environment, stretching the physical material among many users and limiting the perceived need for individualized products.

Parallels seeks to maintain heirloom status by embodying classical forms and using lasting materials. Blevis suggests fashion plays a large part in linking invention and disposal and maintaining heirloom status. While we find this to be partly true, the qualities of the materials also play a large part in determining this. The difference Blevis points out between the examples he uses of a product that is designed for disposal (the cell phone camera), and one that achieves heirloom status (the Leica camera) is the backwards compatibility of key parts. While this is important, he neglects to mention that the Leica has a strong metal body, and the cell phone is made of breakable plastic. It is possible the Leica achieves heirloom status simply by lasting long enough to see prolonged use and gain emotional attachment. The backwards compatibility of the newer cameras with older lenses is not as important as the fact that the cameras last long enough to create emotional attachment.

See Parallel's other design strategies: Slow Technology, Ambiguity, Reflective Design.


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Form

"In slow technology as an environmental interaction design this interplay between form and function is clear; form is the process to learn and realise function, the structure of building a living environment... but in the present context form is not necessarily a consequence of the primary functionality of an object. Take for instance a slow mirror, an object that only very gradually turns into a mirror and only gradually deletes the mirrored image. It functions as a mirror, but this 'mirror' appears in a form that to some extent hides the basic functionality of a mirror." (Hallnas & Redstrom, 2001, pg 209)

In the most basic sense, Parallels embodies this principle of slow technology in its form. The plant and plant box hide the functionality of the monitoring system while suggesting new ways of considering the results of monitoring.

The rounded wood shapes and harsh glass angles of Parallels is reflective of the polarities of our culture. The structure of the base embodies a traditional aesthetic in form and materials that suggests lasting value. It has a weight to it that gives a clear indication of how solid it is, and a warmth that reveals its organic origins. The shape of the base mimics the curves of an archetypical globe and microscope, cementing its position as an object of value and suggesting its significance in a far broader sense.

In its final iteration, Parallels will be made of glass and hardwoods, represented in the prototype by clear acrylic and particle board veneer. These natural materials imply a direct connection to the ecosystem, as well as a lasting value (see above). They give it a weight and solidness cementing it as an object constructed to last.

The inverted glass pyramid is an artefact of our technological society, with an imagery that recalls our desire to disrupt the natural happenings of the planet. The frameless form is a thing of science fiction, a technological marvel unimagined 300 years ago. It also expresses the functionality of the plant box, allowing water to drain from the pointed end, and the plant to grow out in the larger end.

Within the pyramid is a basil plant. This particular variety of herb is very sensitive to changes in light and water, and will respond to a lack of either within a day. It also can be used in almost any kind of cooking, making it an object of desire and adding an additional layer to the relationship an owner has with their plants.



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Evaluating Parallels

Parallels is a critical design product, and should be evaluated as such. The goal of critical design is "mainly to make us think. But also raising awareness, exposing assumptions, provoking action, sparking debate, even entertaining in an intellectual sort of way, like literature or film." (Dunne & Raby, 2007) This kind of success depends on the person viewing it, and though the product should speak for itself up to a point, it also heavily relies on the communication materials including the reasoning behind it presented in this report.

Parallels can also be evaluated by its functionality within the value fiction. For the critical design to be realized in a meaningful way, it is important that the functionality within the speculative scenario is clear. In order to be a successful critique, the Parallels product must be as close of a reflection of our reality as possible. This is not a simple task, because as an affective system Parallels is not easy to evaluate. Traditional criteria concerning usability are largely irrelevant or even in direct opposition to its goals. Because of this the Parallels product must be evaluated in a manner more similar to an art critique. Hallnas and Redstrom found that "The empirical evaluations we have carried out clearly showed that slow technology has to be carefully framed and introduced in order not to be perceived merely as some poorly designed and, as a result, useless tool" (2001, p. 210) which brings to light the fact that the Parallels product must be understandable in terms of the four main values it embodies (slow technology, ambiguity, reflective design, and sustainable interaction design) but more importantly as a holistic artefact that creates time for meaningful reflection.


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References

Gaver W., Beaver, J. & Benford, S. (2003). Ambiguity as a Resource for Design. Designing Design, CHI letters, 5(3), 233-240.

Blevis, E. (2007). Sustainable Interaction Design: Invention & Disposal, Renewal & Reuse. CHI 2007 Proceedings - Design theory. 503-512

Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2001). Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Basel: Birkhauser.

Dunne, A. (2006). Hertzian Tales - Electronic products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Hallnas, L. & Redstrom, J. (2001). Slow Technology - Designing for Reflection. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 5, 201-212.

Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2007). Critical Design FAQ. Retrieved September, 2010, from http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/bydandr/13/0

Torrevillas, P. (2011, April 7). Hydro meter readers want just transition to sustainable jobs. Metro News: Vancouver, pp. 03.

McKinney, M., Schoch, R. & Yonavjak, L. (2007). Environmental Science: Systems and Solutions. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlet.

McDonough, W. & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press.

Sengers, P., Boehner, K., David, S. & Kaye, J. (2005). Reflective Design. Proceedings of the 4th decennial conference on Critical computing: between sense and sensibility. 49-58. New York: ACM


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Contact

Alice Chen - ayc14@sfu.ca
Daniel Giantomaso - dgiantomaso@gmail.com
Adam Greenberg - adamcgreenberg@gmail.com
Nick Weed - nickweed@gmail.com



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