exploring the relationship between social science and software development methodologies: a blog by Pascal Belouin

  

I think that it would be interesting to explore the theoretical ramification of an interpretation of the notion of user experience from a ‘radically’ poststructuralist point of view, that would put the emphasis not only on the subjective experience of users of interactive systems, but also on the subjective experience of the people who actually design and build them.

More precisely, how can we extract design principles from an acknowledgment of the central role of an individual’s values, prejudices and pre-existing ‘mental constructs’ (which are themselves constituted by and through his or her interaction with these particular ‘discourses’ that are interactive systems) in shaping the way he or she experiences the world?

One could argue that the particular ‘filter’ constituted by a user’s assimilation of his or her own culture, values and previous experiences directly shapes what they will ‘experience’ in the framework of their interaction with the system. What does this mean in regards to design? Orientating the discussion around the notion of meaning, and borrowing concepts from social phenomenology and poststructuralism may provide us with interesting points that deserve to be explored.

What constitutes what the user ‘knows’ about using interactive systems?

This is a tricky question for a few reason. First, there are as many experiences as there are users. Each will ‘experience’ your interface differently according to numerous factors such as the number of website they’ve been using. In other words, the meaning of the various ‘texts’ that compose an interface, far from being an objective property of these only emerges through the interaction between it and a particular user. The problem then becomes about creating interactions whose meanings are as obvious as possible for our users. But how can we know that?

Can we experience ‘what it feels’ to be a user?

According to what we have seen so far, this appears rather difficult. Only by using appropriate methods of investigation can we approach an understanding of the way users attach meaning to the interfaces we build: This is where borrowing tried and tested data analysis from the social sciences seems to make sense. Indeed, even though various qualitative data collection and analysis methods such as ethnography or grounded theory can be applied to the design of interactive systems, it appears rather important to acknowledge their theoretical and epistemological bases. Only by making full use of the theoretical framework of qualitative data analysis methods such as grounded theory, discourse analysis or ethnography can we obtain the tools, the concepts that will allow us to ‘think’ interactive systems and the way users experience these.

Conclusion

Although I originally planned to only write a small article, this one became rather extensive as I derived into advocating the adoption of the theoretical standpoint on which qualitative data analysis methods such as grounded theory, ethnography or discourse are built. Thus, I would argue that making use of the concepts provided by social and psychological theory to understand how meaning is produced through the design and the use of interactive system could allow us to infer useful guidelines that could help us create better interactive systems!

Related posts:

  1. Reductionism and Software Engineering: Understanding the gap between interactive systems users and designers
  2. Intertextuality and User interfaces as Relational Systems of Representations
  3. A Short, Practical Example of User Experience and Interface Design for an Online Drink Ordering Service
  4. Research proposal : A Foucauldian analysis of the evolution of the discourse about software development methodologies
  5. Software as Discourse

5 Comments to “User Experience, Poststructuralism and Phenomenology: Exploring the User’s World”

  1. Kshitiz says:

    This is an interesting discourse. Would like to hear more on this.

    Would love to hear / read your ways you think that the above is possible, and if possible explain with some examples. It’s easier to fathom that way.

  2. mc says:

    where is poststructuralism or phenomenology, per se, involved in asking what seems like a pretty standard UX question: how do we design to take the user into consideration?

    could you also share why “experience” is in quotes? or mental constructs?

    it’s not clear to me that situating the question in terms of the user’s experience is particularly poststructural? or how referencing phenomenology is being used?

    you say
    “Indeed, even though various qualitative data collection and analysis methods such as ethnography or grounded theory can be applied to the design of interactive systems, it appears rather important to acknowledge their theoretical and epistemological bases. ”

    do you mean biases? do you mean it’s important to understand the bias from which a researcher is coming in asking the particular question asked in a study?

    Again this is something that both marxism and feminism alike have been doing in science for some time – the marxist and feminist critiques of the scientific method, for instance, are great places to engage. The feminist critique was one of the first to say “maybe you’re projecting your phallocentric biases onto your observations of animal interactions” – just for instance.

    You write:
    “Only by making full use of the theoretical framework of qualitative data analysis methods such as grounded theory, discourse analysis or ethnography can we obtain the tools,… ”

    forgive me, but why privilege these three?

    for instance, a question i might ask of one of your related posts: why foucault?
    as a scientist, or designer, did you do a rigerous comparison of other approaches before settling on foucault? did you write that up somewhere? what in your discussion do you see as particularly foucaul-esque? i must admit, i think i’ve kinda missed it. It seems that what you describe as a “Foucauldian analysis” as considering social/historical context, is pretty much new historicism? Foucault is surely more about power, geneology of same, and expresion in shared cultural artefacts?

    thank you for your time. best with your projects

  3. Hello mc, and thank you very much for taking the time to write this very interesting comment! I will try to respond to it point by point, as I think it highlights fundamental questions!

    Where is poststructuralism or phenomenology, per se, involved in asking what seems like a pretty standard UX question: how do we design to take the user into consideration?

    Could you also share why “experience” is in quotes? or mental constructs?
    it’s not clear to me that situating the question in terms of the user’s experience is particularly poststructural? or how referencing phenomenology is being used?

    “How do we design to take the user into consideration” could indeed be seen as a good sum up of what it means to focus on user experience. I was a bit afraid of stating the obvious, but my aim is to highlight the need for a strong acknowledgement of the epistemological assumptions which shape our analysis of what we apprehend when, for instance, we observe a user: This is why I guess I agree with you when you talk about the importance of acknowledging bias by referring to Marxism and Feminism.

    I think therefore that it could be interesting to take a strong phenomenological stance towards interaction design by emphasising the fact that social phenomena such as software design and use cannot be observed from an objective point of view, but are dependent of the picture all the people involved in the design of a particular piece of software have of them. The evolution of software development methodologies from (for instance) the waterfall models to Agile seems, in my opinion, to be a consequence of a change of direction from discussions about technology and processes (I am now almost quoting the Agile Manifesto!) towards subjects that have been explored at length by social theory : notions of practice, meaning, values, communication and discourse are central notions in the work of for instance Schütz, Weber, Foucault, Derrida, Goffman or Garfinkel.

    Thus, what I tried to point out in this article is the fact that social theory provides very interesting tools as well as theoretical concepts which could be used and applied to the analysis of software design as a particular kind of discourse. Maybe it would be important for me to clarify that when I speak about postmodernism or phenomenology, I am more interested in how these influence and provide the background for social scientific methods of enquiry: poststructuralist thought, in which one could include as you said certain forms of feminism (the work of Judith Butler comes to mind). Phenomenology has had in the same way a huge impact on the way social scientific methods have evolved, by providing a theoretical basis on which positivist thought can be challenged: advocating the idea that it is impossible to have an objective vision of social phenomena due to both their complexity and the fact that by tackling such phenomena the researcher is himself part of the equation, making objectivity an “unattainable myth”. I wonder if sometimes qualitative methods of inquiry such as ethnography or interviews are not applied to disciplines such as “interaction design” as a standalone tool, without much attention given to an epistemological justifications behind such a choice.

    Marxism, through thinkers like Althusser, also made important contributions to our understanding of ideology (for instance in the famous ISAs essays), and it would be interesting to see how Althusser’s notions of subject positions and ideology could be applied to, for instance, the way users perceive social software.

    could you also share why “experience” is in quotes? or mental constructs?

    I put these notions in quote because I would like to emphasise the idea that these can be defined differently (again) according to which theoretical standpoint one talks about these notions. For instance, the concept of “user experience” could be defined in a number of rather different ways if one is to take a cognitive psychological approach or a discursive psychological one towards it. The quotes I’ve put around mental constructs have a slightly different signification, as I tried with these to emphasise the fact that I was borrowing this notion from phenomenology.

    “Only by making full use of the theoretical framework of qualitative data analysis methods such as grounded theory, discourse analysis or ethnography can we obtain the tools,… ”

    forgive me, but why privilege these three?

    for instance, a question i might ask of one of your related posts: why foucault?
    as a scientist, or designer, did you do a rigerous comparison of other approaches before settling on foucault? did you write that up somewhere? what in your discussion do you see as particularly foucaul-esque? i must admit, i think i’ve kinda missed it. It seems that what you describe as a “Foucauldian analysis” as considering social/historical context, is pretty much new historicism? Foucault is surely more about power, geneology of same, and expresion in shared cultural artefacts?

    My aim was more to use these examples to illustrate what could be done when social theory is applied to software design, but I think a lot of theoretical frameworks could be used to the analysis of software design (and thus contribute in the development of novel design methods): What do Symbolic Interactionism, Ethnomethodology or Conversation Analysis tell us about a particular user interaction? All these different disciplines are a fertile terrain on which new interpretations of interactive system could grow: I find this idea fascinating, and that’s why I started this blog!

    Finally, let me clarify what I had in mind when writing this research proposal: In line with what I wrote above, my aim for this particular piece of research would be to carry out a “small” genealogical analysis (if such a thing is indeed possible) of the evolution of the software development field, so as to render salient the rupture which could be observed in discourse about software development from process-heavy waterfall-inspired methods to notions of values, communication, meaning, etc (the fact that we now talk about “user experience” could itself be seen as an avatar of this evolution). To carry out such a task, I think using Foucault’s notions of institutional discourse, the creation of particular identities within this particular field’s discourse, which are then adopted by individuals (through, for instance, the creation of new job roles such as “interaction designer”) are particularly appropriate. How the typical “Agile” discourse emerged and how it was enforced seem important questions to me, as these shape the practice of people involved in software design. By uncovering these maybe we could unearth a few assumptions which have no reasons of being there (Here maybe a rapprochement with the Lean practice of assumption analysis comes to mind…)?

    However, Foucauldian notions are only an example amongst many, and I think there are a lot of different ways social theory can be applied to software design! My aim is to provide a few leads with this blog, and I will try to go deeper in the subject in my next articles. I look forward to reading your feedback!

    Best Regards,

    Pascal

    ps. I understand how using fancy words like that can seem a bit pompous, and one of my aims when putting these in the title was to attract interesting readers like you in some kind of low-brow marketing tactic: debate is priceless! But again I think that by exploring the epistemological bases of various social theory traditions in relation to let’s say interface design we may have new ways of understanding software design and use. This in turn could inform new software development methodologies: I will try to write more examples in articles to come…

  4. Hi..

    Nice thing you have going on here :)

    I think you would benefit from reading Winograd and Flores ‘Understanding computers and cognition’ or Paul Dourish ‘Where the action is’. Both works are highly phenomnological biased. Winograd and Flores are inspired by Heidegger while Dourish is more Ponty’ish. The first one is my favorite.

    What I want to stress is that phenomenology has been part of systems design since 1986. However, clearly not enough.

  5. Hi Anders,

    Thank you for your comments and for directing me to these books: I will definitely check them out!

    Best Regards,

    Pascal

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