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#54 A design to lean back in
...and a psychological "microscope"
It’s Design Lobster #54 and it’s great to have you here. This week we’re exploring what the techniques of micro-phenomenology have to offer design research. We’re also admiring a delightful Shaker-designed tilting chair. Lean back and enjoy!🪑
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Question: How might we understand people’s experience in greater detail?
I recently watched this terrific talk by Adit Gupta on the connections between philosophy and design. Among the concepts he discusses was that of micro-phenomenology – a research discipline that aims to understand the nature of lived experience in the highest possible detail, a psychological “microscope” if you will. In the words of one of its proponents, Claire Petitmengin:
“Micro-phenomenology is a new scientific discipline enabling us to discover ordinary inaccessible dimensions of our lived experience and describe them accurately and reliably.”
— Claire Petitmengin - microphenomenology.com
Micro-phenomonologists are quite a meta bunch. They’re interested in the structure of an experience as opposed to just its content – ie. not just what happens in it, but how we apprehend those things. In this humorous example where people are asked to imagine the word ‘elephant’, researchers use repeated ‘how’ and ‘how do you know’ questions to dig into precisely how the word appears to each subject. The result is a far more vivid picture of the word’s colour, shape, and position in each subject’s mind.
In my design work, I’m fairly obsessed with understanding the details of people’s experience so that the things I design map as precisely as possible on to that reality. The prospect of a psychological “microscope” therefore has my interest 🧐. I think this research is especially interesting in the context of software design, which is profoundly concerned with how information and concepts are organised and represented. I’m excited to try out this questioning style in my next research project.
Design takeaway: How might some ‘how’ and ‘how do you know’ questions reveal more about the experience of the people you are designing for?
🎥 Watch Adit’s talk on YouTube - you can jump to 04:51 for the section on phenomenology.
Object: Shaker tilting chair
The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing are a millenarian Chrisitan sect originally founded in 1747 in the North of England but which later moved to the United States. They are colloquially known as the Shakers – a reference to their ecstatic behaviour during worship. Shaker communities are notable for designing their buildings and furnishings with great care, considering craftsmanship to be a kind of prayer. The austere simplicity of the objects they created has drawn comparisons with Modernist design and subsequently made them highly fashionable.
I particularly love this Shaker chair. Designed by George O'Donnell in 1852, it has a tiny metal ball and socket mechanism in the back two legs to allow a sitter to lean back without scratching the floor or damaging the chair. An almost invisible change, it nevertheless wonderfully improves the experience of sitting.
The way a tiny observation drives the design reminds me a lot of the Noncomformist chair designed by Eileen Gray that we explored in Design Lobster #5 – I recommend checking it out. Finding ways to accommodate instinctive behaviours unobtrusively like this, is for me one of the joys of design.
Design takeaway: What tiny detail of human behaviour can you think of that opens up possibilities for design?
🪑Watch a short video about Shaker furniture.
Quote: “Great design doesn’t distract people, it keeps them focused on what they are doing, feeling, and achieving.”
– David Hogue
David is a Design Lead at Google who also teaches at San Francisco State University. He reminds us here that design shouldn’t get in the way of what people are trying to do. It’s a similar idea to Joe Sparano’s idea that design should be transparent that I featured in Design Lobster #27. Whichever quote works better for you, they both make the same claim – that a design is only as good as what it helps people achieve.
Whatever you do, keep discovering.
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