Lessons on metaphors, memories and rituals for software designers

“Your have a unique responsibility towards your children. You want to be mindful of the consequences of the digital experiences you create. You do not want your children to be deprived of the real world sensory experiences that leave an imprint on our memories. You want them to grow up capable of tapping into the abundant resources our environment has to draw meaning and inspiration from.” I pleaded to my class yesterday.

I have been teaching a class, Design Thinking, Human-Computer Interaction & User Experience Design for Managers (HCI), at the Integrated Innovation Institute of the Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley campus. Each of the students aspires to become a Product manager or an entrepreneur and disrupt the marketplace with innovative products. During the class I have focused on bringing greater sensitivity in the software engineers to the Human side of the Human computer interface and make them mindful of their responsibility towards the impact and damage their creations can have on the society.

Yesterday’s class started with an hour long interaction with Dr. Don Norman. At the beginning of his presentation, Don told the class of the time we first met. He said his email trail reminded him of my first email interaction with him in 2004. He also had a distinct memory of I handing him the SonicRim rock though he did not remember that it was 1999 when I handed over the rock to him.

SonicRim Rock is a design artifact conceptualized by our friend and a designer and design teacher at The Ohio State University, Peter Chan. It represents the spirit of “resonance”, which lies at the heart of the experiences SonicRim creates for our clients. Peter recalled then that collecting rocks (and shells) is a universal human instinct that creates a visceral memory of a sensory environment we have experienced in a meaningful moment.

In his case, Don had to go back to his email trail to remember when we first met and could only trace it until the year 2004, whereas he has a distinct memory of being handed over the rock in the year 1999 (though he does not remember the year). Don’s visceral memory of the rock is not unique to him. We have been told by several of our friends, peers and clients that even ten or twenty years later they cherish the moment during which we gave it to them. I was glad that Don, brought up his memory of the rock because it helped me transition to my interaction with the class where we talked about the importance of metaphors, memories and rituals in UX Design.

After taking a dinner break we reconvened for the class. I explained to the class that the rock is an abstract artifact that means something to so many people because it represents the memories and the ritual from the time when it was handed over to them. Possession of the rock in their memory has now become a metaphor for people to find meaning in their relationship with SonicRim.

We then talked about the importance of real world experiences from one context becoming a metaphor in another context. I read out my poem, an untucked feather to the class.

A poem from my book A window for a home without walls.

I explained to them how the poem was inspired. Over a year ago, I was standing at the Grizzly peak in the bay area looking at a beautiful view of San Francisco downtown. Suddenly a feather floating in the air brushed passed me. As I tried to catch it, it drifted away. That night I woke up and wrote a poem in which the feather became a metaphor for me to express my identity and my interpretation of what I offer to others as a person.

I asked students to recall some of their own memories tied to objects from their past. Several examples tied to rocks and shells, featured in their stories. Then I asked them to recall any of their memories of their interactions in the digital domain such as movies, games or apps that were as visceral and meaningful as the ones they just narrated. Most of the students could not recall any. I then asked them if they had ever experienced a meaningful recall of a memory tied to a digital experience while they were in a real world moment. Only one student had such an experience. She said, when she stood at the Grand Canyon, trying to grasp the expansive experience, she could not fathom it and recalled the screen saver of a grand canyon as a way to capture its beauty one frame at a time. I reminded her that film makers often use their hands to scan and frame their surroundings when they go location hunting. Framing the vast location helps them find the right farming to achieve the best effect. Her memory of a screen saver while looking at the magnificent view she was surrounded by at the Grand Canyon, had similarities with the experience of a film maker during location hunting.

We discussed what all this means to UX Designers. I pointed out that the real world has so much latent and untapped information full of sensory inspiration that can never be matched by the limited content available on human made digital artifact. It would be harmful to the future generations if they turned into a couch potato and only relied on tablets, computers and mobile phones for exploration of meaningful experiences. While reliance on digital experiences will continue to grow, UX designers have the responsibility to design digital artifact that take people out in the real world for co-creating meaningful rituals and memories that are visceral and sustainable. After all the only sustainable thing we possess is our memories. All other possessions are perishable or prone to becoming obsolete.

How might we then embark on creating meaningful memories and rituals by using real world experiences as metaphors? How might we make our children curious to explore the real world and bring the memories back to bear on enriching their life? These are some of the challenges UX designers of the future will face.

I appealed to the students to be mindful of their responsibilities to the future generations.

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