Project Log: Design Power and Things falling into place, Finally, it’s been an entire Year

I’m doing a lot better mentally these days. I hadn’t realised I wasn’t until the diffuse feeling of “why aren’t I happy?” I had started improving and my concentration got better. In hindsight, I could kick myself, but it’s unhealthy to dwell on the feeling of wasted time. Ok, maybe a tiny kick: I can’t believe I’ve fallen into the pressure and worry trap again – I should know better! G. agrees I should hang up a big sign on my wall saying “I never dreamed I would be here and I am the luckiest person alive”. Let’s see if that helps.

In terms of work progress, I’m doing a lot better since G. helped me realise I have to provide myself with regular meetings with Supervisor C. – now I have someone I trust to give me a sense of security in my decisions, and take the edge off showing work in progess. Feedback is so goddamn important, I remember. I should show people things a lot earlier, I remember. I feel stuck in a loop of failing at things I’m already supposed to know, then being perfectly knocked across the head with the realisation. Looking back on how often this has happened in the past year is exasperating.

Discussions with Supervisor C. helped me see the invisible weaknesses and incoherencies, and in trying to resolve them, I was thrown into directions that let me see things in a different light and, piece by piece, some things fell into place (while others remain terribly confusing but hey). On one fateful occasion, I had a small breakdown when my attemps to create a design taxonomy of social media failed: during an analysis, I realised that the affordances and aesthetics of the different platforms were converging more and more. I was lamenting this in a meeting, but Supervisor C. laughed and said: “but this just makes your argument for design power stronger, doesn’t it?”. There followed a complete reorientation of my aim in analysing the platforms – a term I had just written down without really thinking, in an attempt to describe what I meant. With Superviso C’s guidance, design power became the center of my attention and the framing and sense of the whole thing. What is design power, how does it manifest, and why does the “social” aspect of social media make a difference?

Now I’ve finally finished and sent my proposal (which took so long because I plan to re-use it as a proficiency evaluation draft), and feel like I’ve achieved something (I haven’t). But more importantly, I’ve got something to look back on and something to look forward to.

Currently sipping coffee that has gone cold hours ago, and crunching on some Arare instead of a proper breakfast because it’s almost lunchtime.

Progress Update: What’s the question?

I ambushed poor Supervisor C. on his way to the printer to put forward my plans for an assignment I wanted to create for first-year students in our course. He thought it was a great idea even apart from data-gathering, since it would provide first semester students with an immediate awareness of mental health issues – all the more relevant for what we can assume is a very different first-year student experience in a pandemic.

More importantly though, he made me realize I had no question, which was fun. Because I really felt like I did. How could I not realize I’d never formulated my goal? I used to teach this – draw the Minoan labyrinth on the blackboard and tell the story of the original red thread!

But no: all this time, I hadn’t been really working towards anything properly framed, but just sort of dancing around within guiding parameters. Which is generally not uncommon and undoubtedly has its place in the process, but definitely was not what I thought I was doing. So there you have it again, me: Do what you hate doing: show concepts that are unfinished and unclear ideas and just talk to people. There are things you just don’t see yourself.

So for want of a better introduction, here’s my guiding questions (for now).

  • What would a social network for well-being require?
  • What does “good” and “bad” mean in terms of technology design?
  • Which functions and features would it have, design-wise?

While I still feel like they are far too… big-picture, I feel better for having formulated them anyway. I mean, what do I even want, it’s only my second month.

There’s much to find out – what’s the working definition of Mental Health I’ll use? Where do I situate myself, which perspectives and theories do I use, and why? What do I need in order to answer these questions? Should I attempt a literary review of social networks and an analysis of the mechanisms and features (and resulting behaviours) that are detrimental to well-being?

Supervisor C. also reminded me to keep my strengths and knowledge in mind as I delve into literature, since he knows I’m prone to wanting to know things beyond my field and trying to stick my nose into disciplines that I’m not really equipped to. “Don’t forget you’re a design researcher, and that’s your strength, your difference in generating knowledge and approaching these things. What are your advantages? What insights can you gain, what data can you gather that others can’t?” Leave the behavioural analyses to the behavioural analysts.

Sounds obvious and on-hand, but after the research question debacle, I thought it safer to write it down.

Remember, Remember

I’m after a call with G. and found out not only what her area of expertise is, but also that I knew it once and had forgotten. The whole episode prompts my inner Hannibal Lecter to consider keeping files on co-workers, friends, family – everyone?

This perfectly coincided with yesterday’s moment of realising my so-called “notes” on a couple of HCI/Mental Health papers F. had given me as starting points turned out to be the ramblings of a madman: I’ve forgotten absolutely everything I read last month even though I thought I was taking notes. It turns out there’s the right and the wrong kind of notes.

In addition to a very supportive chat and an assortment of material, G. gave me the advice to start documenting my process. So here we are: A research blog is begun. Let’s see if I can keep it up.