Monday, April 27, 2009

"Consumer" is a Dirty Word

Today at Persuasive 2009, the fourth annual international conference on persuasive technologies being held at Claremont University.

The opening keynote by Brenda Laurel on "meeting people where they are" began with Laurel explaining how she sees herself "as a social activist" affirming "humanistic values" and her own status as a "culture worker" as she advocates for human-centered research. Laurel noted how at the present moment the climate change debate illustrated how intent-driven grand strategy approaches still had to address attitudes and behaviors when crafting communication, invention, and political strategies. As she pointed out, "strategies generate tactics," but those who listen to Al Gore might require different tactics from those who listen to Rush Limbaugh, which entails inquiry into building a much more complicated model, which she later suggested might be inspired by The Art of War but goes beyond it.

For Laurel, the ubiquitousness of computing was a given, as she listed mainframe, laptop, desktop, mobile, wearable, pervasive, and cloud technologies to demonstrate how contemporary computing constituted a "field not a point." She sketched out an "almost Aristotelian" schema in which she cited the Poetics to chart out how "sensation," "perception/cognition," "emotion/thought," and "behavior/outcome" were connected in a causal chain. In listing the characteristics of computing and persuasion, she emphasized their natural synercies, since computing manages sensory input, senses its effects, and adapts, and persuasion embodies intent, orchestrates effects, and manifests change. In Laurel's talk, she emphasized the word "embodies" in "embodies intent" to differentiate her approach from many in "interface design." As Laurel said, "The person is the environment for the computer, and the person is the environment for persuasion."

In explaining her methodology, Laurel presented a chronology of her career as an innovater known for work on screen identities, gender and play, and design education. As a veteran of the "design business" in 1976 who worked at Atari and remembered her days "lip synching animation," she explained how she used to ask questions of sports teams and watch boys play arcade games at a time that few people were doing this kind of research, which she described as oriented around "finding opportunity space." (Laurel praised Star Raiders as her favorite classic videogame, although sge often found herself "looking for the negotiate button." Even when in the corporate world, she said she was keenly aware of "the importance of ethics" and was an avid read of play theory, feminist theory, and primatology research, although she said that PR people often wanted her ape books moved out of publicity shots for fear of alienating the Christian anti-evolution component of the market. Although she said that she could have sold her research on girls to "an evil cosmetics company," she instead followed the business philosophy that she described in her book Utopian Entrepreneur. She explained about how she was able to do interviews of a thousand children and five hundred adults in eight cities from which she realized that games could do more to offer "rehearsal space" to girls who need "a sense of personal agency" in lives that seem to them driven by "horrible inevitability." She not only described the difficulty of analysis, which she defined differently from "findings" from ethnographic research, although she said that values could be reintegrated after gathering the data. She described asking the researchers she mentored to write down their attitudes on topics such as "six-year-old boys" and then have these post-its burned in a cauldron.

At her digital entertainment company Purple Moon she described having three to four million registered users in a firm driven by "opportunity space" and oriented around exploring gender, technology, and play. She had, however, no kind words for the Mattel corporation that created a Barbie game in 1985 that she said assumed that women were "bad with projectiles" and would therefore be more comfortable with "throwing marshmallows." She also described Mattel Jill Barad as a "pink clad bitch" who allowed her interactive division to crash and burn after methodically removing all the digital competition to Barbie through a process of corporate acquisition.

Laurel emphasized the value of dyad interviews -- which unlike focus groups that are limited to what she calls a "snapshot of the social dynamic" or single interviews in which an insecure isolated individual may merely want to tell the investigator what he or she wants to hear -- that foster disclosure as only the presence of a best friend can do.

In drawing attention to gender disparities, Laurel was careful not to essentialize and to describe her findings as "overlapping Gaussian distributions" in which girls may be more different from each other when looking at the full distribution of behavior than typical boys and girls are from each other. Like primates, Laurel asserted that young people organize themselves into same-sex groups in which meaning-making is constituted through measuring social status among peers. The patterns she showed emphasized the difference between overt competition and covert competition (with a boy saying "I got to level 73" in this game vs. a girl saying "Have you seen the green dragon yet?") In differentiating between the status hierarchies of boys and the status networks of girls, she pointed out female practices of affiliation and exclusion and how having the greatest number of social connections was more important than beating others in contests. She mocked the simplistic vision of girls as nurturing creatures who were naturally repelled by the agression of videogames, and she also said that her own relationship to gender norms was complicated by her own personal competitiveness.

In addition to her dyad interviews, Laurel conducted "photo audits" in which young people shot pictures that were frequently revealing, although she said such research was difficult to do today, given the "problem with digital images" in which kids' "naughty bits" can be disseminated on Internet. She also had young people interact with products that had mixed gender signals, such as a pink fuzzy truck, a diary-like "war journal," a dolphin with teeth, and "the toy nobody wanted," a "battle hair" Barbie.

She argued that her research showed that girl’s identity construction involved both an inner life and a social life. The inner life may be nurturing, constituted by hidden knowledge, directed by self-awareness, and enlivened with magical talents. The outer life manifests the features of affiliation and exclusion, covert power, and self-image that she had discovered from thinking about status games. At the intersection she found four themes: "relationships," "secrets," "self-esteem," and "stories." Although she argued that the common mythology about girls having "secret garden" wasn't entirely untrue, she argued that "they want nature to take care of them" rather than nurture various creatures altruistically. This realization helped shape the Purple Moon game Secret Paths.

She also discussed her work in academia, which began with a long stint at the Art Center College of Design, where she said her stance as an "unapologetic leftist" was an essential part of her faculty identity but also asserted that she tells students not to stay aloof from the mainstream. As she put it to students, "Someone makes popular culture. It might as well be me."

Now at California College of the Arts, Laurel talked about how "bounding terms" functioned in four case studies. In 2001, working with the "empty space" between "energy," "entitlement," and "brand" on a project called "Upshift" on hybrid cars, her team of students who went to Hemet, a region that she described as "as close to Indiana as you can get in California," to attempt a hybrid purchase discovered that car dealers were actually hiding such cars and discouraging consumers from buying them. She described this odd rhetorical situation in which
the "audience for persuasion is the salesman." The group attempted to solve the problem with a user-friendly PDA with an explanatory tutorial for both pitchman and customer and with a mock television commercial that sold the virtues of silence.

In reminding the audience that value propositions could be different for different customers, she also described her own design philosophy that de-emphasizes language about consumers. As she said, among her "seven dirty words," the first one is "consumer," which only represents a "tube that runs from retail to landfill" that noone wants to be. She advised designers to call them "players" or "drivers" or some functional identity divorced from the logic of consumption.

She also described her student's work with bounding terms for cell phones, in a project in which the product was called "Mobo," an interactive object that was intended to be an attentive personal means for tween to relieve stress on millennials, and for an initiative involving six-year-old boys and what they were learning about manliness from media in a project called "blux." Her research team found that such kids valued the outside, which was perceived as unbranded and associated with an often absent dad. Such kids would rather play outside than play a game. The probes of their study about "heroes" were also telling, since the researchers found out that parents didn’t want their kids to be soldiers, fireman, or president, so that children had to grapple with a conflict between what they were getting from their parents and they were getting from media, which she described as a "dicey area." To understand the dynamics around masculinity for young boys, she distributed "magic bags" in which cards could be assigned "for dad," "for mom," or "for me."

Since coming to the California College of the Arts, Laurel has worked on Shades of Green in 2007 to promote farmer's markets, buying bulk organic, and better information design, where she discovered that green had many connotations that included "local," "organic," and "healthy," which could be in conflict. In trying to make "outlier behavior normative" she emphasized the possible value of designed objects such as a dryer for plastic bags or the "unfrigerator," which her student "framed" as a "provocation" to get away from letting refrigerators merely serve as kiosks for brands. In 2008 she had her students work on attitudes and behaviors about energy, which included a particularly memorable slide about how to make a medical marijuana farm more energy efficient. She ended by showing several of the programs and products that her students created, which included gold stars, change cards, parent bags for newborns in hospitals (who often jettison concerns about waste with disposable diapers), and a solar-powered "energy buddy" for young children to teach them that "things you plug in have different energy footprints."

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