That exercise or workout tracking app you just installed might help you define and reach your fitness goals, but the app, and others like it, may also affect the way we interact, reshaping our responsibilities to one another through its very design.
Inquiries like this, involving user experience design, or UX, where interfaces are created that allow people to engage with computing, are the focus of research being done by Zach Kaiser, an artist, researcher, and Associate Professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Art, Art History, and Design.
As both a practitioner and theorist, Kaiser, who serves as a faculty member in MSU’s Graphic Design and Experience Architecture programs, examines the multi-faceted discipline of UX with an eye toward its consequences.
“We all use things that have interfaces, but we don’t very often acknowledge what that interface may be doing as a whole,” he said. “UX design is far too concerned with making things easy to use rather than being concerned with the end effect on society.”
“We all use things that have interfaces, but we don’t very often acknowledge what that interface may be doing as a whole. UX design is far too concerned with making things easy to use rather than being concerned with the end effect on society.”
Kaiser’s research examines the politics of technology and the role of design in shaping the parameters of individual, social, and political possibility.
“What, for example,” he said, “are the downstream consequences of our smart TVs or thermostats making inferences and predictions about our behavior and recommending things to us?”
Design and Consequence
By its very nature, Kaiser said UX allows users to perceive some things while concealing others, thereby shaping modes of participation in society. The net effect, he added, can affect how humans relate to the world, to each other, and ultimately, to themselves as individuals.
Kaiser illustrates this as he talks about the Amazon Halo, which provides feedback to users on how their voice “sounds” to others. While this app might be useful in helping people communicate, he points out that is literal “tone policing.”
“This system relies on machine learning to make inferences about your tone of voice, and it does so based on sets of training data that are, more likely than not, deeply biased,” he said. “But questions of bias, while important, belie another problem, which is that the interface to the Halo, just like our other computational companions, makes it seem as though you yourself are nothing more than a computer.”
When people are driven to see themselves and each other as computers, Kaiser said, systemic problems — ranging from healthy eating to the climate change crisis — can be seen as having technological fixes.
“That’s despite the uncomfortable truth that those problems are not technological, but rather political, involving asymmetries of power and privilege,” he said.
Challenging Form and Function
Slated for publication in February 2023, Kaiser’s book, Interfaces and Us: User-Experience Design and the Making of the Computable Subject, resulted from more than a decade of work and research. The book examines the role of UX design in legitimizing the idea of people as computers. It chronicles how the world becomes seen merely as an agglomeration of data, the resulting aspiration to computational legibility, and the new morality that is a product of this aspiration.”
Kaiser believes that the design of interfaces is central to discourses on the politics of algorithms and computing.
“Part of my work challenges the long-standing design premise that form follows function. How do things in our world really come to ‘work?’ For someone to use something, especially a computational technology — that thing must first become meaningful to the person using it.”
“Part of my work challenges the long-standing design premise that form follows function,” he said. “How do things in our world really come to ‘work?’ For someone to use something, especially a computational technology — that thing must first become meaningful to the person using it. Function, in other words, follows form. Technology doesn’t work unless people use it, and this use happens at the interface.”
Kaiser explains UX design flips the adage: Form takes on meaning and, by directing users towards a particular idea of themselves and one another, produces a function. Even more, that function is produced without any analysis of how that particular outcome affects certain societal, political, or cultural situations.
The broad effect, he said, is to shift responsibility for problems from the collective to the individual, thereby laying the groundwork for technological solutions to systemic conditions in society as a whole.
Health apps, for instance, might tell a user how to eat a balanced and more nutritious diet, but, Kaiser contends, that is simply a small solution to a wider, systemic problem arising from income inequality, food deserts, and work demands that stand in the way of healthy eating.
“When we say there is a tech solution to a political or systemic problem, we are suggesting there is always an individual solution that will solve it,” he said. “The unexamined use of such technologies can legitimize technological solutions to social problems that need political will to truly be addressed.”
Where Design Meets Computing
Kaiser came to UX through what he calls an “old school” Graphic Design education. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, after working in Madison for three years, moved to Boston where he earned an MFA in 2013 from the Dynamic Media Institute at Massachusetts College of Arts and Design.
“Graduate school was the beginning of my journey to where I am now,” he said. “It was the place where I started to telescope between larger sociotechnical issues and interfaces in particular. The interface became, for me, a place to understand how people and computing meet.”
Before coming to MSU in 2014, Kaiser co-founded Skeptic, a Boston-based research and design collective, and served as a visiting lecturer in various design programs. He continues to regularly exhibit and lecture in the United States and internationally in addition to his teaching and research at MSU.
“Graduate school was the beginning of my journey to where I am now. It was the place where I started to telescope between larger sociotechnical issues and interfaces in particular. The interface became, for me, a place to understand how people and computing meet.”
As an educator, Kaiser engages his students in critical thinking about technology and its effect on societies. He describes his approach as intersectional, drawing from disciplines outside the fields of art and design like philosophy, science, humanities, and media studies.
At MSU, students learn to design experiences for people in digital or physical environments through a critical, interdisciplinary lens that combines technology, the arts, and humanities.
One goal Kaiser has is to graduate skilled designers who can participate in the industry while at the same time being able to effect change through analyzing and evaluating the potential consequences of what they create.
“It’s part of a broader project of what I call a ‘Luddite design education,’ one which resists any and all technologies that exploit labor and planet, one that asks not whether we can, but whether we should,” he said. “Such an education demands that the goals of any technology be democratically determined instead of ‘innovated’ by private actors. The result of such an educational project would be the political will to reshape the social relations we have with technology, with capital, and with one another.”
Kaiser recently was featured in an AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Design Adjacent podcast, a monthly podcast series with AIGA Executive Director Bennie F. Johnson, in conversation with industry leaders who are innovating and designing the future. Listen to this AIGA Design Adjacent podcast with Zach Kaiser.