It used to be said (and with some justification!) that academic researchers didn’t care about whether or not their work had an impact on the “real world” — they wrote, it was said, for other academics and cared far more about getting recognition from their peers and superiors (not to mention promotions at their institutions). In recent years, however, impact has become much more important. In the UK, for example, it has factored into the evaluation of research programs, by means of “the REF” — the Research Excellence Framework — which stresses “impact beyond academia” as one of the three pillars of evaluation. The first assessment of UK universities under the REF occurred in 2014.
I like to think that throughout this blog I’ve conveyed that I’ve always cared about making my research pertinent and applicable to user experience (UX) practice. But this particular blog post is about an entirely different kind of impact.
As I mentioned in my previous post about my talk at the CHI 2019 Diversity and Inclusion Lunch, an amazing number of people told me how it had inspired them to take action to change their own lives, and in some cases even the lives of their mothers. I am still receiving appreciation and recognition for Two organizations have re-published it (with my permission, of course). I’d just like to acknowledge and thank them here:
- Cambridge (UK) Women in Technology: Re-published it exactly as I wrote it.
- Association for Computing Machinery – Women in Computing – Europe: Added an introductory paragraph.
Thanks to the vibrant women in charge of both of those organizations for helping spread the word that it’s never too late to follow a dream.
About impact… Research impact is very important to me, yes. Personal impact is even more so.
This is the (slightly modified) text of a talk I gave at the CHI 2019 Diversity and Inclusion Lunch on Tuesday, 7 May 2019. I have added one paragraph and made minor changes in a few words and phrases, and I’ve spelled out the abbreviations for readers who aren’t in the field; but this is basically what I said. I’ve also added a short epilog at the end.
Some years ago I moved across the Atlantic to do a PhD. That’s not so unusual, really — but I was 60 years old, and widowed. I definitely wasn’t your typical graduate student.
My age and circumstances, it turned out, brought me both challenges and advantages.
Let me begin with my three main challenges.
Health. Although I started out in fairly good health, while doing my PhD I developed some new issues. The biggest of these was hip arthritis, for which I made many healthcare visits, used walking aids for more than a year, and eventually had hip replacement surgery. These new health issues reduced my stamina and took time away from my research.
Isolation. I was much older than most of my fellow PhD students (most were less than half my age), and I missed having people I could just hang out with. I suspect that my isolation was due partly to my own sense of not quite fitting in, but I still felt sad about it.
Competition. I liked the university environment and considered trying to stay in it. I realized, however, that to do that I would have to compete with 25-year-olds who had 40-year careers ahead of them. They had more energy than I did and were willing to take lower salaries. I didn’t see myself doing well in that race.
I also found three clear advantages to pursuing this dream later in life.
Finances. I first considered doing a PhD just after I discovered human-computer interaction (HCI) in 1982, at what I’ve come to call the “proto-CHI” conference (Gaithersburg was just up the road from me), but by then I was used to having a full-time salary and I would have had to sacrifice either income or free time. Thirty years later, I had enough resources that I could afford to be a full-time student again.
Experience. To my PhD studies I brought 35 years of practice in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) consulting and 30 years of involvement with the HCI community. I had co-edited a book on user experience in government systems, attended roughly half of the CHI conferences, reviewed CHI submissions, and served on CHI program committees. I already knew a great many people and some of the ropes.
Topic freedom. I wasn’t aiming to launch an academic career, so I didn’t have to concern myself overmuch with how well my research topic would fly in the larger academic community. Although a few other people were conducting research on related topics in the field (the use of technology in spirituality and religion), I wanted to study subjective transcendent experiences supported by technology. It was definitely not a mainstream topic in HCI circles, and I expected to be thought a little weird. But I was OK with that, as I wasn’t depending on topic acceptance for my professional future. Besides, it was such a niche topic that there was plenty of room for contributing to knowledge.
To respond to my challenges, I had to make a number of adjustments.
Schedule. My health issues caused me to need two extensions to my deadline. Instead of Nothumbria University’s “standard duration” of three years to complete the research and submit the thesis, I took four and a half. On the other hand, I did get it done.
Career path. Abandoning my thoughts of an academic life, I settled back into being a research-savvy practitioner. Adding a PhD to decades in industry worked for me, and I’m enjoying applying my research knowledge to my practice.
Research dreams. I’m still struggling with my hopes for continuing my research. Although I’ve presented in many CHI venues and have given full papers at other SIGCHI conferences, I have yet to submit a full paper to CHI. Unfortunately, I’m no longer up to travelling much farther than the US east coast, so I may have to rethink that goal, or maybe just postpone it.
From time to time I hear someone wondering if, at 55 or even at 50, they’re too old to start a PhD. I am here as proof that even 60 and beyond is not too old. You’ll probably have to make an adjustment or two to your approach, your plans, and your expectations, But it’s never too late to follow a dream.
And I’m delighted to say that today I am realizing a dream I’ve had for the last few years — speaking at the CHI Diversity and Inclusion Lunch.
Finally, I confess I haven’t given up on research altogether — I have a three-day workweek and am hoping to use my remaining time to collaborate on HCI research. If anyone is interested, let’s talk!
This talk turned out to be my favorite part of CHI 2019. I confess I was a little embarrassed at the applause I received at several points (I didn’t write the talk to impress people but to encourage them), but for the next two and a half days I was approached by people who had heard my talk and by people who had just heard about it. They all told me how much they loved what I said, many saying that my words had seeded the discussion at their lunch tables. Some of them said they were going to push their mothers to go to graduate school. The word “inspiring” came up several times.
Now, I was proud of the alt.chi talk I had given that morning, the thing that arose from my PhD thesis. I received much praise for that one as well. But this talk touched hearts and minds, and it has the potential to change lives. I find myself profoundly moved by my audience’s response.
And I now have three or four opportunities for doing research. I call that a win all around!
The CHI 2019 conference ended yesterday. It was the most intense CHI I’ve ever had — I was on stage five times in two days. (In fact, it was the most intense conference experience of any kind that I’ve ever had.) Here’s a brief run-down of my activities.
I started by presenting my alt.chi paper in the 9am session on Tuesday, after getting up at 4:15 that morning and finally finishing my slides about 8:15. (It’s easier for me to get up early than to stay up late.) Several people told me it was really good and said it should have been a full paper. I’m pondering how to enrich it for submission to another SIGCHI conference.
Diversity and Inclusion Lunch
For the past few years, CHI has had a Diversity and Inclusion Lunch on the Tuesday, and this year I spoke about doing a PhD as an older student (I started at 60). I won’t say more about that here because I plan a separate blog post on that talk. I’ll just say that my first draft was six minutes long and I had been told to target 3 minutes. I ended up with about 3.5 (which was fine), but it took a good while to cut it down to that and still convey everything important. That talk, too, wasn’t completely finished until almost the last minute (the night before). It was incredibly well received; see my blog post about that specific talk.
I had the role of Industry Liaison for this year’s conference, and the main thing I did for that was to organize and chair a “UX event” on the Tuesday evening to get academics and practitioners exploring together things they could do to help bridge the gap between them. The event started with a talk by Giles Colborne, followed by three brief presentations with ideas for addressing the problem, followed by more than an hour of working together to create bridging ideas and plans for putting them into practice. This effort builds on previous work (mainly at CHI conferences) regarding research-practice interaction. This event was very popular, and we had a fantastically even balance between academics and practitioners. I ascribe much of the academic interest in the event to the REF (Research Excellence Framework), a newish way of evaluating UK universities’ research that includes its impact outside of academia. The event was partially successful — some folks thought it was fabulous and others (including myself) expressed concerns — and I’m still collecting outputs from it and have created a Slack team in hopes of fostering further discussion and bridge building. (If you’d like to join the Slack team, send me your email address; and if I don’t know you, tell me why you want to join and/or what you see yourself contributing.)
On Wednesday I chaired a paper session. I hadn’t had time to read the papers closely (my bad!) but I had at least read the abstracts and I had some idea of what they were about. And of course I paid attention to the presentations. One of a session chair’s most important responsibilities is to keep the session on time: CHI sessions generally have four presentations each, and the presentations are timed to start and end at fixed times (for the last few years they’ve had 20 minutes each, including Q&A), and I had to cut one presenter off before he was finished and hold another back from starting two minutes early. A key person in SIGCHI told me later that I had amazing session-chairing skills (I think he was referring to my timekeeping), which pleased me inordinately.
I collaborated with two people to run a special interest group (SIG) at the conference (and two additional people to write the proposal for it); our SIG was on technology to foster transformative experiences. I was a relatively minor figure in this one, so it wasn’t very stressful for me.
Several things came out of various discussions.
My PhD supervisor was there for part of the time, and he attended my alt.chi talk (and was one of the people who said it should have been a full paper). We have been invited to write an article for a journal, so we sat down together and worked out a way to approach it. We explained the approach to the journal’s editor, and he agreed in principle. So now we have to write an abstract and get busy on the article.
I suggested to my SIG co-organizers that we explore ideas for collaborating on other research, and we talked for about half an hour about that. There’s an event happening in Milan in about ten days, but unfortunately I can’t go to that because of a work commitment on the same day. I think there’s a lot of potential for that collaboration.
I’ve been invited to Weimar to speak and discuss. I don’t know a great deal about what that’ll turn into, but I trust the person who invited me and I know we’ll work out something good.
And finally, I had lunch on the last day with someone I met at a conference several years ago (while we were both students). He works for a large company that is open to supporting research that might benefit them, and I told him of something I want to know more about (not related to transcendent or transformative experiences, but something else altogether), and he seemed excited about the idea. I’m optimistic on that front as well.
All in all, it was a very good CHI. And I’m very ready to see some castles and abbeys in the Scottish Borders on my way home.
As I mentioned earlier this year, in my description of the alt.chi paper I’m going to present at the CHI 2019 Conference next month, I am concerned about what I see as the almost complete lack of citations of transcendent experience literature in the human-computer interaction (HCI) research on transcendent experiences facilitated by technology. A number of studies of techno-spirituality cover transcendent user experiences (TUXs), but strikingly few of them cite any literature on the pertinent experiences or attempt to define the experiences of interest.
To help address this situation, I have created a resource of literature (mostly research papers) that were of particular value to my PhD research and that I think might help other researchers understand and/or define transcendent (user) experiences. By no means does my list does include all of the literature on any of these topics — and what’s there as of this writing is just a start — but I hope it will help move things forward.
I’ve created this resource as a separate site, not part of this one (which is mostly a blog). I’ve done this to keep separate the personal (this one) from the strictly informational (the literature resource).
You’ll find the literature resource at transcendhance.wordpress.com/literature/
Note: I use “transcendent experience” as a general term for the type of experience that involves a feeling of deep connection with something greater than oneself. These experiences are called by many other names, including spiritual experience, peak experience, and religious experience. Transcendent experiences may or may not be religious. See my PhD thesis for a more in-depth discussion of the terminology.
Yesterday I got word that the first piece of work I’ve derived from my thesis has been accepted. The venue is the “alt.chi” track of the CHI 2019 conference (to be held in Glasgow this May). alt.chi is “a forum for controversial, risk-taking, and boundary pushing presentations at CHI. … Contributions to alt.chi often innovate methodologically, critique accepted practices, or take on controversial questions.” I had a critique to offer.
Here’s the abstract of my paper:
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in HCI research on the use of technology in spiritual practices. Some of these works cover spiritual/transcendent experiences associated with these practices, but strikingly few of them describe in any way the experiences they studied or aimed to support, let alone give operational definitions of the terms they use for those experiences. Even fewer papers cite any literature on the relevant experiences. We have to ask: How do the authors understand the experiences their work is aiming to observe, invite, or support? How do they know when and whether they have observed, invited, or supported the kinds of experiences they target? How do they know what they are studying?
This paper discusses the presence and absence of operational definitions for spiritual/transcendent experiences in HCI research, and of citations of relevant literature. It speculates about possible reasons for the oversight and proposes some operational definitions aimed at filling the gap.
As soon as I identified that gap in the HCI literature, I knew it would be a good topic for alt.chi; and I was encouraged by a comment from one of my thesis examiners, during my viva (thesis defense), that I had made a good case for defining it as a gap. For this paper I decided that finger-wagging alone wasn’t enough — or even appropriate — I needed to offer at least an approach, if not some part of a solution. So I added in the definitions of terms that I had provided in my thesis and proposed them as operational definitions for transcendent user experience (TUX) research going forward.
The reviews of my submission were uniformly positive, and the reviewers offered helpful suggestions. Now I have ten days to consider them, incorporate them as makes sense to me, and put the final version in camera-ready format.
I’ll post the final paper as soon as ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) allows me to do so. This will probably be sometime in April.
My graduation ceremony was held more than six months ago (I’ve been remiss in posting here!), and I found it more meaningful than I had expected. Everyone in the programme crosses the stage, and since PhD students go first, and I was the first Design PhD in alphabetical order, I was the first to cross the stage in that session. They say your name and read your thesis title, and it really feels like great acknowledgment.
The doctoral garb at Northumbria is very colorful, as the photo shows. The caps and the gowns are bright blue, the stole is bright yellow, and the hood is red and black.
I had two family members there with me, who had come all the way from the US to help me celebrate. They stayed ten days, and I had a wonderful time showing them around much of the eastern side of Great Britain, from Edinburgh to Dover. My car got quite the workout.
I don’t have much to say with this post, except that I have received word that my thesis has been placed in the Northumbria Research Link. Here’s the link to it. I’d love to know what you think, and if you’re interested in collaborating on future research, please do get in touch.
In a previous blog post I described the limitations of my research and some ideas for addressing them. In this post I describe and discuss some additional research questions that my thesis raises. If you’d like to collaborate on studying any of these questions — or if you’d just like to hear more about them — please get in touch.
How does the framework presented in this thesis compare with related frameworks of transcendent experience?
The transcendent experience (TX) framework that I presented in my thesis shows some similarities with and key differences from components of TX presented in other literature, specifically Wardell & Engebretson (2006) and Garcia-Romeu, Himelstein, & Kaminker (2015). I’d like to do a more in-depth analysis to explore possible reasons for the differences and what insights the other structures might offer for deepening mine.
Is ease in envisioning and expressing desires for enhancement related to familiarity/comfort with technology?
Some interview participants spoke much more easily of desired enhancements than did others. What is behind this? Is there a relationship between ease of envisioning desires for TX enhancement and ease of describing a transcendent experience? Is there a relationship between ease of envisioning TX enhancements and ease of describing artefact support for desired enhancements — i.e., do people who find it easier to envision TX enhancements also find it easier to describe artefact support for them? Is there a relationship between technology familiarity and either ease of envisioning/expressing enhancement desires or ease of describing artefact support for enhancement?
Are there specific types of design research fiction that might be useful to industry?
The exploration of design fiction I presented in my thesis, as well as what its antecedents have described, focused on its role in supporting academic research. “Imaginary abstracts”, write Blythe & Buie (2014), “place design fictions in the context of research” (p. 235). Looking at the topic from an industry perspective, I ask: Are there forms of design research fiction that are particularly suited to industry and could be tailored to real-world projects? Perhaps instead of summarising research papers with imaginary abstracts, we could summarise industry projects with imaginary usability tests, to study how well they might help a project explore design alternatives before incurring the cost and risk of building out a design and assessing it via usability testing involving human participants.
Are there other forms of imaginary abstract that might be useful?
Whilst developing the new forms of imaginary abstracts that my thesis describes (extended imaginary abstracts, comparative imaginary abstracts, and design poetry), two more possible types occurred to me, which I call terse and radical.
Terse imaginary abstracts would suit situations in which we want to give even less detail about fictional studies. This version gives just a hint of the design idea and what people might gain from it; it may or may not include anything about the research design. Perhaps a collection of them could convey the flavour of a set of papers, presentations, or products, with the aim of evoking interest in a conference, symposium, or exposition. Another collection could read like a set of Google search results, showing only the first 150 characters of each fictional abstract, truncating it even in the middle of a word. This form may resemble teasers in fictional advertisements — slightly more substantial, perhaps, than the ones Bleecker (2009b) presents, more similar to those that Blythe and his colleagues depict (Blythe, Andersen, Clarke, & Wright, 2016; Blythe, Steane, Roe, & Oliver, 2015).
Radical imaginary abstracts would take the “imaginary” nature of these short fictions literally, in a sense, proposing concepts and/or findings that strongly challenge credulity. They would intentionally posit extreme or unrealistic findings, for example, rather than using imagination to explore potential outcomes. They would have the purpose of stimulating discussion and further exploration by evoking incredulous reactions and inviting readers to consider why they find it so difficult to suspend their disbelief in considering the imagined designs or outcomes.
Future work could explore these two types and how they might be useful.
How do we evaluate ideas as candidates for design fiction?
As I was defining the criteria I proposed in my thesis for evaluating an idea for its suitability for design fiction, I found myself wishing I were able to explore them in some depth. Perhaps a future project could generate and evaluate a framework to help determine what constitutes an idea worth developing as design fiction.
It is conceivable that weak design-fiction candidates might lead to stronger ones, given a certain kind of approach. We would also need to investigate how such generative candidates would be identified and how the generation of stronger candidates would be accomplished.
How can peripheral design contribute to the evaluation of ideas?
In my thesis I developed and explored peripheral design as an approach to generating design ideas for transcendent user experience (TUX). Beyond offering a few hints in my discussion of imaginary abstracts, however, I did not address the question of evaluating such ideas. I pointed out that we cannot evaluate TUX design ideas in the same way as we do other design ideas, because we cannot be sure of observing a TUX whilst watching people use something we’ve designed. Is there anything in my thesis that might lead to the development of TUX evaluation methods? Perhaps we might develop a TUX version of diary studies.
Perhaps we can develop an approach that will help us make effective use of imaginary abstracts as thought experiments. Showerfall (one of the ideas generated in a Transcendhance workshop) would not be difficult to build or particularly expensive to study in a single setting, but the number of possible studies is very large, and design fiction might well help us identify ones we might want to conduct. Can we construct a satisfactory hypothesis generation and testing approach in which imaginary abstracts might be useful? Can we find a way of reducing designer bias in imagining possible outcomes of tests on imaginary products? Can we find a retrospective technique that can function for TUX evaluation as user observation and think-aloud methods do for “classic” usability evaluation?
How can this work contribute to the field of Digital Religion?
It is beyond the scope of this thesis to analyse the kinds of interaction that individuals choose to have with religious and spiritual leaders and with organisations. The field of Digital Religion covers this topic, studying what Helland (2016) calls “a blending of all of the societal and cultural components we associate with religion with all of the elements we associate with a digital society” (p. 177). Dating from the early 2000s, Digital Religion takes a largely sociological perspective (Timothy Hutchings, personal communication, 22 July 2016), and is beginning to consider online religion from an individual perspective and even to look at emotion (ibid.). HCI, and in particular techno-spirituality, should have much to contribute to the Digital Religion literature if we support and collaborate with its growing interest in subjective artefact-facilitated experience.
[Background for the last two questions]
Understanding the last two questions requires being aware of one of the contributions to knowledge that my thesis makes. This contribution is my grounded theory of transcendent user experience, as depicted in Figure 1. My grounded theory takes my framework of transcendent experience in general (Figure 2) and adds two components to it — using artefacts (including products, systems, and services), and desiring enhancement to the experiences and the artefacts. I won’t go into any details here regarding this framework or my grounded theory (that’s in my thesis, to which I’ll link when it’s online), but hopefully Figures 1 and 2 will give some idea of it, and should at least provide a basis for comparing the diagrams that follow.
Figure 1. Diagram of my Grounded Theory of Transcendent User Experience
Figure 2. Diagram of my framework of transcendent experience
Now for the last two follow-on research questions.
Can this grounded theory of transcendent user experience contribute to the general theory of user experience?
A considerable portion of the grounded theory of TUX appears on the surface to be relevant and possibly applicable to user experience in general. Might we construct a similar diagram for user experience? Where and in what ways would it be different? Would it be useful at all? Figure 3 shows a preliminary concept for such a theory, an idea of what that might look like.
Figure 3. Preliminary concept for a theory of user experience
Can this work foster a broader theory of experience?
This is doubtless the boldest question I present in this thesis, but given what I said in the previous section it had to be asked: Does my framework of transcendent experience have anything to offer to a general theory of experience? Might we construct a similar diagram for experience? Where and in what ways would it be different? Would it be useful? Figure 4 shows a preliminary idea of what that might look like.
Figure 4. Possible structure of a general theory of experience
Let’s take this forward!
Whew, there’s a lot here to explore! I’d love to hear about other ideas you might have, especially any ideas you might have for collaborating on research to explore the ones I’ve presented above.
Bleecker, J. (2009). Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction. Near Future Laboratory.
Blythe, M., Andersen, K., Clarke, R., & Wright, P. (2016). Anti-Solutionist Strategies: Seriously Silly Design Fiction. In Proc. CHI 2016. San Jose, CA, USA: ACM.
Blythe, M., & Buie, E. (2014). Chatbots of the Gods: Imaginary Abstracts for Techno-Spirituality Research. In Proc. NordiCHI 2014 (pp. 227–236). Helsinki, Finland: ACM.
Blythe, M., Steane, J., Roe, J., & Oliver, C. (2015). Solutionism, the Game: Design Fictions for Positive Aging. In Proc. CHI 2015 (pp. 3849–3858). Seoul, Korea: ACM.
Garcia-Romeu, A., Himelstein, S. P., & Kaminker, J. (2015). Self-transcendent experience: a grounded theory study. Qualitative Research, 15(5), 633–654.
Helland, C. (2016). Digital Religion. In D. Yamane (Ed.), Handbook of Religion and Society (pp. 177–196). Springer International Publishing. http://doi.org/0.1007/978-3-319-31395-5_10
Wardell, D. W., & Engebretson, J. C. (2006). Taxonomy of Spiritual Experiences. Journal of Religion and Health, 45(2), 215–233.
In any research study, the researcher must discuss the limitations of the work, how they might have influenced the results, and what further research might be done to address the limitations. This blog post is a slightly condensed version of the discussion of this that appears in my thesis. Some of the phrases used in this discussion refer to findings described earlier in the thesis; in particular, they refer to the components of transcendent user experience that my grounded theory identifies as “creating the context”, “living the experience” (which consists of perception and reaction subcomponents), “integrating the experience”, “using artefacts”, and “desiring enhancements”. The discussion also refers to the Transcendhance game, a summary of which can be found in this PDF of the late-breaking work I presented at CHI 2014.
Discussion of Methods
This section discusses the methods I used in this research, focusing mainly on their limitations and how those might have influenced the results, and speculating about further work to address open questions.
Consideration of Existing Experiential Technologies
My analysis of transcendent user experience (TUX) and my exploration of peripheral design might have been enhanced by a more in-depth consideration and analysis of the attributes of existing technologies and how they do and do not support transcendent experience (TX). Further work in this area should consider explorations of this topic such as Mossbridge’s (2016) analysis of “transcendence tech” (p. 1).
Application of Grounded Theory Methods
The Grounded Theory methodology calls for interleaving data collection and analysis, so that emerging themes and emerging theory can influence further sampling. My study required a sample of interview participants with a breadth of religious and spiritual perspectives, and adjusting the sampling in this way would have been problematic because of the difficulty I encountered in recruiting the last few. I could have started coding the data with the first interview and interleaved collection and analysis more tightly. I do not think my failure to do so affected the results in any meaningful way, but doing so might have smoothed the analysis process.
Game and Workshop Design
Some aspects of the Transcendhance game appeared to work well:
- The “reaction” subcomponents of lived experience seemed particularly effective. Even though feelings and emotions are elusive with respect to the provision of direct input, they are easy for nonspecialists to understand, and they give a depth and richness to TX descriptions for which players are generating design ideas.
- Participants shared components of ideas. For example, a figure called Daniel featured in ideas from different participants in one session. This kind of sharing indicated a camaraderie and congeniality that I was hoping to foster among the participants.
- Participants seemed to enjoy the game; one group even said they would play it just for fun.
Several aspects of the game and workshop design could be improved:
- The game required participants to consider context in creating their ideas.
- The game did not ask participants to consider aspects of integrating the experience, even though some of its aspects appear high among interview participants’ desires for TX enhancement.
- The game treated internal perceptions as separate from context, and workshop participants found this difference difficult to grasp.
- The game did not have clear criteria for when to move on to the next round or end the game.
- Recruitment for the workshop used mainly convenience sampling, with no attention paid to design education or training among the participants.
These aspects may have contributed to the results. First, context was the only TX component that participants were required to use in their ideas — and it turned out to be the easiest component to consider. Future versions of the game may experiment with which components are required.
Second, the subcomponents of integrating the experience came into play only to the extent that players inferred them from interview participant desires, which were provided in the last phase of the game and which players were not required to use. This omission seems likely to have contributed to the very low number of workshop ideas that addressed desires related to integration.
Third, the difference between some of the context and lived-experience subcomponents of TX can be very difficult to grasp, and the instruction given to workshop participants may have been insufficient to enable them to understand the difference. Smell, for example, can belong to context, such as the smell of candles in a church; or it can be a perception belonging to the lived experience, such as the scent of perfume accompanying the presence of a deceased loved one. Evidently this distinction was not clear to workshop participants: many of their ideas translated inputs for lived-experience perception into sensory input supplied by the envisioned artefacts. Unfortunately, this problem may not be surmountable: although the distinction is defensible as an approach to the issue of external reality vs a person’s perception of it, the limitations of current technology make subjective perceptions nearly impossible to control directly, and from a design perspective the difference may not matter.
Another possible explanation for the very low numbers of ideas that addressed lived experience, despite the fact that the game involved three times as many inputs for it as for context, is that it is far easier to imagine technologies that influence lived experience indirectly or peripherally, by contributing to context, than it is to imagine ones that directly produce a perception, an emotion, or an interpretation.
Fourth, a game should normally have clear criteria for moving to a new round and for ending the game. The next time I run Transcendhance I will ensure that I have developed such criteria.
Fifth, the workshop participants varied quite a lot in their familiarity and comfort with generating design ideas and representing them in sketches. Not all of the most evocative ideas came from people with design training, but I did notice a difference in participants’ comfort and fluency. It would be interesting to discover whether and how design training influences the transcendence possibilities in the ideas that workshop participants generate, and even whether such training might limit it.
As I reflect on my work on design fiction for techno-spirituality, viewing it through the lens of the grounded theory of TUX that I later developed, I notice that my background work in design fiction (Blythe & Buie, 2014a, 2014b; Buie & Blythe, 2013a, 2013b) imagined TUXs in relatively little depth, focusing on people’s immediate reactions to the technologies without exploring how they might integrate the experiences into their lives. Pilgrim Trail, for example (Blythe & Buie, 2014b), mentions subjective experience only briefly — participants felt “inspired and moved” (p. 3) — and relegates TX to future work; and it completely overlooks possible integrative effects such as transformation even though pilgrimage is often described as a transformative experience and the growing phenomenon of “transformational tourism” is beginning to receive research attention. Ganesha Me considered neither transcendence nor long-term effects, but to be fair it was aimed at educational rather than transcendent aspects of techno-spirituality. The Chatbot (Blythe & Buie, 2014a) was aimed at numinous experience but considered very little of the quality of that experience.
Blythe, M., & Buie, E. (2014a). Chatbots of the Gods: Imaginary Abstracts for Techno-Spirituality Research. In Proc. NordiCHI 2014 (pp. 227–236). Helsinki, Finland: ACM.
Blythe, M., & Buie, E. (2014b). Digital Spirits: Report of an Imaginary Workshop on Technologies to Support Religious and Spiritual Experience.
Buie, E., & Blythe, M. (2013a). Spirituality: there’s an app for that! (but not a lot of research). In Extended Abstracts CHI 2013 (pp. 2315–2324). Paris, France: ACM.
Buie, E., & Blythe, M. (2013b). Meditations on YouTube. In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces – DPPI ’13 (pp. 41–50). Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: ACM.
Mossbridge, J. (2016). Designing Transcendence Technology. In S. Imholz & J. Sachter (Eds.), Psychology’s New Design Science and the Reflective Practitioner (pp. 1–27).
My thesis proposes several areas in which my findings might be applied. This blog post summarizes those areas. (Note: These areas of application do not include “further research” to address questions raised during the research itself; I’ll write about those in a separate post.)
Potential Areas of Application
Design for Spiritual and Religious Applications
In the most literal sense, my findings regarding desires for enhancement can provide designers of techno-spiritual artefacts with practical information that can seed a user needs analysis for such artefacts. In addition, my peripheral design approach offers a method that may help designers create products that meet unexpressed desires for transcendent experience.
One result that intrigues me is the method that interview participant “Alicia” (name changed to protect privacy) uses for obtaining guidance from the Bible (see Section 5.3.2). Specifically, she has religious experiences from Bible passages, and these provide her with insights for her life. It is not yet clear how techno-spiritual design could aid this method of obtaining guidance, but it would be very interesting to explore the question.
Design for Other Hard-to-Define Experiences
Transcendent experiences may be the most ineffable of all experiences. Other types of experiences — such as æsthetic and flow experiences that do not reach the level of transcendence — can also be difficult to articulate and thus difficult to define when designers are deciding what to aim for. I argue that Peripheral design could support the generation of design ideas for any kind of product whose users may have experiences that are hard to define. These may include engagement, immersion, and flow.
Design for Well-Being and Personal Transformation
Transcendent experiences can result in personal transformation, not only in terms of spiritual insight or religious conversion. William James (1902), in his groundbreaking book The Varieties of Religious Experience, wrote of greater enchantment with life, and later work [cited in my thesis but not listed here] lists other commonly reported transformations:
- reduced fear of death
- increased ability to cope with hardship or trauma
- heightened sense of spirituality
- improved relationships
- enhanced subjective well-being
- improved health, mental health
- increase in compassion, empathy, altruism
- changes in beliefs, attitudes
- personality change
- career change
- shift in world-view, perspective, or self-concept from the individual to something beyond oneself
Some writers note that certain effects (some of which undoubtedly overlap) seem to be more or less immediate and others take time. Gaggioli (2016) defines a transformative experience as sudden:
a sudden and profound change in the self-world, which has peculiar phenomenological features that distinguish it from linear and gradual psychological change (p. 98)
Such an experience, he writes, has both epistemic and personal dimensions: it changes “not only…what you know, [but] how you experience being yourself” (ibid.).
Other writers discuss the development of continuous awareness of transcendence, which Levin & Steele (2005) call the “mature” type of transcendent experience:
The feeling associated with the mature transpersonal experience…is not so much about transient mystical feelings or phenomena [but] is more likely to be experienced as a self-transformational shift in one’s consciousness or spiritual perception. (pp. 89-90)
They call the brief experience “green” and speculate on “the possibility of a developmental continuum between the two” (p. 89). Mossbridge (2016) describes such development as a path from a noetic experience to “full transcendence or living deeply” (p. 8), and suggests “transcendence tech” to support the practices. “Doing the practice will lead to the next step, in the time that it takes”, she writes (p. 10).
I argue that technology to support transcendent experiences might make it easier for people to realise such transformations in their lives.
Gaggioli, A. (2016). Transformative Experience Design. In A. Gaggioli, A. Ferscha, G. Riva, S. Dunne, & I. Viaud-Delmon (Eds.), Human Computer Confluence: Transforming Human Experience Through Symbiotic Technologies (pp. 97–121). De Gruyter Open Ltd.
James, W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. College Station, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.
Levin, J., & Steele, L. (2005). The transcendent experience: conceptual, theoretical, and epidemiologic perspectives. Explore, 1(2), 89–101.
Mossbridge, J. (2016). Designing Transcendence Technology. In S. Imholz & J. Sachter (Eds.), Psychology’s New Design Science and the Reflective Practitioner (pp. 1–27).
Notes on potential application areas
If you have additional ideas for application of my research, I’d love to hear them.
Since I wrote my thesis, it has occurred to me that the Transcendhance game can be adapted for more general purposes, not just hard-to-define experiences. Rarely does design consider explicitly the subjective aspects of experience that we want to foster in the people who use what we’re designing, and my game does just that. I am working with Alastair Somerville on turning the Transcendhance workshop (which we have led at three conferences so far) into a more general workshop that can facilitate the design of any type of product or service for people to use. Stay tuned for that!