Mock viva set for 17 October

I received an email today from my primary supervisor saying that my “mock viva” has been scheduled for the 17th of October and that I’ll need to get a reviewable draft of all my chapters to the panel no later than the 8th. The mock viva panel are the two people who have done my annual progress reviews, so I’m pleased they could both do this. They know my work and give good feedback.

A mock viva is like a test run of the viva voce exam in which the examiners ask questions about the final submitted thesis and decide on your fate. The mock has two purposes: to give you experience in answering questions of the sort the examiners are likely to ask, and to give you feedback so you can make changes in your thesis to ensure the examiners get your best work. I have been reassured that for the mock the thesis doesn’t have to be polished (or even quite finished), so I will do the best I can by the 8th. I must get my literature review finished this weekend and then write drafts of the discussion and conclusions chapters, which I’ve not started yet (except for notes). Polishing the analysis chapters (of which there are three) can wait until I’ve got some meaningful content in every chapter.

My thesis has to be 75,000-85,000 words long. I’m at about 73,000 now, so it’s going to be tight. As I write, I’m identifying bits I can move into footnotes, endnotes, or appendices, if need be.

Thanks for all your good wishes!

UX Cambridge: A good debut with Sigma UK

I’ve just returned from the UX Cambridge conference, having had a wonderful time. I attended interesting, high-quality presentations and gave two myself that were very well received. I met fascinating people and had exciting, energizing conversations. All in all, a great experience.

My major presentation was a one-hour tutorial on designing for older adults. Titled “Older adults: Are we really designing for our future selves?“, the tutorial discussed the common slogan “designing for our future selves” and teased apart the two types of issues that people face as they age — challenges due to changes in our bodies, and challenges due to unfamiliarity with newer technology — and discussed the implications that those two types of challenges present for the design process. I used examples from my own experience of aging (I’m just shy of 64 now) to illustrate and personalize the issues. For example, I didn’t need reading glasses until ten years later than most people do, and I’m still using a low-power magnification; but I’m probably a little early with the challenge of dexterity and stability of my hands, as I have both mild osteoarthritis and essential tremor. The tutorial elicited a lot of great questions, and the exercises saw lively discussion among the participants. People said (and tweeted) a lot of nice things about it, and I had some great conversations afterwards. The slides are on the Sigma Slideshare.

The other presentation was one of the “lightning talks” that these conferences run at the end of the second day. At one of the talks the first day, I had asked a question and raised some objections based on the answer, so the organizers asked me to do a lightning talk. Rather than speak about that objection (which would have taken me longer to prepare), I spoke against the oft-stated idea that a product “should be usable with no training”. Here are the slides from my lightning talk. The Sigma team are planning a blog post about it, so stay tuned. This talk elicited some great questions as well.

This was my first foray into representing Sigma at professional events, and I’d say it went rather well.

It was also my first visit to Cambridge, and I think I’ll enjoy living there.

Voting in US elections

My UK friends often ask me if I can vote in US elections, since I’ve lived overseas for a while. Yes, I can vote in federal elections forever, unless I’m disqualified for some reason (such as being convicted of a felony or being mentally incapable). My ability to vote in state and local elections depends on my intention to return to the US, and for the first time since I’ve been here I put “my return is uncertain” on my absentee ballot request. (I’ve sorted a job, eh? :-) This means that in the November election I’ll get to vote for president, senator, and congresscritter but not anything at the lower level.

Instead of putting the US voting info in a blog post where it will eventually get buried in the sands of time, I’ve created a page about being an American expat in the UK. Right now all it has on it is voting info, but as I think of other topics I’ll add them.

I have a lot to live up to! :-)

I’m into my second week with Sigma, and on Monday they published a blog post with the news. I wrote the bio (the middle part), and they wrote the first and last bits. I feel really honoured and grateful to be so well thought of, and delighted to be working with such great people. If I weren’t already highly motivated to finish my thesis, the knowledge that I’ll have more time to spend with these folks would put me there. Can’t wait to make this move!

I’m returning to industry — in the UK

A year and a half ago I wrote a post about having decided to return to industry after my PhD instead of trying to stay in academia. I had realized, I explained, that at my age and with my experience I’d find more opportunities in industry — and it would also pay better. Well, I am delighted to announce that my efforts have borne fruit: as of today I have joined Sigma Consulting Solutions Ltd. as a Senior User Experience Consultant. I’m starting on a limited part-time basis while I finish my thesis, and after my Tier 2 General visa comes through I’ll switch to a permanent role in the company. When my three-month probationary period ends, I’ll buy a car and move to Cambridge. My permanent role will have me working three days a week, and I hope to spend the other two doing further research on my PhD topic (with the occasional extra-long-weekend excursion thrown in). I’m savoring the idea of being only an hour from London — close enough to go into the city for an evening event, and much more convenient than Newcastle for flights to (most of) the rest of the world.

This is a wonderful opportunity for me. I’m looking forward to returning “home” to UX consulting and to exploring how I can apply what I’ve learned in doing my PhD. I’m really excited about collaborating with a great group of UX folks who are interested in both my consulting experience and my PhD research. I don’t think I could have asked for better.

I’m also acutely aware that I’m going to miss the North East of England. But this will be arrivederci, not addio; I’ll be back for semi-regular visits. You’ve grown on me, Newcastle.

What a difference four years makes!

My guilty pleasure is that I watch murder mysteries on the web, mostly BBC and ITV shows that come available after the broadcast via their “Player” online services. I especially enjoy watching the ones filmed in and around Newcastle — of which there are at least four that I can think of off the top of my head. It tickles me to spot familiar places among the filming locations, and the other evening I hit the jackpot. I was watching an old episode of “Wire in the Blood” (they’re all old, actually, but this was an early one) and at one point I sat up straight and ran the video back a few seconds. Yep, there it was. My neighborhood. A street close to mine and parallel to it. I’ve seen that view a gazillion times, mostly heading to the supermarket or to the bus stop for the 15/15A.

What makes this especially interesting is that this was the second time I had watched that episode — but it was the first time I had noticed and recognized that location. My first viewing must have been fairly early in my time here, before I had built up enough of a “sense of place” of the neighborhood to “feel” such a view as home. But now, after four years, there it was.

The amazing thing is that there are probably thousands of streets in the Newcastle area that are lined with the classic Tyneside flats. But there are precious few — possibly only one — that have that particular configuration of high-rises in the distance and industrial building along the left side.

Nope, it’s my neighborhood all right.

Fortunately, it’s not my street. I would not have chosen to live in a place that looked out onto such an unappealing industrial area, nope nope nope. Its not being my street has the added advantage of letting me give you an idea of where I live without being too specific about it. :-)

Here are three screenshots that show the area.

Dinsdale Road, looking southwest

The scene that made me sit up and take notice, stopping the video to check what I was seeing (Dinsdale Road, looking southwest)

Dinsdale Road Eastbound

Looking the opposite way, north east on Dinsdale Road. The car ahead is stopped at the intersection of Dinsdale Road and Starbeck Avenue.

Newington Road, looking southeast

They have now turned right and are headed southeast on Newington Road (the extension of Starbeck, sort of). I used to walk down this street to go to Morrisons (I now take the bus), and when I return in a taxi it brings me up this way.

Thesis abstract (as finalized)

I should have waited until today before posting the abstract, but I was too excited about it to let it go any longer. Today I had a meeting with my second supervisor, who explained the feedback he had emailed me and told me I didn’t have to stick to 300 words. So here’s the revised version. (I’m leaving the original version up because I did say it was the original version. <smile>)


Exploring Techno-Spirituality:
Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experiences

This thesis presents a study of spiritual and transcendent experiences (STXs) — experiences of connection with something greater than oneself — focusing on what they are, how artefacts support them, and how design can contribute to that support. People often find such experiences transformative, and artefacts do support them — but the literature rarely addresses artefact support for STXs. This thesis provides a step toward filling that gap.

The first phase of research involved the conduct and analysis of 24 interviews with adults of diverse spiritual perspectives, using constructivist Grounded Theory methods informed by relevant literature and by studies performed earlier in the PhD research programme. Analysis found that STXs proceed in three stages — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — and that artefacts support at least two stages and people desire enhancements to all three. This STX framework supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as stages in a cycle where integration alters future contexts, and it extends the structure of STX by incorporating the relationships of artefacts and of enhancement desires to the stages of these experiences. This extended structure constitutes a grounded theory of transcendent user experiences.

The second phase involved the design and conduct of three “Transcendhance” workshops for enhancing transcendence, which aimed to elicit speculative design ideas in an atmosphere of fun and play. By playing a game that incorporated themes from the grounded theory of transcendent user experiences, workshop participants sketched 69 design ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts. Analysis mapped the ideas to the stages of STX and drew on relevant research to inspire possible extensions to the workshop-generated ideas. By far the largest number of ideas mapped to the STX stage Creating the Context, with very few mapping to Living the Experience, which suggests that context may be easier than lived experience to understand and address directly. This point is especially important for experiences such as STX that are tricky to define, impossible to arrange or anticipate, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods. Transcendhance workshops approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, “sneaking up” on the lived experience by addressing the context.

This thesis combines the grounded theory of transcendent user experience with the Transcendhance workshop process, presenting peripheral design as a promising strategy for facilitating design to enhance spiritual and transcendent experiences.

Thesis abstract (more or less)

My supervisor says it’s OK for me to post my abstract here. What you see below isn’t what actually went into the Assignment of Examiners form, because after I wrote it I learned that the committee that reviews that form is very picky about language, so although there is precedent in my faculty for writing a thesis in the first person, I changed it for the form. (Man, I hate passive voice.) So what I’m posting here is what I originally wrote, before I revised it to use the third person. I may revise and/or expand it a little for the thesis itself, but this accurately conveys the gist.


This thesis presents a study of spiritual and transcendent experiences (STX) — experiences of connection with something greater than oneself — focusing on designing to enhance them. Such experiences can be ineffable and transformative and artefacts can support them, but the literature rarely addresses the connection between artefacts and these experiences. This thesis provides a step toward filling that gap.

I conducted and analysed 24 interviews with adults of diverse spiritual perspectives, using constructivist Grounded Theory methods as informed by relevant literature and by studies conducted earlier in my programme. I found that STX proceed in three stages — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — with artefact support and desires for enhancement applying to all stages. My theory supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as stages in a cycle where integration alters future contexts, and it adds artefacts and desires to the structure of these experiences.

I designed and conducted “Transcendhance” workshops for enhancing transcendence, employing play to stimulate design ideas. Using themes from the grounded theory, workshop participants sketched 69 ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts. I mapped the ideas to the stages of STX, building a framework to guide techno-spiritual design. Living the Experience and Creating the Context showed a large disparity in mappings, suggesting that context may be easier than lived experience to understand and address directly, especially for ineffable experiences that are tricky to define, impossible to predict, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods. The workshops approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, essentially “sneaking up” on the lived experience by addressing the context. Even fanciful ideas provided insights for techno-spiritual design.

Combining the grounded theory of transcendent user experience with the Transcendhance workshops, I developed peripheral design as a promising strategy for facilitating design to enhance spiritual and transcendent experiences.

Thesis title settled

Throughout my PhD program(me), the title I’ve been using — which I always have to enter on administrative forms — has been “User Experience and the Human Spirit”. That title captures the spirit, the motivation, but gives no information about the content of my research. Today my supervisor and I settled on what I am going to use for the title of my thesis:

Exploring Techno-Spirituality:
Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experiences

I also had to write a 300-word abstract for the purpose of assigning examiners for my thesis. I’ll find out if I can post that here too.

When I find myself thinking that two-days-plus was a very long time to take for only 300 words, I console myself with the famous quasi-quote: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

A few thoughts about the Brexit vote

As a person from outside the Commonwealth, I didn’t get to vote in the referendum that the UK held this week regarding its membership in the European Union. The referendum, called, variously, “EURef” and “Brexit” (for “British exit”), asked UK voters whether they wanted the country to remain in the EU or to leave it. “Leave” won by just under four percentage points, 51.9% to 48.1%.

It is not my intention to provide here a history of the referendum or a discussion of the political issues surrounding it. If you want to know more about that, I’m afraid you’ll need to google it yourself — or you could look at the BBC’s FAQ.) I just want to share a few thoughts, partly about how it affects me personally and partly about some things I’ve noticed in the aftermath.

Let me begin by saying that I am deeply disturbed by this vote. I would have voted Remain if I had had a vote — I think it benefits all of us to cooperate and collaborate.

How Brexit affects me personally

Residence: Brexit doesn’t have much effect on my immigration status in the near term, since I am not an EU national and have to have a visa to live here anyhow. Right now I’ve got a student visa, and I’ve been planning all along to take steps to get a longer-term visa for when I finish my PhD. So I have no need to worry about Brexit’s effect on that part of my life, at least not any time soon. (Note to the EU nationals among my friends: I will be happy to share with you what I know about work visas, if you decide you want to stay in the UK and if it turns out you will need one. Contact me privately if you would find that helpful.)

Costs: (1) The British pound is down with respect to the US dollar, about 10% down as I write this. Who knows where it will go in the next few years? This decline works to my advantage for now, though: now that my university-funded studentship has ended, all of my income is in USD and will continue to be so until I start working in the UK. So what I spend in the UK costs me less of my income than it did just a few days ago. (2) Probably the “Eurozone” plan I get from my mobile phone provider — which costs £4 for each day I use roaming in European countries, including a fair amount of data — will end. I don’t know what my provider will offer as a replacement, but it will probably cost me more for roaming in EU countries.

Health: The NHS is like an excruciatingly slow HMO (health maintenance organization, a type of healthcare coverage in the US), and it is only going to get slower. (I do use the NHS; see below.) There’s talk of splitting it up and privatizing it, but if all they do is reduce the funding… Shudder!

Opportunities: I suspect that I will have a harder time finding a job with a visa sponsor in the UK. Already there is news about banks moving several hundred jobs from London to Dublin. Not that I was planning to work for a bank, particularly, but it’s a bellwether. (I love the word “bellwether”. Also “harbinger”. :-)

Reactions that worry me

Racism. I’m hearing and reading stories of white Britons harassing and threatening immigrants who have a foreign accent or a different skin color, telling them “Go home; we voted Leave!” It seems as though some of these people took “Leave” to mean, not Britain leaving the EU, but ethnically different immigrants leaving Britain. Racism has come more out in the open, it seems. In fact, The Washington Post reported just this week that the Brexit debate itself has brought racism to the surface in Britain: “Because of the Brexit campaign, racism is no longer racism – it’s legitimate opinion.” Some (although by no means all) of the Leave campaign was about reducing immigration, and many white Britons talked about “getting their country back” as a euphemism for reducing the dilution of their culture by black and brown people coming to live among them.

I am NOT saying that a Leave vote was necessarily a racist vote or even an anti-immigration vote; people had diverse reasons for marking their ballots that way. For one thing, the Leave campaign virtually promised that the £350 million a week that the UK has been paying to the EU would be redirected to the NHS. (They have since rescinded that promise, blackguards that they are.) And I am inclined to agree with the person who tweeted that it’s not so much that half the country is racist as that the racists think they are. But the vote does seem to have been taken as permission to take racist behavior out of homes and back lanes and bring it into the light of day on public buses and High Street pavements. This must stop.

Now, I use NHS services regularly (paying a paltry £150/yr for the privilege), and being over 60 I get prescription medications at no cost. Also, I have a senior bus pass that gives me free travel on any local bus in England after 9:30am on weekdays and all day on weekends, and because Newcastle has good bus service and I don’t own a car I use my pass a fair amount. And as a full-time student I pay no council tax (analogous to property tax in the US).

I’m sure that I cost the UK just a wee bit more than do most of the immigrants that racist and anti-immigrant groups are targeting. But I look like a native. No one has ever accosted me to threaten me or demand that I “go home”.

In fact, until people hear me speak or see me eat with a knife and fork, they tend to assume I’m a native. And as far as I know, all of my ancestry traces back to Great Britain. But it’s been more than 200 years since the last migrant among them sailed west across the Atlantic. I myself am no more a native of Britain than is the Muslim girl that some Birmingham youth harassed on the street, shouting “We voted Leave!” And she doesn’t deserve abuse any more than I do.

Ageism. Much is being made of the differences between how older and younger people voted. According to a YouGov survey taken after the vote, people over 65 voted Leave by a ratio of two to one and people under 24 voted Remain by three to one. It is being said that the older generation is denying the younger generation their future, and all because of a fantasy of returning to the Good Old Days. From anecdotes I’ve heard, I tend to give credence to the idea that there was a lot of nostalgia behind the votes of older people who went for Leave and didn’t bother to find out (and/or didn’t care) how it would affect younger people. What bothers me about what’s being said about the old is twofold: (1) other demographic variables (education and income, in particular) explained more of the difference in the vote than age did, but people are targeting the old as the ones to be disparaged and condemned; and (2) people are using age to target old people in general (see this much-liked and much-retweeted tweet attacking old people), not just the 69% of voters who voted Leave. As far as I know, this has not (yet) turned into physical threats against older people, but I have heard it expressed as a wish that they had not been allowed to vote on this question. I wonder if folks would have expressed such a wish if older people had gone for Remain; it sounds like basing voting rights on outcome rather than principle. The question of the fairness of allowing older people to vote on younger people’s future isn’t a simple one, but one thing I can say for certain: Disparaging older people in general because you don’t like how two-thirds of them voted is ageism, and it’s ugly.

So what am I going to do?

Personal goals. First things first: I will finish my PhD. And I will continue with my pursuit of post-PhD opportunities in the UK. There’s still a lot to like about living here, and as far as I can tell, the overt British racism isn’t any worse than the overt American racism being fuelled by today’s <unprintable> politicians, of whom Donald Trump is the most <unprintable>. Scotland is talking about possibly having another independence referendum and then joing the EU on its own, and I will keep an eye on that. (I wish I thought my Gaelic surname would give me an in. :-)

Post-Brexit racism. I am well aware of my white privilege. My life in the UK is easier than that of immigrants of different culture or ethnicity because of what I look like. Because of this, I have the power — and the responsibility — to let racists know that racist behavior is unacceptable. So far I have not personally witnessed any incidents of people threatening foreigners, but if I do I will speak up. If I feel it isn’t safe for me to confront the perpetrators in person, I will speak out later and help publicize the incident. And I am encouraging my friends to do the same. Hopefully, just as these Tyne and Wear Metro passengers did in Newcastle in November 2015. (Here’s a Guardian article on how people can respond in such situations.)

Ageism. I probably won’t do much about this. I have limited time, and despite what I say about how ugly it is, racism is so much uglier and its effects far worse. People generally don’t hate and attack old people just because they are old.

But that’s enough for now; I’ve already spent more time on this than I had planned and I need to get back to my thesis.