Category Archives: PhD thesis

My PhD thesis is now online!

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.


Thoughts about follow-on research

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.

Follow-on Research

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.
My Grounded Theory of Transcendent User Experience
Figure 1. Diagram of my Grounded Theory of Transcendent User Experience

My Framework of Transcendent 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.
Preliminary Theory of User Experience
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.
Preliminary Theory of User Experience
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.

Wardell, D. W., & Engebretson, J. C. (2006). Taxonomy of Spiritual Experiences. Journal of Religion and Health, 45(2), 215–233.

Limitations of research, and ideas for addressing them

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.

Design Fiction

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).

Potential areas of application of my PhD research

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!

My original contributions to knowledge

This post is a somewhat condensed version of the Conclusions chapter of my thesis, listing and summarizing the original contributions to knowledge that my thesis provides. I’ve got nine such contributions, which for a PhD is rather a lot, but the examiners didn’t object to that number and so they stand as written.

Original Contributions to Knowledge

The research I present in this thesis makes nine original contributions to knowledge. These contributions cover both of the fields my research bridges: seven apply to my “home” field of design for user experience and two apply to transcendent experience (TX). My contributions to design cover both design fiction and techno-spiritual design.

Contributions to Knowledge — Transcendent Experience

My research contributes to the knowledge of transcendent experience in two key ways:

  1. Recognition of transcendent experience as phased and cyclical
  2. New thoughts about the position of ineffability in transcendent experience

This subsection summarises these contributions.

Recognition of transcendent experience as phased and cyclical

Although previous literature has noted the largely sequential nature of TX components (Garcia-Romeu, Himelstein, & Kaminker, 2015), this thesis is the first to describe them as phases (Chapter 4). Additionally, I explicitly recognise that the effects and actions arising from a transcendent experience often include changes to beliefs or practices that formed part of the context of that experience, and that those changes sometimes facilitate further transcendent experiences. Although the cyclic potential of TXs can be inferred from literature on various types of transcendent experience, I have found none that states it explicitly. This thesis is the first work that combines the sequential nature of TX components with the recognition that a TX can be followed by changes in beliefs or practice, and depicts the top-level components of transcendent experience as a cycle of phases.

New thoughts about the position of ineffability in transcendent experience

The TX literature has long considered ineffability as one of the most common characteristics of transcendent experiences, but most of these works say merely that the experience is ineffable. Studies of mystical experience constitute an exception in that many of them assign ineffability to a position in the structure, placing it in either introvertive mysticism or the interpretive factor. My interview analysis suggests that ineffability falls within living the experience of TX — primarily in perceiving the phenomena and to a much lesser extent in reacting to the phenomena as the experience unfolds. All interview participants who struggled to put words to their experiences had trouble describing what they perceived. A small number also had difficulty in describing the emotions they felt while the experience was unfolding. This suggests that identifying an experience as ineffable requires attempting to put it into words — i.e., interpreting it.

Contributions to Knowledge — Design Fiction

My research contributes to the knowledge of design fiction in one main way:

  1. Proposal and exploration of three new forms of design fiction

My exploration of design fiction yielded the creation of three proposed new forms. The first two are variations on the imaginary abstract:

  • Extended imaginary abstracts: longer abstracts that describe in greater detail the envisaged prototype, test conditions/procedures, and findings
  • Comparative imaginary abstracts: co-ordinated variants on an idea, exploring differences in design, testing, and/or results

The third proposed new form does not summarise an imagined research paper but aims to convey a sense of the experience:

  • Design poetry: poems written to convey ambiguous, subjective, and ineffable aspects of the envisioned user experience

[descriptions omitted for reasons of space]

It will be interesting to discover how these forms of design fiction might be useful to HCI research and design in general, beyond techno-spirituality.

Contributions to Knowledge — Techno-Spiritual Design

My research contributes to the knowledge of techno-spiritual design — in particular, design for transcendent experience — in five primary ways:

  1. A grounded theory of artefact-supported transcendent experience — transcendent user experience (TUX)
  2. Identification and analysis of a rich body of transcendent experience literature that very rarely appears in techno-spirituality work
  3. The Transcendhance game, which elicits speculative, generative TUX design ideas that explicitly draw on aspects of the target lived experience
  4. A framework for mapping artefacts and design ideas to components of my grounded theory of TUX
  5. An understanding of design fiction’s benefits to techno-spirituality

The remainder of this subsection describes these contributions.

Grounded theory of transcendent user experience

My grounded theory of transcendent user experience provides an in-depth understanding of how artefacts support spiritual practices and transcendent experiences, and supplies insights into what people value about those experiences and what they desire in the way of enhancements and specific artefact support for them. This knowledge can aid designers in identifying needs for techno-spiritual products. It also provides a set of attributes of transcendent user experience that can support techno-spirituality research and design.

Identification of transcendent experience literature on which HCI can draw

In Chapter 2 I showed how very few studies of experiential techno-spirituality cite any literature on transcendent experiences or define the experience of interest beyond the vague “spiritual experience”, despite the common UX practice of describing target experiences and the abundance of TX literature on the nature of transcendent experiences. The experiences themselves thus remain elusive to HCI research and design. My review of extensive literature on the nature of transcendent experience reveals a rich source of descriptions of such experience that HCI researchers and designers can use to understand the nature of the experiential aspects they are studying or for which they are designing.

Transcendhance game for eliciting speculative, generative design ideas

My design game, Transcendhance, provides an oblique approach to generating design ideas for artefacts intended to facilitate experiences that are tricky to define, difficult to discuss, impossible to anticipate, and thus challenging to design for in a direct manner. Even with the aforementioned rich description in the TX literature, these ineffable experiences remain elusive and difficult to imagine, especially for designers who have not had one themselves. Using insights from interviews in a congenial atmosphere of imagination, fun, and play, Transcendhance evokes design ideas that not only address the components of transcendent experience and respond to expressed desires for enhancement and artefact support, but can generate further ideas when considered in light of relevant research.

Framework for mapping artefacts and design ideas to components of my grounded theory of transcendent user experience

The Transcendhance workshop analysis presents an initial mapping of the generated ideas to the phases and subcomponents of transcendent experience, furnishing insights that could help facilitate design for transcendent user experience. This may allow for more specific tailoring of designs to address TX components that researchers or practitioners wish to support, and it lays the ground for a more detailed mapping following further research.

An understanding of the benefits of design fiction to techno-spirituality

In exploring design fiction for techno-spirituality research and design I have observed that, by virtue of its position as imaginary, design fiction offers the opportunity to tap into Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”. Design fiction thus allows us to suspend disbelief not only about the narrative and the diegesis, as we usually think of such suspension, but also about the spiritual and religious beliefs that the fiction portrays and the fictional artefacts support. In this way, design fiction can help us envision and even become engaged with artefacts to support spiritual and religious practices involving beliefs that we do not ourselves hold. This additional suspension, I argue, can aid us in designing for people who hold such beliefs.

Contribution to Knowledge — Peripheral Design

My final contribution to knowledge draws on contributions 3 and 6, above:

  1. Peripheral design as a synergy of the Transcendhance game and design fiction

Transcendhance game can use imagination, fun, and play in a non-competitive environment to elicit generative ideas for artefacts aimed at enhancing transcendent experience. New forms of design fiction can help in building on ideas by increasing detail, by varying certain characteristics, and by conveying envisaged experiences in poetry. These methods take a sideways approach to techno-spiritual design, drawing on unconscious contents via playfulness and “indirect metaphors that refer to something without explicitly naming anything” (Robins, 2014, p. 4). Both are peripheral, oblique approaches, I argue, and I call the combination peripheral design.


Garcia-Romeu, A., Himelstein, S. P., & Kaminker, J. (2015). Self-transcendent experience: a grounded theory study. Qualitative Research, 15(5), 633–654.

Robins, S. F. (2014). Expressing the Ineffable in Performance Poetry. Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, 10(3/4), 1–27.

My job is done.

Yesterday I removed the yellow highlighting from my thesis corrections, filled out the university’s submission form for an electronic thesis, and sent the pair of documents to the Graduate School. With this I have discharged all of my responsibilities to the university regarding my PhD. The Graduate School will send me my parchment (which I will promptly have framed) and will post my thesis at the Northumbria Research Link. They didn’t say how long it will take them to post it, but my parchment will arrive about three months from now and I have about three months to change my subscriptions to a different email address and save any emails I want to keep, before they close my uni email account.

I’m going to miss eduroam the most. (Maybe I can get myself affiliated with another university to conduct further research.)

P.S. I’ve discovered that not all of my PhD-related research work appears on the Northumbria Research Link, so I’m going to look into how to get the rest of it posted.

Thesis corrections submitted!

It took me a wee bit longer than I had expected, but last week I finally finished and submitted the corrections to my thesis. They went to the nominated examiner this week, and I hope to be on the agenda for next month’s Research Degrees Committee meeting. I had to restrain myself from adding stuff beyond what was required for the corrections, but I finally decided it would do no good to muddy the waters and risk having my corrections rejected because the addition was seen as a problem. I can always add it into something I write later on.

It feels like an anticlimax.

And now I have to decide what to do with myself on my non-work days.

Thesis: Dedication and Acknowledgments

I’d like to go ahead and make the dedication and acknowledgments public, so I’m posting them here.


I dedicate this thesis to Timothy Kendall, music director of Collegium Cantorum. Without Timothy’s acceptance of me as a Collegium singer in 2007 and his provision of MIDI files to help us learn the music, I cannot begin to imagine having had a transcendent user experience like the one that sparked my research. Timothy, gratias maximas tibi.


My PhD programme and this thesis have been for me an extraordinary adventure that would simply have been impossible without support, encouragement, and guidance from both sides of the Atlantic and even beyond. Deepest thanks go to Professor Mark Blythe, my primary supervisor, for taking me on, helping me learn, suggesting research ideas, encouraging me when I despaired, bearing with me when I was slow to grasp what he had in mind, and generally being an amazing design researcher with whom I have had the privilege to work. Heartfelt gratitude goes to Professor Gilbert Cockton, without whose urging Northumbria would not even have been on my radar, and for his feedback and guidance as second supervisor and his insights into the workings of the university. A tip o’ the hat to Dr Colin Cameron, whom I met doing academic stand-up comedy and who joined my supervision team in media res to provide his expertise on grounded theory. Further appreciation goes to Dr Joyce Yee, Jamie Steane, and Professor Paul Rodgers, who sat on my internal review panels and helped sanity-check my process. Without any one of you, this thesis would not be what it is.

Andii Bowsher, the university’s Co-ordinating Chaplain, expressed great enthusiasm for my work and helped recruit the last few participants for my interviews. Eben Haber pointed me to VideoNoteTakerUtility, an IBM tool he had developed for controlling playback and transcription of recordings; its ease of keyboard control greatly eased that task. And of course I am grateful to Northumbria University itself, for taking me in and providing me the required academic resources, and especially for giving me a three-year studentship to help fund my research.

I have received tremendous support from family in the USA and from friends here, there, and everywhere. Rosamund Stansfield took me in when I was new to the North East of England. She introduced me to Grainger Market and other shopping in Newcastle City Centre, advised me on how to navigate the NHS, and checked in occasionally to see if I could use a friendly chat over coffee. My fellow PhD students acted as sounding boards, workshop participants, and sources of information about the programme. The warm and generous people of Newcastle Unitarian Church welcomed me as a visitor and then as a member; they must have been interested in my thoughts on spirituality and technology, as they kept inviting me to lead the occasional Sunday service. The lovely people of Cappella Novocastriensis gave me a weekly uplift via choral singing in good company, in a church several centuries more ancient than anywhere I had sung back home. Friends are still telling me how much they enjoy reading about my saga on Facebook and in my blog. And in my final year the kindred spirits of RSA Newcastle provided stimulating conversation in a convivial atmosphere.

And, of course, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the participants in the interviews and the workshops. Each person I interviewed took me through a spiritual autobiography and the story of an event or two that meant a lot to them, sometimes getting emotional but always willing to forge ahead. Dear people: I found your stories fascinating and inspiring, and I felt close to you every time I read or listened to your words. Profound thanks to you. The people who joined the workshop didn’t know exactly what they were being asked to do, but they plunged right in. Dear people: It was a joy to see you laughing together as you sketched your ideas and described them to the rest of us. Heartfelt thanks to you.

These acknowledgments would be incomplete if I didn’t mention Facebook, the NHS, and the Oxford comma. By making it easy to keep up with family and friends everywhere, Facebook made it thinkable for me to move across the Pond alone, which allowed me to feel mystified that people kept admiring my courage in doing so. As a full-time student I qualified for health care under the NHS; and although it could at times be excruciatingly slow and inexplicably[1] conservative, it was there when I needed it.

And finally, I must honour the memories of three special family members. My late husband, Antonio Vallone, has been with me in spirit during this fascinating journey of mine and has often helped me in my imagination, grabbing pen and paper and saying encouragingly, “Facciamo un’analisi.”[2] My mother, Beverly Buie, always wanted to hear about what I was doing and was always proud of me even when she had no clue what it meant, and I often imagined explaining my research to her. My grandmother, Kathryn McNairy, shared my interest in extraordinary experiences and once confided to me her own near-death experience, saying “Somehow I just knew you’d understand.” It gives me warm fuzzies to imagine how proud you all would have been.

[1] Most likely they’re trying to avoid spending money until they’re convinced that it’s necessary.

[2] Italian for “Let’s do an analysis.”

Thesis abstract (as submitted for examination)

During the months between when I submitted the abstract for the assignment of examiners and when I completed and submitted my thesis, the abstract changed slightly. The main difference is that the thesis included a greater focus (a whole chapter, in fact) on design fiction and its possible contributions to designing for transcendent user experience. Here’s the abstract that appears in my thesis. The examiners didn’t ask for any modifications to it, so it’s extremely unlikely that it will change in any way.

This thesis presents a study of transcendent experiences (TXs) — 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 designing artefact support for TXs. 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 programme. Analysis found that TXs proceed in three phases — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — and that artefacts support two phases and people desire enhancements to all three. This TX framework supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as phases in a cycle where integration may alter future contexts, and it extends the structure of TX by incorporating the relationships of artefacts and of enhancement desires to the phases of these experiences. This extended structure constitutes a grounded theory of transcendent user experience (TUX).

The second phase involved the design and conduct of three “Transcendhance” game workshops for enhancing transcendence, which incorporated themes from the grounded theory and aimed to elicit design ideas in an atmosphere of imagination, fun, and play. Participants sketched 69 speculative ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts, and analysis mapped them to TX phases and identified possible extensions inspired by relevant research. The great majority of ideas mapped to the phase 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 TX that are tricky to define, impossible to arrange or anticipate, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods.

The final phase involved the elaboration of workshop ideas to explore the extension of design fiction for TUX. Analysis related design fiction to the TX phases and suggested features that affect design ideas’ potential for TUX design fiction. This phase ended with the proposal and analysis of three new forms of design fiction — extended imaginary abstracts, comparative imaginary abstracts, and design poetry — using workshop ideas to illustrate the forms, their construction and use, and their benefits to TUX design.

Transcendhance workshops and TUX design fictions approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, “sneaking up” on lived experience by addressing context and enabling the consideration of ineffable experience through storytelling, metaphors, and oblique imagery.

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