Category Archives: research

More endings and beginnings

Today I had what will probably be my last face-to-face meeting with my principal supervisor. He said I’m almost ready to go (i.e., the concepts are well enough fleshed out although I still have some work to do on the content that conveys them). We talked about the draft of my Conclusions chapter (in which I summarize what I did and describe the contributions to knowledge that my research makes), and we also talked about my plans for the Discussions chapter (in which I talk about the limitations of my research and speculate about future research and the possible applicability of my findings). He thinks it’s all excellent. He had a few suggestions to make, of course, but says I’m in very good shape. I still feel overwhelmed by all the editing and pulling together and formatting and printing/copying I have to do to get the thing submittable by late April, but at least I’m not at all worried about how it will be received after I do all that.

This is also my last weekend as a resident of Newcastle. The movers (“removals firm”) are coming next Thursday to pack up most of my stuff, then returning early Friday morning to collect the bed and a few other things and we all head down to Cambridge to move me in. After three weeks of spending 2-4 nights a week in hotels, I am infinitely grateful that my current landlord offered me my pick of the furniture (he’s selling the flat and won’t need it for a new tenant) and infinitely glad I decided to take the beds. I sleep much better in this bed than anywhere else I’ve stayed recently, and it’s not just a matter of a familiar room.

It’s been quite a week

It’s been quite a week.

First, the best news: I got word that Sigma UK‘s application for a visa sponsor licence has been approved. That’s a big step in the process of my getting a work visa, and I’m delighted! Now they have to issue me a Certificate of Sponsorship, and then I can apply for my visa. Not sure exactly how long all that will take, but I’m confident I’ll have a work visa before my student visa expires in mid-February.

Next, the mixed news. I had my mock viva this week and got really helpful feedback. Both supervisors said it was extremely well written (it’s always nice to receive praise, but I confess I place greater value on feedback that’s actually news to me); the panel said the contributions to knowledge are sufficient for a PhD but I need to convey them more fully. My primary supervisor and I met afterward, and he had a brilliant idea for how I can fill in that gap. The reason this news is mixed is that I won’t be able to make all the changes in time for a mid-December submission of my thesis. I’m going to make as much progress as I can in the next three weeks, and at the end of the month we’re going to regroup and see where we stand. But this feedback and my supervisor’s idea filled in a space that had been worrying me for a while. Clarity is good.

Finally, the horrible news. I’m sure you know what that is. I won’t say much about the US presidential election here because I’ve said a lot on Facebook and this blog is about other things — so I’ll just write this one paragraph. I’m horrified and disgusted. I know that a lot of people voted for Trump because they felt themselves to be in more and more dire straits economically and wanted a change, and some trusted his promise to go “pro-life”; but his election has unleashed a backlash (or a “whitelash”, as some call it) of bullying and violence against people of color and LBGTQ people, and I refuse to let Trump voters pretend they didn’t know that that would happen. I hope we can stem it.

I also want to say that I’m glad I was already making moves to stay in the UK. I’ve heard a lot of Americans say they want to leave the US, and I like to think that if I hadn’t already been planning to stay here I wouldn’t have done so purely because of the election.

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.

The best kind of compliment

Last night I received an email from another graduate student doing research in techno-spirituality. This woman is in a different university, in a different country, and in a different area of techno-spirituality — her research involves Islamic applications, mainly for helping elderly people conduct their spiritual and religious practices. She has asked my input from time to time, and now she’s finishing her thesis. She wrote me last night that the alt.chi paper that my supervisor and I published three years ago — “Spirituality – There’s an App for That (but not a lot of research)” was the primary motivation for her study.

It’s a nice feeling of accomplishment to be considered and cited as an expert in my field. I find it far more gratifying, though, to know that my work inspires and motivates others.

I love this work.

CHI 2016 poster for my late-breaking work

In my last post I wrote that I had submitted a thing to the Late-Breaking Work venue of the CHI 2016 conference. For some reason I neglected to add a post saying that my submission was accepted. Odd that I would forget something like that.

Transcendhance poster for CHI 2016 (small version)Anyhow, it was accepted. LBWs are presented as posters, and I’ve just finished preparing mine. You can find the “paper” on the “Papers” page of this blog and you can see a larger version of the poster (one where the text is actually legible) by clicking on the smaller version on this page. (I put “paper” in quotation marks because it’s not considered a paper in the CHI sense of a full research paper that gives quasi-maximum kudos and counts toward academic tenure.)

I’m on the schedule for the Wednesday and Thurssday, so if you’re at CHI I hope you’ll stop by and talk to me during the conference reception or one of the relevant coffee breaks. See you there!

Clarity, I hope

Earlier this week I completed and sent off a submission to the late-breaking work venue of the CHI 2016 conference. (I got it in about an hour later than I had hoped, but a good 45 minutes before the deadline.) I’ll find out in about three weeks whether it’s accepted and I’ll be presenting it as a poster in San Jose, but my supervisor says it’s “brilliant” and “cracking” and I am optimistic. I know it’s good work and provides a contribution to knowledge.

Even if my submission is not accepted, though, writing those six pages has given me a sudden clarity on what my thesis must contain, and I can now see my way clear to moving ahead with that. I still have a little analysis to do, but I’ve finally finished data collection (shortly before Christmas) and now my task is to write it up.

I’ve put “I hope” in the title of this post because there’s always the possibility that the writing-up process will reveal things that I still need to clarify. But I do now, finally, have confidence on what my main contribution will be to knowledge in the human-computer interaction field. That’s a good feeling.

An aside: For a thesis, they call it “writing up”. I find myself wondering what the difference might be between “writing up” and “writing down”. :-)

Awe requires feeling small — I don’t buy it

My research involves (among many other things, of course) reading literature on spiritual emotions such as awe. One of the first studies of awe came out a dozen years ago, conducted by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). These researchers concluded that awe involves two main components: the perception of vastness and the need for accommodation of that vastness into the person’s existing mental model of the world — or of the universe, as the case may be. (They didn’t frame it in terms of mental models, but as a good HCI person I use that highly appropriate term from my field.) I find this a valuable model for my research.

What concerns me about the treatment of awe in most of the literature — at least, in the literature on awe in spiritual experience — is that it tends to associate feelings of awe with feelings of being small and insignificant. Now, Keltner & Haidt themselves didn’t say that feeling awe necessarily involves our feeling ourselves to be small, just that we perceive vastness in whatever evokes awe in us. (NB: They also emphasize that “vastness” isn’t limited to size alone but could also refer to beauty, goodness, or any of several other characteristics.) Other researchers, however, have taken this to mean that a feeling of awe must necessarily involve a feeling of oneself being small.

I disagree!

And so does Neil Tyson, it would seem.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD, directs the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Tyson, a strong promoter of science and an outspoken atheist, describes with passion and eloquence the spiritual feeling that his knowledge of his physical connection with the vast Universe evokes in him. In what has been called his “Greatest Sermon“, Tyson explains his view. “It’s quite literally true”, Tyson says, “that we are star dust, in the highest exalted way one can use that phrase. …I bask in the majesty of the cosmos. I use words, compose sentences that sound like the sentences I hear out of people that had revelation of Jesus, who go on their pilgrimages to Mecca.” He goes on to stress: “Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.”

Tyson also says in the “sermon” that he had received a communication from a psychologist studying “things that make people feel small”, and he commented what a bummer of a job that must be. (Tyson doesn’t name the psychologist, only the university, but I can’t help wondering if it was someone studying awe and taking the approach that it necessarily involved feelings of being small or inadequate.) Donna Burdzy, in her master’s thesis completed just last year (Burdzy, 2014), created the “Sacred Emotions Scale” to tease out the components of the emotions that people feel when they perceive themselves to be in the presence of the sacred. Basing her scale mainly on Rudolf Otto’s framework of mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans (Otto, 1923), Burdzy divides her emotions into those of awe and those of fascination (with which I have no quarrel), and from my first reading of her thesis I’d say her method and statistical analysis seem sound. But here’s the rub: Burdzy defines awe as almost exclusively negative. The factor of “Sacred Awe” in the original SES includes sixteen “I felt” statements, and almost every one of them is unequivocally a statement of negative feeling. Examples include

  • “I felt like I could cease to exist”
  • “I felt worried”
  • “I felt unworthy of being in the presence of something so great”
  • “I felt insignificant”
  • “I felt concerned that I would be found wanting or at fault”
    (Burdzy, 2014, p. 85)

I see in the list of sixteen statements only two that might allow for neutral or perhaps even positive interpretation — “I was filled with awe” and “I felt humble” — but the Awe factor in this instrument is overwhelmingly negative and focused on feelings of smallness.

This aspect of research on awe and other emotions evoked by the sacred distresses me, and I refuse to accept it. I take comfort in Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers Tyson’s comments to Bill Moyers, who asked him about some people’s concerns that astronomy makes them feel small. “It depends on what your ego is, going into the conversation,” Tyson replied, explaining that the atoms that constitute our bodies came from out there in the Universe. “I look up at the night sky;” he observed; “I don’t feel small, I feel large. I feel connected to the universe.” Contemplating the Universe, urges Tyson, “should not make you feel small; that should make you feel large.”

So. If I were a psychologist, I would consider doing more in-depth study of the emotions involved in spiritual experiences. To be fair, my interviews do support the claim that feeling small or humble can be associated with awe. But I don’t like the declaration of “always” in this context, and my data do not support that extreme position. Nor does my individual experience (or Tyson’s, as best I can tell). For now, all I can say to the claim that awe always involves feeling small and insignificant is this:

Not necessarily!

What about those of us who feel connected to the vastness that evokes our awe? What if we feel inspired by it?

It is not a requirement, I maintain, that to recognize and appreciate the vastness in something else, we ourselves must feel small or inadequate.

Do we really want to take a win-lose approach to spirituality?


Burdzy, D. C. (2014). Sacred emotions scale. Bowling Green State University.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 17 (2), 297–314.

Otto, R. (1923). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


In fairness, I must make this update to point out that during her analysis Burdzy ended up recognizing the positive position of awe in the experience. Not only did she rename her subscales — i.e., “Sacred Awe” and “Sacred Fascination” (initially named à la Rudolf Otto) became “Sacred Dread” and “Sacred Exuberance” because of how the items fell together — but she moved “I was filled with awe” from the negative group where she had initially placed it to the positive group that she ended up calling “Sacred Exuberance”. Kudos to Donna Burdzy for recognizing and honoring the need for this change.

Who dealt this mess?

I learned to play bridge as a child. My parents taught my sister and me, starting when we were something like 9 and 11 years old. When we played, every so often my father would throw his hand face down on the table and demand, “Who dealt this mess?”

We soon realized that that always meant he had a good hand.

I feel that way about my data. Occasionally I make a Facebook post saying nothing but “Che casino!” (By that I don’t mean Señor Guevara’s gambling house, haha; no, it’s an Italian expression meaning “what an unholy mess!”) I have just realized this evening, as I wrestled once again with the information architecture of my data analysis, that my collection of data is so rich and so complex that a simple, obvious structure doesn’t emerge by itself; instead, every arrangement I make raises questions and suggests rearrangements. I’m in the process of collecting interview quotes for the results chapter and organizing them into subsections so that I can write up my notes and thoughts and interpretations and theorizing and all that good stuff that will make this a PhD thesis. I am starting off with too many quotes, as cutting is easier than adding. But it ain’t that easy when I have so much great material.

So I ask you: Who dealt this mess?