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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).

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.

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!

Thesis abstract (as finalized for assignment of examiners)

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 summer of writing up

On Wednesday I met with my primary supervisor to discuss the draft of my Methodology chapter. In his written comments he described the chapter as “a thorough and meticulous account of your research process with an [enviable] attention to detail and rigor in argument” and “a fantastic first draft”. More specifically, he said, “It provides a very robust defense of the methods chosen and makes a strong case for a coherent and theoretically informed approach. It is well structured, clear about claims and superbly well referenced.”


He wanted to see more discussion of a couple of things, he said, and we talked about those. But on the whole that chapter is in great shape and I have agreed to send him the final draft on Tuesday. Day after tomorrow.

I have drafted a timetable for finishing the drafts of all my chapters over the summer, and I’ve got my work cut out for me. Good thing I had already decided to forgo my usual holidays — a week of singing Renaissance polyphony in the East Midlands in July and a couple of weeks in Italy in September. I may take a weekend or two and go somewhere, but basically it’s The Summer of Writing Up.

Wish me focus and persistence!


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!