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.
It’s been almost five years in the making. I landed in the UK on 18 October 2012 to begin working on my PhD, and on 2 August 2017 (yesterday, as I write this) I passed my viva voce examination, the defense of my thesis.
My examiners (one from Northumbria and one from another UK university) were friendly and positive. They had lots of questions, some of which sought clarification on what I had done or what I meant by something I had written and others wanted my thoughts on related but tangential subjects. Evidently my thesis offered much food for thought. I’m very glad of this.
I ended up being given four modifications to make, mostly having the purpose of clarification. In each case they said that our conversation enabled them to understand, but they were concerned that it wouldn’t be clear to someone reading it without having the opportunity to ask me about it. Fair enough, I say.
Three months ago I wrote that there were five possible outcomes of the viva, but things have changed and now Northumbria defines only four. No longer do the examiners decide whether changes are major or minor; they just write them up and the Research Degrees Committee makes that call, also assigning a deadline for completing them. I’m certain mine will be defined as minor, especially because the examiners said they should take me only a couple of days to do.
One of the examiners said to me afterward that he’s read a lot of PhD theses where he kept wishing the writer would just get on with it, but he really enjoyed mine. I loved that.
From what I understand, I’m not supposed to use the title of Dr. until I’ve made the corrections and have received word that they’ve been approved. So don’t call me Dr. Buie quite yet! Soon, however, soon…
I plan to write a bit of reflection on my PhD process and how I got to where I am, but that will take more time than I have today.
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.
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.
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”. :-)