Reactions to Jane Fulton Suri's new book?

I just received Jane Fulton Suri’s (of Ideo) new book, Thoughtless Acts, which I had ordered site unseen. I’ve read her writings over the years and have found she has very interesting stuff to say about design research. Her book is a bit different than I was expecting, thin on analysis and methods (which she normally writes about), though rich on stimulus material to ponder for high level creative insight.

The odd thing about the book, on my first look over, is that it suggests through its presentation that ethnography is mostly about generating high level creative insights, rather than finding granular insights that shape a specific project related to the scope of one’s investigation.

Anyone else have reactions?

I was excited to see that she was doing a book because she’s just such a brilliant person, but I was a little confused to see (from reading the description on Amazon) that it mostly seemed like a book of photographs (and an expensive book at that) that would illustrate something by example of how insightful field research can be.

It wasn’t clear what I would get out of reading that or owning that?

I haven’t seen the book, yet.

Is this along the lines of the IDEO brainstorming cards (not their proper name, I guess) - another example of them putting out artifacts into the market that can help others engage in the kind of thinking that they are are branded with themselves?

Yes, I think there are similarities to the Ideo method cards. She does talk about a few cases about how observations influenced specific designs in the back of the book, but it is mostly photos of milk cartons and other detrus. Very focused documenting different examples of “human traces”. The back of the book has a brief paragraph on each photo, norminally an open ended question. Certainly no trade secrets revealed, but an enjoyable toy.

There’s a web site that shows some of the book images:

I was pretty disapppointed with “thoughtless acts”. I was expecting some sort of explanatory text, some guidlines to use when I am conducting user research, but instead I got some pictures of bike riders, people with fingers in their books, and cryptic titles for each section.

It certainly did make me think “well that’s neat” a couple times, but the whole description at the end of the book thing was stupid, i tried flipping back and forth for a minute until I got frustrated and quit.

I always compare design books to the “geometry of design”. Kim Elam didn’t just show a bunch of well proportioned objects, she made those cool overlays that unambiguously communicated the beauty and logic of the proportions. It was a slim volume, extremely useful, and it is a tool I can use to explain that ID isn’t just drawing pretty pictures to non-designers in my company. “Thoughtless acts” seems more like a vanity project for ideo than any attempt to actually educate the design world.

Heath at FC gives it a positive review

Although they are rarely negative about anything…

to play the cynic here…

is this book artful, yes

observant, yes.

the thing that leaves a bad tast with me, is this whole movement which seems to be exploiting what people know internally and privately. it seems to me that there is a comercialization and commoditization of a very personal and interanal dialogue that everyone has in themselves. And this takes it away and makes it no longer private nor personal, nor any fun.

it seems to me an effort to capture and ‘own’ some sort of intellectual property around the intimate, and up until now, very trivial moment-to-moment observation of the world around us.

but then again, what is all this for? generating profit. let’s be honest about that one. bettering design? absolutely. but always for profit.

My, you seem to live a secret life, “guest.” I normally think of “intimate” as dealing with relationships with humans, not relationships with objects. I suppose one can romantize anything, and want to keep that feeling special and private. But for the majority of the population that is extroverted, I suspect they consider their relationships to things as part of the social fabric of life, a stage to participate on and watch.

is the interface between a ball bearing an it’s race not intimate?

I like the questions, arguments and the thinking here. Here are some more questions to chew on:

Will the “invasion of anonymity” by nosy corporate ethnographers become the next “invasion of privacy”?

Are relationships between people and objects as important as relationships between people?

Are we (presumably those of us here who work in this field) beginning to develop an expertise in the realtionships between people and objects?

If so, are there other potential applications of our expertise - apart from selling more potato chips or designing better appliances?

I do believe that relationships between people and the objects that they interact with are as vital as with other people.

Why do children value dolls?

why do people value jewlery?

on the flip side of this…

why do we litter so much?

in some ways, it goes back to our relationships with people as far as the value we place on things. But, we learn alot from the things we value, they help us makes sense of our worlds…such as timepeices…

as designers are we not really able to do anything more than to use this knowledge to create more things?

to use this knowledge in another way would be to take it out of the realm of design and into the realm of social interactions- how can we bridge that gap as professionals??

Here is an example of socially-focussed design that a freind of mine, who teaches in Milan did in Burkina Faso. Sorry that the link is in Italian, but basically his sudents began the project with no set assignment - just that they were going to go down there and try to design low cost solutions to whatever problems they encountered.

Of course what they found were fairly intractable cultural/medical problems - not even AIDS-related…e.g. water is traditionally carried by women in a cannister on their heads. The UN medical people there believed - but could not prove scientifically - that this was a reason for an abnormal number of still births and dangerous births that killed the mother.

When the students went down there though, and tried to understand why women persisted in carrying water over their heads this way, they found out that this is one of their cultures ways in which women attract the attention of men, and that it was not simply a matter of changing the manner of carrying stuff overnight. Anyway, you can see on this site (despite the Italian) how they began to try to address these issues. Some of the solutions are being built and the UN people are optimistic.

Or is this just another example of “the evils of post-colonial globalization?”

Very good discussion.

I will answer the question, are human-object relationships as important as human-human ones without hesitation. No. The world is in a lot of trouble when this happens. It may happen, though I am optimistic it won’t. Materialism has challenged social relationships as being the paramount value in some socieites. Materialism may be in modest retreat in the US compared with its zenith in the 1980s. In China and other industrializing Asian economies, it is so ascendent it is worrying. Stuff becomes a substitute for balance in life.

The above is my personal opinion, but I think design research supports my view. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in the Meaning of Things, found that people are generally most attached to items that are associated with personal relationships (and he did this research in the hedonsitic 1980s). People are attached to a picture because it reminds them of someone, not because of the intrinsic qualities of the photographic paper. Gifts are more highly prized than washing machines.

Stuff does matter – we need to make it valued, so people enjoy it. But comparatively few people develop emotional attachments to objects based soley on the intrinsic qualities of the objects. Those few people who do often end up becoming designers.

have you ever heard someone say:

you love that bike more than you love me…


I love my new hi fi system.

how about people who collect things? and would never part with them?

I cannot help remembering that Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” was written against a not dissimilar backdrop of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century western world. His is now considered “a materialist” philosophy and is routinely criticized for being overly “materialistic” in outlook (and later, in remedy), while ignoring fundemental human characteristics and motivations, such as greed, acquisitiveness, lust, ego, the desire for power etc. It is worth pointing out here that human characteristics and motivations are precisely what we are studying when we do ethnography - and not just “objects.”

Such criticism of Marx is perhaps a case of winners justice, but Marx’s ideas continually seem to crop up often in these discussion boards - probably as pieces of unwitting shrapnel in capitalist designer’s consciences. Because of these and other limitations of Marx, “materialism” to me is but one means of how relationships between people get lived out. Yes, people do “love their hifi systems.” Brides-to-be flash the shiny rocks on their fingers around for all to see and admire. But what is under the surface of such statements? What is trying to be expressed by people who say and do these things? Surely the proverbial mid-life-crisis red sportscar bought by middle-aged men says something very human doesn’t it?

I have to thus conclude respectfully, that I do not totally share guest’s fears of this “effort to capture and ‘own’ some sort of intellectual property around the intimate, and up until now, very trivial moment-to-moment observation of the world around us.”

Infact I am not sure that “intimacy” is how I would charcterize most relationships (save maybe between sexual devices and those who use them) between people and objects. In my experience, objects seem to be much more “public” - and perhaps even about “how I appear in public” than intimate. But I do appreciate guest’s opening up this discussion.

Why is it that people love their bikes more than other people?

Maybe we should reformulate our questions here: In addition to “Thoughtless Acts,” what do our relationships with objects say about us?

Aggreed, that the focus of this topic is not really about the condition of intimacy between a person and an object, but more of the understanding of emotional attachment/projection.

social conditioning can give us a view of our world and allow us to place value in objects. the level of value for any given object is going to be different from person to person even within the same culture, possibly due to sociopolitical or socioeconomical parameters.

yet i am still drawn to the idea that objects can be ‘intinate’ in peoples lives, and even take on a life of thier own in the eyes of the one who possesses or uses that object. I suppose ownership comes into play, as well as other social boundries.

The activity of aquainting one’s self to an object is of particular interest. When we encounter something, like a coffee cup we have used before, we tend to not look at it very carefully. then, there is the odd occasion, when for some reason we end up staring at it, and notice that there is a small hairline crack in it, that we would have never noticed had we not really looked at the thing before. then we start to look at the whole cup, examining it to see what other little suprises pop out. this is what i mean with intimacy. there can be different levels of aquaintence a person has with an object.

i guess it could simply be semantics here…

Good point. “Guest” also seems to allude to differences in what might be called “design sensitivity”, which I think can affect emotional reaction to design, positively or negatively. People who are sensitive to design (because they are unusually perceptive, fanantical, or rigidly fussy) will have strong feelings about design. The question is whether such feelings are “attachments”, and if so, are such attachments equivalent to the emotional attachments of human relationships.

Cordy’s point about materialism: it does seem to arise as an issue historically during periods of mass affluence (Victorian times or other periods of hightened mass production such as in Asia today.) But Marx reversed subject with object. He assumed material matter drove behavior. We now (outside academia) use materialism to refer to an attitude of people toward objects, rather than the object’s sway over the person.

Another interesting point is the issue of “privacy” in ethnographic research. I would suggestion that concern with privacy differs among people within a common culture, but also that privacy itself is a culturally-determined concept. Privacy is largely the preoccupation of historically northern European cultures. It doesn’t seem so big a concern in southern Europe, Africa, South American and much of Asia (Japan and perhaps the Arab world excepted?) [Please feel free to correct such a sweeping statement…]

Here’s the annoyingly gushy BoingBoing review

The (Flash) Web site has a nice preview of the book and invites you to submit your own thoughtless acts to the growing collection. Still, the hardcopy, published by Chronicle Books, is a beautifully-designed objet d’art that’s well worth the cover price. And Suri’s essay at the end of the book reveals some of the lessons we can learn by opening our eyes to this fun and often-unconscious form of reality hacking.

Reality hacking? Please!

The April 1 parody sites were right on

There’s a flickr group with some discussion about what makes a picture a thoughtless act, etc. I didn’t get a lot out of it in my 30 seconds there (NOT a lot of time invested, so there ya go) plus I’m not too clear on the idea having not seen the book, etc.

And here’s Wired’s quick review
Thoughtless Acts? Observations on Intuitive Design
Jane Fulton Suri

Want to design the next iPod? Suri - an exec at IDEO, the firm behind the Palm V and Intel’s new concept computer, Florence - demystifies the elite’s creative process. Her advice: Be a fly on the wall. Suri offers candid snapshots of every­day folks who inspire IDEO’s work by unwittingly engaging in improvised product design. Though the writing here is better suited for a cheesy self-help guide, the stories make you want to cash in on duh!-inducing ideas like labeling the plugs on your power strip. - Reena Jans