Glass Enterprise Edition Doesn’t Seem So Creepy

Google Glass has returned — as Glass Enterprise Edition. The company’s website suggests that it can be used in professional settings–such as manufacturing, logistics, and healthcare — for specific work applications, such as accessing training videos, annotated images, handsfree checklists, or sharing your viewpoint with an expert collaborator. This is a very different imagined future with Glass than in the 2012 “One Day” concept video where a dude walks around New York City taking pictures and petting dogs. In fact, the idea of using this type of product in a professional working space, collaborating with experts from your point of view sounds a lot like the original Microsoft HoloLens concept video (mirror).

This is not to say one company followed or copied another (and in fact Hololens’ more augmented-reality-like interface and Glass’ more heads-up-display-like interface will likely be used for different types of applications. It is, however, a great example of how a product’s creepiness is partly related to whether it’s envisioned as a device to be used in constrained contexts or not.  In a great opening line which I think sums this well,  Levi Sumagaysay at Silicon Beat says:

Now Google Glass is productive, not creepy.

As I’ve previously written with Deirdre Mulligan [open access version] about the future worlds imagined by the original video presentations of Glass and HoloLens, Glass’ original portrayal of being always-on (and potentially always recording), invisible to others, taking information from one social context and using it in another, used in public spaces, made it easier to see it as a creepy and privacy-infringing device. (It didn’t help that the first Glass video also only showed the viewpoint of a single imagined user, a 20-something-year-old white man). Its goal seemed to be to capture information about a person’s entire life — from riding the subway to getting coffee with friends, to shopping, to going on dates. And a lot of people reacted negatively to Glass’ initial explorer edition, with Glass bans in some bars and restaurants, campaigns against it, and the rise of the colloquial term “glasshole.” In contrast, HoloLens was depicted as a very visible and very bulky device that can be easily seen, and its use was limited to a few familiar, specific places and contexts — at work or at home, so it’s not portrayed as a device that could record anything at any time. Notably, the HoloLens video also avoided showing the device in public spaces. HoloLens was also presented as a productivity tool to help complete specific tasks in new ways (such as CAD, helping someone complete a task by sharing their point of view, and the ever exciting file sharing), rather than a device that could capture everything about a user’s life. And there were few public displays of concern over privacy. (If you’re interested in more, I have another blog entry with more detail). 

Whether explicit or implicit, the presentation of Glass Enterprise Edition seems to recognize some of the lessons about constraining the use of such an expansive set of capabilities to particular contexts and roles. Using Glass’ sensing, recording, sharing, and display capabilities within the confines of professionals doing manufacturing, healthcare, or other work on the whole helps position the device as something that will not violate people’s privacy in public spaces. (Though it is perhaps still to be seen what types of privacy problems related to Glass will emerge in workplaces, and how those might be addressed through design, use rules, training, an so forth). What is perhaps more broadly interesting is how the same technology can take on different meanings with regards to privacy based on how it’s situated, used, and imagined within particular contexts and assemblages.

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RB: The Paradox of UX Designers

As a relatively new entrant into the world of user experience (UX), and UX Design, the labor that they provide is something that is generally hidden when using information and communication technologies, especially those of new media. It is a common position, team, or even department at most internet companies, and I had never heard of such a job until I began taking human-computer interaction courses at Cornell.

As an example, I looked at Google’s UX & Design job page, where they list the following description:

“Focus on the user and all else will follow.” The job of our User Experience professionals is to make sure that our products are useful, usable and desirable to millions of users worldwide.

The old YouTube video player interface

The human labor exerted within this group includes creating designs, mock-ups and prototypes, doing research, user testing, and creating features that affect how users view and experience a service from Google, such as how the interactions needed to upload or watch a YouTube video, or how the Gmail interface looks. They don’t create content that end users produce or obtain, but they play a vital role in shaping how users experience the actual content of the media.

The new YouTube video player interface – human labor behind the design changes how people experience, receive, and interact with information

 

Downey often discusses in historical examples about how different labor helps information jump contexts, as his sources of labor are directly in the “path of transit” of information – the information has to pass through labor, which helps it “jump” contexts. I am not sure how much that applies in new media – much of the “path of transit” is sustained through technological links; the human labor helps create the platform where this takes place, but the information doesn’t pass directly through the laborers. In other words, UX Designers at Google don’t use their labor to directly format and deliver information, but rather use labor to create and decide how a platform will format and deliver information.

Ironically, much of the labor that UX Designers do is invisible, even though the end product is obviously visible, causing me to call this the paradox of UX Designers. Because the focus of their labor is on creating user experiences, the work that they do emphasizes the relationship between the end users and the technology (such as how does the user interact with Gmail, how do they experience working on Google Docs with other users?), which obscures the very real acts of labor that the UX designers themselves perform, rendering them invisible. Most people don’t think about why webpages are designed a certain way, or the research, iterations, and work behind it – the way it looks and feels is just the way it looks and feels.

An old design of Google Search

Given this, however, it is very important to recognize the labor that UX Designers do, because they are human too. They have their own beliefs, follow various social norms, and operate within a cultural context – and inevitably, some of these beliefs affect their labor, which can affect how users experience, send, and receive information. They are not impervious to creating biases; perhaps an interface for a Google service does not adequately serve someone with a vision disability, or a design may encourage users subconsciously to look at certain search results over others.

The current Google experience, such as instant results without pressing “enter,” and the current design, was created by human labor. This labor, and the cultural context in which it is performed, in turn are hidden, but still affect how users experience information.

Recognizing the role of UX Designers in the network is very important, because the way that we experience the not work is not necessarily the only way or even the best way to experience the network. The ways in which we experience how information is formatted and delivered is the consequence of human choices and actions, and explicitly recognizing the labor that creates our experience can help us be more critical and aware of possible biases in design, and maybe even more imaginative and creative in recognizing that the interactions that we have with information and technology are not the only way to do so.