Posted on Aug 23, 2010

(early concept for Iron Man 2 by Prologue)

Exploring semantics
I think about language, definitions, taxonomies/folksonomies and semantics constantly and find an enormous amount of value for myself and others in doing so (as a friend at NASA recently wrote to me, “Sometimes…labeling something is just the spark that’s needed.”). This post is a bit of an “out-loud” personal exploration for a term that defines my approach to design.

Lately, I’ve been sifting through terminology debates over “interaction design” versus “user experience design” versus “human interface design”. There’s, 52 Weeks of UX’s “Is the term “UX” being marginalized?” post. There’s Dan Saffer’s thoughts on how the majority of designers don’t fill the full umbrella of what “user experience” covers and that the title interaction designer is more accurate (and IMHO, cooler sounding than UX) in most cases. There’s commentary around how thoughtful Apple is for using the label “human interface” instead of “user”. And don’t get me started on the term “service design” (I have quite a rant for why I don’t like it).

I find that all of these terms lack something for me. User experience, despite its great thinking around holistic ecosystems, does have the fatal flaw of the term “user”, which assumes a narrow technosocial delegation of roles between technologies and people. Putting “user” aside and just using the label Experience Designer sits awkwardly for me – it sounds like I’d be some sort of event curator, like a Wedding Planner. Interaction design is precise, and as a result can be seen as pertaining to a fairly narrow set of tasks. Human interface design’s “pro’s” are also what I would consider to be its “con’s” – focusing on humans as the end-all entity to design for, leaving behind machines, data and systems as things that will only ever need to directly interact with humans. Designing with only humans in mind creates major gaps in knowledge about how technology works and why (perhaps why Apple chooses to use the word “magic”?).

Thus far with my work, I’ve used the term digital anthropologist – someone who studies interaction between humans and digital ecosystems. I still find this title to be accurate, however, anthropology, I would argue, sometimes suffers from not being perceived as an applied science, mostly remaining contained to academia. On the “applied” end of my work, my approach and aim with design focuses around the systematic integration of man, devices, data, and the systems that living/non-living objects operate within. The term Human-Computer Interaction starts to get at the heart of it, but using the term “computer” still feels a little narrow.

Zeroing in on the term cybernetics
Through my exploration so far, I have begun zeroing in on the term Cybernetics as one that closely defines what I aspire to do in my design work. Cybernetics gets more at the science of interaction between things and how they connect to create an overall system (or “experience”). It also seems like a good fit with my active interest and work with the science community.

The dictionary definition of Cybernetics is “the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things”. There’s a whole world of design that exists outside of focusing only on humans. Thinking about how objects and data interact, how they work at the level of a crystal oscillator, and how they can be given the ability to communicate outside of their own technological species. I’m fascinated by this world similar to how I’m fascinated with space exploration – it’s why I’ve been learning the basics of Python and Arduino in my spare time, it’s why I typically surround myself with developers. Putting cybernetics under the microscope further:

From those that coined the term, “a cyborg, or “cybernetic organism”, was initially defined as follows: “The Cyborg deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulating control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments.” This verbose sentence can be simplified to, the cyborg represents “a notion of human-machine merging””.

Many people when they first hear the term cybernetics, they think of it pertaining mostly to the overtly physical; machines being embedded in our skin, wired to our nervous system. But, cybernetics can also pertain to being something that is mental, requires physical interaction (as opposed to embedded), and/or is based in how a system of things work together. As Andy Clark, a cognitive scientist, pointed out, “we shall be cyborgs not in the merely superficial sense of combining flesh and wires but in the more profound sense of being human-technology symbionts”. When you consider the definition further, it’s something that is completely ubiquitous to us now. As my friend Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist, often points out, cybernetic organisms are not the dystopian future from Star Trek – we are already cyborgs. We sit inside exoskeletons on highways that allow us to travel at super fast speeds, we create what can be considered to be technosocial wormholes when we make a phone call, etc.

“Cybernetics … has evolved from a “constructivist” view of the world [von Glasersfeld 1987] where objectivity derives from shared agreement about meaning, and where information (or intelligence for that matter) is an attribute of an interaction rather than a commodity stored in a computer [Winograd & Flores 1986].”

So what does being a designer with a focus on cybernetics mean?
To me, it’s an aspiration of thinking about and finding balances within augmented human experiences, the potential of assimilated technology and science in living and non-living organisms, social interactions, and systems on both intimate and astronomically large scales. I think Tom Igoe’s Making Things Talk is in my direct line-of-sight on some of this.

So, a simplified example is, if a “non-cybernetic design approach” results in a large touch-screen interface of data (or as Mike Kuniavsky would refer to it, a “terminal”) within a museum exhibit, a cybernetic approach might result in a networked experience like the London Science Museum’s The Science of Spying exhibit. As you explore the exhibit, a magnetic ID card tracks your performance data within a system of interactive installations (or individual “machines”), porting the data to a “meta machine” of unified information. Various ID touch points are scattered throughout to guide you through the exhibit. A couple of people’s work that begins to intersect on a similar level is Adam Greenfield’s thinking around urban systems design and Jane McGonigal’s reality-based gaming.

At this point, I’m still struggling with the exact words that sit well within the larger umbrella of system/community strategy and design for living and non-living organisms. Cybernetic interaction designer? Cybernetic UX designer? Cybernetics designer? Cybernetic experience designer? I’m curious of your thoughts.

Right now, I’m using Cybernetic UX Designer, including UX almost as an outward beacon to a community of searchers – something which Whitney Hess sums up nicely: “At best, [UX is] a common awareness, a thread that ties together people from different disciplines who care about good design, and who realize that today’s increasingly complex design challenges require the synthesis of different varieties of design expertise.” (Update: I now thing Cybernetic Interaction Designer is more accurate to use)

In my discussions with Amber on my thoughts, she somehow implanted a chip in my brain and summed it up in a way that tickles the space geek in me:

“The idea is that spacesuits fit people for space travel, to become accustomed to external hostile environments. In the same way, a Cybernetic UX designer is designing interfaces for people to handle environments full of intense amounts of data radiation, etc., so that a user might be able to survive their trip through the Internet and arrive at their final destination. A well-designed interface protects people from the hostile environment of raw, complex data. It helps them to breathe as they go about their work.”


  1. C Thomas Edwards
    August 26, 2010

    I think you’re in a bit of trouble with the use of cybernetics in this way. Cybernetics itself has nothing to do with cyborgs, although there’s a lot of study on cyborg theory which uses cybernetics. The Cyborg Reader, published by Routledge might be of interest to you. Cybernetics is focused on the study of basically feedback loops and self-regulating systems. It’s as interested in biochemical feedback loops in the brain, or social relationships which have feedback loops in them. It’s just about complex systems. You seem to be conflating cybernetics with cybernetic organisms, which is sort of the same as confusing the colour blue with a a blue flower.

  2. Simon Bostock
    August 27, 2010

    Loved this. I work in training/Learning & Development/Organisational Development/Knowledge Management.

    If you’re a geeky practitioner in these fields, you tend to be interested either in the nature of information or psychological stuff. This is a crude either/or statement, but it seems to hold up well.

    I’ve taken to calling myself a hypergogue, which is pretty much a Cybernetic Coach, to use your term. There seems little point, these days, in imagining any user/learner without their city-as-battlesuit (or their phone-universal-remote-control). Or to treat people as not being aware of the game/systems that they’re participating in.

    I’m not adding much here, am I? Anyhoo, thanks for this. Building a better spacesuit is a wonderful image.

  3. Ariel Waldman
    August 28, 2010

    @C Thomas – My thinking with this post was actually about designing for systems (augmented human experiences as just being a piece of that system, not the main focus). I mention that point a few times throughout the post, but perhaps I just need to underline it a bit more since I also mention a few things in relation to cyborgs?

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    September 20, 2010

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  5. Derek Kinsman
    September 20, 2010

    Arial, this article is great. I absolutely agree. Mostly. You seem to end on Cybernetic Interaction Designer as the potential best candidate for the title. In the same way Apple removes all the technology from their naming conventions this removes the human element. Maybe not for everyone, but the general public might relate cybernetics to the evil robotics of the dystopian future world. Which is only because that’s how all cybernetics gets portrayed in entertainment.

    I’d like to recommend Human Cybernetics Interaction as an option. Playing on the already existing HCI. But the computer part just doesn’t express the digital age we’re in now. Human Cybernetics Interaction/Design could also fold in the majority of Human Factors.

    I wrote about my thoughts on design titles and potential deeper issues at and have linked to this post. It was probably that *spark* I needed. Anyway, thanks for an interesting post. This is the kind of stuff I banter about at the pub with my friends.

  6. Cameron
    October 20, 2010

    Nice article! I’m always intrigued by the origin and development of words and language. Technology seems to be the area with the most dynamic language by far. Keep up the good work!

  7. jod kaftan
    March 27, 2011

    While I think it’s great to read someone who says something thoughtful about the field (in the face of the glut of posts out there fixated on design methodology) I disagree with the premise that our scope somehow exceeds the human realm. We are not designing a spacesuit to protect humans (internal) from raw data (external). We are humanizing the velocity of data. We are making the inorganic an an authentic extension of th organic system that conceived it. Mostly we are enabling human beings to resonate at light speed

  8. datawhore
    July 19, 2011

    Very interesting. You nailed it!