About Liminal Spaces and Technology

Innovation occurs more frequently on the threshold between disciplines that, theoretically, do not have much in common, like technology and humanities. It is in this doorway, this liminal space, that the best product improvements and groundbreaking concepts are born.

One of the most successful and famous examples of a liminal experience is the calligraphy class taken by Steve Jobs in college, which later inspired him to develop the first computer with “beautiful typography”. In his own words, he “learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.” Who would have thought of any connection between typography and technology before?

It is in liminal areas where the magic happens. Having colorful work experiences, heterogeneous teams and even shared work spaces can prove very useful when designing an innovative product. Every personal experience has an impact on creativity, on the way information is processed and on how connections between concepts that are not so obviously related are made. You can multiply these synergies exponentially by putting together a group of people with diverse cultural and professional backgrounds, and encourage interactions by enabling ambiguous spaces.

Another good example of a liminal context can be found at Xerox‘s Palo Alto Research Center in the 70s, where „ethnographers played an important role in this shifting of perspectives by translating findings from the language and behaviors observed in the field, into implications and information that is usable by business stakeholders. Thus, ethnographers find themselves in a state of tripartite liminality, as they move betwitx and between the boundaries of parties such as researchers, customers, and product team members.“

These synergies occur in two different ways:

  • The human context in which the technology is going to be used provides invaluable information to steer the design process in the right direction. That is, liminalities help designers ensure that the model and the actual usage are in sync, and the assumptions taken to develop the product align with the user needs and behaviour. Hence, it is crucial to include anthropological ingredients in the recipes of product development.
  • Technologies are developed to be used by humans. Therefore, they need to “speak humanish”. From the reasoning and mental model to the user interface, the end users should be able to recognise and replicate parts of their human experience when interacting with technology.

Let‘s take storytelling as an example. Storytelling was originally an oral tradition used to describe the great deeds of historical figures. Storytelling is still a crucial part of every cultural heritage and arts tradition. Nowadays it is used in technology development to explain why what they do matters, which is what humans need to know to identify themselves with a product or a brand and make purchasing decisions. Storytelling works because at the end, technology is used by humans, and they want to see themselves in the product they are going to use. Telling them a story is a good way to start creating these references.

Liminal physical spaces also play an important role in product design and innovation. A good example can be found in Harriet Shortt‘s article about liminality, space and the importance of „transitory dwelling spaces“ at work. Shortt‘s article is based on „empirical data gathered from a nine-month study of hairdressers working in hair salons and explores the function and meaning of liminal spaces used by hairdressers in their everyday lives. The contribution of this article is three-fold; it argues that space is not just about dominant spaces; it extends the concept of liminality; and in connection with the latter, it demonstrates how transitory dwelling places offer fertile ground in which we might further develop our knowledge of the lived experiences of space at work...The ‘no man’s land’ feature of liminal space is an important characteristic and, as such, spaces like these are not easily defined in terms of their use, are not clearly ‘owned’ by a particular party and are where anything can happen (Turner, 1974). Although the notion of anything may happen is perhaps a somewhat far-reaching claim, liminal spaces are nonetheless in direct comparison to dominant spaces; those spaces that are defined by mainstream uses, that characteristically have clear boundaries and where the practices within them are interwoven with social expectation, routines and norms. Using Dale and Burrell’s assessment of the organization of space, liminal spaces are thus ‘alternative’ to the unambiguous, demarcated spaces of organizational life, and ‘imply alternative organization’ and radical difference.“ In a nutshell, places like a corridor or the coffee corner are detached from any dominant influence, which encourages people to speak more freely and share experiences and opinions, since they can get rid of some constraints implicitly present in other „dominant“ spaces, like the manager‘s office.

The key is to be ready to move away from your usual thinking patterns, be open to get input from the field, from your colleagues and other stakeholders, and experiment without fear of failure. Additionally, you can try to use methodologies and approaches that were initially designed to accomplish a different purpose, and that, with minimal adaptations, can help you find a new way of doing things and foster innovation.

I try to follow this approach when creating technical documentation, which is just another way of designing a product. Besides putting myself in my readers‘ shoes, I always try to think out of the box and find new uses to solutions that were designed to accomplish a different goal, but might also prove useful when implemented in a different context. This way of thinking led me to insert a script that was thought to be used for software products into my documentation project and, as a result, I was able to provide interactive experiences for the readers.

And this is where complex problem solving comes into play. When you are open to see a problem from different perspectives (by using information and methodologies from a variety of fields and disciplines) you can develop alternative solutions that can serve your purpose (or your product’s purpose) better.

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