Friday, September 28, 2018

Faceless Interaction: Interaction Richness and Precision

The growth of intelligent assistants of different kinds is leading to more faceless interactions as we have defined it in our book "Things That Keep Us Busy-the elements of interaction" (Janlert & Stolterman, MIT Press 2017). Below is an excerpt from the book that touches on what this change could mean when it comes to interaction richness and precision.

"Faceless interaction may seem to open up for smooth or analog interaction more than surface-bound interaction does, but perhaps that is a false impression. Spoken natural language has a dominant digital component in the phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases, sentences, and so on, although there remains an analog component as well in the form of intonation and prosody (but note that tone in itself can be used for digital communication as well, as in Mandarin where there are four distinctive, semantically significant “tones”). There are also important examples of analog surface- bound forms of expression, such as drawing and painting. The richness that is inherent in analog interaction usually comes at the cost of skill. The ease with which users can handle complex interactions via surface-bound digital expressions—for example, by clicking buttons without a lot of motor skill or precision required—is a strength that faceless interaction may lack. So, even though the richness of analog and faceless interaction is appealing it may also lead to lack of precision and ease.
       For instance, playing the electronic musical instrument called the theremin seems to be much harder than playing the violin. The completely free gestures by which the theremin is operated are hard to make precise. To enable precise actions, it seems that some kind of physical support and resistance is required to deliver precise haptic feedback, implying surface- bound interaction.
       Free gestures seem to leave room for endless variations and subtle nuances, also open for more spontaneous expressions and reactions. At the same time, they are, just as much as the vocal apparatus, a usable basis for creating digital expressions and impressions. Consider, for example, regular sign languages and smaller sign vocabularies developed for specific uses, for example, the hand and arm signs used by military personnel.
       Auto-Tune is an audio processor that can correct the pitch of singers sing- ing slightly out of tune, digitizing the pitch of an analog voice. Something similar could no doubt be arranged for the theremin. The use of Auto-Tune has been criticized both for making inept singers sound as if they actually “can sing”—and for flattening, “photoshopping,” the human voice. That you can sing off key shows there is richness of expression (expressive elbow room) but if you don’t develop your ability to control pitch you cannot exploit that richness. It is quite clear that small, tightly controlled deviations from the nominal pitch work as an important expressive device in vocal music, as in much instrumental music.
     It seems as if faceless interaction has a tendency to influence the relationship between richness and precision. Whether this relationship also has the quality of being a tradeoff is less clear. What is clear is that any designer making decisions about faceless interactions has to consider the relationship between richness and precision, between digital and analog, in a more developed way than is required for traditional interfaces." (Page 161-162)

Monday, September 24, 2018

Understanding Designing: Getting Too Close

There is a lot of research aimed at 'exploring', 'dissecting' and 'examining'  important human activities with the purpose to 'reveal' and 'unpack' its inner structure and mechanisms.  For instance, creativity, learning, and designing are all human activities that are constantly examined.

This ambition is easy to understand.  Humans want to improve their activities and to be able to improve they have to understand how things work. For instance, to improve designing, first, we need to have a good understanding of what it can do, how it is done, how it can be done, and maybe how it should be done, etc. So we need more research on the process of designing.

We can formulate abstract theories and philosophies about designing as a human activity. We can study what designers are actually doing when they design. We can produce infinite amounts of data on different design processes, in different areas, with different designers, with different purposes, knowledge, skills, experience, etc.

But, can we get too close? The knowledge about designing that can be created is infinite. We can go layer after layer, closer to the 'real' thing. But for each layer, we add combinatorial complexity that quickly becomes impossible to handle and manage. We end up with knowledge that is extraordinarily complex and as fast as it grows in detail and complexity, it loses its practical relevance and potential guidance for improvement.

This is a well-known effect in systems theory. Getting closer gives you a clear picture of a defined part of the whole but may lead to a completely wrong understanding of the whole. This is what I see a lot today when it comes to research about designing. We see an overwhelming stream of research results dealing with this or that aspect of designing. We learn a lot, but where is the broader picture. Where are the attempts to combine all the details, to develop a whole?

We might need the details...maybe, but we definitely need the understanding of the whole.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book note: "Design for the Pluriverse - Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds" by Arturo Escobar

There are many different kinds of books about design and designing. The way they differ is diverse. It is fascinating to see the breadth and scope of books trying to describe, prescribe, define, advocate, or change design.

A simple list (far from comprehensive) would include design-related books that engage with:
-- "how to" practical aspects of the design process (approaches, methods, tools, skills, etc),
--  how to relate design to other approaches, such as art or science,
--  the history of design,
--  designed artifacts and systems in a particular field (buildings, chairs, systems, pens, etc.)
--  philosophical and theoretical thoughts on design
--  ___________

There are of course others too. For instance, there is a category of design books that engage with design and designing form the perspective of what to achieve with design. These treatments of design are usually a bit more philosophical and definitely more ideological and political. In this kind of books, design is almost seen as a "tool", as a way to achieve a particular goal.

One such book is recently published and written by Arturo Escobar with the title "Design for the Pluriverse - Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds".

This is a book that "presents a new vision of design theory and practice aimed at channeling design's world-making capacity towards ways of being and doing that are deeply attuned to justice and the Earth." (from the book cover).

In the description, we can see how design is seen as a "tool" as the author wants to use "design's world-making capacity" to achieve "being and doing that are deeply attuned to justice and the Earth". Escobar does this by relying on certain philosophical foundations and what he calls 'ontological design'. It is an interesting book and an ambitious project that Escobar is involved in.

To me, maybe the most interesting aspect of the book is not the proposed "new vision" but a question that Escobar asks. He writes "Here again we confront one of the key issues of this book: can design be extricated from its embeddedness in modernist unsustainable and defuturing practices and redirected toward other ontological commitments, practices, narratives, and performances? Moreover, could design become part of the tool kit for transitions toward the pluriverse?" (p 15)

This type of question is similar to what is often asked in science and art. Each approach is often accused to be the instrument for certain goals and disinterested in others. They are accused to have some 'built in' bias that leads the approach/tool to only support certain outcomes. Escobar is arguing that designing has a built-in bias in its "embeddedness in modernist unsustainable and defuturing practices". Escobar's ambition is to reveal that bias and to explore and develop a possible alternative 'bias'. As a project, I find this highly interesting.

To me, maybe the most interesting observation stimulated by this book is the question about the nature of the core of design as a human approach to change. Escobar must see that the built-in bias in design is not an intrinsic quality, not part of the core. If it were, then the project would be futile. Instead, the alternative 'bias' seems to be something that can be added on to or infused in the approach. So, is there in Escobar's view a design approach that is not biased, that is the pure approach? Or is it always the case that any use of the 'tool' design is instilled with some bias?

(Of course, we can see how this question relates to the old discussion in the philosophy of science about the question of science as unbiased or not.)

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Want to think like a designer

I saw this headline today

"Want to think like a designer? Try these 4 simple exercises
Even simple drawing exercises can get your creative juices flowing."

Why is it that thinking like a designer seems to be so easy to do and to learn. We do not very often see headlines like

"Want to think like a heart surgeon? Try these 4 simple exercises
Even simple cutting exercises can get your surgical skills flowing."

Of course, there is a difference. We cannot train as surgeons by cutting in people, but all of us can make drawings without any dangerous outcomes. But that does not necessarily make us good designers or help us think like designers. To do good design is difficult. It requires a lot of knowledge and expertise and experience.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

New course: Elements of interaction

I am very excited to start my new course on Monday next week.  It is a graduate course called "The elements of interaction". It is based on my book "Things that keep us busy--the elements of interaction" (Janlert & Stolterman, 2018). It is always exciting to start a course but even more when the course is new and you have never taught it before. It will be fun and hopefully work out well!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Interacting with versus being with


In our book "Things That Keep Us Busy - Elements of Interaction" we make the case that interaction is an activity that has to fulfill certain criteria to be called interaction. We define a "window of interaction" with eight dimensions. Each dimension has to be within a certain range for an activity to be understood or labeled as interaction. This means that not all activities where humans 'use' things or systems are interactions.

So, what is everything else, all our encounters with the reality around us, if not interactions? Well, most of the "interactions" with our everyday environment seem better defined as being with. For instance, it does not feel natural to say that we interact with our home (even though this is maybe changing today). Instead, we live in our home. We might interact with people, but that seems to be most appropriate when it is people in specific roles, we usually do not say we interact with our children, spouse, or friends (even though some might, since our use of language has changed a lot).

If we accept this distinction between "interacting with" (interactive things and systems) versus "being with" (family and friends) is it possible to say something about how our contemporary society is changing. Yes, I think so. It seems as if there is an ongoing movement that transforms "interacting with" to "being with". People are looking for interactions with things that are natural and intuitive, that are similar to what they are used to when it comes to "being with". We are not interacting with our thermostat anymore, we are living with a home that recognizes our presence and desires. A home that adapts to us and our habits, that lives with us. We are more and more living with our smartphones. We do not necessarily see it as if we are interacting with them. They are always present, they are our companions, they are part of who we are.

Some questions arise. What is it that we gain and lose when we move from "interacting with" to "being with"? What are the long-term consequences of such a shift? When should we strive to not make this shift happen? And when is such a shift a way to reach an everyday life that is more "natural" and less determined by technology?

Friday, July 06, 2018

Designers are not heroes

In the midst of today's glorifying of design as an approach that can achieve anything, there is an unflattering stroke of hubris. Of course, I truly believe in design as a unique approach that can deliver outcomes that set designing apart from other approaches. But when designers start to see themselves as the 'one', as those who will solve the issues that no one else can solve, then I have some issues.

Designers commonly work in service of a client. They are paid to do work for a client. This is all good. When designers act on their own, without a client, they become activists (or in some cases artists). This is also fine. To be an activist means that you primarily take a personal and often political stance.  It means that you act on some deep beliefs, values, and/or ideology. In that case, you are not a designer, you are an activist that maybe uses some form of a designerly approach.

This is quite certainly a non-issue for most people and maybe to me too. But there is a serious aspect to this. When people start to act in the world and claim that they do it in the name of "design", then I see a problem. It creates a very specific problem for the tradition or approach of design. Designers are not necessarily equipped to deal with all kinds of problems in the world, which means that they will fail. It is a similar kind of problem or hubris as when some scientists argue that science is the way to approach all societal problems.

It is obvious to me that design as an approach is not 'designed' to handle complex societal issues in absence of a client. Each stakeholder involved in an issue may use a designerly approach of course, but there is no 'pure' or clean designerly way of approaching an issue that would make designers more suited than others to deal with a societal problem (unless the problem is of a type that is uniquely suited for a designerly approach).

Maybe more problematic is when designers see themselves as saviors or even heroes that are equipped with a more powerful approach than others, and they start to 'help' others without working in a close client relationship. Client-less 'independent' designers are no different than any other type of activist trying to impose their 'solutions' on others. To be clear, I have no problem with designers doing this as activists. In many cases, great designers can achieve great results in this manner. But it should not be done in the name of 'design'. It should be done as someone aspiring to create change and who is trying to use a designerly approach.

I truly understand that this reasoning is subtle and to most has no value or importance, but for me it is crucial.

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