Friday, November 14, 2014

The future of the smartphone

As we all know it is not easy to predict the future. It is so difficult so it sometimes becomes almost depressing. In this short article with the lead designers Matias Duarte (Google) and Gentry Underwood (Dropbox) are supposed to speculate about the future of the smartphone. They do that by mostly examining the problems with where we are now. It is difficult to see any grand visions or even optimism in their speculations.  They both see the future of the smartphone in its ability to live in an ecology of devices and not as a radical change of the smartphone itself.

It is interesting to see how these two influential designers are discussing the problem of modern smartphones very much in a way that resonates with Albert Borgmann's theory about the "device paradigm". The designers are, in the same way as Borgmann, concerned that the everywhere presence of screens distance us from the "real" reality and Underwood ends by saying "I hope as we push these screens forward, we do it with an attention to what makes life meaningful." This relates to the notion of focal practices by Borgmann.

The short article is a fascinating read. Is this the forefront of the field? Is this the visionary thinking? I find the article to be inspiring in the sense that it is refreshing to see Borgmann's philosophy being present in this type of context, at the same time I find it a bit sad that there are no bold ideas how to deal with the problems that they recognize. The solutions seem to be more of the same unfortunately.



[This challenge of device ecologies is something that I have worked on in different ways and is published:

Janlert, L-E., & Stolterman, E. (forthcoming). Faceless Interaction - a conceptual examination of the notion of interface: past, present and future. In Human-Computer Interaction.

Stolterman, E. , Jung, H., Ryan, W., and Siegel, M. A. (2013) Device Landscapes: A New Challenge to Interaction Design and HCI Research. Archives of Design Research, 26(2), 7-33.]

Friday, November 07, 2014

Amazon Echo and Faceless Interaction

Amazon is presenting a new device called Echo. It is a voice controlled device that makes it possible to play music, ask questions (Siri style), create shopping lists, set alarms, etc. It is supposed to have a
sophisticated microphone system that can recognize commands even when playing music. You can place it anywhere in a room and control it with your voice. You can check out the video link found on this page.

I find this really interesting. It is a step towards what Lars-Erik Janlert and I call "faceless interaction" in our article "Faceless Interaction - a conceptual examination of the notion of interface: past, present and future".

This type of faceless interaction, that is, interactivity without a "real" interface (defined in the article), is becoming more common and the issues we discuss in the article, for instance, interaction clutter becomes more prominent. When we have not just one but many faceless interactions in our environment, new challenges become apparent to interaction designers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Design Way (third print of paperback!)

Just got the good news from MIT Press that they are preparing the third print of the paperback version (first print came out earlier this Fall) of our book The Design Way. This is exciting. It means that for some reason people are buying the book! If you are one of them -- thanks.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Anatomy of Prototypes

In preparation of a lecture on Monday I had to re-read an article that I wrote together with Youn-Kyoung Lim and Josh Tenenberg called "The Anatomy of Prototypes: Prototypes as Filters, Prototypes as Manifestations of Design Ideas".

I don't think I have read the whole article in a few years which is always an exciting  and a bit nervous experience. Anyway, this time I was pleasantly surprised. I really find this article to be interesting and still useful. Unfortunately I have not done any more work on this topic since we wrote this article but after having read it now, I think I  have to.

I am more convinced than ever that what our field needs are analytical tools that makes it possible to investigate specific entities in a structured way. In this article we propose an anatomy of prototypes that supports such investigations of one of the most important entities in our field--the prototype.

It would be great if we could develop similar "anatomies" for other entities in our field. The 'power' of anatomies (or frameworks) is that they (if done well)  provide clear definitions that support examinations, categorizations and understanding without being prescriptive. The anatomy of prototypes that we provide in our article is a conceptual tool for the analysis and description of every possible prototype without saying anything at all how to design prototypes or what constitute a good prototype (except in a very abstract but principled and precise way).

Anyway, good to return to "old" texts and to discover that they still can be valuable and not outdated.

A video talk: Improving Design without Destroying it

I did a Skype talk with the Belgium CHI community the other day. The title of my talk was "Improving Design Without Destroying it". They recorded the talk and it is now available on Youtube.

There is an introduction of about 5 min before my talk starts. Here is an abstract of the talk. I am not sure how well I stayed with the topic though....

"The design process is today highly appreciated for the kind of results it can deliver. This appreciation can be found within academia as well as in the  business world. At the same time there is in many communities a noticeable  uneasiness of the ambiguous character and the apparent elusiveness of the  methods of design. This unease has led to many attempts to transform or improve the design process, for instance with the purpose to make the process more efficient, rational, predictable, and safe. However, many of these attempts  have lead to results that are detrimental to the design process, because they  impose conditions, limitations, restrictions, procedures, and measures of success that are not grounded a deep understanding of design as a unique approach of inquiry and action. In my talk I will examine approaches to and examples  of design process improvements that are destructive to design, but I will also explore and discuss some safe alternatives to improving design."

Friday, October 03, 2014

Article Note: "A design thinking rationality framework: framing and solving design problems in early concept generation" by Jieun Kim and Hokyoung Ryu

I just read this (quite long) article "A design thinking rationality framework: framing and solving design problems in early concept generation" by Jieun Kim and Hokyoung Ryu (in Human-Computer Interaction, 2014 Vol 27). I did not know about this work at all but was positively surprised. The authors are doing a great job in referencing a lot of contemporary design theorists. The authors clearly know the field. They also report from a large experiment where they engaged experienced and non-experienced (novice) designers in a design task. The insights from the study is primarily that experienced designers are more effective in framing a design problem but also that they "stick" to their early ideas (what the authors call "design fixation"), while inexperienced designers are not as good at framing a design problem but instead are more willing to let go of initial ideas.

I think these findings are interesting, specifically since I usually hear people argue that inexperienced designers are the ones who stick to their initial ideas while experienced designers do not. The fact that experienced designer are better at framing design problems is less surprising. Anyhow, a lot of interesting material in this article.

My only concern with the work is (something that often concerns me with research articles) when the authors try to use their findings as a tool to improve the design process. They write "These studies might suggest how to develop a creativity-support system that can help expert designers avoid bias and design fixation and assist novice designers in approaching better design strategies". I do not mind so much the second part, the one about novice designers, but I have a problem with the first part.

If it is a fact that experienced designers are more engaged in design fixation (that is, staying with an initial idea) I would be very careful in drawing the conclusion that that is a bad thing. Expert designers probably have this particular behavior because they realize (maybe not consciously) that this behavior leads to good consequences. There are some studies out there that support and argue that the idea of sticking with early ideas and working with variations of that idea instead of working on many parallel ideas is more successful. Anyway, the leap from observation to implication is always a dangerous and difficult leap. Great observations and insights does not have to be transformed into actionable prescriptions. Many times the observations and insights transformed into theoretical concepts is more than enough.

New type of posts--Article Notes

As some of you have noticed over the years I now and then write Book Notes. These notes are not real reviews, but they are comments on books that I am reading or have read. I have now realized that I can do the same thing with journal articles (maybe later on with conference papers). It is a way for me to force myself to read more carefully and also to formulate my thoughts on what I am reading. If anyone else find these article notes useful then even better.

So if you have some articles that you want me to read and write a note about, just let me know. I might do it....

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Article Note: "Making Things Happen: Social Innovation and Design" by Ezio Manzini

In a recent article, "Making Things Happen: Social Innovation and Design" (2014 Design Studies), Ezio Manzini discusses what social innovation is and how it relates to design. The article is quite short and is based on a discussion of cases where Manzini sees social innovation at play. Overall this article is interesting but it is quite brief in its treatment of the cases and the way Manzini deals with both the notion of social innovation and design leads to some really good questions.

I will only comment on one of the insights in the paper since I find the analysis of the cases as different forms of social innovation only to serve as background to the main argument. Manzini is making the case that social innovation involves design. It is possible to read the article in a way that makes it almost impossible to distinguish the two based on the definitions Manzini uses. However, at the end of the article Manzini states that designers (I read this as professionally educated and trained designers) can act in different roles when it comes to social innovation. He mentions the roles of facilitators, triggers, members of co-design teams, and design activists. He writes that at the moment the role as facilitators is today the most common, but argues that the roles as triggers and activists "seem to be very promising". He comments, "In fact, operating in this way, designers can make the best use of their specific sets of capabilities and their special sensitivity." He ends by stating "In other words, "making things happen" seems to be the most concise way to express what could be the most effective and specific role for designers".

I believe that many would find this position as commendable and something to aspire to. Who would argue against the idea that designers should activity try to change society, to make things happen, to engage in social innovation? Well, I find this reasoning to be troublesome. Depending on how you define design and designing, this shifting of roles is  not easily done without serious consequences. Manzini writes about designers "specific sets of capabilities and their special sensitivity". To me, these capabilities and sensibilities are developed because professional designers are trained to be in service of others. Designers work with clients, customers, and users. They have the capability and sensibility to work in close relation with the people to reveal their needs and wants and to be able to imagine new solutions that can fulfill their desires. As soon as a designer becomes a "trigger" of change or an activist, this relationship changes fundamentally. Now the designer is seeing his or her own desires as the primary purpose and goals. The designers role now becomes one of an activist which is a political role which brings ideologies and values to the forefront. There is of course nothing wrong with this, but it also means that the capabilities and sensibilities need for this type of activity is necessarily in the toolbox of most designers. They are not necessarily trained in public policy, the philosophy of government, democracy and activism, etc. They do not necessarily have the capability and sensibility for being the leader of a social change. To me, as soon as a designer becomes an activist, he is primarily an activist that maybe secondarily draws on his designerly competence. The measure of success is no longer if he is a good design, but if he is a good activist. I am quite sure that these two roles requires radically different capabilities and sensibilities (even though there may be some overlap).

The question of what constitutes the role of a professional designer requires an ongoing discussion. New proposals related to design, such as critical design, adversarial design, etc., all raise the fundamental question what the designer is. To me, there is a difference between the role of a designer and the role of someone who is primarily something else and uses design as an approach (as some of the people described in Manzini's article).

As you can see, I am not really sure what my argument here is. It is obvious that the article by Manzini stimulated me more than I thought when I read it. The article raises the question of the role of the designer in a way that leads to more questions, such as what is it that determines one role or another. I am afraid that if the role of a designer, social innovator, activist, etc. collapses then we have lost something. Keeping roles distinct (at least in theory, as Weber's "ideal types") is useful in scholarly discussions, even though in practice it may be less crucial.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The common mistake of seeing design as a particular field or profession

I have written here before about the mistake of seeing design as a profession and/or a discipline. To me, design is an approach, a way of approaching reality with the purpose to change it. There are no given design areas or disciplines. Instead it is the nature of the problem/situation that usually determines what is a field or discipline. So, for instance, graphic design is a field that has to do with graphic and visual artifacts, architecture is a field that engages with buildings and structure, etc. They are not by nature design fields or disciplines.

Graphic design has some similarities with architecture of course. Some of those similarities can be seen as related to materials, surfaces and structures. Some similarities have to do with how people perceive forms, shapes and colors and their combinations. To me it is obvious that you can approach these qualities either with a scientific approach or with a designerly approach or with a combination. This means that graphic design and architecture can, depending on how we understand them, be seen either as two science based disciplines or two design based disciplines.

This is why it becomes so confusing when people or companies try to state what design is based only on their experiences in one field and only from one persepctive. For instance, Zillions Design (a logo design company) puts out what they call a Periodic Table of Winning Design Elements. They write:

"The following infographic on the Periodic Table of Winning Design Elements, completely sums up what goes on in the design field right from what basic skills designers need to have to design elements to how to handle clients."

Of course they don't mean that this is table in a comprehensive way describes all design elements for all design areas. They probably think about logo design. But they don't state that, which is unfortunate. It creates a lot of confusion. It is possible to develop a periodic table of design elements that is meant to be true for all design areas (see my book "The Design way" as an attempt to do that). I would welcome anyone who would engage in the attempt to further an understanding of design, not as a discipline or profession, but as an overall human approach of inquiry and action that can deliver outcomes that other approaches (science, art, politics, etc) can not.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Faceless Interaction - a conceptual examination of the notion of interface: past, present and future

Now the article by Lars-Erik Janlert and me is published on the Human-Computer Interaction Journals website. I am very happy to see this article published!


Janlert, L-E., & Stolterman, E. (2014). Faceless Interaction - a conceptual examination of the notion of interface: past, present and future. In Human-Computer Interaction

Abstract

In the middle of the present struggle to keep interaction complexity in check as artifact complexity continues to rise and the technical possibilities to interact multiply, the notion of interface is scrutinized. First, a limited number of previous interpretations or thought styles of the notion are identified and discussed. This serves as a framework for an analysis of the current situation with regard to complexity, control, and interaction, leading to a realization of the crucial role of surface in contemporary understanding of interaction. The potential of faceless interaction, interaction that transcends traditional reliance on surfaces, is then examined and discussed, liberating possibilities as well as complicating effects and dangers are pointed out, ending with a sketch of a possibly emerging new thought style.