Friday, April 17, 2015

A note on Tonkinwise "Design Studies - what is it good for?"

Cameron Tonkinwise is one of the more interesting design theorists today. These days he is the Director of Design Studies at the CMU School of Design. In a recent article "Design Studies -- what is it good for?"(Design and Culture, Volume 6, Number 1, March 2014, pp. 5-43(39), Tonkinwise discusses what design studies is and what it can and should be. One basic question that Tonkinwise asks is "who is the intended audience for Design Studies research?" I am very much in agreement that we need this kind of discussion today. There is some confusion and sometimes almost desperation in many programs and schools today that associate themselves with design practice, design thinking, and design studies, be it traditional design schools or traditional academic disciplines trying to become more designerly. The desperation manifests itself in an almost unhealthy reflective stance around questions such as "who are we" and "what are we" when it comes to research.

One of the contributions that to me in a simple way reveals a lot of the intrinsic tensions in this field is captured by Tonkinwise in a table. He calls it the Design Studies Matrix. The table shows what is the nature of Design Studies research. The table shows that the answer is a compilation of answers to the more focused questions: by whom is the research done, the researcher is doing what, in order to achieve what, manifested as what, for whom. Just by reflecting on the table for your own research, a lot of interesting questions arise. I find this very useful.

Skipping to the end of the article (bypassing a more historical analysis of where design studies is today and how it got there), Tonkinwise is raising an interesting question. He argues that design studies research is mostly seen as based on some vaguely defined value of "liberal pluralism", that is, design studies is not actively taking any position, arguing for any particular value, it becomes a seemingly value free exercise. Instead he is arguing for design studies to "commit". When design studies commit to values, it becomes visible and distinct and more importantly for Tonkinwise, it becomes important for other purposes than just to serve designing as a practice.

Tonkinwise is initiating a conversation around an important topic. It is also a complicated topic. For instance, it is commendable to argue as Tonkinwise does based on the idea that research should aim at the greater good, the common good, that it should be guided by values that would lead to some kind of improvement at the largest possible scale. He argues that with such commitment in place the research could "resist the surge of capitalism toward this or that technological imperialism." At the same time, if design studies becomes a form of knowledge production that is guided by certain values it will inevitably be accused of not being guided by scientific principles. For instance,it will not be seen as being guided by pure curiosity with a devoted loyalty to truth.

Of course, research is never value free, so that is not the question. Any research activity is guided by some underlying fundamental values of what and why is the right thing to do as a researcher. In physics this is seldom discussed since it is obvious that a true explanation of our physical reality is the end goal and there is a common belief that that reality will function as a "right answer" and correcting device for any knowledge proposition. Medical research, searching for answers to serious diseases, seldom have to answer these questions. Again, there is a strong consensus about the importance and end goal of the research. But when it comes to design studies, everything changes. Design is not about explanation or description, it is about change and the not yet existing reality. It is about satisfying needs, wants, and desiderata. It is about shaping an imagined future. So then, who has the right to say that they do "research" about this future on behalf of someone else who is not involved and engaged in the process. Of course, stakeholders can be included int he process, but what about this who at the end pays for the research, tax payers, student tuitions, etc.

When the value that research commits to is not seen as an absolute or given, research easily ends up and may be confused with entrepreneurship or activism. I am not arguing for any particular stance on this. I am just trying to untangle some of the concerns that come to my mind reading this text. It is clear that there is a need for more conversations about this that would help us all to understand and see what the consequences are (longterm) for any particular approach or direction we may choose.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Two new exciting design theory books!

Two new books were just published in the MIT Press book series "Design Theory/Design Thinking", that Ken Friedman and I are Series Editors for.

Kees Dorst "Frame Innovation - create new thinking by design" and

Ezio Manzini "Design, when everybody design -- an introduction to design for social change".

These are great additions to the series. Read and think!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why HCI research should conduct more analytical studies of artifacts

Every time I see that someone in the field has created a historical overview of a specific artifact and how it has changed over the year, I get excited. Today I saw this image below at All Tech Considered in an article about the 25 year anniversary of Photoshop. The image shows the toolbar of all the versions of Photoshop over the years. I am quite sure that an in-depth analysis of these toolbars and the changes they manifest can tell us a lot about our field, how it has changed, what was considered "correct" design at the time, how styles and fashion have evolved, etc. I think it is also possible to from such an analysis find out how the view and image of the user have changed over time, and what are the crucial tasks and the overall purpose of the software. I think that a close examination can tell us things about our field that we have not understood or been able to see even though we have lived through it. So, more of this!!

Just a final note. The article from where I got the image does not conduct any real analysis of the kind I am discussing. So, if anyone wants to do it, go ahead!

Friday, February 06, 2015

New book by McCarty and Wright "Taking [a]part"

In my mail yesterday was a copy of the new book by John McCarthy and Peter Wright called "Taking [a]part -- the politics and aesthetics of participation in experience-centered design" (MIT Press). It is exciting to see their new book since their last book has had such an impact on the field. I have not read the book yet, even though I did read an early manuscript a while back.

The focus of their earlier book was on the notion of experience in relation to technology. Now the focus is on participation.

This is a theme that has been around in our field since the 70s. Coming from Scandinavia, I grew up with the idea of participatory design as a phd student and was heavily influenced by the core individuals who developed the Scandinavian Participatory Design approach.

It is fascinating to see how the idea of participation has stayed relevant over the years and it is obvious that there is some kind of 'revival' at the moment. I can see that in the new interest among young phd students and others to read 'old' texts about PD and their ambition to incorporate that in new ways in their own work. This is why this book by McCarthy and Wright is to timely and relevant. Looking forward to read it more carefully.

[This book is published in the MIT Press book series "Design Thinking, Design Theory", that Ken Friedman and I are editors for. This is the seventh book published in the series. We are waiting for two new books soon, one by Enzio Manzini and one by Kees Dorst.]

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Note: John Ziman "Real Science--What it is and what it means"

Almost anyone who is involved in some kind of research activities with the purpose of producing knowledge is also reflecting on what science really is and what it means. I have had these questions almost as a hobby since I was a student and am still curious. A few years ago, my colleague Harold Nelson told me about a book about this topic. It is John Ziman's "Real Science -- What it is, and what it means".

After having read a lot of general philosophy and philosophy of science over the years, to read
Ziman's book is refreshing. Ziman was a physicist (1925-2005). His primary area was theoretical physics and quantum theory, but he also became quite active in the philosophy of science.

To be honest I have to confess that I have had this book for some year but not yet read the whole book, but some chapters I have read more than once. Ziman takes a very concrete view on science. He describes research as a practice where people engage in activities that are quite practical and pragmatic. But what I find most valuable in the book is the way Ziman defines concepts such as universalism, unification, objectivity, originality, etc. And particularly how he defines the notion of theory. The definition of theory is in my mind the best and most useful definition that I have encountered. The chapter called "Universalism and unification" is wonderful! I think this chapter should be read by every PhD student and active researcher.

Well, I will continue to read the book. I have several  chapters I have not carefully read yet.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The dilemma of interaction design and faceless interaction.

Just saw this article about some new Apple patent. It is interesting how it moves toward a situation of new interactive modes, and particularly interaction without an interface. This is something that Lars-Erik Janlert and I have written about and discussed in some detail in a recent article.

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

In the article we present a historical overview of how the interface has been understood over time. We also discuss some issues that interaction design is facing today, such as shrinking devices (less space for an interface) but increasing functionality (more this to do). We examine different ways this dilemma is handled today. And we specifically examine the idea of getting rid of the interface (as in the Apple patent above). We also discuss new issues such as cluttering which will become the next big interaction problem.

This is the abstract from the article

"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."

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

What makes a prototype novel?

At the NordiCHI  Conference in October, Mikael Wiberg and I presented a paper:

Wiberg, M. & Stolterman, E. (2014) What Makes a Prototype Novel? – A Knowledge Contribution Concern for Interaction Design Research. NordiCHI '14, October 26 - 30 2014, Helsinki, Finland.

The paper is about something anyone engaged in HCI research is familiar with. Here is how we present it in the introduction of the paper:

"Every time we review a paper describing a new interactive system, every time we go to a conference or when we are presented with a new interactive system from industry we repeatedly find ourselves asking “Have I not seen this system before?” or stating “This system does not remind me of anything I have ever seen...”. These questions are related to a fundamental research consideration concerning how it is possible to conceptualize and relate different designs to each other and to the existing body of knowledge. In short, we address the question “what makes a prototype novel?” and accordingly a manifestation of something new, a knowledge contribution to our field. "

This is both a simple and difficult question. How do we know that a new design actually represents a new knowledge contribution or not? Most of us in the field agree that prototypes are crucial as part of the knowledge production process, but in what way? In the paper we discuss some of the earlier attempts that have been made to solve this question. We also propose some potential ways to move forward in a more structured and formal way. We propose the notion of generic design thinking or concepts. 

Below is the Discussion section from the paper. Of course it is not easy to understand just the final section of a paper, but it may give a sense of what we are trying to do. If you are interested in these questions, let us know.


When generic design concepts are used in architecture, there are two ways of handling designs that are new: as novel or as unique. Importantly, for something to be considered new it is not sufficient merely to be novel in the sense of having “odd properties”. Instead, for a design to be unique or new, it must involve at least one of the following criteria: 

the application of an established generic model to a new problem or in a new domain 
a design that combines elements from multiple established generic models 
the addition of a new element to a known generic model manifested in a design 
a combination of a new generic model and a design that defines a new design space such that the design demonstrates the potential scope of the new space. 

In this context, novelty that stems from an evolution of a design’s underlying model reconfigures the landscape of design spaces; if done particularly well, it creates new space within this landscape that others can join and exploit. 

We see several important implications of this suggestion for the advancement of HCI design research. 

First, generic design thinking reject designs that are not properly situated within a web of existing and already known design ideas. The new cannot be advanced without understanding how it relates to existing design ideas. That is to say, a new ultimate particular (a concrete design) needs to be anchored in the general (that is, in some theoretically articulated idea). 

Secondly, generic design thinking implies a shift in focus away from specific properties of a given ultimate particular towards generic dimensions in new designs. This shift has implications for what we need to express with a particular design. It also raises questions about which factors should be incorporated into a design and which can be omitted when designing prototypes during the research process. This could potentially reduce the difficulty of developing research prototypes as fully implemented systems (and the need to include a lot of specific system features, etc). 

Thirdly, generic design thinking implies the need for more deliberate work in HCI on the formulation of classes of interactions. Today, direct manipulation, embodied modes of interaction, and agent-based interaction models could be seen as some relatively stable classes that are important for the formulation of generic design principles in HCI. But what other kinds and ways of grouping interactions and interaction technologies can we imagine? And how can we move forward and become more specific? And what are the existing good examples? 

Finally, generic design thinking provides a practical tool to improve our ability to compare and evaluate different designs. In this way, it could provide a foundation from which to address design quality and to make judgments about designs that are rooted in more than just the opinion of an individual designer. This aligns well with the proposed concept of interaction criticism [2]. 

In this paper we have proposed, described and exemplified generic design thinking in the format of a four-step method and approach to systematically move forward (design) while also more systematically understand and learn (analyze) from past designs. Although we have so far only described this as a first draft of a method we are convinced that this approach might redirect our field slightly from being heavily future-oriented to also acknowledge the utility of working backwards from a design to its conceptual roots – to trace design ideas through the analysis of designs. Importantly, generic design approaches require critical analysis of the history of design within HCI in order to anchor the new and novel in the history of ideas. 

In wrapping up our paper, we should return to its basic message. We do have recent research stressing the importance of concept-driven design research [25] and we do have a good understanding of how ‘strong concepts’ [13] can advance our field. At the same time we lack methods to systematically relate different concepts to each other and in relation to particular designs. Here is where generic design thinking can play an important role as to systematically advance our field while keeping our design-driven approach.  Given this take on the subject we should state that in order to answer the most central question for design-driven HCI “when is a new design a knowledge contribution?”, we must first, as a field of research, establish the method and approach for guiding the systematic work of conceptualizing and theorizing these designs. In this paper we have suggested ‘generic design thinking’ as an initial attempt to move in the direction of the development of one such method and approach."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My PhD dissertation (in digital version for download)

I defended my PhD dissertation in 1991. It took me forever to finish it but at the end I was at least quite happy with what I had accomplished. I now and then go back and read bits and pieces from it. Always entertaining and sometimes surprising, encouraging or even depressing. The depressing part is when I realize that I wrote everything in my dissertation that I am still working on, and in many cases better than I could write it today (at least it feels like that).

Anyway, I have not had an digital version of the dissertation but found one today (in the Umea University Library). It is in Swedish so it is of course not really readable to many.

A pdf of the dissertation can be downloaded here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Wonderful movie about Heidegger (and design)

If you have not yet watched the movie "Being in the world" by Tao Ruspoli about the philosophy of
Heidegger, you should. The film is full of comments from many of todays leading philosophers. They talk about Heidegger but in a language that makes it possible to understand for anyone. It is a movie about being a human being. And it is a movie about being a designer!

You can read more about the movie here.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Interesting review 50 years later of Marcuse's "One-dimensional man"

It is 50 years now since Herbert Marcuse published his influential book "One-dimensional man". This has been one of my favorite books since the first time I read it. I have frequently returned to it and is every time inspired by it, usually in a new way than before. It is a book rich of big ideas. Recently I wrote a book chapter on how Marcuse is relevant to the field of interaction design research (hopefully to be published soon).

I am of course not the only one who returns to this seminal book. In a really interesting review, written in relation to the 50 year anniversary,  Ronald Aronson explains the immensely important role that Marcuse has had over the decades. This review is thoughtful and insightful. I was while reading it first a bit concerned by the argument that the conditions during the time when Marcuse authored the book have changed so much that it is not relevant in the same way anymore. However, later in the article Aronson makes the case that I would do, namely that the present society is not the same as in those days but that it has the same foundational qualities, maybe even in a way that makes Marcuse's analysis even more relevant today. It is not the cold war with the big (given) enemy that is the system's engine, instead it is consumerism and the comfortable life. One-dimensionality has maybe never been stronger than today!