Friday, December 30, 2005

The Expanding Design Space

Really short. When the digital material grows in scope and dimensions, and more aspects of our reality becomes digitized, the technology will not become more stable and defined. Instead, the design space will expand. This is contradictory to what happens with most other technologies where we over time see an increasing focus and stabilization. There is a complex logic behind this that I will come back to. For now, happy new year!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Infoaesthetics and design

I was made aware of the blog called "Infoaesthetics". The page is devoted to information design. You can find a number of really interesting examples linked from there.

I think it is important for anyone working with information technology, and especially in HCI and interaction design, to have a good understanding of visualization. We are entering an age where we will more and more work with digital material, and that material can take any form and shape we want. It all becomes a question of design! We can interact with invisible aspects of reality as well as the physical reality. So, we will face questions on how we want to interact with that combined reality. Where and how do we want to interact? Do we want to fill it with visual representations of the invisible reality or do we want to keep the physical and digital apart? My guess is that we are being drawn and pushed into a situation where we will always interact with a combined reality. What humans have seen as invisible aspects of reality will become "real".

We will be more and more interested in, what my previous PhD student Andreas Lund labeled his thesis, "The Massification of the Intangible".

Friday, December 16, 2005

Question Technology

I just found this blog with a lot of good information on technology and society. A lot of useful links and book references. Good work, Kevin Arthur! I have also added the link to my link list.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Information Systems research...and happiness

The International Conference of Information Systems is a conference I have attended for quite some years now. I have never really liked the conference, since the research presented is not what excites me. It is usually heavily oriented towards business interests. I have no problem with that, instead it is the kind of research that bothers me. The research is often conducted as studies where someone tries to find out what factors influence a certain phenomenon. The studies are usually done in a rigorous and detailed way. However, to me they are seldom well formulated from the beginning, use methods not suitable for the issues at hand, and almost never end up in results that are at any level of abstraction that would make it interesting for practitioners or the layman.

This year I actually found some interesting sessions and that made me happy, and a little bit more optimistic about the future of the field. Maybe there is hope. Maybe we will see a new kind of research that is interesting, that surprises us, and makes us see the world of information systems in a new way. Maybe we will also see results that will be useful.

One observation is that the views presented are generally on the level of systems, networks or structures and processes. Almost never is a real human being present unless as a statistic outcome, describing the "users". As someone who sees information systems as an interaction between humans and the digital material through "windows" made possible by technology, the existing theories are too focused on a level of abstraction that makes the views almost like engineering models of a huge machine. Especially when theories like structuration theory and Actor-Network Theory are used. They seem to "force" the researcher into a perspective that becomes almost completely detached from any experiential aspects. Even though this is not the "fault" of the theories, it seems as if researchers use them that way.

What I am looking for is a different approach in IS research. An approach where interaction is at the core of the studies. People live with these systems. They interact with them. Some of this is of course possible to describe on a systems level, by the use of statistics and mechanisms. But some of it has to do with the individual experience of the interaction. If all research is kept on the very abstract systems level, we can end up with knowledge that really helps us design effective and efficient systems that serves the organizations purpose, but that created interactions and work places that make people unhappy, stressed, tired, and fully interchangeable. And of course, that is not what we want. We need IS research that also takes as its purpose to critically examine the existing systems, opens up for new ways to interact and act, that creates experiences for "users" that makes them happy as well and feeling needed and rewarded for their skills and knowledge. Well, I just want to see more of that in future IS research.

Hmm, anothor long text, maybe this is not what a blog should be like....

Friday, December 09, 2005

Outsourcing Game Playing

In New York Times today there is an interesting article on the new industry growing in China -- the game playing industry. It is not about businesses that designs and builds games, it is people playing games for richer people that don't have the time or energy to do it themselves. So, you pay someone to play the boring parts of the game, or the difficult parts to get some rare treasure. This is a consequence of the growing new economy in virtual worlds. In some games you can use tools and powers that you can buy from someone else. This has created a whole new economy. Some weapons are very expensive. You buy or sell them at places like eBay.

Anyhow, this is not new (except for the outsourcing of playing, at least for me that was new), but it is one more evidence that the two worlds are getting more and more involved in each other. The virtual is not "only" virtual anymore, and the physical is not the only "real" world. It is a consequence of the digital transformation, the transformation of our traditional world into digital material. It is a fundamental change of world matter -- a new material.

Even though we know about the digital transformation and understand its mechanisms it is still difficult to envision where it will take us. I actually see it that way, we are "taken", we are not moving intentionally in a direction that is driven by our desires. So, what kind of ideas and theories do we need to better understand the transformation, better understand where we are going, better understand our own role, and maybe even to better understand what we really want to do with this technology.....?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Marcuse, design and technology

I did read parts of this book a while ago, but now I am reading it again. The book is "Heidegger and Marcuse -- The Catastrophe and Redemption of History" by Andrew Feenberg. I have not spent so much time on the parts on Heidegger, instead I have focused on the chapters on Marcuse and especially the chapter "Aesthetic Redemption". If you are not used to texts by "real" philosophers, this is not an easy book to read, but if you have an interest in an alternative way to understanding our society and how it relates to modern technology, then the book is for you.

I would recommend any reader to start with Marcuse's famous book "The one-dimensional man". One of the best books dealing with our problems of understanding our society, since we are so completely entrenched in it. The two books together advocates the idea that radical change is not found in empirical observations, instead we have to develop our ability to both stay close to our experiences of the world while we also keep, develop and explore radical critical theoretical analyses. Difficult -- yes. Useful -- certainly! For me, Marcuse presents a position, different and refreshing, that can be read as a foundation for any design thinking. Read, think, reflect, be challenged!

Monday, November 28, 2005

On Desire

When it comes to design and new technology we always end up in conversation where we discuss if this new tool or gadget is something we "need". And often we realize that we don't really need it but we still want it. We also know that there is an ethical issue related to this. We are as designers usually inclined to say we want to develop design in a direction where we create the things people need in a better way. It is something suspicious with design that is directed to create "need", or exploit basic desires that people have, if they are not "good for you". Usually these discussions quite quickly becomes confused and difficult.

Reading the book "On Desire --Why We Want What We Want" by William B. Irvine gives you some better foundation in those discussions.Link Irvine carries out an analysis of desire. It is done in a straight-forward way, easy to understand, but still firmly related to the philosophical history, psychological research, religious schools of thought. Irvine both tries to analyze desire, but also to give some general advise on how to deal with desire.

I think the book is a good reading for any designer involved in being in service of people's wishes, needs and desires.

A final comment. I like the design of the actual book. The unusual size and format makes the book interesting and appealing.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Golden Ratio and design

Reading the book "The Golden Ratio" by Mario Livio raises some interesting design questions. The book is a fascinating story of the history and present understanding of the golden ratio, i.e. the number "phi", or 1.6180339887...... This is the number that is the relation between two things. In nature the number seem to be present everywhere. In art it is possible to find "phi" in so many instances, and of course in architecture. It has been understood as the perfect relation, the most beautiful ratio. Sometimes as something God designed and to which all things have to obey.

This has been used as an argument that design should use this ratio to create beautiful things, that appeal to people. In that way it would be one ultimate true principle for design. Well, the problem seems to be that people are not always willing to accept this. Sometimes people want the opposite, something different, something odd, something "ugly". Design is not about the ultimate true principle, it is about the ultimate particular. It is about being able to understand what people in a specific context need, wants and desire, and to be able to surprise them by superseding their expectations.

Anyhow, the book is fascinating and the golden ratio is a true mystery. Why is it there? And why is it that nature seems to be possible to describe in mathematical terms..? Strange...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Digital Material

Read today that iTunes Store is selling more music than Towers Records and Bourders combined. You can now read things like "the CD is dead". If we take the perspective that what the digital transformation is all about is the transformation of the world as we know it into a world dominated by digital material. So, music has not changed, but the material it is manifested by. And what has not been well understood and sufficiently appreciated is the enormous importance of the material. A digital material is so different from other materials that it changes the very foundation of how we can and should understand our reality.

As an example, we remember what was considered to be the huge difference and change when we moved from the LP to the CD as the (material) carrier of music. Suddenly, the music did not wear and tear. Perfect sound. More space on a CD, cheaper to produce, etc. Still, those changes were only the first and least important consequences of what it was really about. The important thing was the transformation into digital format. The CD was the first consequence of that, iTunes Store, is a consequence of the same change.

If we want to understand our reality and what influence information technology has, we have to think about the underlying and fundamental digital material. The quality of something transformed into digital material is so different and intellectually challenging to comprehend that we have not yet fully been able to understand it. This inability to understand is visible within the industries now being challenged by the consequences of dealing with a digital material, like the music and film industry. And more will come. We will see more changes in the future, more aspects of our traditional reality being transformed into digital material.

The interesting HCI and interaction design challenge is to see these fields as the way we humans will interact with this vast pool of digital material. And we are only in the beginning...!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

"Freedom Evolves" and HCI Theory

I have just finished reading Daniel C. Dennett's book "Freedom Evolves". It is a fascinating book with a message that is clear and strong. The idea that freedom is (as almost everything else) a product of evolution is quite remarkable. It also leads to some quite astonishing consequences. For instance, it means that freedom is still evolving, and according to the laws of evolution it can evolve into something we would describe as "more freedom", but it can also be a "dead end" in evolution and disappear.

Anyhow, the message aside, what I realized when reading the book, is the way Dennett discusses his assumptions and ideas in relation to all other theories in the field. He is strong in his critique of theories, and many of them does not "survive" his analytic examinations. He compares ideas and assumptions. He measures their strengths and weaknesses. He categorizes them according to their intention, structure and outcomes. It quite often becomes a matter of two sides of theories, about "them" and "us " (or even "me").

In the field of HCI, interaction design, information systems design, we lack this kind of theoretical debate. It seems as if most researchers stick to their own approach and assumptions. This has lead to a range of small communities of researchers that all work in parallel. This is all good and well, but I think if we want to see some progress when it comes to theory development we have to be much more open to debate, discuss, compare, with the purpose to find some common ground. Common ground in this context does not mean agreement on what is the "correct" theory (this is definitely not the case in Dennett's book either). Common ground means instead a clearer appreciation of the differences between theories when it comes to assumptions, purpose, structure, outcome, etc.

So, this is why I will teach a PhD course this coming Spring with the title "Human Computer Interaction Design Theory" with this in mind. It will be "about" theories, their role, character and intention. I will especially focus on the relation between theory and practice. In this I am inspired by a text by my colleague Yvonne Rogers. If you have ideas on this or suggestions about suitable texts, please let me know.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Positive Design

Tomorrow I am leaving for the workshop "Positive Design" in Cleveland. I am looking forward to it since it is a working conference in a format I like. The notion of positive design triggers some thoughts. I talked today with some students about why we in Informatics do research that sometimes looks like product development. Students and faculty create and design new digital tools and systems in a way not dissimilar from what goes on in creative companies.

It is possible to make the case that the outcome of a design process is a statement that shows the potentiality of the material in question and the environment we live in. This is related to the ideas of revealing "potentiality" as discussed by Herbert Marcuse.

In this sense a new theory can be understood as a designed object that opens up our understanding for new potentialities in the world. So, a theory and a design becomes very similar. If we accept this (to some extreme analogy) we also have to live with the consequences! It means that any new design (or theory) that shows the potentiality of reality can disclose not only good things but also bad or even evil things, it can open up for not earlier existing actions and possibilities. So, behind any design (or theory) is therefore an ideological and ethical decision.

I think this is an important way of understanding design research (and all kinds of research). It means that there is no such things as design research that is only "play", only exploration, only experimentation, without a responsibility for the potentiality it reveals. If we want design research to include the creative and innovative aspects of finding out new technological tools and systems, we have to be ready to face responsibility.

(of course, this is actually valid in all kinds of science, even though it is not acknowledged in the traditional understanding of science, except when it comes to the extreme, like the nuclear bomb)

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Total Interaction

There is a new book out with the title "Total Interaction -- Theory and practice of a new paradigm for the design disciplines" edited by Gerhard M. Buurman. I find the book full of short interesting texts on very diverse aspects of interaction design. Everything from game design, simulations, tangible interfaces, to virtual worlds, hybrid reality is covered. The book is nicely designed with a lot of graphics and images. However, the layout makes reading a bit tedious, especially the references. For the person searching for new ideas and insights in one of the special areas covered, I think the book is a valuable contribution to the field.

I like the overall idea behind the book as it is presented in the Introduction by the editor Buurman. I think the way interaction design is framed is at the forefront of the field, imaginative and exciting. At the same time, this makes me as readers eager to find more about the "big" idea of total interaction -- but this is where the book is a disappointment. I wish Buurman and his fellow authors could have made more efforts in laying out the basic philosophy as a "new paradigm" (which the title promises). I think they have some really good insights that shows here and there in the texts, but I really miss a more thorough discussion of what that paradigm means and how it should be understood.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Cornucopia Limited

I have just started reading the book "Cornucopia Limited -- Design and Dissent on the Internet" by Richard Coyne (MIT Press). Already when reading the introduction I was inspired and the text triggered some ideas that I found more than valuable. The "in-between" conditions are where design resides. Coyne argues that "design provides a way of thinking about the network economy. Design crosses territorial boundaries, stimulates controversies, polarizes, and often offends. Design is also acquisitive and promiscuous in its use of sources and models". Coyne has a way with words and ideas that I seldom find in this field. Read him.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Design and Theories

[This post is a bit too long! On the DRS mailing list there is an ongoing discussion on the role of theories and the practice of design. This is a version of my post in that debate. Be aware that here it is outside the context of the list. By the way, that list is now and then really interesting. You can search for PHD-DESIGN@JISCMAIL.AC.UK]

I have with interest read the thread on theory in design. One of the interesting aspects is what constitutes a theory that has the power to influence practice. Some valuable comments have been made on this issue. Another aspect that has been mentioned has to do with the possibility of knowing if a design is an actual result of a theory. I just want to make a few comments on these two issues.

First, there is a basic paradox involved when it comes to the idea of theories influencing design. If we accept a very simple definition of design as a process aimed at producing something new, something unexpected, something not already known or existing, then any "tool" we are able to create and develop (such as a theory) will to some extent lead to a situation where a larger part of the final result will be dependent or a consequence of the used "theory".

So, in a world where we have really, really good theories, we will have a design process that with certainty will lead to the "best" solution. However, at the same time the design process will not be a design process anymore, at least not in the sense we defined it above. So, our ambition to come up with design theories that will "help" designers is (in the very extreme case) an attempt to reduce the very aspects of the design process that we usually see as the core, character, and sign of design.

This is of course no problem in itself. If we can create theories that actually fully reduces uncertainty in design it might be a good thing. However, I am pretty sure that if we get closer to that situation the very foundation from where we judge design results will change, maybe not because we are not happy with our "perfect" designs, but because we might be bored and seek variation. This paradox is not today a real problem, neither to design practice or design research, but I think it is important to reflect on the paradox while we pursue our intentions (both in practice and research).

My second comment is on the idea that we can "measure" the success of a theory. The idea that design is to produce something new makes it almost impossible to measure the influence of theory in practice. This is also a kind of paradox. If we assume that a specific design is a result of a specific theory we have to assume that there is a logical causation between the ideas of the theory and the final outcome. This is something that might be the case all the time without us being able to detect such logical connections in the extreme complexity that is manifested in every design situation. In order to make the case that a theory is (to some extent) actually "responsible" for the design outcome also means that we have to reduce the influence and importance of the designer (and especially designer qualities such as experience, imagination, intuition, intelligence,...). This is again not necessarily a problem, but it is a "paradox" that we need to be aware of in our attempts to understand the role and place of theories in design.

In both the cases I have discussed above there is a paradox that we have to acknowledge. These paradoxes are not present in the world of science. The paradoxes does not constitute anything that necessarily lead to any answers when it comes to how to approach or develop theories. Some people will probably argue it is a question of balance or that the paradoxes are only important at the extreme ends of a continuum, and are not anything relevant in the "real" world. This might be true, and maybe that kind of realization is valuable as a reality check when it comes to our hopes and aspiration on what role theories can play.

So, I am not sure what I actually want to say with this posting. Maybe it is only to make the case that the role and place for theory is a question of definition and will, but not of the idea of "theory". Instead it has to do with how we define design. There are some aspects of what theories are, that are consequences of the way we define design and maybe also want design to be. We can re-define design in a way that actually removes the paradoxes. However, at the same moment we will remove some of the very qualities of design that we love and are drawn to.

Some of the postings have mentioned other ways to understand theories in design. The idea that theories can "inform" designers opens up for a way of understanding and working with theories that changes the preconditions for the paradoxes. However, this position is not well developed. It is a position that should benefit from more deliberate reflection from our community, both practitioners and researchers. Even if there are many advocates for this position it is not clear, for instance, how such a position should/could be implemented in design education.

Well, I really have to stop......

Erik Stolterman

Saturday, October 15, 2005

I love Robots

An interesting thing today on TV. It is an ad where an automatic vacuum cleaner is advertised. The whole ad builds on the idea that the cleaner is a robot. And the ad ends with people looking into the camera saying "I love Robots". Maybe we are entering the era of robots, finally! Isaac Asimov wrote about our relations and interactions with robots in his famous novels. And in some movies we have seen ads with very similar message as the vacuum cleaner ad, that is, we love robots. I think the idea of robots as a way to interact with artifacts will be more common. The whole idea of artifacts that behave, move and interact with humans is such a powerful idea and image, proven to work in all kinds of fiction. That attractive quality will probably pursuade us to willingly move into the Age of Robots!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Results-oriented UI

Recently Microsoft presented their new User Interface for the new coming version of Office. The basic idea is now "results-oriented". It means that the user should only focus on the desired results and not on how to get there. See for instance Jacob Nielsens comments. All attempts to increase the ordinary users possibility to work in an easy way is welcomed and so is this one. It is however difficult to see the great "philosophical" step that this is supposed to manifest. The distinction between what is an operation and what is a result is delicate. The common way of pointing to a place on a page where you want the page number can be seen as an operation or as results-oriented depending on the chosen level of abstraction. Either you see it as if you command the number to be set at a specific place, or you see it as an act of desire, i.e. you point to a place where yuo want the number to be placed. Of course, the more of actions done by chosing instead of defining increases the number of commands while decreases the number of possible actions. It seems though that the new Office will make it possible to have both styles. So, while this might well be a good evolution of the Office product line, it does not really seem to be a radical change or some breakthrough in basic principles. But, it seems to be a healthy development of one of the most used user interfaces. Let's hope for the best.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Consequence of transformation

Just read this piece on phone services that are free on the net. It seems that there is still a long way to go before we understand the new dynamics of what a long time ago was called the "new economy". It is obvious with companies like Skype and Vonage that we are still only at the beginning of the transformation that everyone talked about in the late 90s. It is also obvious that all those who after the "bubble" made fun of the "new economy" and the "whole thing" maybe laughed too early. I think we all should be humble in front of the changes that in so many ways constitute manifestations of our transforming grounds.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

i-Conference, part 2

Well, back from the i-Conference. A growing number of departments and schools, deans and faculty, in the field of information/informatics/computer sciences seem to be recognizing that somthing new is developing. It was a really interesting conference, and I think something that will be remembered many years from now as the first conference, the starting point.

The School of Informatics where I am at is in the middle of this new development.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


I have just made this blog a bit more official, since I have added my name to it. I have no idea if I will be able to keep it updated or in any sense interesting. Time will tell.

I am off tomorrow to the first i-Conference. This is the first conference for the new and emerging schools of information and informatics in the States. It will be some interesting days. There is a growing awareness that the "old" disciplines in the field, such as computer science and information systems are a bit outdated. The new way of understanding the field of information technology is as "informatics". That is why I am happy to be associated with both a School of Informatics and a Department of Informatics.

I might have some comments on the conference in a few days!

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Philosophy of Technology

It is fascinating that, in a society so extremely influenced by technology as ours, there are so few philosophical ideas that deal with what is happening When things get complicated and complex (like digital technology) we need philosophy. We have to use our combined minds to create ways to capture and hold broad ideas on what is going on -- what technology is doing to us. Why is it that technology (and especially digital) is so fascinating for so many people, but seems to draw us into discussions on details, functions and features and not into more foundational thoughts on direction and development, desire and fear. Where are the new philosophical challenging ideas? Ideas that are not only for the professional philosopher but possible to approach by every engaged individual? Is it possible to create philosophical ideas on technology in the same way as environmentalism has been able to construct highly abstract, theoretical and complex ideas on environmentalism in a way that make them intelligible to most people.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Parallell Realities

Heard on the news that the terrorists in London where young guys that seemed just like any other guy. People ask how it is possible to develop extreme ideas in the middle of a suburban English community. Extrem ideas can grow anywhere. With the help of new technology anyone can spend time and communicate with people with similar ideas while excluding everything else. It is also a world that is safe, since you do not have to be challenged by others, just stay with likeminded. You can build your extrem view point over time without anyone seeing it happen. Cass Sunnstein discussed this phenomenon a few years back in his highly insightful book "Republic.Com". A book that is more true today than when he wrote it. Read it!

Monday, July 04, 2005


Even though there are many thinkers that devote their time to explore the transforming grounds, one philosopher is making a mark, and that is Albert Borgmann. In his books he takes the transformation seriously and has tried to reflect upon it in such a way that it is not only defined and explained, but a result of a process, of a mechanism, of a human desire. See, especially his book "Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life : A Philosophical Inquiry"

Even the "problem" of file-sharing can be explained by Borgmann's notions of commodification and the device paradigm.

Transforming Grounds

We are witnessing a profound transformation of the way we experience the world around us. This site is meant to be a place where I can comment on this transformation.

At the very core of this transformation is the foundational change of the basic material that make our reality. When we transform our traditional materials into digital material -- something extraordinary is happening. Some of it is obvious, visible and easy to understand, but still have immense impact. Some of it is slow, invisible, and almost impossible to understand -- but has none the less great influence on our everyday conditions.

The digitalization is not a matter of dealing with information -- it is when matter is transformed into information.

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