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.