Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Focal experiences and interaction design

I am a person who wants to know the temperature outside. In my present apartment I have no outdoor thermometer. This has been a problem for me. But since a while back I have used a widget on my computer that tells me the present temperature in the place I am living. So, without turning away from my computer I can check the weather outside my window. Another way is of course to go to the balcony door a few feet away, open the door, go out, and experience the weather (of course I do that too).

It is obvious that the two ways of finding out the weather are extremely different. The information is different, the bodily experience is different, and I probably value the weather differently.

This is maybe not an important observation, however it reminded me of Alfred Borgmann's concept of focal things and focal experiences (for definition, see an article I wrote with Anna Croon Fors). A focal experience is an experience that has a deeper connection to something bigger or to something "whole". Experiencing the weather with your body is in that sense more focal than getting some information on your computer screen.

I am not sure what all this means, but I am sure that I am as most people, which is that I move more and more of my experiences away from being focal in the way Borgmann defines them. Is that bad? Well, I guess we don't know. We are at the moment involved in a huge experiment where we with the use of bits as material are re-building our environment. We are with another Borgmann expression "commodifying" more and more parts of it. This means that we are making everything easy to get, instant, and available. It also means that we can buy it or retrive it without knowing how it is produced and how it is delivered.

HCI and interaction design have a special responsibility examining this transformation. Using bits as material makes the transformation possible, but we have at the same time the full freedom to design the new environment in almost any direction we find desireble. We can decide to design it in a way that makes it more "focal" even though it is digitally enhanced.

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