Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Design Thinking in 10 to 20 years

In my class yesterday we discussed the future of design, interaction design and HCI. I asked the students about their view about the future for the discipline, profession and for research in the field of interaction design. Then they asked me about my predictions. Of course, I had predictions but here I will only mention one.

For quite some years I have predicted that the growing interest in design, design thinking, and design research and education will have a profound influence on the fundamental structure and organization of disciplines, schools, and universities. I think it is already possible to see this. When we bring in design thinking as a major component in a field, suddenly it is possible to see simlarities with disciplines that was not there before. We have already seen some new d-schools, for instance at Stanford. Even though these initiatives have not been successful yet, my prediction is that they will.

We might in some years see new academic constellations where we have design oriented "disciplines" from all parts of the traditional university structure coming together. We might as a first step see "old" units change their profile and become more designerly, like Ryerson Business School in Toronto who, as a school, has decided to transform the whole school into a design oriented school. Traditional art and design schools are also changing and opening up and inviting new disciplines, there are traditional technical disciplines that join forces with other design oriented disciplines in new unseen designerly "technical" schools.

Within 10 to 20 years we will see some universities changing their structure based on the notions of natural sciences, social sciences and humanities as the major components. As a part of that structure there will also be a design component (maybe design sciences even though I do not like that name). I am looking forward to this radical change of university organization.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Grand Challenge for HCI: Growing Ecologies of Interactive Artifacts

In a study from the Pew Institute we get numbers on things we all have suspected: people have problems setting up their new technological artifacts. The study shows that:

"Some 48% of technology users usually need help from others to set up new devices or to show them how they function. Many tech users encounter problems with their cell phones, internet connections, and other gadgets. This, in turn, often leads to impatience and frustration as they try to get them fixed."

There are other interesting numbers in this report, numbers that should make all interaction designers around the world embarrassed. Numbers that show that there are a lot of angry and tired “users” out there. This is a sign of something we could label as a Grand Challenge for HCI and interaction design.

There are of course several explanations to this growing problem. One is that technological things are getting more complex. There is a desire from producers to cover many and diverse contexts, therefore they make the artifacts possible to adapt and tailor to specific and particular contextual and user needs and constraints. Even if this is made in an attempt to make artifacts more user oriented, it seems to lead to long and complex set up procedures that cause a lot a problems for users. Another explanation is that we are entering the age of artifacts networks. An individual user lives today with a large number of artifacts that all can or need to be coordinated and to communicate.

I am leading a research group where we study how people create, organize, strategize and think about their own personal interactive artifact networks. We are doing this by approaching the networks as “ecologies of artifacts” which gives a lot of metaphorical ideas around how artifacts are part of an ecology, how they compete for attention and survival. It is an environment of such complexity that it can (has to) be seen and understood as a “living” environment. We have lately published some papers on this and also designed and built an ecology of artifacts mapping tool.

This is fascinating research, not dealt with in traditional HCI. We are moving into a world where a growing number of things around us are becoming interactive. When all these things communicate and collaborate the complexity grows infinitely. We need new theories and approaches on how to udnerstand these environments and how to design artifacts that "fit" into these ecologies. If we could do that better, we would reduce the "set up" time and effort which would make people less stressed. My prediction is however that we are at the moment moving in the opposite direction. Interactive artifacts are not designed for the ecology of artifacts and hense causing enormous problems for people who try to create their own ecology of artifacts in their own personal way.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Design Research Map

In the latest issue of ACM Interactions there is an interesting article by Liz Sanders called "An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research". Sanders exmines the status of design research, which I think she sees as the research done by design practitioners as a way to support the design process (even though I am not sure if that is a correct understanding). Sanders has created a "map" where she places design research approaches in relation to each other around two major dimensions: "design-led" versus "research-led" and "expert mindset" versus participatory mindset". I always find maps that lay out a conceptual or intellectual landscape intriguing and useful as tools for reflection. That is also the case here. Sanders map is useful and challenging. It is useful in the sense that it does work as an intellectual tool for reflection, both on an individual level and on a discipline level.

Any map becomes makes us think about definitions, both about what constitutes the landscape but also the "locations" on the map. Since eveything on amap is placed in relation to what is defined as foundational dimensions that make up the space, these dimension become crucial and of course vulnerable for criticism.

The dimensions that Sanders build on work quite well, and do establish an exciting landscape, but they are also possible to further analyze and critique. For instance, I am not sure what is meant by a "resarch-led" perspective. I think Sanders means that this perspective is something that is inherited from "real" research. Maybe this can be seen as how "scientific" the approaches are, for instance "ethnography" is on the map the most "research-led" approach, while the least "scientific" is the "generative". This is an interesting dimension, but is at the same time problematic. What is it that determines something as a "research-led" approach. I could for instance argue that "critical design" with its roots in critical theory is quite "scientific" or research based (however, from the humanities and not the sciences). So, where to place things is a quite difficult and delicate task.

One of the obvious problems, which is not in the map, is the difference between (i) the theoretical foundations of an approach or method, (ii) what the intended purpose of it is by those who created it, (iii) how it is commonly understood by those who use it, and (iv) how it is actually used in practice (this list can be made longer of course). These questions address especially the dimension "expert" versus "participatory" on the map. For instance, I think it is possible to use an approach that is defined as "expert mindset" in a participatory way and vice versa (I have seen participatory approaches being used without any real understading of, or will to create, participation :-)

Another aspect is to what extent the use of approaches are based on their use in practice or if they are based on what is done and written about by academic researchers in the field. There is a unfortunate confusion in our field between what practictitioners do and what is done by researchers. There is often a distinct difference in the way an approach is used in practice and when it is used by researchers. The same approach can therefore, depending on how it is understood and used, end up almost anywhere on the map.

I am not arguing that the map is not useful or necessary wrong, on the contrary, I think my discussion above shows the value of a map like this. It does force us to think about our definitions and our way of describing what is done in practice and in research. I am looking forward to more "maps" since I see this as level of theorizing that concerns our understanding of the whole field. This is what constitutes an academic field, makes i visible and an entity, and therefore also possible to approach, debate, and critique.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The broader responsibility of HCI research

Lately my mind has been occupied with the question of the purpose and responsibility of HCI research. Why do we reserch, for whom do we do it, what do we expect to ackomplish, and is it important? These are not new questions for me, I have dealt with them all through my career. And I am of course not the only one challenged by these issues. Today, I decided to write something about this topic on my blog and then realized that I have, together with my colleague Anna Croon Fors, already written about this in an article called "Critical HCI Research – A Research Position Proposal" (link to a pdf version). I think we make a quite good case in the first parts of the paper where we discuss the "big" question and its ramifications. In the second part of the paper we try to fomulate a position that would lead to research that we see important. I think the first part can (and should) be read by anyone doing HCI research (!), while the second part might be more difficult and challenging. I am quite happy to link to this paper since I find the first part to be crucial and highly important to our field.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

What is a legitimate argument in HCI research?

In these times of CHI reviews (something that many HCI researchers are involved in) I have to point to a post by my colleague Jeff Bardzell. Quite often in these reviews, reviewers use different arguments to make their case. Not seldom using different types of arguments. In his post Jeff explores what is seen as accepted or not-accepted arguments in HCI research. The post is based on one of his recent review expriences of a CHI paper where different views on "rigor" clashed. This post is highly informative and interesting. HCI researchers around the world: read and reflect....

Monday, November 03, 2008

Theory Informing Design

As I am preparing class for tomorrow I am once again reading Yvonne Rogers chapter on "New Theoretical Approaches for Human-Computer Interaction". And as usual when I read this text I realize how well it serves the purpose of initiating and establishing a discussion on the role of theory in interaction design practice. Rogers manages both to analyze existing theoretical attempts and to present some empirical material on how much, if at all, these theories are used by practicing designers. She also comes up with some ideas on why this is the case and also presents some suggestions on how to improve the situation.

In the same class I also use my own paper "The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Practice" in International Journal of Design. This paper is to a large extent based on the chapter by Rogers. The main argument is that design research aimed at improving design practice has to be grounded in a deep understanding of the nature of design practice. Underlying this is a critique of most theory development as being not enough interested in practice. Instead these attempts are based on intellectual developments grounded in an idealized understanding of design.

I find this to be an intriguing topic that is not enough recognized in HCI research. There is a need for a more developed understanding of the role of theory, different forms of theories, theories for different purposes, practical theories, etc.

More theorizing!!