Sunday, October 11, 2009

Design Research and the 'coolness' factor

Lately I have been engaged in some different forms of evaluations of interaction design research. I have read papers, watched videos and demonstrations. All these forms of research outcomes have their own merits and issues. One thing that I have reflected upon is when I read, watch or experienced these contributions is that I have experienced some problems with something I would call the "coolness" factor.

Many contributions present some design research outcomes that have qualities that make me react think: "that is pretty cool!". The problem with this reaction is that it also triggers a sense of suspicion, and I keep asking myself "am I seduced by some superficial 'coolness' factor or does this outcome really represent some more substantial contribution?"

There has been some interesting scholarly work on what signifies "interesting" research results as a contrast to "uninteresting" research, and some people talk about the "wow" factor. I am usually in favor or research that surprises me and challenges my intuition and preconceived ideas. But is that what 'coolness' is about? Or is 'coolness' something else? Is it only a reaction to surface qualities now connected to any deeper and significant core qualities?

The strength of a real and substantial knowledge contribution can be seen as a combination of how "new" and "surprising" it is, and what the implications are (both in terms of revisions of earlier established knowledge and in terms of how it brings earlier unrelated knowledge together), but also how stable and influential it will be over time. I think it is in relation to the last measure, stability and ability to influence over time, where contributions with a high score or 'coolness' feels suspicious. I have over the years had experiences where the contributions have had immediate impact on me have shown not to be influential over time, while the ones that constantly over time influence the field and my thinking were never really 'cool'. I think research contributions in this case resembles experiences in other field where an immediate and direct positive impression is not necessary followed by a sustained recognition over time (I think we often experience that in music, art, or food). Simple and direct positive impressions quickly feels old, kitschy, and without substance, while those experiences we have to work hard with over time develops into something of deeper importance.

So, when I see really cool new forms of interactions, new digital artifacts and designs, I am of course impressed, while I at the same time becomes suspicious that it is only the immediate coolness that I am recognizing. At the same time, there might also be a value of highly cool new designs, even though they might not be long lived. They can function as openers and challengers of our minds and imagination. They can create new design spaces that we have not seen before, even if they are not intended to do so or even if we forget them quickly.

Well, I think the field of HCI and interaction design is in a period where we do not know how to handle the 'coolness' factor. Quite often we do see examples where the designs are so 'cool' that we conclude them more as art pieces than research. It seems as if when we do that, we are more comfortable with a high degree of 'coolness' and we can examine the design as an inspirational piece instead of knowledge contribution. I would like to hear others ideas on this...

(When I think about it, I have done some work on this. In an article that soon will be published by me and my colleague Mikael Wiberg (in the HCI Journal) we discuss how the design of artifacts can be a possible and successful way of expanding theory development in HCI. We do not necessary discuss the 'cool' factor but we get close....)


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