Saturday, February 05, 2011

Book review: "Smart things" by Mike Kuniavsky

It is obvious that we are entering an era when computation and interaction is becoming ubiquitous and pervasive. Anyone working in HCI, interaction design, user experience design, or whatever it is called, has to deal with challenges that is not only anymore about the layout on a screen. Even though this development is obvious it is still far from recognized and accepted in many corners of academia and industry. This creates a lot of problems since this development has serious consequences when it comes to what are necessary competencies and skill for someone working as a professional in the field.

Kuniavsky has written a book "Smart Things--ubiquitous computing user experience design" that is based on many years of practical experience that has led to insights and reflections that has great value to anyone thinking about interaction design. The book is based on a large number of examinations of particular designs. The creates a good overview of technologies, ideas, and design that have been successful but also many that never really succeeded.

This way of analyzing particular design is an approach that I consider to be highly designerly and exciting.  It is also true that this approach is less common in research and academia where knowledge is usually built on studies aimed at drawing generalities from the study of many manifestations of design. There is a distinct difference between examining a particular design as a way of gaining insights and the traditional more scientific approach. The former is actually more similar to the way scholarship has traditionally been done in the humanities.

I very much like the approach taken by Kuniavsky. To examine a design through the eyes of a skilled designer bring forward highly interesting insights that can be appropriate and valuable to other designers if reflected upon in a serious way. It does not necessarily lead to universal truths or principles, but it challenges the readers own design thinking and over time help to prepare for the next design challenge. This is also where the book delivers when it comes to interesting ideas and insights. The breadth of the examples and the reflections that Kuniavsky offers makes it possible for the reader to compare and contrast those reflections with her own thinking. If I have any negative comments on this part of the book it would be that I would have preferred fewer examples and instead even more detailed examinations and reflections on the particular designs. Especially I would have liked to see even more personal reflections.

Kuniavsky also presents some chapters where he discusses, what he calls "frameworks" and he ends the book with some chapters on "techniques". These chapter are all good and it is interesting to see what frameworks and techniques Kuniavsky as a recognized designer actually chooses to present. However, as someone who knows the field these chapters do not really add anything new, they are a bit too short and Kuniavsky does not really analyze and examine the frameworks and techniques in the same interesting way that he does with the design examples. I would have liked a much more personal presentation of the frameworks and techniques, for instance, what is Kuniavsky himself using, and why, and what is his experience of using these tools as a highly skilled designer.

Anyway, the book has a lot of value and I would without hesitation recommend my students to read this book. It is easy to read. It presents a lot of examples of design with Kuniavsky's interesting comments. It does not prescribe, but it can inform and inspire. I agree with Kuniavsky when he writes "Design books are tools that are picked up as needed, scanned, and then put down when billable work calls".

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