Monday, May 26, 2014

Vitruvius was right about design knowledge (2000 years ago)

Many who have studied design theory know that Vitruvius was one of the first practicing designers (architect) and design thinkers who formulated thoughts and theory about design. At the same time I believe that there are not as many today who actually have read Vitruvius' writings. He is most famous for his "Ten Books on Architecture" written sometime in the first century B.C. Most of this book consists of specific directions and guidelines for detailed architectural work.

[The whole book is available online at]

I will here only focus on the first chapter of the first book "The Education of the Architect". It is a fascinating text that I find extraordinary full of wisdom in a straightforward and simple way.

I would like to copy the whole chapter, but I have instead chosen to copy a few excerpts from the chapter, just to give a sense of what it contains, and maybe it will lead you to read more. The whole chapter is only a few pages long.

Vitruvius has a clear idea of what knowledge an architect should be equipped with. In Vitruvius text it  is possible to exchange "architect" with "designer".

The first paragraph in the chapter is this wonderful statement:

"1. The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test. This knowledge is the child of practice and theory. Practice is the continuous and regular exercise of employment where manual work is done with any necessary material according to the design of a drawing. Theory, on the other hand, is the ability to demonstrate and explain the productions of dexterity on the principles of proportion."

It is clear that to Vitruvius the notion of "judgment" takes the position as the most important form of knowledge. It is through a designer's judgment that "all work done by the other arts is put to test". Judgment brings everything together. Judgment is the "child" of both practice and theory, both which Vitruvius eloquently explains. He presents the role of both practice and theory even more clear in the second paragraph where he states:

"2. It follows, therefore, that architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them."

Vitruvius also mentioned more detailed knowledge needed but he returns to the larger areas, such as history, philosophy and medicine:

"5. A wide knowledge of history is requisite because, among the ornamental parts of an architect's design for a work, there are many the underlying idea of whose employment he should be able to explain to inquirers."

"7. As for philosophy, it makes an architect high-minded and not self-assuming, but rather renders him courteous, just, and honest without avariciousness. This is very important, for no work can be rightly done without honesty and incorruptibility. Let him not be grasping nor have his mind preoccupied with the idea of receiving perquisites, but let him with dignity keep up his position by cherishing a good reputation. These are among the precepts of philosophy."

"10. The architect should also have a knowledge of the study of medicine on account of the questions of climates (in Greek κλἱματα), air, the healthiness and unhealthiness of sites, and the use of different waters. For without these considerations, the healthiness of a dwelling cannot be assured."

Vitruvius is aware that his list of needed knowledge is long and ambitious, so he adds:

"11. Consequently, since this study is so vast in extent, embellished and enriched as it is with many different kinds of learning, I think that men have no right to profess themselves architects hastily, without having climbed from boyhood the steps of these studies and thus, nursed by the knowledge of many arts and sciences, having reached the heights of the holy ground of architecture."

and he adds later:

"For, in the midst of all this great variety of subjects, an individual cannot attain to perfection in each, because it is scarcely in his power to take in and comprehend the general theories of them."

Of course, for Vitruvius, this type of knowledge is only for men and only for a certain class of men. This is a consequence of his place in history and place. However, this chapter touches on so many issues that today are discussed when it comes to the education of designers, such as, breadth versus depth and practice versus theory. I find this text exciting and a good read for anyone who wants to engage in the question of what a designer should know!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Book note: "Ways of Knowing in HCI" by Judith S. Olson and Wendy A. Kellogg

A new book just arrived in my mailbox. It is "Ways of Knowing in HCI" by Judith S. Olson and Wendy A. Kellogg. I have spent some time today going through the different chapters. I read some and browsed others. Overall I find this to an excellent contribution to the field of HCI research. The edited book contains 18 chapters, each describing a particular research approach, method or technique commonly used in HCI research.

Of course, most of these methods have been described elsewhere and in most cases also in more detail and depth, but the unique aspect of this book is that all chapters are written by HCI researchers who can relate each method to HCI research and also give examples of where it has been used, what it mean to use it in HCI research, what constitute a good job when using a particular method.

I fully agree with the Editors in their Epilogue when they state that we should read all chapters and not just the ones about methods we already are familiar with. I followed their advice and I found right away wonderful argumentations, explanations and critiques of methods that I am less used to. This reading influenced me right away and made me more favorable of them. I am impressed by the quality of the chapters, even though I find some chapters not reaching the level of what could be accepted in a collection like this.

To me this book is already a required reading for all PhD students in the field. I can not see any reason why any graduating PhD student would not be familiar with all these methods, at least at the level of knowing about them as presented here.

I am looking forward to see some reviews of this book (more in-depth analysis than my note here :-) to learn more about what is not covered in the book, what is not done well enough, etc. In the name of developing a discipline we need all members of the HCI research community to engage in a book like this. We need a discussion and debate about "ways of knowing in HCI" and this book creates a great platform for such a discourse.

I really want to thank the Editors and the authors of this book for taking the time to develop and write these chapters. This is not the kind of work that most scholars see as being the most important and rewarding, but it is necessary work. So, thanks for all the great work!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A growing problem in HCI research

After being to CHI and another gathering of HCI related people in the last few weeks, I have to share one reflection. I am not sure that my observation and definitely not my interpretation is correct or not, so comments are welcome.

The observation is that the field of HCI research is growing in size but also in scope. What today is considered to be HCI research spans a far wider area than every before. HCI today includes research that traditionally might have been seen as engineering (for instance, design and development of devices and systems with the purpose to explore technical possibilities), it also includes research that traditionally would be seen as within the social sciences or behavioral sciences (the latter has of course always have been part of HCI), but also research that can be considered humanistic or cultural studies, political or global studies. The research has also expanded in scope when it comes to application areas such as education, health care, transportation, entertainment, sustainability, etc.

This expansion of the field is of course exciting and has led to new perspectives and new knowledge that has enriched HCI. However, at the same time I am concerned by this development. It is possible to see this development as an expansion that leaves an empty space in the middle.

I would argue that a large part of todays HCI research could and maybe should be seen as research in other disciplines. For instance, research related to education should be evaluated and published in educational research venues and contribute to that field unless there is also a serious contribution to the core of HCI. This of course raises the question of what is the core of HCI.

If research in HCI do not in any sense contribute to our understand of human computer interaction in some general or universal sense, and if it is only an application of what we already know in yet another field, then it may be a contribution to that application field but not to HCI.  So, if someone applies HCI theory and knowledge (whatever that is) in another field to explore and examine a phenomena without bringing back some serious insights to HCI theory and knowledge then it is not HCI research.

What this type of expansion leads to is unfortunately in many cases research that do not contribute in a serious way to the core of HCI while also being questionable research in relation to what is the standard in the "other" field. If the research really contributed to those other fields then the research should be evaluated and published in those fields.

Ok, I understand that this argument raises a lot of issues especially around the notion of what is the core of HCI research but I see it as important for our field to discuss those issues if we want to be able to produce knowledge contributions that are distinct and valuable in relation to the contributions from other disciplines. HCI research is not going to be successful or recognized by how it is doing research or by how it is able to "use" knowledge from other fields, it will only be successful if there is a core knowledge contribution that is of a kind that no other field really cares about or produces knowledge about. HCI research will not become successful by expanding the field, not by approaching and including more application areas and topics. HCI research will only be successful if we can offer something valuable at the core that constitute well developed knowledge that no other discipline has done or will do, and that can be valued by its own merits.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Interactivity Studies

One of the most neglected aspects of HCI is, in my view, the notion of interactivity. When I look at some of my own research I realize that I have engaged in interactivity studies for quite some time. I also realize (just back from CHI) that it is not a lot of research done in our field today with a focus on examining interactivity. 

Interactivity Studies means to me research that is focused on the aspect of our field that no other field or discipline focus on, that is, the actual interaction between humans and some form of computational artifacts. I am sure that many will argue against this statement and I am open to reconsider it when I am shown good examples of interactivity studies in the way I think about it. 

So, here are some publications that I have been involved with over the years that are clearly examples of Interactivity Studies.

Lars-Erik Janlert and Erik Stolterman. 2010. Complex interaction. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 17, 2, Article 8 (May 2010), 32 pages. DOI=10.1145/1746259.1746262

Janlert, L-E. & Stolterman, E. (1997). The character of things. Design Studies Vol 18, No 3, July (1997), 297-314.

Youn-kyung Lim, Erik Stolterman, Heekyoung Jung, and Justin Donaldson. 2007. Interaction gestalt and the design of aesthetic interactions. In Proceedings of the 2007 conference on Designing pleasurable products and interfaces (DPPI '07). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 239-254.

Well, I thought I would have more examples, but maybe I was wrong. I have two more articles on the way with Lars/Erik Janlert that clearly would end up on this list but they are in progress still.