Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Note: John Ziman "Real Science--What it is and what it means"

Almost anyone who is involved in some kind of research activities with the purpose of producing knowledge is also reflecting on what science really is and what it means. I have had these questions almost as a hobby since I was a student and am still curious. A few years ago, my colleague Harold Nelson told me about a book about this topic. It is John Ziman's "Real Science -- What it is, and what it means".

After having read a lot of general philosophy and philosophy of science over the years, to read
Ziman's book is refreshing. Ziman was a physicist (1925-2005). His primary area was theoretical physics and quantum theory, but he also became quite active in the philosophy of science.

To be honest I have to confess that I have had this book for some year but not yet read the whole book, but some chapters I have read more than once. Ziman takes a very concrete view on science. He describes research as a practice where people engage in activities that are quite practical and pragmatic. But what I find most valuable in the book is the way Ziman defines concepts such as universalism, unification, objectivity, originality, etc. And particularly how he defines the notion of theory. The definition of theory is in my mind the best and most useful definition that I have encountered. The chapter called "Universalism and unification" is wonderful! I think this chapter should be read by every PhD student and active researcher.

Well, I will continue to read the book. I have several  chapters I have not carefully read yet.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The dilemma of interaction design and faceless interaction.

Just saw this article about some new Apple patent. It is interesting how it moves toward a situation of new interactive modes, and particularly interaction without an interface. This is something that Lars-Erik Janlert and I have written about and discussed in some detail in a recent article.

Janlert, L-E., & Stolterman, E. (forthcoming). Faceless Interaction - a conceptual examination of the notion of interface: past, present and future. In the journal Human-Computer Interaction.

In the article we present a historical overview of how the interface has been understood over time. We also discuss some issues that interaction design is facing today, such as shrinking devices (less space for an interface) but increasing functionality (more this to do). We examine different ways this dilemma is handled today. And we specifically examine the idea of getting rid of the interface (as in the Apple patent above). We also discuss new issues such as cluttering which will become the next big interaction problem.

This is the abstract from the article

"In the middle of the present struggle to keep interaction complexity in check as artifact complexity continues to rise and the technical possibilities to interact multiply, the notion of interface is scrutinized. First, a limited number of previous interpretations or thought styles of the notion are identified and discussed. This serves as a framework for an analysis of the current situation with regard to complexity, control, and interaction, leading to a realization of the crucial role of surface in contemporary understanding of interaction. The potential of faceless interaction, interaction that transcends traditional reliance on surfaces, is then examined and discussed, liberating possibilities as well as complicating effects and dangers are pointed out, ending with a sketch of a possibly emerging new thought style."

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

What makes a prototype novel?

At the NordiCHI  Conference in October, Mikael Wiberg and I presented a paper:

Wiberg, M. & Stolterman, E. (2014) What Makes a Prototype Novel? – A Knowledge Contribution Concern for Interaction Design Research. NordiCHI '14, October 26 - 30 2014, Helsinki, Finland.

The paper is about something anyone engaged in HCI research is familiar with. Here is how we present it in the introduction of the paper:

"Every time we review a paper describing a new interactive system, every time we go to a conference or when we are presented with a new interactive system from industry we repeatedly find ourselves asking “Have I not seen this system before?” or stating “This system does not remind me of anything I have ever seen...”. These questions are related to a fundamental research consideration concerning how it is possible to conceptualize and relate different designs to each other and to the existing body of knowledge. In short, we address the question “what makes a prototype novel?” and accordingly a manifestation of something new, a knowledge contribution to our field. "

This is both a simple and difficult question. How do we know that a new design actually represents a new knowledge contribution or not? Most of us in the field agree that prototypes are crucial as part of the knowledge production process, but in what way? In the paper we discuss some of the earlier attempts that have been made to solve this question. We also propose some potential ways to move forward in a more structured and formal way. We propose the notion of generic design thinking or concepts. 

Below is the Discussion section from the paper. Of course it is not easy to understand just the final section of a paper, but it may give a sense of what we are trying to do. If you are interested in these questions, let us know.


When generic design concepts are used in architecture, there are two ways of handling designs that are new: as novel or as unique. Importantly, for something to be considered new it is not sufficient merely to be novel in the sense of having “odd properties”. Instead, for a design to be unique or new, it must involve at least one of the following criteria: 

the application of an established generic model to a new problem or in a new domain 
a design that combines elements from multiple established generic models 
the addition of a new element to a known generic model manifested in a design 
a combination of a new generic model and a design that defines a new design space such that the design demonstrates the potential scope of the new space. 

In this context, novelty that stems from an evolution of a design’s underlying model reconfigures the landscape of design spaces; if done particularly well, it creates new space within this landscape that others can join and exploit. 

We see several important implications of this suggestion for the advancement of HCI design research. 

First, generic design thinking reject designs that are not properly situated within a web of existing and already known design ideas. The new cannot be advanced without understanding how it relates to existing design ideas. That is to say, a new ultimate particular (a concrete design) needs to be anchored in the general (that is, in some theoretically articulated idea). 

Secondly, generic design thinking implies a shift in focus away from specific properties of a given ultimate particular towards generic dimensions in new designs. This shift has implications for what we need to express with a particular design. It also raises questions about which factors should be incorporated into a design and which can be omitted when designing prototypes during the research process. This could potentially reduce the difficulty of developing research prototypes as fully implemented systems (and the need to include a lot of specific system features, etc). 

Thirdly, generic design thinking implies the need for more deliberate work in HCI on the formulation of classes of interactions. Today, direct manipulation, embodied modes of interaction, and agent-based interaction models could be seen as some relatively stable classes that are important for the formulation of generic design principles in HCI. But what other kinds and ways of grouping interactions and interaction technologies can we imagine? And how can we move forward and become more specific? And what are the existing good examples? 

Finally, generic design thinking provides a practical tool to improve our ability to compare and evaluate different designs. In this way, it could provide a foundation from which to address design quality and to make judgments about designs that are rooted in more than just the opinion of an individual designer. This aligns well with the proposed concept of interaction criticism [2]. 

In this paper we have proposed, described and exemplified generic design thinking in the format of a four-step method and approach to systematically move forward (design) while also more systematically understand and learn (analyze) from past designs. Although we have so far only described this as a first draft of a method we are convinced that this approach might redirect our field slightly from being heavily future-oriented to also acknowledge the utility of working backwards from a design to its conceptual roots – to trace design ideas through the analysis of designs. Importantly, generic design approaches require critical analysis of the history of design within HCI in order to anchor the new and novel in the history of ideas. 

In wrapping up our paper, we should return to its basic message. We do have recent research stressing the importance of concept-driven design research [25] and we do have a good understanding of how ‘strong concepts’ [13] can advance our field. At the same time we lack methods to systematically relate different concepts to each other and in relation to particular designs. Here is where generic design thinking can play an important role as to systematically advance our field while keeping our design-driven approach.  Given this take on the subject we should state that in order to answer the most central question for design-driven HCI “when is a new design a knowledge contribution?”, we must first, as a field of research, establish the method and approach for guiding the systematic work of conceptualizing and theorizing these designs. In this paper we have suggested ‘generic design thinking’ as an initial attempt to move in the direction of the development of one such method and approach."

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