Wednesday, January 11, 2017

'Rich interactions' -- a blind spot in HCI research

I am often struck by the strive for simplicity that seems to guide almost all HCI research and also most of the popular press surrounding interaction design and UX. This strive towards simplicity seems to be so fundamental and unquestionable that it is not even understood as a purposely chosen goal. Instead it seems to be a given. Of course, it is not a problem to try to make things simple. Why shouldn't we? And as long as we are dealing with very simple software and apps that help people do simple tasks this is not an issue. But not all tasks are simple.

A lot of people are today working with (are users of) software of extraordinary complexity. This complexity is not necessarily a consequence of highly advanced algorithms or procedures, or of any intricate intellectual complexity, instead in many cases it is simply a consequence of a large number of variables and data, some kind of combinatorial complexity.  Examples of this kind of software is commonplace at your doctors office, your bank, your insurance company, and many other businesses and institutions. A lot of this software is aimed to support professionals dealing with scheduling, logistics, planning, recording, monitoring of processes and procedures.

The complexity or feature richness that  this type of software manifests is of course not a 'problem', instead it is a strength. The software is valuable exactly because it makes it possible to handle complex and rich information and data in a way that is impossible or extremely cumbersome with manual means. We might call this type of interactions for 'rich interactions'.

When we look at the field of HCI research today it is obvious that the area of 'rich interactions' is not particularly popular as a research topic. It seems as most research is aimed at making quite simple tasks even simpler by the design of interfaces that lead to smooth and enjoyable user experiences or aimed at introducing interactivity into areas where it has not existed before through smart devices, tangible interaction, etc. But where is the research that could actually bring the field forward and provide some insights about how to design 'rich interactions'?

I often hear or read colleagues in the field complaining and in many cases joking or being sarcastic about the state of the field when it comes to 'rich interactions', usually after having some personal experience in their encounter with a business or organization or in conversation around software such as MS Word or Adobe Illustrator. This kind of software is commonly seen as examples of failure when it comes to UX design since it is cumbersome to use, complicated, difficult to learn, etc.

It may be possible, of course, that some of the issues with this kind of rich interactions can be resolved with new forms of interfaces, new modes of interaction, clever interface solutions, etc. but it is not possible to reduce the richness by design. The richness is what makes the software valuable in the first place.

So, my question is, where is the HCI research that in some serious way is studying the nature of rich interactions? Where can we find insights, principles, and knowledge that could support those who are designing rich interactions?


Paul said...

Hi Erik,

Thanks for the interesting post. Some colleagues and I have been doing work related to this topic over the past few years (although with a narrower focus than what you describe here--but perhaps there is some overlap). Here's a recent paper that examines the idea of 'complimentary' interactions in complex contexts:


Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Paul
Thanks for the comment. I have downloaded your paper and will take a look. It seems as if it is a bit mroe focused than what I wrote but definitely related. Thanks

Gary Dickson said...

Hey Erik,

I enjoyed this post quite a bit. I have had similar concerns for quite some time. Forcibly reducing complexity is I think so enmeshed in design culture that it's very difficult to fight against it. It's my belief that this drive began with modernism and we are now left with a deeply imbedded, unproductive, outdated philosophy of how to do good design in our contemporary world. I think one my biggest concerns is how firmly this idea is entrenched in design education. I am always telling students to embrace complexity and strive to bring clarity rather than simplicity to their design work. I've written a few blogs post on this subject and hope to write more in the future.


Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Gary

Thanks for a great comment. I really like your phrase "to embrace complexity and strive to bring clarity rather than simplicity to their design work" that is excellent!


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