Thursday, December 20, 2018

"Changing Things--the future of objects in a digital world" by Redström & Wiltse

I just got in the mail a copy of the new book "Changing Things--the future of objects in a digital world" by my colleagues and friends Johan Redström and Heather Wiltse. I am so excited about this book we are presented with some new exciting concepts and a theoretical approach that has been missing. Anyone who is working on Internet-of-Things and our new connected reality will find grounded and fundamental support in this book.
book. It is one of the first books that explore how 'things' are radically changing with the digital transformation and how that effects are ways of thinking about things. It is obvious that a 'thing' is no longer a dead object that only has relevance in a particular location and time. Digital things are connected, they are part of every other thing, they make up an ever ongoing dynamic reality that presents new conceptual and philosophical challenges. How can we or should we think about things? In this

Monday, December 17, 2018

Designing and its measure-of-success

One of the aspects of designing that is not enough reflected upon is the notion of 'measure-of-success'. When we evaluate a design as good or bad, right or wrong, appropriate or adequate, we do that by employing some form of measuring and evaluating (I use 'measuring' as a very broad and inclusive activity). There are many forms of measure-of-success. They can a broad scope, they can be complex or simple, intuitive or well-defined, they can be recognized by many or by one.

The most personal and maybe least defined measure-of-success is if you like it, without any further explications of what "like it" is based on when it comes to qualities, variables, impact, etc. The opposite to that is probably the measure-of-success as established in most sciences, that is, a well-defined approach that has to be satisfied in all its details where the process has to show that it lives up to the explicit requirements of the scientific method.  Scientific results are expected to be the outcome of transparent processes that we can trace and inspect.

Interestingly enough, if a scientific process does live up to the requirements, we are not able to deny the outcome as a scientific result, no matter what we think about it. The measure-of-success "like it" does not apply.

Other traditions have other relationships with measuring. For instance, in art, there is little, if any, expectations that the artistic process has to be done in any specific way. No one cares if it is possible to trace and inspect the process. This does not mean that the measure-of-success is less complicated in art. Those who approach art only as a matter of "like it" are commonly seen as not knowing art and not having the needed sensibility of recognizing or 'measuring' art.

Another aspect in art is that one of the most determining factors in measuring success is the artist, the person. In science, of course, the person cannot be part of the measuring of success.

Without going too far on these similarities and differences, what does this mean for design? Well, in many situations designing is measured by the application of the measure-of-success from other traditions, typically science or art. Of course, we also see designing measured by the measure-of-success from the tradition of business. As someone who teaches designing, I am often struck by how difficult the measure-of-success in designing is to students. They become confused since they often try to combine several measures and try to make sense out of it. This is extraordinarily difficult since the existing measure-of-success in other traditions are not easy to combine, actually in many cases they are irreconcilable. It is impossible to combine them.

It is important to realize that it is not the case that a tradition or approach, such as designing, has a given measure-of-success that has to be used. It is definitely possible to use for instance a scientific approach to create something that is measured as a piece of art, or an artistic approach while expecting the result to be measured as a knowledge contribution. This is an exciting realization. I believe that often when we see highly creative outcomes it is when someone uses one tradition with the purpose to create something to be evaluated with the measure-of -uccess from another tradition. Of course, anyone who tries this has to be prepared of the harsh critique that will follow, unless the relationship between the process and the measure-of-success is made perfectly clear.

Designing means creating something yet-not-existing. It is a powerful approach and tradition. If a designer want to be successful, they have to be clear about their own measure-of-success and also be able to communicate that to those who will be evaluating the design. So, for each design project the questions are: what is the purpose and intention, what is the design desiderata, and how does that translate into a measure-of-success, and how can that measure-of-success be explained and communicated.

Friday, December 14, 2018

"It depends"

When I teach design theory or interaction design I often get questions about what is "good" or "better" when it comes to design. After a while, my students realize that the answer they get from me is never anything else than "it depends".

There are no universally "good" or "bad" qualities when it comes to any designed product or system. The only way to evaluate quality is in relation to purpose. And the purpose is dependent on the particular situation, time, stakeholders, users, decisionmakers, technology, resources, etc. A specific quality that may be seen as crucially good in one situation, may in another situation be an obvious bad quality. So, good design is only relevant in relation to purpose. It depends...

However, we can of course as designers and critics discuss what in general may be good qualities. This means that we are leaving the domain of design and moving into the domain of some sort of science where we try to establish universal qualities and their universal relevance. We will look for qualities that go across the particulars and move into the universals.

To determine what is good quality in a particular case and what can, in some sense, be understood as universally good are two completely separate and distinct activities. The students' question about what is "better" is often a consequence of them mixing these activities up. They are hoping to find answers about the particular based on what is universally true. Such hope is easy to understand since it would, if it was possible, release them from their own responsibility of making real design judgments. But it is a futile hope...

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Blind Spot of HCI Research

The HCI research community is engaged with how people interact with digital artifacts and systems. However, looking at the present focus of HCI research, this engagement does not cover all areas of interaction. There are areas of HCI that does not really receive any attention from HCI researchers. We might distinguish between two forms of interaction, 'forced' and 'voluntary'. The voluntary form of interaction is what HCI research commonly is focused on, that is, interaction that is a result of people choosing to interact with a system for their personal reasons. Forced interaction usually takes place in workplaces where people have to use whatever system the organization is using.

It is possible to see 'forced' interaction as a 'blind spot' in HCI research. Forced interaction includes, for instance, systems that people use to manage their everyday work, scheduling, tracking, of activities and processes. Administrators and others working in scheduling, accounting, logistics, resource handling, in areas of healthcare, education, banking, insurance, transportation, etc.

We commonly hear stories from people working in organizations about bad interaction and systems not designed for users. Of course, you can argue that a lot of HCI research is basic research (new technologies, new forms of interaction, etc) that over time will change these systems to the better. And the shift to user-oriented design and user experience have made a difference, but it is far from enough. Even with the best intentions, the interaction design that is behind these kinds of everyday systems require other competencies,  knowledge, and approaches.

One key aspect of these kinds of systems is that the user does not choose the system. They have to use it. It has nothing to do with their motivation. And the user is not in any way involved in any development work or has any influence on the system. The user is neither able to influence how to use the system.

How can and should HCI research approach this huge problem? What kind of research is needed?

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Critical Theory and Interaction Design"

A wonderful book was just published.

Jeff Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell, and Mark Blythe had the idea of creating a 'reader' on critical theory and how it relates to interaction design. They invited a  group of great people to pick a critical theory text and to write a commentary of it.

I am honored to be part of this and I selected my favorite critical theory thinker Herbert Marcuse. The book is a wonderful collection of great texts and insightful commentaries.

See below for a description and more info.

A must read for any PhD student in HCI and interaction design.


Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S., & Blythe, M. (Eds). (2018). Critical Theory and Interaction Design.
MIT Press.

Critical Theory and Interaction Design

Classic texts by thinkers from Althusser to Žižek alongside essays by leaders in interaction design and HCI show the relevance of critical theory to interaction design.

Why should interaction designers read critical theory? Critical theory is proving unexpectedly relevant to media and technology studies. The editors of this volume argue that reading critical theory―understood in the broadest sense, including but not limited to the Frankfurt School―can help designers do what they want to do; can teach wisdom itself; can provoke; and can introduce new ways of seeing. They illustrate their argument by presenting classic texts by thinkers in critical theory from Althusser to Žižek alongside essays in which leaders in interaction design and HCI describe the influence of the text on their work. For example, one contributor considers the relevance Umberto Eco's “Openness, Information, Communication” to digital content; another reads Walter Benjamin's “The Author as Producer” in terms of interface designers; and another reflects on the implications of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble for interaction design. The editors offer a substantive introduction that traces the various strands of critical theory.

Taken together, the essays show how critical theory and interaction design can inform each other, and how interaction design, drawing on critical theory, might contribute to our deepest needs for connection, competency, self-esteem, and wellbeing.

Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell, Olav W. Bertelsen, Alan F. Blackwell, Mark Blythe, Kirsten Boehner, John Bowers, Gilbert Cockton, Carl DiSalvo, Paul Dourish, Melanie Feinberg, Beki Grinter, Hrönn Brynjarsdóttir Holmer, Jofish Kaye, Ann Light, John McCarthy, Søren Bro Pold, Phoebe Sengers, Erik Stolterman, Kaiton Williams., Peter Wright

Classic texts
Louis Althusser, Aristotle, Roland Barthes, Seyla Benhabib, Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Arthur Danto, Terry Eagleton, Umberto Eco, Michel Foucault, Wolfgang Iser, Alan Kaprow, Søren Kierkegaard, Bruno Latour, Herbert Marcuse, Edward Said, James C. Scott, Slavoj Žižek

Friday, November 09, 2018

Today's reading

I have started to 'force' myself to read one paper each morning at work. So far so good. I post a mini comment on the page "Today's Reading" here on my blog. We'll see how many days I will be able to do this.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Interesting McKinsey study reveals what every business should to know about design

The consulting firm McKinsey has studied 300 companies and based on the results they argue what successful companies need to do when it comes to design. To someone who has worked with this issue for decades, the results are not surprising. But they are encouraging. A summary can found in this article in FastCompany.

The study ends with presenting four areas that increased revenue and total returns the most:

"1. Tracking design’s impact as a metric just as rigorously as you would track cost and revenue. McKinsey cited one gaming company that tracked how a small usability tweak to its home page increased sales by 25%.

2. Putting users first by actually talking to them. This helps to think outside of a standard user experience. One hotel that McKinsey underlined presented visitors with souvenir rubber ducks embossed with an image of the host city–with the encouragement to collect more rubber ducks from the hotel’s other locations. The initiative improved retention 3% over time.

3. Embedding designers in cross-functional teams and incentivizing top design talent. McKinsey pointed to Spotify as an example because the company gives its designers autonomy within a diverse environment–unlike a consumer packaged goods company, which was bleeding designers because they had to spend time making slide decks look pretty for the marketing team.

4. Encouraging research, early-stage prototyping, and iterating. Just because a product or service is launched doesn’t mean the design work ends. One cruise ship company that McKinsey highlighted spoke with passengers, assessed which activities were most popular by looking at payment data, and analyzed security feeds with machine learning algorithms to find inefficiencies in a ship’s layouts–all in the name of improving user experience over time." (see the article)

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Interesting thoughts on design sprints

As we hear more and more about 'sprints' as a way to make processes faster, and especially when it comes to design, it is good to read this text. We have a person who has gone from a true believer to a skeptic. Someone who now doubts the benefits of design sprints, but not abandoning them.

The post is titled "Why I am breaking up with design sprints" by Michael, who is the Design & Strategy Director at Reason.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Explainable AI, interactivity and HCI

I have lately been aware of a growing movement around the idea that AI systems need to be able to explain their behavior and decisions to users. It is a fascinating topic, sometimes called XAI as in Explainable Artificial Intelligence.

This is a question that is approached from many perspectives.

There are those who are trying to develop AI systems that technically can explain their inner workings in some way that makes sense to people. In traditional systems, this is not as difficult as today with machine learning and deep learning systems. In these new AI systems, it is not clear, even to their creators, how they work and in what way they have reached their advice or decision. For instance, DARPA has an ambitious program around XAI with the clear purpose of developing technical solutions that will make AI systems able to explain themselves (

There are also those who approach the XAI from a legal point of view. What does it mean to have machines that can make decisions about serious issues without any humans being able to inspect how they reached the decision. Where does responsibility lie? Some argue that AI systems should be held to the same standard as humans when it comes to the law (for instance, Doshi-Velez et al. "Accountability of AI under the law: the role of explanation").

There are also those who argue that explanable AI is needed for practical reasons, for instance, if AI is to really make a difference as a supporting tool in medicine, the systems need to be able to reason and explain themselves (for instance, Holzinger et al. "What do we need to build explainable AI systems for the medical domain?" or de Graaf et al. "How people explain action (and autonomous intelligent systems should too").

And there are those who approach the topic from a more philosophical perspective and ask some broader questions about how reasonable it is for humans to ask systems to be able to explain their actions when we cannot ask the same standard of explanations from humans (for instance, Zerilli at al. "Transparency in algoritmic and human decision-making: is there a double standard?")

There are of course many more possible perspectives. Explainable AI is with a growing number of applications influencing our everyday lives, often in critical ways when it comes to safety (self-driving cars, decision support systems for medicine, engineering, logistics, etc).

To me, there is also an obvious HCI angel to this. When humans interact with advanced intelligent systems, many interactivity questions emerge. For instance, if systems are not able to explain what they do and maybe even more, what they can do, we end up with a 'black box' problem. Humans who interact with such a system may have no or very little idea about what the system can do. This can lead to several problems, one is that the user may 'trigger' the system to do things without knowing. When interaction is not transparent, the user might act in ways that are read as 'operations' to the system.

But maybe the most interesting aspect from an interaction point of view is how deep should interaction reach? When humans interact with simple systems, they can be aware of the complete interactability of the system, that is, the ability the system has to interact and act (see Janlert & Stolterman "Things that keep us busy-the elements of interaction"). This is of course not possible with more advanced systems and even less so with more intelligent systems. So how deep should human interaction reach? Just interact with the surface of the system? Or should we be able to, when needed, interact all the way down to the lowest level of the systems abilities?

Anyway, I think that the area of explainable AI is a field where HCI researchers need to engage. It is not only a technical or legal or practical issue, it is to a large extent a question of interation and interactivity.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Doing design well

Any problem or challenge can be addressed with any approach. However, not every approach is suitable for any kind of problem. For example, humans usually approach the challenge of building a bridge with an engineering approach even though it is, of course, possible to approach it using art or religion or any other approach. Most people have an intuitive sense of when one particular approach is suitable or not even though they sometimes debate it.

Today a lot of people argue that design is a suitable approach for certain challenges, usually those that require creative or innovative solutions. Design as a human approach for inquiry and change has proven to be extraordinarily powerful. This is also why so many today want to "use" the approach. Some time back, design as an approach was 'packaged' into a something called 'design thinking'. The purpose was to make the approach more approachable, easier to understand and use. And also to teach those who had no experience or training in design.

This is all good and well. However, it has led to some disappointments and frustrations, since people who have tried to 'use' the approach have not been as successful as they were promised or believed they would be.

There might be many reasons for this backlash. This backlash has been getting quite a lot of attention recently. Some argue that design as an approach is fundamentally flawed, some that it has been misunderstood, and some are arguing for moving on to other more promising approaches.

But there are also some very simple reasons that design is not always done well. There are some truths about using design as an approach that is commonly forgotten.

Here are some of these truths about what is needed to do design well:

1. Any serious human approach aimed at dealing with some aspect of reality (science, art, engineering, business, design, etc.) is intrinsically complex and requires substantial training and experience to be able to do well. Reality is wonderfully rich and complex and cannot be dealt with in any simplified way without leading to unwanted consequences. This is why we have education, disciplines, and professions.

2. You can use an approach, without understanding it. Like any approach, it is possible to 'use' design without really understanding its underlying assumptions and principles (philosophy). However, this leads to increased risk of using the approach for the wrong purposes and to misappropriate the methods and tools that are core to the designerly approach. This will, in turn, lead to outcomes that are not desired and expected.

3. You can use an approach but do it badly. There is no serious approach that can be used without being conscientious about its process, methods, and tools. For instance, you cannot 'use' the scientific approach sloppily. If you do, the outcome will not be recognized as knowledge. The same with design. If the process is done badly, the outcomes will not lead to the level of quality expected and it will be a consequence of execution and not the approach itself.

4. Any approach requires a supporting culture and environment that understands, embraces and supports the approach. It is extremely difficult to engage in a  truly designerly approach if the surrounding environment is not supportive. This is true for all approaches. For instance, we know about companies that are commonly labeled as "engineering" companies with the meaning that most people in the company are trained engineers. In a company like that it is easy to use an engineering approach. To engage with a designerly approach in such a company can be extraordinarily difficult and even dangerous.

There are of course many more "truths" than these four.

So, what does this mean? It means that if you want to do design well, you have to:

1. accept that design is highly complex and requires extensive training and experience.

2. truly understand design as a fundamental approach, its philosophical foundation.

3. put in a lot of effort, work hard, and be true to the approach.

4. make sure you have a supportive environment, a design culture.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Good Judgment

"No hard and fast rules for this operation of selecting and rejecting, or fixing upon the facts, can be given. It all comes back, as we say, to the good judgment, the good sense, of the one judging."

This sentence comes from the chapter "Judgment: interpretation of facts" from the book "How we think" by John Dewey. This is a wonderful book and this chapter is maybe the best thing ever written on judgment and how to develop it. 

Here is another quote that in a wonderful way describes the conditions for intuition to emerge and how it relates to judgment:

"Long brooding over conditions, intimate contact associated with keen interest, through absorption in a multiplicity of allied experiences, tend to bring about those judgments which we call intuitive; but they are true judgments because they are based on intelligent selection and estimation, with the solution of a problem as the controlling standard. Possession of this capacity makes the difference between the artist and the intellectual bungler." (p. 105)

This chapter is full of precise and insightful explanations of the nature of judgment. Dewey discusses the role of analysis and synthesis, how judgments and decisions relate, the origin of ideas and how ideas relate to judgment, what the logic of judgment is, etc.

A must-read for anyone who reflects on judgment as a core of designing.
(No one wants to be a "bungler")

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Books on my desk...

One of my piles of books on my desk at the moment. Some old, some new, some favorites. Learning never stops...

Friday, September 28, 2018

Faceless Interaction: Interaction Richness and Precision

The growth of intelligent assistants of different kinds is leading to more faceless interactions as we have defined it in our book "Things That Keep Us Busy-the elements of interaction" (Janlert & Stolterman, MIT Press 2017). Below is an excerpt from the book that touches on what this change could mean when it comes to interaction richness and precision.

"Faceless interaction may seem to open up for smooth or analog interaction more than surface-bound interaction does, but perhaps that is a false impression. Spoken natural language has a dominant digital component in the phonemes, morphemes, words, phrases, sentences, and so on, although there remains an analog component as well in the form of intonation and prosody (but note that tone in itself can be used for digital communication as well, as in Mandarin where there are four distinctive, semantically significant “tones”). There are also important examples of analog surface- bound forms of expression, such as drawing and painting. The richness that is inherent in analog interaction usually comes at the cost of skill. The ease with which users can handle complex interactions via surface-bound digital expressions—for example, by clicking buttons without a lot of motor skill or precision required—is a strength that faceless interaction may lack. So, even though the richness of analog and faceless interaction is appealing it may also lead to lack of precision and ease.
       For instance, playing the electronic musical instrument called the theremin seems to be much harder than playing the violin. The completely free gestures by which the theremin is operated are hard to make precise. To enable precise actions, it seems that some kind of physical support and resistance is required to deliver precise haptic feedback, implying surface- bound interaction.
       Free gestures seem to leave room for endless variations and subtle nuances, also open for more spontaneous expressions and reactions. At the same time, they are, just as much as the vocal apparatus, a usable basis for creating digital expressions and impressions. Consider, for example, regular sign languages and smaller sign vocabularies developed for specific uses, for example, the hand and arm signs used by military personnel.
       Auto-Tune is an audio processor that can correct the pitch of singers sing- ing slightly out of tune, digitizing the pitch of an analog voice. Something similar could no doubt be arranged for the theremin. The use of Auto-Tune has been criticized both for making inept singers sound as if they actually “can sing”—and for flattening, “photoshopping,” the human voice. That you can sing off key shows there is richness of expression (expressive elbow room) but if you don’t develop your ability to control pitch you cannot exploit that richness. It is quite clear that small, tightly controlled deviations from the nominal pitch work as an important expressive device in vocal music, as in much instrumental music.
     It seems as if faceless interaction has a tendency to influence the relationship between richness and precision. Whether this relationship also has the quality of being a tradeoff is less clear. What is clear is that any designer making decisions about faceless interactions has to consider the relationship between richness and precision, between digital and analog, in a more developed way than is required for traditional interfaces." (Page 161-162)

Monday, September 24, 2018

Understanding Designing: Getting Too Close

There is a lot of research aimed at 'exploring', 'dissecting' and 'examining'  important human activities with the purpose to 'reveal' and 'unpack' its inner structure and mechanisms.  For instance, creativity, learning, and designing are all human activities that are constantly examined.

This ambition is easy to understand.  Humans want to improve their activities and to be able to improve they have to understand how things work. For instance, to improve designing, first, we need to have a good understanding of what it can do, how it is done, how it can be done, and maybe how it should be done, etc. So we need more research on the process of designing.

We can formulate abstract theories and philosophies about designing as a human activity. We can study what designers are actually doing when they design. We can produce infinite amounts of data on different design processes, in different areas, with different designers, with different purposes, knowledge, skills, experience, etc.

But, can we get too close? The knowledge about designing that can be created is infinite. We can go layer after layer, closer to the 'real' thing. But for each layer, we add combinatorial complexity that quickly becomes impossible to handle and manage. We end up with knowledge that is extraordinarily complex and as fast as it grows in detail and complexity, it loses its practical relevance and potential guidance for improvement.

This is a well-known effect in systems theory. Getting closer gives you a clear picture of a defined part of the whole but may lead to a completely wrong understanding of the whole. This is what I see a lot today when it comes to research about designing. We see an overwhelming stream of research results dealing with this or that aspect of designing. We learn a lot, but where is the broader picture. Where are the attempts to combine all the details, to develop a whole?

We might need the details...maybe, but we definitely need the understanding of the whole.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book note: "Design for the Pluriverse - Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds" by Arturo Escobar

There are many different kinds of books about design and designing. The way they differ is diverse. It is fascinating to see the breadth and scope of books trying to describe, prescribe, define, advocate, or change design.

A simple list (far from comprehensive) would include design-related books that engage with:
-- "how to" practical aspects of the design process (approaches, methods, tools, skills, etc),
--  how to relate design to other approaches, such as art or science,
--  the history of design,
--  designed artifacts and systems in a particular field (buildings, chairs, systems, pens, etc.)
--  philosophical and theoretical thoughts on design
--  ___________

There are of course others too. For instance, there is a category of design books that engage with design and designing form the perspective of what to achieve with design. These treatments of design are usually a bit more philosophical and definitely more ideological and political. In this kind of books, design is almost seen as a "tool", as a way to achieve a particular goal.

One such book is recently published and written by Arturo Escobar with the title "Design for the Pluriverse - Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds".

This is a book that "presents a new vision of design theory and practice aimed at channeling design's world-making capacity towards ways of being and doing that are deeply attuned to justice and the Earth." (from the book cover).

In the description, we can see how design is seen as a "tool" as the author wants to use "design's world-making capacity" to achieve "being and doing that are deeply attuned to justice and the Earth". Escobar does this by relying on certain philosophical foundations and what he calls 'ontological design'. It is an interesting book and an ambitious project that Escobar is involved in.

To me, maybe the most interesting aspect of the book is not the proposed "new vision" but a question that Escobar asks. He writes "Here again we confront one of the key issues of this book: can design be extricated from its embeddedness in modernist unsustainable and defuturing practices and redirected toward other ontological commitments, practices, narratives, and performances? Moreover, could design become part of the tool kit for transitions toward the pluriverse?" (p 15)

This type of question is similar to what is often asked in science and art. Each approach is often accused to be the instrument for certain goals and disinterested in others. They are accused to have some 'built in' bias that leads the approach/tool to only support certain outcomes. Escobar is arguing that designing has a built-in bias in its "embeddedness in modernist unsustainable and defuturing practices". Escobar's ambition is to reveal that bias and to explore and develop a possible alternative 'bias'. As a project, I find this highly interesting.

To me, maybe the most interesting observation stimulated by this book is the question about the nature of the core of design as a human approach to change. Escobar must see that the built-in bias in design is not an intrinsic quality, not part of the core. If it were, then the project would be futile. Instead, the alternative 'bias' seems to be something that can be added on to or infused in the approach. So, is there in Escobar's view a design approach that is not biased, that is the pure approach? Or is it always the case that any use of the 'tool' design is instilled with some bias?

(Of course, we can see how this question relates to the old discussion in the philosophy of science about the question of science as unbiased or not.)

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Want to think like a designer

I saw this headline today

"Want to think like a designer? Try these 4 simple exercises
Even simple drawing exercises can get your creative juices flowing."

Why is it that thinking like a designer seems to be so easy to do and to learn. We do not very often see headlines like

"Want to think like a heart surgeon? Try these 4 simple exercises
Even simple cutting exercises can get your surgical skills flowing."

Of course, there is a difference. We cannot train as surgeons by cutting in people, but all of us can make drawings without any dangerous outcomes. But that does not necessarily make us good designers or help us think like designers. To do good design is difficult. It requires a lot of knowledge and expertise and experience.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

New course: Elements of interaction

I am very excited to start my new course on Monday next week.  It is a graduate course called "The elements of interaction". It is based on my book "Things that keep us busy--the elements of interaction" (Janlert & Stolterman, 2018). It is always exciting to start a course but even more when the course is new and you have never taught it before. It will be fun and hopefully work out well!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Interacting with versus being with

In our book "Things That Keep Us Busy - Elements of Interaction" we make the case that interaction is an activity that has to fulfill certain criteria to be called interaction. We define a "window of interaction" with eight dimensions. Each dimension has to be within a certain range for an activity to be understood or labeled as interaction. This means that not all activities where humans 'use' things or systems are interactions.

So, what is everything else, all our encounters with the reality around us, if not interactions? Well, most of the "interactions" with our everyday environment seem better defined as being with. For instance, it does not feel natural to say that we interact with our home (even though this is maybe changing today). Instead, we live in our home. We might interact with people, but that seems to be most appropriate when it is people in specific roles, we usually do not say we interact with our children, spouse, or friends (even though some might, since our use of language has changed a lot).

If we accept this distinction between "interacting with" (interactive things and systems) versus "being with" (family and friends) is it possible to say something about how our contemporary society is changing. Yes, I think so. It seems as if there is an ongoing movement that transforms "interacting with" to "being with". People are looking for interactions with things that are natural and intuitive, that are similar to what they are used to when it comes to "being with". We are not interacting with our thermostat anymore, we are living with a home that recognizes our presence and desires. A home that adapts to us and our habits, that lives with us. We are more and more living with our smartphones. We do not necessarily see it as if we are interacting with them. They are always present, they are our companions, they are part of who we are.

Some questions arise. What is it that we gain and lose when we move from "interacting with" to "being with"? What are the long-term consequences of such a shift? When should we strive to not make this shift happen? And when is such a shift a way to reach an everyday life that is more "natural" and less determined by technology?

Friday, July 06, 2018

Designers are not heroes

In the midst of today's glorifying of design as an approach that can achieve anything, there is an unflattering stroke of hubris. Of course, I truly believe in design as a unique approach that can deliver outcomes that set designing apart from other approaches. But when designers start to see themselves as the 'one', as those who will solve the issues that no one else can solve, then I have some issues.

Designers commonly work in service of a client. They are paid to do work for a client. This is all good. When designers act on their own, without a client, they become activists (or in some cases artists). This is also fine. To be an activist means that you primarily take a personal and often political stance.  It means that you act on some deep beliefs, values, and/or ideology. In that case, you are not a designer, you are an activist that maybe uses some form of a designerly approach.

This is quite certainly a non-issue for most people and maybe to me too. But there is a serious aspect to this. When people start to act in the world and claim that they do it in the name of "design", then I see a problem. It creates a very specific problem for the tradition or approach of design. Designers are not necessarily equipped to deal with all kinds of problems in the world, which means that they will fail. It is a similar kind of problem or hubris as when some scientists argue that science is the way to approach all societal problems.

It is obvious to me that design as an approach is not 'designed' to handle complex societal issues in absence of a client. Each stakeholder involved in an issue may use a designerly approach of course, but there is no 'pure' or clean designerly way of approaching an issue that would make designers more suited than others to deal with a societal problem (unless the problem is of a type that is uniquely suited for a designerly approach).

Maybe more problematic is when designers see themselves as saviors or even heroes that are equipped with a more powerful approach than others, and they start to 'help' others without working in a close client relationship. Client-less 'independent' designers are no different than any other type of activist trying to impose their 'solutions' on others. To be clear, I have no problem with designers doing this as activists. In many cases, great designers can achieve great results in this manner. But it should not be done in the name of 'design'. It should be done as someone aspiring to create change and who is trying to use a designerly approach.

I truly understand that this reasoning is subtle and to most has no value or importance, but for me it is crucial.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What if HCI became a fashion-driven discipline?

A few years ago I wrote a paper together with Yue Pan (at the time a PhD student) about HCI and fashion. The title was "What if HCI became a fashion-driven discipline?". I have since then been surprised that this paper has not been getting more attention since in my mind it is quite controversial and challenges the field of HCI in an interesting way.

Today, I do believe we are even further in a transition of HCI and interaction design into a fashion-driven discipline. Such a transition will or can have a huge impact on the field if taken seriously. Well, for now, it is not taken seriously. But I think we have to, so I am trying to push this paper.....

And here is the reference:
Pan, Yue, and Erik Stolterman. "What if HCI Becomes a Fashion Driven Discipline?." Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2015.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Opening Keynote at DIS 2018

I recently had the pleasure of giving the Opening Keynote at the ACM DIS 2018 conference in Hong Kong. It was my first visit to Hong Kong and only my second in Asia. The conference was really good. Good size and on average very good papers. I really enjoyed participating. And to experience Hong Kong was an extra bonus.

Here is the abstract for my Keynote presentation:

To Study Interaction and Interfaces: 
An Approach and Some Findings

It is hard to deny that our artifacts and environments are becoming more and more complex, more and more “alive,” and as a consequence more and more demanding. We have to interact more. There seems to be no retreat or escape from interactivity. Some well-informed critics worry that the proliferation of interactions and interactive things has already gone too far. Their concerns raise many questions. Does interactivity in fact increase? How can we know? What does it really mean to claim that it does? And if indeed it is increasing, what does it mean? And why is this happening? And should something be done? Despite this development there seems to be no precise idea of what interaction is and what being interactive means, beyond a vague notion that it is some kind of interplay, usually optimistically understood as good-natured cooperation.

In this talk I will present the work I have done for many years, together with my colleague Lars-Erik Janlert. As our approach, maybe best described as analytical and philosophical, we have examined properties and qualities of designed artifacts and systems; primarily those properties that are open for manipulation to designers, that is, properties that designers can and do intentionally affect by their design decisions (and thus in principle are possible to control). Rather than taking users and their subjective experiences of the artifacts and systems as the primary target for examination, unfashionable as it may be, we have chosen to be objective in the sense of focusing on the artifacts and systems. Apart from discussing our approach, I will briefly introduce some of our main results consisting of some developed definitions of existing (and some new) concepts, such as, interactivity, interactability, interactiveness. I will end with some comments on what this kind of investigation can tell us about the future by introducing the notions of faceless interaction, interactivity clutter, and interactivity fields.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A talk in Oslo "Things That Keep Us Busy - the elements of interaction"

I am very happy to be invited to give a talk at Oslo University next Friday, May 25th. The topic of the talk is my new book "Things That Keep Us Busy - the elements of interaction"

Monday, April 30, 2018

New course: The Elements of Interaction

This coming Fall I will teach a new (primarily graduate) course that I will develop over the summer. It is called "The Elements of Interaction" and it is based on my new book "Things That Keep Us Busy--the elements of interaction" (MIT Press 2017). The book is co-authored with my colleague Lars-Erik Janlert.

I am quite excited about this new course and I wonder if there are any courses like it out there. If you know, please let me know! And if you are interested or have questions, just email me.

Here is a description of the courses (at least as I plan now):

The Elements of Interaction

We are surrounded by interactive devices, artifacts, and systems. The general assumption is that interactivity is good -- that it is a positive feature associated with being modern, efficient, fast, flexible, and in control. Yet there is no very precise idea of what interaction is and what interactivity means. In this course, we will investigate the elements of interaction and how they can be defined and measured. We will focus on interaction with digital artifacts and systems but draw inspiration from the broader, everyday sense of the word. We will explore how the interface has changed over time, from a surface with knobs and dials to clickable symbols to gestures to the absence of anything visible. We will examine properties and qualities of designed artifacts and systems, primarily those that are open for manipulation by designers, considering such topics as complexity, clutter, control, and the emergence of an expressive-impressive style of interaction. The course is based on the idea that understanding some basic concepts and terms of interactivity and interaction can support interaction design and inform discussions about the future of interactivity.

The course is directed at graduate students with an interest in human-computer interaction in any form. Students in the course will develop a fundamental understanding of interaction and interactivity and an ability to analyze how interactive devices and systems interact and influence their users and environment.

The course will also help and support students to imagine new forms of interactions and to support them in the design and develop of interactive artifacts and systems.

The course will cover:

• The everyday reality of interaction and interactivity
• Understanding interaction and interactivity
• Basic elements and definitions of interaction
• How to study, analyze and measure interaction
• Examination of interaction complexity and control, interactivity clutter, etc.
• Implications for interaction design and UX
• The future of interaction (faceless interaction, interactivity fields, etc.)

As the core reading of the course we will use the book: 

Things That Keep Us Busy – the elements of interaction” by Lars-Erik Janlert and Erik Stolterman (MIT Press, 2017)

Friday, April 27, 2018

A reflection after visiting CHI 2018 Montreal

Back home after a few days at CHI in Montreal. Overwhelming. Impressive in size, breadth and culture.

A lot can be said about HCI research, how it is changing, where it is moving, based on what happens at CHI. This is why I like to go to CHI. Not the individual papers or presentations, but the chance to get a sense of the whole field.

I made one new observation this year. I don't know if it is true or only a result of what I personally happened to listen to and see, but I will share it.

I experienced that the research presented at CHI seemed to drift and shift in two distinct ways. I saw more good design based research made by young design oriented researchers that take such an approach to research as given and as legitimate. I also saw more scientific research. People who study interactive technology and systems, but also different forms of interactivity, using traditional scientific methods and approaches. They did this not with the primary purpose of finding or developing new applications to real problems, that is, to support design, but with the purpose to develop a deeper understanding of certain aspects of human computer interactions.

I see these developments, both of them, as excellent for HCI research. For them to come together in one conference where they inform each other is the way it should be.

My personal critique of HCI research over the years has often been that it has been 'inbetween' research. It has not been real scientific research and it has not been real design oriented research. Being in between is the worst place to be as a researcher. It leads to confusion of purpose and of what the outcome is and how it can be evaluated. So, what I saw this year is positive and I hope it continues.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Studying the nature of interactivity (HCI)

I have always been drawn to research that is trying to understand the 'nature' of some phenomenon. There are several reasons for this. I am attracted to the idea that as a researcher I am actually improving my own understanding of the phenomenon I am studying and increasing my ability to explain its nature, and that this knowledge grows over time and is in some sense is cumulative. As a consequence of this, I have had two major research projects during my career. One has been to understand the nature of designing as a human approach to change and the other has been to understand the nature of the interaction between humans and interactive artifacts/systems.

I have realized that this aim is commonly confused with a radically different purpose which is to develop support that can improve peoples ability to design new technology and systems. As any kind of basic research, the results it produces will never be able to tell anyone what to design or create. Basic research primarily provides a deeper understanding of some phenomenon.  Instead of leading to prescriptive knowledge that could make design easier, it leads to increased complexity and from a design perspective often increased difficulty.

After being involved in basic research for many years I am more than ever convinced that it is not just necessary, it is also possible, even when it comes to a field like HCI. It is possible to study the nature of interactivity. It is possible to develop a deeper understanding of interactivity as a real phenomenon, something we, over time, can actually become better at explaining with sound and well-grounded theories and models.

For this to happen HCI research has to change some of its fundamental assumptions. For instance, HCI research has as a primary goal to lead to some form of (immediate) improvements or usefulness. In Habermas terms it is possible to say that HCI research is driven by a "control knowledge interest" and less of a knowledge interest of "understanding" or "emancipation" (which are his other two categories.  Of course, I am not saying that research with a "control" knowledge interest is not needed or should not be done. HCI is as a research field primarily aimed at improving practice so that is fine. But the field would benefit from also engaging in these other knowledge interests with a strong passion.

I am therefore both happy and proud of the work I have done with my colleague Lars-Erik Janlert about the nature of interactivity, where we did set out to do what I discussed above. We examined an existing phenomenon (interaction/interactivity) with the purpose to describe and explain its nature, to the best of our ability. Of course, we only reached so far. But I believe that it is a start that hopefully will inspire others. The result is the book "Things That Keep Us Busy -- the elements of interaction" (MIT Press, 2017)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

One of the best books ever on design

Again I returned to the writings of David Pye. His writings have been with me since the early 80s. The nature and aesthetics of design" is one of the absolute best books ever written about design.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Interaction design, complexity, and virtuosity

One of the most preached principles in design, and particularly in interaction design, is to strive for simplicity. It is yet difficult to find any examinations of what simple really means when it comes to design (there are some good exceptions, such as Maeda and Mollerup, see references below).

In many cases, being simple is of course good. Nevertheless, we also know that we live in a world that is complex and sometimes requires complex actions. We also know that people can do amazing things even with devices that are highly complex. Virtuosity can be achieved. So, the question becomes, can we design artifacts that require complex actions in a way that could support the efforts of reaching virtuosity?

Below is an excerpt from our book "Things That Keep Us Busy - the elements of interaction" (MIT Press, 2018). This is from Chapter 6 "Control".

"6.5 Virtuosity

Can we imagine artifacts that are highly complex while still being inviting to a user and providing incentives for continuous engagement, maybe even spurring a few users to aim for extreme levels of mastery? Let us consider the violin example again. As we noted in chapter 5, the violin combines low internal and external complexity with high interaction complexity, which apparently invites a range of user behaviors. Most people initially find the violin extraordinarily difficult to interact with even though the artifact itself is quite simple: just a few strings mounted on a soundboard and a bow. Beginners are not able to make any real music on the violin even though they of course can make (terrible) sounds.

We also know that the violin invites virtuosity, a display of expertly handled extreme interaction complexity. Virtuosic violin performances have a long tradition and many famous composers have written music specially tailored to let distinguished players show off their virtuosity. When it comes to musical virtuosi, it is not uncommon to hear comments that virtuosity is more a technical achievement or circus act than an expression of musical insight and depth of interpretation. It may be that listeners, rather than being moved by the music, are impressed and awed by the display of almost superhuman skills.

Why is it that some artifacts seem to invite virtuosic use while others don’t? Are there examples of digital artifacts or systems that have the same virtuosity-inviting quality as the violin? There seem to be few parallels to the violin example: low external complexity yet still inviting virtuosity. We have to remember that up until recently digital artifacts and systems have typically had relatively high external complexity. The development of human–computer interaction has been dominated by a constant effort to refine and keep controllability on par with ever-expanding functionality, rather than any ambition to lower external complexity, not surprisingly resulting in externally complex artifacts and systems. Of course, lately with the proliferation of small digital artifacts and apps with specialized functionalities, increasingly under the pressure of the interface bottleneck
problem, external simplicity has become a key issue and mark of good design. However, these artifacts do not seem to invite virtuosity, perhaps because the interaction complexity usually is low, too low.

Another explanation of why we have not seen convincing examples of virtuosity with digital artifacts could be the up till now typically strongly discretized input and output and strict turn taking of digital artifacts, quite far from the analog and continuous flow of violin playing. However, discrete input combinations related to desired output combinations in a complex manner do exist, for instance in some computer games, which open for the possibility of some sort of virtuoso performances; similarly, computer hackers can make dazzling performances of rapidly finding and fixing software problems, hammering away at breakneck speed on a command-based interface. Even with more mundane examples, such as highly complex office software with huge numbers of commands, layers of functionality, we may be impressed by the brilliant technique the professional user displays. Such examples demonstrate fast decision making under pressure in a situation where there is a lot going on to keep track of. This could potentially be understood, and savored, as a kind of virtuosic performance.
A difference is that the interaction is overtly digital and the external complexity considerable: it is a form of “combinatory” virtuosity rather than the “smooth” virtuosity of top-class violin playing. A violin seems to allow more room for users to express themselves in a way that goes beyond functional achievements, possibly that might have something to do with the smoothness and very fine nuances the instrument affords the player. But the distinction between analog and digital interaction, from the user point of view, has become very blurred by now; first with the advent of graphical user interfaces (GUI) and pointing devices, then with new tracking, sensing, and presentation techniques partly deriving from virtual- reality technology, and with tangible user interfaces (TUI) where physical objects are used in analog mode to interact with the digital artifact, and lately with the breakthrough of gestural interaction. The stage is now set for new applications and forms of interactions that could be much more like violin playing. In fact, we already have some artifacts and systems like these around, for instance, in the form of games that with quite simple interfaces invite and compel the user to develop sophisticated interaction skills, often virtual versions of existing “real” games and sports. Using a gesture-controlled golf simulator seems to be close enough to the “real” thing to let expert golfers show their virtuosity in the simulator.

Although we have focused on the violin as a possible model and inspiration for future artifacts and systems inviting virtuosity, we do not want to exclude designs with high external complexity from consideration in this respect. After all, the piano and other keyboard instruments, externally much more complex than the violin, also often figure in virtuosic compositions and performances. Still, the external simplicity of the violin by its very sharp contrast to older-style digital artifacts and systems perhaps makes it a more intriguing and challenging model for a designer. We believe that virtuosity as a manner of interaction could, and maybe even should, be reconsidered and revisited in interaction design. There may be situations and technology use that would benefit from such a perspective. The history of virtuosity is rich, ranges over many fields, and might provide us with new insights into interaction design possibilities with contemporary technology.

There are of course arguments against a move toward virtuosity in the field of interaction design. One obstacle to virtuosic interaction with many digital artifacts is their short market lives and rapid development: the violin has been around for hundreds of years with hardly noticeable changes, giving the community of users ample opportunities to develop a culture of virtuosic use. Many of the new digital artifacts, in contrast, are on the market less than five years before they disappear or are superseded by completely different designs, sometimes building on new and different technologies. Another argument against virtuosity is of course that it requires extensive training over a long time period. We admire virtuosity since most of us do not have the time and maybe talent to engage in training to the degree needed. So, to require virtuosity from users may restrict the group of potential users to almost none.

A more obvious factor working against virtuosity is that while it might be a sometimes-desired manner of interaction, such extreme interaction is not typically what designers and users look for. In much everyday artifact use, most users care for little more than very basic performance—and there often is a conflict between the requirements of high-level performers and low-level performers that prefer low interaction complexity. But, maybe a general change of attitude and the demands of professional users can change that; we have actually come a long way from the time when “user- friendliness” was the key criteria, and we still keep moving."

Maeda, J. 2006. The Laws of Simplicity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Mollerup, P. 2015. Simplicity—A Matter of Design. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

VR, authenticity and killer apps

The hype around VR has lately been growing and ads are making the case that it is time to take on this new form of interaction for all kinds of applications. However, in a great article (published by TechCrunc) the writer  Sibjeet Mahapatra argues that there is a major problem in the world of VR. The problem is the missing killer app.

Mahapatra discusses what he sees as the two values that VR can offer, primarily a sense of presence. But he also argues that VR still lacks when it comes to authenticity. The author makes a good case for what is needed for VR to really become something wanted by a larger audience. So, a good read about interaction and interactivity.

[And of course, I always like someone who  mentions Rorty and his "experience machine"!]

Monday, March 19, 2018

PhD course on "The elements of interaction"

I am just back from a trip to Europe where I among other things taught a two day Ph.D. course called "The Elements of Interaction". The course was organized at the department of computer science at Aalborg University by my colleague Peter Axel Nielsen.

It was an intense experience. Two full days completely focused on our new book "Things that keep us busy--the elements of interaction". We worked through almost all chapters in the book. It led to wonderful discussions. The doctoral students were great. They were curious, critical and inquisitive. And to me, it was a great way of exploring if the content of the book make sense and work for others than me and my co-author Lars-Erik.

Based on the experience, I learned two things. Our book seems to work fine with PhD students and they were able to relate the content to their own research in ways that might help them. Secondly, to teach a PhD course in this format, two full days, is excellent. It leads to complete focus. I will definitely argue for this format when I have the chance.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

When is a copy and the original the same

In an interesting article, Byung-Chul Han examines the notion of what is an original artifact versus a copy. He explains the different notions in the East and West in a way that is relevant to anyone thinking about design and creativity. The major argument that Han makes is that in China (and other Eastern societies) the notion of what is an original might appear as strange to us in the West. According to him, in these cultures, a perfect copy is the same as the original and has no greater value than the original. The article tells a number of fascinating stories of when this difference in thinking between East and West has led to serious misunderstandings and conflicts.

I was intrigued by this article. I have no idea how correct it is and how true it depicts the cultural differences, but even if it is not a true depiction, it does raise a lot of exciting questions about how to think about what is an original and if an original should have any particular status. Again, all relevant questions to any designer.

I have earlier commented on two other books by the philosopher Byung-Chul Han on this blog. See links below.
"In the swarm"

"The burnout society"

Btw, the online magazine Aeon, where this article published, is excellent!

Monday, March 05, 2018

Interaction and Complexity

One aspect of interaction that keeps emerging is related to complexity. A lot of people complain that interacting with systems and devices today is too complex. As a natural reaction to that, a lot of designers argue for simplicity as an important design principle. But what is complexity when it comes to interaction and why does it appear? In our recent book "Things that keep us busy -- the elements of interaction" we spend two chapters on interaction complexity and the related notion of control.

We do this by examining what interaction complexity is and what causes it. This leads to a theory (or model) of interaction complexity that consists of four different types of complexity. This is what we write (on p 85).

"We will identify and define four main loci of complexity of an artifact or system (see figure 5.1), all with respect to its designed purpose:
      1. internal complexity
      2. external complexity
      3. interaction complexity
      4. mediated complexity
These four loci should not be thought of as different measures or types
of complexity; they represent a rough division into the main (more or less abstract) locations where complexity is residing in varying degrees, and manifesting itself in various ways."

and figure 5.1 lays out how these different forms of complexity relate to each other.

After having worked with this model for quite some time, I find it quite useful and it helps to understand many aspects of interactivity and its relation to complexity. One of the major consequences of the model is that it indicates (strongly) that there is no easy "fix". To design for simplicity does not have any optimal solutions, every design decision about how to handle (or where to put complexity) leads to serious trade-offs that are inevitable.

This is why I believe that understanding this model can help and prepare every interaction designer to better approach the design of any interactive system and device.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Three new books on my desk

Just received three new books. Looking forward reading them. Especially since I know the authors of two of the books.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Nope, there is no 'hack' or 'fix' for designing

It seems as if we live in a time where everything can be solved with a 'hack' or a 'fix'. There are infinite websites, blogs, Youtube videos that show how to 'hack' a specific problem or even your life, 'life hacks'. The idea is that there are some smart, maybe almost 'magical', ways of doing things that some people know and now, finally, they are sharing it with the rest of us. You can find videos that say "You have been folding your laundry the wrong way" or "How to peel a banana the right way". These examples are of course harmless but it seems as if we are seeing a shift in mindset. People want quick fixes, smart hacks, that won't require long periods of learning, practice and experience.

It is possible that this mindset is also seeping into areas where it is not appropriate. For instance, the process of designing, of becoming a designer, is not something you can do or become by learning a few tricks or hacks. In the midst of the ongoing growth of design and design thinking (which is mainly a good thing), there is a misconception that you can spend a few hours in a workshop or maybe just read about some design "hacks" and you will become a designer. To me, this is a serious problem that leads to unhappiness and backlash. First of all, people become unhappy when they realize that their design efforts don't work or lead to good designs. Secondly, design, as an approach to change, will be seen as not working and we see a backlash.

I have never seen anyone propose that all you need to do to become a proficient scientist, musician or artist is a 3-hour workshop. Why is designing and design thinking seen as something that anyone can acquire without almost any effort? What does that say about how designing is understood?

Friday, February 09, 2018

"The Design Way" in Spanish

Fondo de Cultura Económica in Mexico City is publishing the Spanish language edition of our book "The Design Way -- intentional change in an unpredictable world" (MIT Press) by Harold G. Nelson and me. This is quite exciting and it will make the book accessible to an even larger audience.

We are also quite happy that the book has now been referenced almost 1.000 times by other authors. I hope that means that at least some of them have read it, or at least parts of it :-)

We do not have any date for when the Spanish version will be out, it will probably be a while.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Creativity unveiled

My friend and colleague Harold Nelson pointed me towards a wonderful book "The Creative Architect -- inside the great midcentury personality study" by Pierluigi Serraino.

This book presents in a beautiful way the enormous volume of research done at IPAR (Institutes of Personality Assessment, today IPSR at Berkeley) during the 1950's and 60's led by Dr. Don MacKinnon. The purpose of the research was to create a deeper understanding of creativity.

In this new book, Serraino presents the background to the studies, how they were conducted, who was involved, and the final outcomes. The core subjects of the studies were some of the most famous and influential architects in the world at the time.

It is fascinating to read about the work that MacKinnon and his large team performed and the incredibly ambitious research approach they used. They performed studies that were heavily data-oriented, quantitative and analytical, based on highly detailed and personal reporting and observations of the subjects.

The chapter of the book called "Creativity unveiled" is absolutely amazing in its profound understanding of creativity. I could not stop underlining paragraph after paragraph of insights that the research had led to. Insights that in almost every detail resonate with my own understanding of creativity and design. Everybody interested in design and creativity should read this chapter!

This book does not only present a wonderful understanding of creativity (and design), but it also shows how fast knowledge is forgotten. There are no studies of this magnitude today. The size of the study, the ambitious methods, the detailed analysis is impressive and inspiring. Unfortunately, most of these results are not used today or even referenced even though they fit extraordinary well with what a lot of research today about creativity and design.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Design Instability - notes on design complexity

For quite some time I have had the pleasure to work with Zeljko Obrenovic on the topic of design complexity. We recently self-published a book on the topic, called "Design Instability - notes on design complexity". It is a short book that explores the complexity of design and why design is not easily simplified.

We describe the book like this:

"Designers deal with an overwhelmingly rich reality, undetermined requirements, highly intricate
social situations, lack of information, as well as lack of resource and time restrictions. Every designer is faced and challenged by this complexity. Discussing complexity in design, however, is difficult, as complexity is a very loaded and often vaguely defined term.

With this book, we want to better describe and give a structured definition of what design complexity may mean. We believe that such more structured overview can help researchers and practitioners to better understand some of the experiences designers are going through while designing. We also believe that in the education of designers it is useful to picture design complexity as an essential part of design that has to be accepted and dealt with, and not as a problem to avoid. We believe that a more structured understanding of design complexity can make such education possible.

A central thesis explored in this book is that complexity characteristic for design activities emerges from an inherent *instability of design activities*. We will argue that this instability is a consequence of messy, dynamic, highly interdependent and unpredictable dynamics between design situations, design outcomes, and design resources.

Design situations, design outcomes and design resources are complex structures that are not independent of each other. They are also continuously changing, in great part due to forces that are beyond designers' control."

You can find more information here:

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Interface Thought Styles -- how to think about and understand what an interface is and can be

With the development of sensors and conversational interactions, it is obvious that what an interface is, becomes less clear. This is something that we address in our book "Things That Keep Us Busy - the elements of interaction" (MIT Press, 2017) when we develop the concept of "faceless interaction".

However, what an interface is or can be understood, has a history. In the book, we devote a chapter to what we call "interface thought styles". (The idea of 'thought styles ' is from Ludwick Fleck and simply means a particular way of thinking about a phenomenon. A way of thinking that influences and in some ways determine what can be thought and known about the phenomena. Thomas Kuhn developed his idea about paradigms heavily influenced by Fleck's ideas.)

So, what are the different ways we can think about the interface? Well, in Chapter 2 we write:

"The notion of interface has developed over a period of several decades and has been influenced by evolving technology and application areas. We have chosen to categorize some earlier and existing ways of thinking about the interface as belonging to four different thought styles: (1) surface- of-contact thought style; (2) boundary thought style; (3) control thought style; and (4) expressive-impressive thought style.

These thought styles are not distinctly related to a particular time period, particular technology, or type of design, but they have evolved over time and can be seen as stemming from different traditions. Fleck writes, “every thought style contains vestiges of the historical, evolutionary development of various elements from another style” (Fleck 1979, 100). Today, we can see that all four thought styles continue to be present and influential in our field, sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating with each other. The different thought styles are devoted to different aspects of the interface." (page 18)

We continue to define the four thought styles:

"The four thought styles explore the interface as
1. a surface of contact between matching objects (from the tradition of industrial machine making);
2. a boundary of an independent (self-sustained) object (from biology and traditional artifact design);
3. a means for controlling (operating, checking, steering) an object (from the design of complex machines);
4. a means for expressions and impressions, a target of interpretations and affectations (from human communication, architecture, and art)."

We do add a fifth potential thought style to this list later in the book when we introduce the field thought style.

There is not room here to discuss these thought styles in any detail (so, read the book :-)

It is quite surprising though, that the notion of the interface has not received more attention from the field of HCI. Of course, the interface has always been at the very core of the field. It is that "thing" through which all interaction takes place. But for something so fundamental, it almost seems taken for granted and not in need of any more sophisticated analysis or examination. Our position when writing the book has been the opposite. The very mundane concept of interface is crucial and definitely worthy our investigative efforts. And we would welcome others to join us in this endeavor.

Monday, January 22, 2018

HCI research and its neglect of complexity and systems

For many years I have wanted to engage in research that is focused on the HCI aspects of large complex interactive systems. But, I have not really done that. Almost everyday I hear stories from family members and friends about their experiences with their office, company and industry software. These are people who work with interactive systems in healthcare, insurance companies, retail, etc. they usually describe systems that have the kind of issues that in contemporary HCI textbooks seem to belong in earlier decades. The field of HCI is almost fully devoted to the kind of interaction that goes on in our private lives and very little in our professional lives.

I live myself in this situation. As an employee in a university, I have to use a number of large and complex systems that, from an HCI perspective, are extraordinary badly designed. As a field, we can, of course, blame the organizations and people who have the responsibility for these types of systems. And we tell them that they should work more in line with modern interaction design. However, even if that would help, it is probably not enough.

HCI research has a responsibility to also approach the dynamic and complex issues that are the consequence of large systems. Some of these issues are organizational and structural, some are related to the complexity of enormous masses of data and information, some are related to efficiency and effectiveness. In many cases, these are issues that are not addressed in contemporary HCI research with its narrow focus on 'user experience', the new and the cool, the interactive life of individuals, etc.

I might be wrong about this, but this 'blind spot' and neglect makes it difficult to argue for a broader societal impact of our research. As long as we only move forward, away from existing large problems, by focusing on the 'next', we are also escaping many of the inescapable aspects of designing complex system in complex environments in a way that would lead to people satisfied with their systems and work support.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Excellent article about the BS in Higher Education

Well, now and then you stumble over a text that describes your understanding of the world in a way that both makes you happy to realize that what you experience is possible to express but also makes you quite sad when you realize how bad things are.

I have been in academia most of my life and I truly love it. It is a wonderful world of exploration, learning and challenges. Since I was a little kid I wanted to become a professor, now I am one and has been it for a long time. The world I love is however not working the way it should or could.

Christian Smith (professor of sociology at Notre Dame) has written a great article in the Chronicle of Higher Education called "Higher Education is drowning in BS". Smith describes this world I love with all is deficiencies. The text resonates with my own reality.  [I hope you can access the text].

I am, as Smith also writes about himself, by working in the system, supporting the system. I have done well in this system. My career has been good. But almost every day, I (as someone who can to some extent influence the system), think about some of the aspects that Smith mentions in regard to my decisions and actions and I realize that my actions are probably contributing to the increase of BS. Pause for reflection....and then we go again....

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New book (soon to be published): "Critical Theory and Interaction Design"

I am very honored and happy to have been involved in a new edited book soon to be published by the MIT Press. The book "Critical Theory and Interaction Design" is edited by Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell and Mark Blythe. Each chapter consists of a classic text from critical theory with a commentary from a scholar in the field of HCI. 

I had personally the opportunity and pleasure of commenting on a chapter from Herbert Marcuse's book "One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society". This is a book that I have read many times and that has influenced my thinking in many ways.

I believe this new book to be an invaluable resource for graduate students in the field of HCI but also broader, such as STS, philosophy of technology, sociology, and more.

Here is the presentation from MIT Press.

Critical Theory and Interaction Design


Why should interaction designers read critical theory? Critical theory is proving unexpectedly relevant to media and technology studies. The editors of this volume argue that reading critical theory—understood in the broadest sense, including but not limited to the Frankfurt School—can help designers do what they want to do; can teach wisdom itself; can provoke; and can introduce new ways of seeing. They illustrate their argument by presenting classic texts by thinkers in critical theory from Althusser to Žižek alongside essays in which leaders in interaction design and HCI describe the influence of the text on their work. For example, one contributor considers the relevance Umberto Eco’s “Openness, Information, Communication” to digital content; another reads Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer” in terms of interface designers; and another reflects on the implications of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble for interaction design. The editors offer a substantive introduction that traces the various strands of critical theory.

Taken together, the essays show how critical theory and interaction design can inform each other, and how interaction design, drawing on critical theory, might contribute to our deepest needs for connection, competency, self-esteem, and wellbeing.

ContributorsJeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell, Olav W. Bertelsen, Alan F. Blackwell, Mark Blythe, Kirsten Boehner, John Bowers, Gilbert Cockton, Carl DiSalvo, Paul Dourish, Melanie Feinberg, Beki Grinter, Hrönn Brynjarsdóttir Holmer, Jofish Kaye, Ann Light, John McCarthy, Søren Bro Pold, Phoebe Sengers, Erik Stolterman, Kaiton Williams., Peter Wright

Classic textsLouis Althusser, Aristotle, Roland Barthes, Seyla Benhabib, Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Arthur Danto, Terry Eagleton, Umberto Eco, Michel Foucault, Wolfgang Iser, Alan Kaprow, Søren Kierkegaard, Bruno Latour, Herbert Marcuse, Edward Said, James C. Scott, Slavoj Žižek

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