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.

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