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.

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