Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The lack of literature in HCI and design theory

I got a question from a student today asking for good readings in the "foundations of HCI and design". The student is working on a project and needed inspiration for how to address a large and complex HCI design problem. The student already know the works by Rogers, Dourish, Margolin (and me :-), but want more. The student want that can help him reflect upon and actually approach his very real design challenge. I realized that I cannot come up with any good list of readings. There are a huge number of "how to" literature, there are a substantial number of "methods" literature and research out there, there are an endless number of specific product (design) experimentations, but almost nothing that could be seen at addressing the foundation of HCI and design, that is, how to think about the role of HCI, the way to address a complex problem , the nature of design, theoretical broad perspectives, etc. And even worse, there are no discussions or debates between different intellectual and theoretical schools thought or perspectives. This situation is not good. Frequently I meet students, Master and PhD, in the field who really want to, or need to, know much more, who struggle with questions on that level.

If anyone want to discuss this situation or argue that there are actually book that do address this level, please comment or let me know.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My first podcast...

Well, earlier this fall I was invited to the interaction design company Namahn in Belgium to give a presentation. The owner of the company Joannes Vandermeulen also interviewed me and the interview can now be heard on a Podcast.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Practice and Research in HCI

In the last issue of ACM Interactions, Avi Parush writes about the "gap between HCI research and practice". It is an interesting text that tries to make the case for research that is both practical and theoretical. The argument is basically correct and is based on the old truth "there is never anything more practical than a good theory". It is however from my point of view a text that comes from the perspective of HCI as "science" (wich is all well and a valid perspective). But to me there is also another perspective and that is when we approach the "gap" from a design perspective, or with Nigel Cross' notion from a "discipline of design" instead of a "science of design". When we accept design practice as a true designerly activity, the notion of what research is and should be also changes. I will not here go into this longer discussion, instead end by saying that Avi Parush's text is a really good starting point for anyone who would like to discuss HCI research and its overall role and contribution. It is a well argued text with a taxonomy that can and should be analysed and evaluated. This is a valid challenge for any HCI researcher.

(BTW, I also think that putting "usability" at the top of the "pyramid" in the text is not really satisfying, I would like to have a another "designerly" pyramid with design instead of usability, design critique as a major form of inquiry, etc, but that is again another post.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Without language barriers

Even though it has been around for a long time, translation "machines" are now here for real. It is quite fascinating with a tablet that you can speak to in your own language and then the tablet translates and speaks back in another language. Travel anywhere and make yourself understood. We are getting closer to the vision which always has been a precondition for every science fiction story. i.e. total mutual understanding among all creatures!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Interact with the vast universe of data

Being involved lately in the planning of a research institute with a focus on data and search has made me more aware and fascinated by really large sets of data. It is amazing how fast we (humans) are creating enormous amounts of data. Sensors are automatically producing dynamic and streaming data flows. From an interaction point of view this is exciting. These vast amounts of data becomes the material we (users) want to engage with, interact with, reach and manipulate, touch and sense. The challenge is to find interactive approaches that let us in an intuitive and productive way interact with this growing universe of data. Interaction design has to accept the challenge posed by the new world of digital data - the bitpool. Do we want to search the data, explore it, browse, or how do we want to relate to the material - to the bits? There is room for new thoughts, new ideas, new visions, new theories.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Blended materials

Well, Philips seem to be pushing the limits of what can be achieved with blended materials, that is, materials that have both a physical and a digital component or aspect to them. Here are some of there new designs. It is fascinating to see how those attempts or experiments raises so many questions and issues. Once you have seen the designs, with their combinations of sensors and digital fabrics reflecting the state of the human body or mind, it is easy to expand the design space in so many directions. This is a good example of how knowledge and intimacy with the material at hand influences the possible design space. Any interaction designer or human computer interaction designer today has to include these material changes in their repertoire of thinking. (Thanks Richie for sending me the link to Philips)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

"Design Problem Spaces"

A colleague gave me a copy of an article from "Cognitive Science" from 1992. It was an article with the title "The Structure of Design Problem Spaces" by Vinod Goel and Peter Pirolli. I have never seen this article before but it is fascinating. The authors take design seriously and they use a strict cognitive science language. But, underneath the abstract and highly scientific language is a real, rich and insightful description of design as a specific human activity separate from what they label as "non-design problem solving". They present a list of "overt features of design task environments" that largely overlap my own understanding of design (apart from the language and choice of concepts). Interesting reading for anyone interested in design thinking.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

BitPhys Materials

It is not a surprise that we are entering the era of blended materials. The attempts to make new materials that combine the properties of physical materials and the digital material are many and we are now seeing some of them in real products. Here is an example of such a new design. These BitPhys materials have qualities that we recognize from their physical and digital parts, but the interesting aspect is that they also have emergent qualities that creates fascinating and challenging design tasks. So, the question is how should we design with and for these new blended materials. Will these materials make it possible to design things in ways we have not anticipated. This raises also the issue of design skills and knowledge of materials. With these blended materials, these bitphys materials, who is the lead designer, and what is the needed competence? Is it the designer who has the traditional understanding and knowledge about the physical materials or is it the designer who knows and understands the digital material? We will see a lot of confusion and debate about this, both in the business world, but probably even more in the academic educational world.

Sunday, September 03, 2006


I was excited the other day when I found a new book by Cass R. Sunstein, it is called "Infotopia -- how many minds produce knowledge". The excitement was caused by my high appreciation of an earlier book from him "". But, I am quiet disappointed. The book is far from precise in its argumentation, not at all in the same fashion as in I am no expert in the field of deliberation, but I have problems with accepting some of Sunstein's basic assumptions. I think that one of the difficulties stem from the fact that I read the book as if it is about change and development, but I think it is about "what-is". I am of course reading through the lens of design thinking and with that lens there are so many things that are not only strange with Sunstein's argumentation but wrong and also quite uninteresting. Changing the world is not necessarily about knowing about what-is and how things are. Change and design is about will and desire. Neither deliberation or prediction markets (two of Sunsteins core concepts) are closely related with change when it comes to true design thinking and action. There are a lot to be said about the gathering of information in the form of wikis and other means but that is not something that in itself lead to change, which is why wikis work well although people have distinctly different wishes and desires. Anyhow, I am disappointed but I still would like to see more from Sunstein.

(I am also quite unhappy with the text itself, there are many, many repeats of the same arguments and more or less identical phrases. I get the feeling that the book is written too fast and without any real critique before publishing.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

From Reality Studies to Data Studies

One of the most fascinating changes that we are experiencing in the world of research is the move from reality studies to data studies. This is, of course, a result of the ongoing, expanding and accelerating digital transformation. In all areas of human activity the sum of digital material is growing. This growing amount of digital material is supposed to help us understand, control, and oversee the world we live in. But, there seems to be no way to keep up with the rate that this transformation is taking place. It seems as if the amount of digital material is growing faster than we can make use of it. And, we are only at the very beginning of this digital transformation.

One of the intriguing consequences of this development is that we can see a shift from reality studies to data studies. This shift manifests itself as an increasing interest in dealing with the digital material itself, leaving the "source" and the "real" reality outside the focus of study. One example is the field and growth of bioinformatics, where the studied "material" are the many databases of genes and proteins. Bioinformatics makes scientific contributions not by experimenting with real biological material, but with searching and manipulating data. Other areas are, for instance, "virtual astronomy". This area is focused on the study of the huge and unexplored databases collected from telescopes around the world. Since it is possible to say that the whole university exists in the astronomical databases, why continue to look at the real sky, when the digital sky is easier and cheaper to explore and study. Social studies of the internet can be done by searching how people have searched and communicated on the net, without having to interfere with real people. We can see this development in many disciplines. The reasoning is of course convincing and rational, the data (material) is there, it is organized, it is easy to search and mine, it is cheap and available.

But what does this shift lead to? Are there any significant differences in doing reality studies versus data studies? As far as I know, this questions is almost non-existing today, unless we see it as a classic problem of representation. The question of representation and interpretation is an issue studied by philosophy for centuries. Some of the common questions are if data can tell us anything else than what it was supposed to tell us, i.e., in relation to how they where collected, what the question was, how someone formalized the information, who did it and for what purpose? Reflecting upon these classic philosophical questions raises many questions for the future of data studies. Are we really exploring and examining reality?

As a side note, this development also have consequences for interaction design. Interaction design is about designing ways to interact with the "data world". We need new tools and instruments to make it possible to explore and interact with the world of digital material.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"..the possibilities are endless."

In the same issue of Interactions that I mentioned in my last post, one article ends with the words "..the possibilities are endless." The article is written by Lars-Erik Holmquist and is called "Tagging the World". It is an interesting article that once again pushes the idea of a world where the physical and the digital are blended. Holmquist is correct in many of his observations and has good knowledge in the field. However, I do have problems with research that has as its major argument for existence that "..the possibilities are endless." Possibilities have always through history been endless. Humans have through history only explored a fraction of what have been our possibilities. We also know from history that all possibilities are not equal when it comes to how they influence our lives and our planet. Expanding the space of possible futures and especially manifesting some of them are ethical actions. I am certain that we will explore the "tagged world", I am sure it will help us to create desired outcomes, but I am also sure that some of the "possibilities" that a tagged world entails are not to our best and some will be outright dangerous (see the post about "The Traveller" earlier). Research must handle that responsibility in a serious way. The fact that "..the possibilities are endless." is not a sufficient argument for doing research in a specific area. If that would be the case then research is transformed in pure development, in the sense that the future is more or less something we "follow" or just try to unfold. Instead we have to realize that the future does not unfold, the future is not developed, it is designed. And design is about desire and will. There is not desire and will in the notion that "..the possibilities are endless."

Dogmatic Advise and Thoughtful Design

In the july+august issue of the ACM Magazine Interactions, Don Norman argues that doing user observations first is wrong. Usually Norman is man of wisdom, but this time he argues against a dogmatic view (that user observation should come before design), while unfortunately pushing another dogmatic view. As soon as someone argues that "this is the way to do it" we have to be careful. In Norman's case, it is of course quite easy to find example situations where it is a good idea to do user observations first, as well as it is easy to find situations where it is better to start with design. No rule, no process advise is always "true", it all has to do with intention, purpose, context, and judgment. This is the background to my (our) book "Thoughtful Interaction Design" in which we try to describe a way to approach design that in a serious way takes "intention, purpose, context, and judgment" not as problems in design but as preconditions. Based on this we develop a thoughtful approach where dogmatic ideas have no place. This leads to an understanding of design and the designer that, while keeping design complex and rich, establishes a way of developing personal design competence, not in the form of external guidelines but as internalized qualities, not as predefined action sequences but as a sensibility of quality and a respect for the particular.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

"The Traveller"

Reading the book "The Traveller" by John Twelve Hawks is a good way to experience a possible and to some probable unfolding "big brother"-society. It is a novel that combines technology science fiction explorations and some pretty serious conspiracy theories. Apart from the qualities of the book as an exciting reading, it manages to raise some important and interesting issues on the surveillance society. I realize while reading it that the way we design our systems makes up what in the book is called the "vast machine", which is the total system keeping us all under close watch.

The questions that arises are for instance if it is possible to use the digital material to build systems without ending up with "digital traces" that connect people with actions and over time builds human digital imprints stored in numerous databases? Is it? The question is not easy to answer. Most people want to say that "yes, it is possible", which is natural, because otherwise we must leave the whole digital project behind and find other ways of organizing our reality. For me, it is a design problem. The challenge is to find out how to design systems that work locally, that can exploit global information and communication, without causing the "vast machine" to know everything about us?

Interaction design, as a field, must start to accept this as a real and immediate interaction design challenge. It is not only a problem for security experts and database researchers and administrators. It is ultimately a question of how we want to interact with our environment. What kind of environment do we need, want and desire? We should not only think about human-computer interaction, we have accept that we are involved in an ongoing human-environment interaction design. Every interaction design decision probably has a greater impact on the future "vast machine" than any pure technological improvement. It is about time that we focus on what we desire and how we design our reality in relation to those desires.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Focal experiences and interaction design

I am a person who wants to know the temperature outside. In my present apartment I have no outdoor thermometer. This has been a problem for me. But since a while back I have used a widget on my computer that tells me the present temperature in the place I am living. So, without turning away from my computer I can check the weather outside my window. Another way is of course to go to the balcony door a few feet away, open the door, go out, and experience the weather (of course I do that too).

It is obvious that the two ways of finding out the weather are extremely different. The information is different, the bodily experience is different, and I probably value the weather differently.

This is maybe not an important observation, however it reminded me of Alfred Borgmann's concept of focal things and focal experiences (for definition, see an article I wrote with Anna Croon Fors). A focal experience is an experience that has a deeper connection to something bigger or to something "whole". Experiencing the weather with your body is in that sense more focal than getting some information on your computer screen.

I am not sure what all this means, but I am sure that I am as most people, which is that I move more and more of my experiences away from being focal in the way Borgmann defines them. Is that bad? Well, I guess we don't know. We are at the moment involved in a huge experiment where we with the use of bits as material are re-building our environment. We are with another Borgmann expression "commodifying" more and more parts of it. This means that we are making everything easy to get, instant, and available. It also means that we can buy it or retrive it without knowing how it is produced and how it is delivered.

HCI and interaction design have a special responsibility examining this transformation. Using bits as material makes the transformation possible, but we have at the same time the full freedom to design the new environment in almost any direction we find desireble. We can decide to design it in a way that makes it more "focal" even though it is digitally enhanced.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Ethnography in HCI -- Comments on Dourish CHI paper

In his CHI2006 paper “Implications for Design”, Paul Dourish gives a portrait of ethnography that helps me (and hopefully others) to understand its role in HCI. I have for a long time been looking for a kind of research in HCI that would provide me (and others) with substantial and solid ways of thinking about interactive systems and how they are appropriated and used. I would like such research to be focused on creating challenging new theoretical constructs that could help us to see invisible structures and processes that influence the complex interactions between people and technology. My constant disappointment with many attempts is that when I read so called "ethnographic" studies, they are usually interesting and worth reading as long as they do the "scenic fieldwork" (concept from Dourish paper), but they completely let me down at the end, since they don't move to what Dourish calls the "analytical" level. There is no theoretical or conceptual outcome that inspires my thinking that challenges me. There is, in other words, no learning on a general level. I usually get this, almost bodily reaction (and not a nice one) when I read these papers and I come to the conclusion (or "implication for deisgn") and I realize that the outcomes are highly intuitive, everyday common sense, not surprising, not challenging, and I react with "didn't we already know that".

I have usually no problems with the way designers "use" ethnography (or its simplified versions), I agree with Dourish that they should be more informed about what they actually do and label their work appropriately. I do have problems, however, with the way it is done as a way to confirm an already planned and developed design idea (as is almost always the case in HCI). Coming from a deep understanding of design (as presented in my book "The Design Way"), interpretation and measurement of the existing reality is in a design process something very different from interpretation and measurement of the existing reality with a research intention. Design demands immersion into the full complexity of reality and from that full immersion you have to come out (within a limited time frame) with an understanding of something not-yet-existing that transcends the existing. This is to me not the same thing as being involved in deep ethnography with the purpose to come out of "immersion" with a deep understanding of the existing. These two goals are very different and I suspect that is one reason why ethnographers don't like the notion of "implications for design", since it is the wrong kind of outcome. They do create deep and insightful understandings of what-exists. This outcome is always important in design, but it does not tell the designer what to design. The creation of the not-yet-existing demands something more than a deep understanding. Ethnographers should therefore be allowed to do their work, i.e. create deep understandings not for design, but for designers. Knowledge that will change the designer’s way of approaching the specific design situation with its demands, needs and desires. The field of HCI needs really good and insightful ethnographic work, without demanding results easy to apply in design.

So, I really hope that Dourish paper will help the field in recognizing (1) the need for "ethnography" in a form that is intended, aimed, and designed to support in a design process (i.e. design oriented ethnography). I think this is not something we are good at today. And the need for (2) ethnographic research in our field that can create a deep understanding of the intricate relationships between people and technology, and that gives us new theoretical and conceptual "tools" to think about these relationships, not focused on a specific designs but creating a solid understanding that every good designer should be knowledgeable about.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

HCI research and the common good

When reflecting on CHI2006 there are some things in the academic field of HCI that I find problematic. Maybe the most pressing issue that raises many questions is the relation between research and development (I am not using "design" here for specific reasons). Many academic fields have the purpose of building universal true knowledge, and some also have the purpose of building knowledge that is "useful". This is true in the fields like medicine, health, and others. In these fields it is quite easy to see that research and development (i.e., inventions and innovations of new artifacts and procedures), is aimed at serving the common good. Improving health is always a valid reason for doing research (or?). But, what about a field like HCI? What is the common good? What is the goals, the intentions, for research that in a similar way is obviously for the greater good? Are new technological artifacts for any purpose in itself a worthy outcome? With what intention and purpose should we study new interaction technologies? Is the benefit for organizations and companies in general (efficiency, effectiveness, userfriendliness, etc) worthy intentions? Or can we use the same reasons as for health, so our research should support people's wellbeing? Depending on how we frame our purpose and our "clients" we will be facing different "measure of success". If true universal knowledge is our foremost goal, then the procedures of science and its "measure of success" must be taken more seriously than today. If the aim is to support the greater good, then we really have to get into some serious discussions about what that purpose stands for in our field!

[Of course we have to do research for one obvious purpose -- that is to expand and improve the knowledge and skills of professors in a way that supports their teaching. Research hopefully forces anyone to broaden perspectives, challenging ideas and views. These are outcomes that (in the best of worlds) will benefit the students at any level.]

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


In the June issue of Wired Magazine there is (as usual) an interesting article about "crowdsourcing". The idea is, as one might think, a variation of outcourcing but is not focused on software development. The article mentions a number of companies and organizations that post their problems or tasks on the web, someone out there takes on the challenge or task, and if succesful gets a reward or payment. The model is used with tasks ranging from real research and scientific problems to tedious manual tasks. (Strangely enough there is nothing on Wikipedia on crowdsourcing yet)

The model is based on the same idea that we are now seeing happening in all fields touched by the web, to tap into the creativity and energy of the "crowd". This is the basic force behind Web 2.0, and all its successful manifestations. It leads to a huge, almost underground, ongoing creative activity that is soon to compete with many organized activities. We can already see this in music, media, news, entertainment, etc. Now we are seeing the same thing happening in "serious" fields like science, research, development, and business. Once again we are surprised by the dynamic forces that start to flow when communication between people is opened up, and when the creativity of the "masses" is made possible to express itself.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Big System, Design Complexity & Responsibility

Maybe one of the most interesting challenges we are facing today is the growing complexity in our artifacts and systems. When we move into the era of blended digital and physical materials, when digital systems becomes closely intertwined with biological and organizational systems, complexity increases.

It is not only the complexity of the systems themselves that increases, maybe more vital is the challenge this poses for designers. When every new design is supposed to be part of an already existing complex system, it will be almost impossible to understand the consequences and implications that even the smallest and most insignificant design will have on the whole. Emergent qualities of the Big System level will, at the same time, become more subtle and extreme.

In a way the Big System will become more like the biological environment, fractal like, and maybe only possible to understand on an abstract level, such as that of chaos theory, or as abstract dynamic structures and processes.

Imagine when you as a designer of a new "addition" to the Big System will be held responsible for any emergent consequence your addition will cause. I believe we are already at that point -- even though it is not fully understood yet. The incredible success of the internet and of digital technology is, at the same time as it is a success and proof of a robust and sustainable design, the foundation that creates the Big System that might soon be impossible to comprehend, and where causation will not be what we are used to see from other artificial systems. There will be mutations, systemic bifurcations, and other expressions of an ongoing evolution that will be impossible to trace to specific design intentions and design actions.

Well, even if this is so far only a theory, it is at least a theory that we should take seriously in our field and see if it is a plausible or not. And at the end, the question remains -- how do we as designers of such systems act in a responsible way?

Saturday, April 29, 2006


Last week was all about CHI 2006. This year the conference was held in Montreal. Even though I have been in the field of systems and interaction design for many, many years, this was my first CHI. I found it very stimulating. I met a lot of interesting new colleagues and old friends. I even found some of the papers and panels interesting.

The field is changing. A lot of discussion about the relation between design and research, between ethnography and design, between practice and reearch, between theory and practice. These issues are of course not new, but it is interesting to see how they play out in different sessions and discussions. And, of course, the issue if the field is really about information and not computers. The answer to this last question is for me neither information nor computers. It is all about the material -- bits as material (see earlier postings).

Maybe the most stimulating intellectual analysis was provided by the closing plenary key note speaker Scott McCloud, the cartoonist. His analysis of cartoons as a form of expression, its deep structure, its purpose and formats, was examined in his talk in a clear and entertaining way. We need more of this this kind of theoretical analysis, grounded in a close understanding of practice in HCI.

We need more challenging intellectual and theoretical ideas in the field. Even though McCloud was fun and good -- we should be able to achieve similar provocative and theoretical analysis by someone within the field. I would like to see a keynote that can make claims on the same level as McCloud but on the field of HCI. Claims that will be heard by all in the conference, and that can serve as a common discussion thread throughout the conference. Who can provide that?

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Adam Greenfield has recently published a book with the title "Everyware -- The dawning age of ubiquitous computing". The book is an unusual well written and insightful reflection on the new age of computing sometimes called ubiquitous, ambient or pervasive computing. Greenfields own label is "everyware". Greenfield manages to introduce his ideas in a simple but still intriguing way. He never falls back on technical jargon or buzz words, he substantiates his claims with relevant sources (at least in most cases). The claim that we are entering the age of everyware is not new, but Greenfield makes the claim more grandiose and encompassing than many of predecessors. He expands the idea, explores its consequences and takes on difficult questions, such as, who will design the new environment, ethical dilemmas, and the ultimate questions if it will make us happier.

Since Greenfield covers so many aspects of this new phenomenon, naturally each aspect is treated somewhat short and in some cases not with the depth the aspect deserves. This is more than ok. Greenfield's purpose is probably not to be comprehensive and complete. The book is not a theoretical treatise of the subject. Instead we should enjoy the book as a call for more deliberate intellectual attention. There is undoubtedly a technological shift happening right now. A shift that will provide us with extraordinary design challenges. We have to take on this challenge in a serious way. This might be a shift that will influence people's everyday lives in ways we cannot yet even envision and understand.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

HCI and the "material turn"

One of the major changes we are experiencing today in the field of HCI might be called the "material turn". This turn has been predicted and explored by concepts such as pervasive and ubiquitous computing, tangible computing, ambient computing, and very recently with the term "Everyware" by Adam Greefield. One aspect of this material turn is that digital material is literally everywhere, the other aspect is the fusion and blending of materials. Physical materials become dynamic materials or transmaterials with the capacity of changing form, shape, color, and texture. Some of these materials will have the characteristics of being both digital and physical. This is not really something to be surprised about, but it seems as if HCI has not fully grasped this change. The prevaling idea that interaction with digital material is through "windows" on screens is so dominating that the common notion is even that these "windows" reside on our desks in the form of personal computers. To be in the field of HCI is right now more exciting than ever. The changes and challenges to come with the material turn are extraordinary and intriguing. And the fun part is that the interaction design space suddenly and radically grows and we have the opportunity to design our environments in a new and hopefully more human way.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

A new foundation for design

In his new book "The Semantic Turn -- a new foundation for design" Klaus Krippendorff presents a new understanding of design. I am still reading the book but I am already sure that this is one of the best theoretical books on design today. The author is consistent in his perspective based in language. He convincingly argues for a turn to the meaning of designs. This turn is in his perspective a semantic turn. Design as a meaning making process.

It is fascinating to see the way Krippendorff comes to so many conclusions on the nature of design that are similar to what I together with Harold Nelson present in our book "The Design Way--intentional change in an unpredictable world", even though we come from very different backgrounds and perspectives.

I am quite convinced that we are slowly seeing a new and foundational understanding of design develop and grow into existence. Our own book, the new book by Krippendorff, the books by Donald Schon, and some others, are in a way all converging in a promising way. I think we are entering the time when design will in a serious way develop its own theoretical and philosophical foundation. There are of course many differences and controversies but the overall intention and aim is that design is its own tradition, fully worthy and in need of a theoretical and philosophical treatment that parallels our other major intellectual traditions, such as science and art. It is a promising development!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Daniel Dennett

I have had the opportunity to listen to two lectures by Daniell Dennett this week. He has been invited by Indiana University's most prestigous seminar series. The titles of his lectures were "Freedom evolves" and "Religion as a natural phenomenon".

I will not here address the content of the lectures, but I realized during both talks that this kind of experience is what attracted me and made me choose academia. During both talks I felt like when I was in the beginning of my PhD. My mind was challenged, not by intrinsic, complex, and superficial details (like many we encounter in everyday academic practices), but by mind blowing ideas -- ideas that changes the big picture, alters intrenched thought structures... I miss having those experiences, today they are too few.

Listening to Dennett is also an experience similar to listen to good music performance. With an extraordinary skillfull muscisian any music can sound good. You don't have to agree with everything Dennett says, but you can still enjoy the clarity, the logic, and the reasoning. Well, enough of praise.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Understanding Experience

There is a strong movement today in HCI and interaction design towards "experience". The way experience is defined is diffuse and diverse. This is of course not strange, since experience is one of the "big" concepts that have been at the center of philosophical investigations for centuries. The argument behind this movement is in many cases that our earlier ways of describing and understanding interaction have been too focused on functionality, usability, and other concepts that does not embrace the way people seem to relate to their lifeworld. This movement is in many ways all good and well. It does increase our understanding of artifacts and widens our appreciation of what matters in design. We have to acknowledge and accept the "whole" human experience of interacting with artifacts and systems in our environment.

But, at the same time it seems as if the struggle to find, define, explain and operationalize "experience" ends up in either one of two "places". Sometimes the explanation of experience becomes an abstract and philosophical enterprise, which is necessary and important from a research perspective. But most of the times we end up with really simplistic and flat understandings of experience meant to inform design. This latter way is not by any means "practical" or useful, it floats around in the vast space between theoretical discourse and real design practice. This means that the large majority of "experience" oriented thinking is neither interesting as a theoretical attempt or as giving practical guidance. I think it is time to view experience approaches as needed as a theoretical analytical tool, but from the perspective of practice there are other more useful approaches.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Why Things Break

In the book "Why Things Break -- understanding the world by the way it comes apart", the author Mark E. Eberhart tells the story about how he became obsessed with the search for why things break. He is a professor of chemistry and geochemistry with a strong interest in material sciences. Eberhart makes the difference between the questions "when things break" and "why things break". We have always known when things break, at least more or less. People have figured out how much a rock or a copper sword can take. We can measure this by trying over and over again with different weights or forces. But this does not tell us "why" they break.

The book gives many interesting examples of the history of materials and how humans have learnt to use these materials, such as stone and later on bronze and iron. I like the way he describes the intimate relation between humans and their materials. It is clear from his way of telling history that knowledge about the material have in so many case been at the core of a society.

For me this leads to the issue of our contemporary material -- the digital material. What do we about it? When does it break? Are we enough close and intimate with the material to really get an authentic understanding of its qualities and character. I am not sure we are. At least not at a general level that it can inform our way of choosing our future.

To some extent, Eberhart's question can be related to the famous statement of the philosopher Virilio, that every technology carries its own disaster. Virilio also states that we do understand the disaster of most technologies (airplanes fall down, cars crashes, etc), but what is the disaster of digital technology? Maybe the most dangerous technologies are those where the disaster is not visible! So, maybe Eberhart's ambition of finding out core qualities of materials is precisely what we have to do when it comes to digital technology!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Expanding the Design Space

To continue a theme on this blog -- a really good example of the importance of material in design is to be found in the field of cameras. In an article on CNET this is shown clearly. The article is about how our understanding of what a camera is and how it looks and how it is used, is challenged. And the cause is of course that new cameras use digital material as carrier of content. The article mention several examples of how the change of material transform a whole industry.

For instance, when a camera offer wireless networking, the notion of a camera changes. Maybe it is not a tool for capturing a place in time, instead maybe it is a tool that connects two places in real time -- whatever that means.

So, the camera article shows that the change of material really expands the space of possible designs. We are not witnessing any kind of stabilizing of products or services in the field of digital technology, instead we are only in the very beginning and the design space is still growing rapidly. This is, of course, a huge challenge for designers (in all design disciplines) since it is difficult to develop a (field specific) repertoire of design experiences and competence that over time can create a stable foundation for future design tasks. But, this is the way it will be for a long time.

60 second TV series episodes

The TV networks are struggling to find ways to adapt to the new digital reality. One of the newest initiatives by CBS is to launch a TV-series with 60 second episodes! The idea is that short episodes fits the new distribution channels like iPods and cell phones. This is of course an attempt to experiment with the digital material. The networks understand that when their content transforms into being carried by digital material, it is not only a change of some underlying technology. It is a fundamental change. It is a new material that changes everything, in this case even how the content is created and formatted. It also changes how the content is written and directed. It even changes the basic rules and principles in dramaturgy and story telling.

The transformation to digital material will not only change the way people interact with the content, but also the way they appreciate and distinguish good quality from bad. This will of course have impact on the way content will be presented in the traditional technological setting, such as the TV at home in the living room.

The ongoing transformation to digital material is maybe the most important societal change today. It happens everywhere, in all aspects of our reality, with consequences we can not grasp or understand.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Nature & Aesthetics of Design

In 1978 the book "The Nature & Aesthetics of Design" by David Pye was published. I think I read it for the first time around 1983. I remember that I was completely overwhelmed by the book. It presented an understanding of design that deeply resonated with my own ideas, but stated so much better, and in a way that I had not read anywhere. Today, I read the book again, probably more than 20 years since the last time. And again, I was charmed and intrigued by the book. So many things I have written about on design in the last 20 years can be found in this book!

Pye, who was a Professor of Furniture Design, was also an architect and an industrial designer, and a famous wood craftsman. He died in 1993.

In the book Pye discusses what design is all about, its relation to art and science, the nature of aesthetics, etc. It such a rich book. It is short. It is easy to read with a straightforward language. It feels authentic, grounded and real. It is written by someone who deeply understands his field.

Even though it was almost 30 years since the book was written, it is a source of wisdom that is still relevant, even in a field struggling with the design of digital artifacts and the digital material. Read it!


Well, another interesting book that crosses the vast fields of information technology and design. Bruce Sterling's new book "Shaping Things" presents a highly creative and imaginative perspective on the world of design and as he puts it "a book about everything".

Sterling is a science fiction writer and as a reader of Wired magazine you recognize him as a frequent writer of articles and comments on new technology.

Sterling is moving freely in the landscape he is examining and with a extraordinary open mind he creates new concepts and ways of thinking, and even new words -- like "spime".

I really enjoy this book since it touches on big questions, is not afraid of drawing conclusions, and is still within what is built on an underlying realistic foundation of knowledge. I wish we could see much more writings like this from academia.

I want to come back to some of the ideas that is presented in the book later on. The notion of spime is a good one, and might become really valuable!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Simply Google

In one of his latest essays "The truth about Google's so-called simplicity" Don Norman discusses the simplicity of Google, or especially the first page of Google's web site. Norman argues that Google "is deceptive. It hides all the complexity by simply showing one search box on the main page". The main argument from Norman is that all the other search sites offer much more on their first page, but at Google you have to click to a second or third page to get to other functions than the plain and simple web search.

It seems that Norman finds this to be problematic and not "fair". I think that Norman touches upon another issue that for a lot of people is more important than the ease of use of many functions, and that is separation. Norman writes "Why isn't Google a unified application?". I think we can argue the opposite, namely that it is exactly that fact that has made Google so successful. It might be the case that people don't like "unified" products. We know from the field of home electronics that the most successful products are simple and often single function based. Almost all attempts to design multi-purpose products have failed. This can be seen in many other design field as well, like for instance kitchen utensils.

So, maybe Google strategy to be "deceptive" and not to build it first page design on its organizational structure (another argument from Norman) is what people find attractive and useful.

However, as with all designs, people get tired of a design and want variation, and one day we will see someone who designs a new search page in a (probably completely different) way that will attract peoples attention away from Google.

For any committed designer (and design student) a design like is a perfect object for analysis and critical reflections around quality and design principles, especially to compare and contrast the Google site with other (equally successful) but totally different designs and try to make sense out of the differences. This is probably one of the best learning activities that will prepare a designer for any future challenges.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Applications

An article in New York Times today presents and discusses what is seen as a new application for collaboration using computers. This application is similar to what has been around in academic settings for experiments for many years and has been tested and studied over and over again for functionality, usability and usefulness. I wonder how many research articles and papers have been written and published about this type of application. At the same time, what has the contribution of this research been? Now, maybe ten, fifteen, years later, some of the functions of these experimental applications can be found in commercial software. Did the academic studies contribute to the development? Should it? (And if, what should the purpose be?)

This opens up for so many questions concerning the purpose and meaning of testing and evaluation of software. I truly believe that the field has to devote time and reflection to these questions. A mature academic field should have a developed understanding of its place in the big picture, and the big picture here is the overall development of technology.

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