Thursday, October 29, 2009

Good Interaction Design Magazine web sites

I have followed a thread on the IxD list about good places on the web to read about interaction design. I collected the suggestions so here is a list. These sites are more like magazines, that is, they are not just personal blogs. On the list they were asking for sites for interaction design that had the same status as CORE77 for product design, that is, well designed sites with a lot of good content. If you have more good links, please let me know.

Johnny Holland Magazine
Design Observer
A List Apart
The UX Bookmark
Cone Tree
Smashing Magazine
Boxes & Arrows
UX Magazine
ACM Interactions Magazine

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Design and Sketching

Anyone doing design knows the importance of sketching. Sketching is in design the tool for thinking. Most designers sketch all the time in different ways and forms. In a short blog post, Spencer Nugent describes the levels of sketching. The levels are related to different purposes and lead to different forms of sketches. This post is an example of what I believe needs to be done much more in design which is to develop a language that makes it possible to talk about what designers do and how they do it and how they use their tools. It is so easy to talk about sketching as one activity which in design is far from what it is. Sketching is a concept that covers a huge amount of activities. Sketching is, in this case, on paper and by pen, but today we also have sketching-in-hardware and other forms of sketching. Bill Buxton, Bill Verplank and others have argued strongly for the place of sketching in design, and theoreticians like Donald Schön and other have argued convincingly that sketching is truly a form of thinking and not a result of thinking. In design there is still a need for more detailed accounts on the nature of sketching, the activities of sketching, the forms and types, the outcomes, etc.

As an educator in a graduate interaction design program I know that many of our students are almost scared of sketching, especially those who have not any sketching training in their earlier education. These students are in many cases blinded and paralyzed by the wonderful finished sketches they have seen from professional visual designers (like the level 4 and 5 sketches in the blog post mentioned above). I think that a language around sketching and its purpose and "levels" would help students to be more courageous and experiment more and they start to practice their own sketching ability at level 1 or maybe even level 0 without being afraid of not being able of doing a level 5 sketch.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Evolution of interactive technology (again) and Buxton

In todays technology climate it is easy to believe that everything you have not seen before is also something “new”. This is understandable since it is quite difficult to know the background history of every technological solution and design and even more difficult to know how contemporary applications of that technology have evolved over time.

Bill Buxton writes about this issue in a short but very good article in BusinessWeek. He makes the case that “touch technology” is not the solution to every interaction design problem. In his effort to show this, he conducts a very simple but excellent design critique of four different watches that all to some degree uses touch technology. He shows how details matter in design. He also shows quite convincingly that touch technology is not in itself a good thing but has to be designed into a compositional whole to provide a good user experience.

Buxton also discusses the notion of technology development and reminds us all that touch technology has been around since the early 80s and that the designs we see today loaded with touch technology is not necessarily inventions or radical innovations, but clever (or not so clever) designs where this technology have been designerly used in new products.

This is a great little article that every interaction designer should read!!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Book review: "Dangerous Games" by MacMillan

I am almost finished reading the book "Dangerous Games - The Uses and Abuses of History" by the historian Margaret MacMillan. This is not a book about interaction design or HCI or technology, but it is definitely a book on design, and in this case, the design of history.

MacMillan shows the importance of history in todays society, for instance as a "tool" designed to deliver comfort, identity, or nationalism. MacMillan really makes a strong case with numerous examples on how history can be misused and be a dangerous tool in the hands of those who want to control our present and future. It is fascinating to see MacMillan's examples of how history is, and has been, designed to serve certain particular purposes. The real historian has a different responsibility, according to MacMillan, and that is to simply explain what actually happened, when it happened and to present some explanations of why. This is a delicate task and requires a professional competence.

It is also exciting to read about the need for a constant re-design of our history. MacMillan shows convincingly how that is needed, not as a consequence of earlier "bad" history, but as a way for us to re-position the past in relation to the present and the future (this actually relates to my previous post on "The Evolution of What is Easy to Use").

Overall, this is a wonderful book, and even if it is not about my own professional fields, I found many interesting connections and it helps me to think about the history of relationship between technology and humans and how that history is constructed in order to predict and substantiate design actions of the future.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Evolution of What Is Easy to Use

Today I found this short blog post by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (thanks to odannyboy who linked to it on twitter). I really liked the post. The author makes a good argument for the dynamic and complex reality of what we consider to be "ease of use" or "user-friendliness". Pang points out that what makes a thing easy to use is not something given and stable over time. The example he uses is the development of the computer mouse. This realization also reveals that the methods and approaches used to measure usability and ease of use can also quickly become outdated. This means that neither what we consider to be correct design solutions, important design qualities, or our measurements of these qualities, or our methods to design such qualities can be fully captured, understood, and prescribed (at least not for any substantial time period). The reality of design becomes, again and to no surprise, more dynamic, more complex, and never predictable :-)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tim Brown at TED -- and the future of design thinking

Tim Brown who is the CEO of IDEO gave a talk at the TED2009 conference. The talk is about 16 minutes and Brown makes the case that designers should think big instead of small. Brown does have a solid and good understanding of design and designerly thinking. However, when I listed to him I realized some things I had not thought about. Before I discuss them I need to say that I really appreciate the basic message of Brown's presentation and agree with him. So, my discussion below is less about his talk as much as a comment on the field of design.

It is obvious that Brown comes from a design tradition that is usually described as the art & design school tradition, that is, it is the understanding and process of design as it is taught within traditional design fields, such as product and industrial design, interior design, fashion design, etc. Even though he comes from this tradition, Brown is joking about it by calling the people within this tradition as the "priesthood" of design.

Brown is proposing that we should move towards "design thinking". I have no problem with that, I truly support that idea. But what I don't really like with the presentation is that Brown makes this proposition as if it is something new and something that has not been understood until now. This is not at all the case.

The notion of design (or designerly) thinking has been around for a long time, and the ideas and ways of understanding design that Brown proposes have for quite some time been developed in an elaborate and robust way by such thinkers as Nigel Cross, Donald Schön, Bryan Lawson, Kees Dorst, Klaus Krippendorff, Harold Nelson, and others. The systemic perspective of design, that Brown also mentions, has also been developed by for instance C. West Churchman and Harold Nelson.

It is also the case that the ideas on participative design that Brown mentions as a new development have been around for quite some time. The basic philosophy and methodology of participatory design was explicitly developed in Scandinavia in the 70s and has grown since then and the international Participatory Design Conference has been around for several decades. Most of the ideas and issues that Brown mentions around participation have been developed both pragmatically and theoretically over the years, but not, however, by people from belonging to the "priesthood" of design.

My point is not to critique Brown in particular, instead I see this as a sign of something more interesting. The developments of design thinking that I mentioned above have almost all been done within fields not traditionally identified as design disciplines, and not part of the "priesthood". For most of the design thinkers I mentioned above, design has never been about "decorations" or "small design" (with Browns vocabulary). The theoretical development when it comes to design thinking is today moving faster than ever. There are more people involved, coming from more diverse disciplines (many not traditionally seen as design) making great contributions to, not only the understanding of design, but to the practice of design.

So, it is not within the traditional design disciplines that we can see the most interesting theoretical and practical advancements of design today. It is neither in highly "disciplinary" academic fields, that is, fields that are protective of the way they do things, and feel threatened by the development of design. The most interesting advancements of design seems to happen in highly transdisciplinary fields, that is, fields that work on real world problems that are overwhelmingly complex and messy. In these fields the design thinking approach, as Brown describes it, is the only possible way to successful intentional change.

The view of design thinking that Brown describes and advocates is the way to go. The good thing is that there are a lot of work already done when it comes to formulating such an approach, both theoretically and practically. But, even better, there is a lot of work remaining :-)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book review: "Design Expertise" by Lawson and Dorst

A couple of days ago I got the copy I had ordered of the book "Design Expertise" by Bryan Lawson and Kees Dorst. I have so far only quickly read (skimmed) through the book, but it is obvious that this is one of the best introductions to design theory out there. The authors presents design as a journey. They discuss design from different perspectives, starting out with their notion on how to understand design. They discuss design expertise, how to start your journey to become a designer, what it means to be a professional designer, and how to educate designers.

The theory of design that the authors presents is stable and rests firmly on a deep understanding of design as a basic human activity, and even mroe as a professional activity. Even though the book has architecture as its primary field of design when it comes to examples, the authors do a good job in being open and broad, which means that the book can be read by anyone interested in how to understand design no matter what field.

The book is not a ordinary textbook but at the same time not a fundamental research book. It is in between. For someone who has a good understanding of design and is knowledgeable with many of the original sources the book still offers an integrated understanding of design that is well needed in the field.

After this first read, I have nothing to complain about, however, I will go back and read some parts in more detail, and I will hopefully come back to this preliminary review.

(Of course, I am quite disappointed that the two books on design that I consider to the best so far are not referenced. That is Klaus Krippendorff's "The Semantic Turn - a new foundation for design" and my own "The Design Way" with Harold Nelson :-)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Design Research and the 'coolness' factor

Lately I have been engaged in some different forms of evaluations of interaction design research. I have read papers, watched videos and demonstrations. All these forms of research outcomes have their own merits and issues. One thing that I have reflected upon is when I read, watch or experienced these contributions is that I have experienced some problems with something I would call the "coolness" factor.

Many contributions present some design research outcomes that have qualities that make me react think: "that is pretty cool!". The problem with this reaction is that it also triggers a sense of suspicion, and I keep asking myself "am I seduced by some superficial 'coolness' factor or does this outcome really represent some more substantial contribution?"

There has been some interesting scholarly work on what signifies "interesting" research results as a contrast to "uninteresting" research, and some people talk about the "wow" factor. I am usually in favor or research that surprises me and challenges my intuition and preconceived ideas. But is that what 'coolness' is about? Or is 'coolness' something else? Is it only a reaction to surface qualities now connected to any deeper and significant core qualities?

The strength of a real and substantial knowledge contribution can be seen as a combination of how "new" and "surprising" it is, and what the implications are (both in terms of revisions of earlier established knowledge and in terms of how it brings earlier unrelated knowledge together), but also how stable and influential it will be over time. I think it is in relation to the last measure, stability and ability to influence over time, where contributions with a high score or 'coolness' feels suspicious. I have over the years had experiences where the contributions have had immediate impact on me have shown not to be influential over time, while the ones that constantly over time influence the field and my thinking were never really 'cool'. I think research contributions in this case resembles experiences in other field where an immediate and direct positive impression is not necessary followed by a sustained recognition over time (I think we often experience that in music, art, or food). Simple and direct positive impressions quickly feels old, kitschy, and without substance, while those experiences we have to work hard with over time develops into something of deeper importance.

So, when I see really cool new forms of interactions, new digital artifacts and designs, I am of course impressed, while I at the same time becomes suspicious that it is only the immediate coolness that I am recognizing. At the same time, there might also be a value of highly cool new designs, even though they might not be long lived. They can function as openers and challengers of our minds and imagination. They can create new design spaces that we have not seen before, even if they are not intended to do so or even if we forget them quickly.

Well, I think the field of HCI and interaction design is in a period where we do not know how to handle the 'coolness' factor. Quite often we do see examples where the designs are so 'cool' that we conclude them more as art pieces than research. It seems as if when we do that, we are more comfortable with a high degree of 'coolness' and we can examine the design as an inspirational piece instead of knowledge contribution. I would like to hear others ideas on this...

(When I think about it, I have done some work on this. In an article that soon will be published by me and my colleague Mikael Wiberg (in the HCI Journal) we discuss how the design of artifacts can be a possible and successful way of expanding theory development in HCI. We do not necessary discuss the 'cool' factor but we get close....)

Friday, October 09, 2009


I just have to write a few lines about the application Dropbox. It is amazing how much this extremely simple application has changed my everyday life. I am constantly moving between a number of computers and have always struggled with keeping my computers as similar as possible when it comes to all the material I am working on. I used to email myself, use servers to save stuff, etc. With Dropbox all that is gone! Conceptually Dropbox is a simple design. From a use perspective it is also very simple. I find this to be an excellent example of a particular type of designed artifacts and a close examination and design critique of Dropbox would be fun to read. Anyhow, this design makes my days easier!

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