Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The things that keep us busy (first two pages)

Here is the first couple of pages from our book "Things that keep us busy - the elements of interaction" by Janlert and Stolterman.

1. The things that keep us busy

Despite strong misgivings, private eye Eddie Valiant eventually ventures into the city of Toontown (in Who framed Roger Rabbit, 1988). It is a truly nerve-racking experience: everything is throbbing with life, nervously responsive to his every move, incessantly calling for his attention—not just the usual toon animals, but plants, cars, buildings, everyday things like the elevator button—even the bullets in his toon revolver are alive.  Everything is on speed as it were, Tourettic, incessantly making faces, quipping, jesting, collectively whipping up the environment into a bedlam of interactions. Toontown, the viewer soon realizes, is a madhouse where you would not maintain your sanity for long.

Is this our future?

Even though there are early examples of amazing constructions and machines with interactive abilities, everyday interaction with technical devices is to common people a fairly recent phenomenon brought about by the modern revolution in information technology. An avalanche of interactive devices, artifacts and systems has followed in its path. With this change come new questions and challenges.

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. Interactivity seems to be everywhere. Why is this happening? There are of course many answers to this question, among them some short and simple. Because it can be done: One obvious cause is the extraordinary and powerful development of digital technology that makes it possible to complexify and infuse everything in our environment with computational and interactive capabilities. Because we want it: It brings on many benefits that we would not want to be without. Interactivity changes our everyday environments in ways that previous generations would have seen as science fiction or magic. We are today able to interact in advanced ways with a range of diverse artifacts and systems, from the smallest device to our homes and with our environments. Interactivity promises that we can be in control of our lives and that we can shape it in any way we desire.

These days, everybody seems to be talking confidently and comfortably about interaction—you interact with web services, with apps, appliances, vehicles, and any form of technical equipment, but also with people, and even entire environments. To be interactive is generally considered good—a positive feature or property associated with being modern, efficient, fast, flexible, reasonable, dynamic, adaptable, controllable—perhaps even smart, curious, caring, involved, engaged, informed, and democratic. Still, there seems to be no very 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. This vagueness would not be very surprising if it were just the idea of the general public, but even among researchers and experts in Human–Computer Interaction (HCI)—a field of research and development with “interaction” in its very heading—a deep, crisp, shared understanding is wanting. We will in this chapter stay close to the inclusive everyday understanding of ‘interaction.’ In the following chapters we will approach a narrower and more precise definition of ‘interaction’ focused on interaction with digital artifacts and systems, while still keeping in touch with and drawing inspiration from the broader and vaguer everyday sense.

The closely related notion of interface, which has a more technical flavor in everyday parlance has similar problems of depth, preciseness and shared understanding. Yet, it has over the years attracted more attention than interaction from researchers and developers. From a design point of view this is understandable. Interaction, whatever exactly it is thought to be, is something fluid, a dynamic relation played out in time, in use time, not design time—whereas the interface appears as a stable property of the artifact or system, which is there also when no user interaction is going on, hence directly accessible to the designer at design time.

For these reasons, the interface appears more designable than the interaction. Even if a designer is really focusing on designing the interaction, it is hard to see how this design can be effectively implemented except indirectly via the design of the interface. To some extent, it is of course possible to influence the user through education, training, or seeding behavioral patterns, for example, but this path to shaping interactions is not as direct nor usually as potent as the concrete design of an interface and we will not investigate it further in this book. Our examination of interactivity will rather take as its point of departure the interface itself and how the way we think about it has radically changed over time, from being a physical surface with knobs and dials, to clickable symbols, to gestures, and finally to its disappearance.

Today we can interact with some artifacts and environments without there being any visible surface presenting controls or displays of any kind. It is obvious that even if there is no interface, we still interact. We open doors just by walking towards them, we turn on the light by clapping our hands, we get the weather forecast spoken to us by just asking for it, the red light turns green triggered by our car, etc. Of course, as soon as we move towards interaction without any visible surface the questions of what an interface is and what interaction is become more complex.

This development combined with an ability and desire for interactivity fosters a common feeling that the level of interactivity will just keep rising, inexorably. We feel that there is more interactivity, more interaction between humans and things going on, than ever before in history, and it just keeps increasing. 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? Should something be done?

To be able to answer any of these questions requires a more careful and penetrating examination of the concepts of “interactivity” and “interaction” than has been common in research on human-computer interaction. We believe that the answer to questions about rising interactivity and how it affects us humans is not just a matter of belief and conviction about the overall nature of technology and its influence, or how we experience it on a personal and social level. We think it requires a careful investigation into the aspects of artifacts and systems that causes interactivity with a purpose to develop some common understanding that in turn can inform our opinions and positions. This is also the purpose and ambition of this book.

But before we enter into such examinations, let’s first take a closer look at some of the concerns that recently have been recognized in relation to the proliferation of interactivity, concerns that taken together paints a picture with a lot of unknowns. Unknowns that have inspired our examinations.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

When design philosophy becomes reality

One of the things I "preach" in my class on Design Theory is that everyone who designs act based on some kind of design philosophy. It may be explicit or implicit, but it is there. A design philosophy influences how you think about design, its role, its purpose, how to do it, etc. I push my students to do four things.

First, to examine and reveal their own (existing) design philosophy, to make it as explicit as possible, in an honest way (usually they do not think they have one).

Secondly, to critically examine their own design philosophy, what it means, its consequences for practices, its strengths, and weaknesses, etc.

And then thirdly, to reflect on if their existing philosophy is what they want. What are they missing, what do they want to emphasize, and what do they see as their future strength as a designer.

And finally, to reflect on how they can change and develop their design philosophy in a desired direction.

I think this article about how Logitch has changed their design philosophy is a great example of the importance of knowing your design philosophy. This is how design philosophy becomes reality.

The Meaning of Interactivity—Some Proposals for Definitions and Measures

Is it possible to define interaction and interactivity? And is it possible to measure it in some way? My colleague Lars-Erik Janlert and I have developed some concepts and definitions that we believe can help us answer these questions. In our article (that you can download here)

Lars-Erik Janlert & Erik Stolterman (2017) The Meaning of Interactivity—Some Proposals for Definitions and Measures, Human–Computer Interaction, 32:3, 103-138, DOI: 10.1080/07370024.2016.1226139

we present our work. [Even though this article is recently published, some of the materials in the article has been reworked and further developed in our new book. "Things that keep us busy -- the elements of interaction" (MIT Press, 2017). ]

What I like about this work is that we take the question "what is interaction" seriously and in detail try to define it, or at least frame it, in a way that makes sense and also makes it usable. I know that the way we do it seems strange to some (we have already heard that), but even in those cases, it seems as if our attempt opens up for new questions and invites to a conversation. And this is really what I think our field needs, we need some serious efforts and attempts to carefully frame and define what interaction is since it is our core object of study.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Book note: "Making Design Theory" by Johan Redström

It is great to see books being published by people you respect as scholars and thinkers. I am especially happy to see my colleague and friend John Redström's new book "Making Design Theory". Johan is one of the most thoughtful scholars in the world today when it comes to how to understand the relationship between design practice, design research, and knowledge production. Johan is one of the few who can, in a scholarly and successful way, grapple with fundamental questions around design as an approach of making things and of making theory.


One of the most important features of this book is that it presents a foundation of concepts and definitions that are philosophically sound and practically useful.  I am convinced that his thoughts around design research: what it is, how to think about it, but also how to actually do it, will soon be regarded as a fundamental corner stone in the field of design research and research about design.

This is a book I strongly encourage every PhD student who is involved in any form of design research to carefully read. It will provide them with an understanding that is solidly grounded and practically useful. It will help them to defend the way they do (design) research and it will lead to new kinds of theory development that will seriously improve the field.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Things That Keep Us Busy -- elements of interaction

Ok, now it is only a week or so until our new book is available (at least according to Amazon). Here is the title and short overview of the book.

Things That Keep Us Busy
The Elements of Interaction

By Lars-Erik Janlert and Erik Stolterman

Overview

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 book, Lars-Erik Janlert and Erik Stolterman investigate the elements of interaction and how they can be defined and measured. They focus on interaction with digital artifacts and systems but draw inspiration from the broader, everyday sense of the word.

Viewing the topic from a design perspective, Janlert and Stolterman take as their starting point the for manipulation by designers, considering such topics as complexity, clutter, control, and the emergence of an expressive-impressive style of interaction. They argue that only when we understand the basic concepts and terms of interactivity and interaction will we be able to discuss seriously its possible futures.
interface, which is designed to implement the interaction. They 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. Janlert and Stolterman examine properties and qualities of designed artifacts and systems, primarily those that are open

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The limits of critique

My colleague and friend Harold Nelson sent me a link to a very interesting article. It is a review of Rita Felski's new book "The limits of critique". I have not read the book but just by reading the article I get a good sense of the major argument Feltski makes. And it really resonates with my own experience and thinking, of course, not so much when it comes to literature critique, but critique in general. Interesting!

Friday, July 14, 2017

How designers can know about the future

I have written on my blog earlier about one of my favorite books, Donald Schon's "Beyond the stable state". Unfortunately this is a book that is almost forgotten. Probably because people see it as 'old'. It was first published in 1971.

The core idea of the book is that there is no 'stable state' in the world and never will be. Change is the normal, stability is abnormal. Schon makes the case that any form of knowledge that can support designers, therefore, need to be based on the notion of 'no stable state'. I will here only point to the most wonderful pages in the book where Schon presents his notion of 'projective models'. This is a concept that captures what designers do and in his language an 'existentialism' approach instead of a 'systems analysis' approach. He develops this briefly in a subchapter called "Other ways of knowing". He does this on only 10 pages, p 227-237.

It is possible to read the argument in this book as a challenge to more scientific approaches that are built on the idea that knowing about potential future solutions (designing) can best be done by engaging with and extrapolating what we know is stable in the world. Schon's proposal presents an approach that takes the full richness and complexity of everyday reality into consideration. It leads to a realization that 'knowing' as a designer cannot be disconnected with who you are and your experiences and your ability to capture the ultimate particular conditions of each design situation.

I can't write more just know, but I am working on this idea of 'projective models' from Schon and hopefully, it will become a chapter in a book I am slowly working on.

(By the way, if you know someone who has written about this concept, please let me know.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

HCI research contributions to the world of knowledge

Here is a fun exercise:

make a list of the knowledge contributions that HCI research has produced over the years.

First some definitions:
Assume that HCI research is about the interaction between humans and interactive computational objects.

The human part is quite straightforward. It refers to any human being, groups, organizations or societies of human beings.

The "computer" part is less clear, but to me, it makes sense to see that as interactive computational objects. Both interactive and computational seem to be part of a general understanding in our field. There are many objects that are not computational but interactive, or the other way around, but we mainly focus on those type of objects that are both. The notion of object is of course complicated. Traditionally it refers to physical machines, but it has changed and can now be any composition and manifestation of functionality that anyone sees as the part a human is interacting with. Ok, these definitions are not enough, but a simple starting point for the exercise.

So, if this is what HCI research is studying with the purpose to understand, explain, reveal, challenge, and improve etc. then what are the major contributions that the field has produced over the years? What do we know about this interaction between humans and interactive computational objects?

Of course, there is a huge pile of knowledge that our field has produced about details when it comes to interfaces, interaction, design and development, technological aspects, etc. But, what if we try to formulate contributions at a very high level of abstraction.

For instance, if the field of HCI is stating that interaction with computational interactive objects is different than interacting with non-computational interactive objects? If so, would that be a major contribution?

It would be exciting to see the field try to formulate some major knowledge contributions that would complement the world of knowledge. Of course, it does not mean that the field would agree on these contributions but at least they would be seen as some kind of substantial knowledge that other fields and the world would benefit from knowing.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Jerker Lundequist "Norm och modell"

[This post will be in Swedish]

Jag sökte en bok idag. I en av mina hyllor hittade jag istället Jerker Lundequists doktorsavhandling från 1982. Titeln är "Norm och modell - samt ytterligare några begrepp inom designteorin". Jag vet inte hur många som har läst Jerkers avhandling, men den var enormt viktig för mig. Jag hade precis startat min doktorandutbildning och sökte förtvilat efter texter kring designteori och kanske ännu mer efter exempel på hur designforskning skulle kunna utföras. Jerkers text och ansats passade mig perfekt. Han arbetar med en filosofisk metod, analytiskt, begreppsanalys, definitioner, etc. något som jag hade troligen sökt men inte tidigare sett.

Jag blev så betagen av Jerkers ideer att jag reste till Stockholm för att träffa honom. Jag var nervös och visste inte riktigt vad jag skulle säga när vi träffades. Men det blev ett bra möte. Han var pratsam och vi diskuterade designteori i ett par timmar på arkitekthögskolan där han jobbade. Jag träffade honom ett flertal gånger senare under årens lopp.

Nu när jag bläddrar i hans avhandling kommer en massa minnen tillbaks och en massa ideer. Det är så tydligt nu hur påverkad jag blev av hans arbete och hur mycket det formade mitt eget tänkande, och fortfarande gör.

Nu när jag läser lite här och där i hans avhnadling blir det tydligt för mig att hans text, ideer och tankar är relevanta än idag. Fler borde läsa honom!

Friday, June 02, 2017

Why designing is not irrational

Any approach that is aimed at changing our reality is an expression of a specific understanding of what it means to be rational, to think and act in a rational way. Most people strive to be rational in some sense, but it is obvious that what it means to be rational varies.

When I look back on my own research over the years, the notion of rationality has always been at the core of my studies. Actually, my Ph.D. dissertation had the title "The Hidden Rationality of Design Work". The core idea of the dissertation was that as long as we can't reveal the hidden rationality of designing, it will stay difficult to describe and understand, and even more important...teach. The study of designing has since then made huge progress in revealing the 'hidden rationality' of design (see Schon, Cross, Krippendorff, etc).

One of the major problems with the notion of rationality is, to me, that people confuse what being rational means with one specific interpretation. This narrow understanding of being rational is highly influenced by what is seen as the highest form of rationality--the scientific process. But most people do recognize that depending on what we are trying to achieve, we need to embrace different forms of reasoning. It is crucial to understand that we have to embrace the notion that rationality comes in many flavors, each bringing certain strengths and weaknesses. If this is not understood, it becomes a problem.

For instance, some people argue that design thinking means not being rational. Some even argue that designers are, or even have to be, irrational in their thinking and doing. This is however only true if we understand 'being rational' in a very narrow sense. 

To argue that designing is irrational is, therefore, a mistake. Designers are rational and have a well-developed rationality (if they are good at what they do). Designing requires both logic and rationality, but it is a logic and rationality that is aimed at exploring and developing new ideas that can lead to not-yet-existing designs. This means that what is rational as a designer is not the same as what is applied by someone involved in trying to explain how reality works or create an understanding of some particular aspect of our reality. Design thinking is aimed at changing reality into something that we do not know what it is,  into something that is only an imagination. Such a process requires certain forms of thinking and acting, it requires a certain form of rationality. The 'hidden' rationality of designing. 

Ok, this is already too long, but as a takeaway idea, I would propose that anyone involved in the study of designing or has ambitions to improve designing spend a bit more time trying to understand the notion of rationality. It is a theoretical tool that is extremely important in any exploration of human approaches of inquiry and action.

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Stuff to read:
Robert Nozick "The nature of rationality" 
John Dewey "How we think"
Horst Rittel "The reasoning of designers"

and if you want something really good
Joseph Dunne "Back to the rough ground"

and here is an article to download that I wrote a few years back about this topic

Stolterman, E. (2008). The nature of design practice and implications for interaction design research. in  International Journal of Design, 2(1).