Wednesday, January 11, 2017

'Rich interactions' -- a blind spot in HCI research

I am often struck by the strive for simplicity that seems to guide almost all HCI research and also most of the popular press surrounding interaction design and UX. This strive towards simplicity seems to be so fundamental and unquestionable that it is not even understood as a purposely chosen goal. Instead it seems to be a given. Of course, it is not a problem to try to make things simple. Why shouldn't we? And as long as we are dealing with very simple software and apps that help people do simple tasks this is not an issue. But not all tasks are simple.

A lot of people are today working with (are users of) software of extraordinary complexity. This complexity is not necessarily a consequence of highly advanced algorithms or procedures, or of any intricate intellectual complexity, instead in many cases it is simply a consequence of a large number of variables and data, some kind of combinatorial complexity.  Examples of this kind of software is commonplace at your doctors office, your bank, your insurance company, and many other businesses and institutions. A lot of this software is aimed to support professionals dealing with scheduling, logistics, planning, recording, monitoring of processes and procedures.

The complexity or feature richness that  this type of software manifests is of course not a 'problem', instead it is a strength. The software is valuable exactly because it makes it possible to handle complex and rich information and data in a way that is impossible or extremely cumbersome with manual means. We might call this type of interactions for 'rich interactions'.

When we look at the field of HCI research today it is obvious that the area of 'rich interactions' is not particularly popular as a research topic. It seems as most research is aimed at making quite simple tasks even simpler by the design of interfaces that lead to smooth and enjoyable user experiences or aimed at introducing interactivity into areas where it has not existed before through smart devices, tangible interaction, etc. But where is the research that could actually bring the field forward and provide some insights about how to design 'rich interactions'?

I often hear or read colleagues in the field complaining and in many cases joking or being sarcastic about the state of the field when it comes to 'rich interactions', usually after having some personal experience in their encounter with a business or organization or in conversation around software such as MS Word or Adobe Illustrator. This kind of software is commonly seen as examples of failure when it comes to UX design since it is cumbersome to use, complicated, difficult to learn, etc.

It may be possible, of course, that some of the issues with this kind of rich interactions can be resolved with new forms of interfaces, new modes of interaction, clever interface solutions, etc. but it is not possible to reduce the richness by design. The richness is what makes the software valuable in the first place.

So, my question is, where is the HCI research that in some serious way is studying the nature of rich interactions? Where can we find insights, principles, and knowledge that could support those who are designing rich interactions?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Coding is not fun (and neither is design)

I completely agree with this short article by Walter Vannini titled "Coding is not ‘fun’, it’s technically and ethically complex". Vannini makes some simple and, in my view, very strong arguments why the attempt to make coding 'fun' is misguided and potentially harmful. The attempts in making coding 'fun' are similar to the attempts in making design 'easy'. In both cases we are dealing with powerful processes that can lead to immense transformations of our world. Why we need to see these processes as 'fun' and the ability to do it as 'easy' is highly problematic.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Composing some blogposts in a small ebook on "Design Thinking"

Ok, I am trying a software called Designrr. What they do is a tool that helps you to compose one or many blogposts into an ebook in a very simple way. I just did a very small test and collected a few of my latests posts related to the term "design thinking".

The ebook comes out in the form of a PDF. I have not put any effort really into layout or even fixing any language issues. I just wanted to see if it worked and I think it did. I might look more into this as a way of collecting and composing shorter writings into something longer and more substantial.

Here you can download the pdf.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Today's simplistic glorification of design and "The Burnout Society"

I am reading the book "The Burnout Society" by Byung-Chul Han. It is a very short book, only about 50 pages. Han is a Korean-born philosopher, now active in Germany. He has published a series of short books. 

I read this book as a serious critique of our modern society which Han gives different names, for instant 'the achievement society'. He argues that modern society has developed a culture where we believe we can do anything, “yes, we can”, where we are measured based on our achievements. He makes the case that people get sick and depressed not because they are burdened by what he calls disciplinary responsibility "but the imperative to achieve: the new commandment of late-modern labor society". People get burnout because of "creative fatigue and exhausted ability". We suffer from the "violence of positivity” that “does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts.” Han argues that we need more 'negativity', we need more "deep, contemplative attention", that is, less achieving and more reflection and to reach this we need "profound boredom" (p.12).
I find this book fascinating, even though I only read a few chapters, am looking forward to the rest. So, what does this have to do with design and the philosophy of design. Well, it is obvious to me that the character of the modern society that Han critiques includes the qualities that are commonly revered by those who advocate design, such as the ideas to design artifacts and systems that improves our ability to "do things" quicker, more effortless, removed from the restrictions of time, place and community. Designers commonly desire the creations of designs that are engaging, exciting, and positive. Almost everything that is part of today's simplistic glorification of design as the solution to every problem is based a philosophy that resembles what Han is critiquing in his book. I find this extraordinary refreshing and highly needed.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The deceitful nature of design

I am reading here and there in Vilhem Flusser's book "The shape of things--a philosophy of design". Flusser is a thoughtful scholar with deep knowledge of the classics in many areas.

I was just struck by a section where Flusser elaborates on what design is. Flusser uses the notions of 'deception and trickery' as core in his definition. He says that when we design we create something, a machine, that tricks nature in our attempt to 'making a new form of culture possible'. With the use of technology and design we can create machineries that make the impossible possible, things that nature can't produce. But with this ability to deceive nature, comes responsibility. And this is where I found the quote that in a brilliant way describes the role of humans as designers.

"This is the design that is the basis of all culture: to deceive nature by means of technology, to replace what is natural with what is artificial and build a machine out of which there comes a god who is ourselves." (Flusser, p 19).

This is both a wonderful and scary description. If by design, we humans approach a god like state, we as a consequence take on god like responsibilities. Who wants that responsibility? Who wants to be a god?

And Flusser continues. He brings in the question of value. He is warning us about the loss that design leads to. He writes:

"..a new perspective opened up within which one could create more and more perfect designs, escape one's circumstances more and more, live more and more artistically (beautifully). But the price we pay for this is the loss of truth and authenticity."

It is interesting to note that to Flusser, in this qoute, living artistically and beautifully is not the end all, the final goal or the life we should aspire to live. Instead, he argues for the 'truth' and 'authenticity'. This shift is something that others have pointed to, for instance, Brogmann in his 'device paradigm' theory. This relationship between the two theories become obvious when Fuller discusses 'value' and uses the cheap plastic pen as an example. He argues that when design replaced 'truth' and 'authenticity' with "perfectly designed artifacts" we find ourselves in a different world.  (This reasoning is similar to Borgmann's device paradigm. When Flusser writes "all these artefacts become as valuable as the plastic pens, become disposable gadgets." it resonates with Borgmann's idea of 'devices'. )

Flusser then states that this explanation of what design is, is aimed at "exposing the cunning and deceptive aspects of the word design....because they are normally concealed." I find this examination of the 'deceitful' nature of design desperately needed today. The explosive growth, interest and glorification of design has led to a situation where the expectations are exaggerated, the process is drastically simplified, the philosophy and nature of design is neglected. This glorification and neglect will inevitably lead to serious disappointments and backlashes. Flusser's examination and Borgmann's philosophy gives us tools to in a more sober way examine our designed world and the role of design.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Things That Keep Us Busy

Well, the production of our new book is under way.

Janlert, Lars-Erik & Stolterman, Erik. (2017)
Things That Keep Us Busy -- the elements of interaction
MIT Press.

It builds on these articles, but is much developed and extended.

Janlert, L. E., & Stolterman, E. (2016). The Meaning of Interactivity—Some Proposals for Definitions and Measures. Human–Computer Interaction, (just-accepted).


Janlert, L. E., & Stolterman, E. (2015). Faceless Interaction—A Conceptual Examination of the Notion of Interface: Past, Present, and Future. Human–Computer Interaction30(6), 507-539.

Janlert, L. E., & Stolterman, E. (2010). Complex interaction. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI)17(2), 8.

Janlert, L. E., & Stolterman, E. (1997). The character of things. Design Studies18(3), 297-314.

If you are interested in reading them, just let me know and I will email them to you.