Showing posts from 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 betwee…

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.

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 …

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!

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.

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)

"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.

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…


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…

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 exam…

"..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 "tag…

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. Base…

"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 natur…

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 "…

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 …

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 p…


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,…

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.


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, t…


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 sh…

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 th…

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 …

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 everythi…

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 …

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 t…

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 r…

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…

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 und…


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 b…

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 l…

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 …