Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Interaction Design Philosophy & Interaction-Design.org

One of the most ambitious sources of (open) scholarship in the field of HCI and interaction design is today found at  Interaction-Design.org. This site is filled with content from some of the most distinguished researchers and designers in the field. I just got an email from interaction-design.org about their newest addition to the encyclopedia. It is an article called Philosophy of Interaction and the Interactive User Experience. The article is written by Dag Svanaes and has substantial comments from Don Norman and Eva Hornecker. Svanaes is ambitious in his approach to reveal the philosophy of the field. This is highly recommendable even for those who might not agree with his analysis. We definitely need more texts like this in the field. Many more.

It is great that we do have interaction-design.org as a source of quality materials that is also free to anyone interested. The site also includes a great calendar of conferences and deadlines and bibliographies of many researchers in the field. Mads Soegaard who is the Editor-in-Chief for this endeavor is doing a great job.
 

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Book note: Donald Schön "Technology and Change"

In my quest to read (or re-read) all the books by Donald Schön I am at the moment re-reading his "Technology and Change--The New Heraclitus", published in 1967. I really liked this book when I first read it many years ago, but in a way I think it resonates even more with our present time. It is both possible and easy to read this book as a strong argument for what is today called "design thinking".

Schön builds the whole reasoning in the book around how humans relate to stability and change. Parmenides and Heraclitus are presented as advocates of two archetypal ways of understanding reality in relation to change. Parmenides represents the view where "stability was the only reality; being was continuous, changeless, one; change, in the form of creation or passing away, was inherently contradictory and therefore illusory". On the other hand, Heraclitus saw change as "the only reality" and to whom stability was illusory.

Schön makes the case that society still hangs on to an understanding that is basically Permenidian, even though such a view do not fit with the radical and constantly ongoing  technological development that defines our society (and did already in 1967). To cope with such an environment, innovation becomes a core activity and road ahead. Schön writes something that could be written today "Creativity, for the scientist, engineer and marketing man, and generalship in innovation for the manager, now rank with such traditional corporate virtues as loyalty, steadfastness and financial shrewdness. Increasingly, performance in the corporation has to do, in one way or another, with invention and innovation". 

In the book Schön dissects what he sees as the dominating understanding of innovation which he calls the "rational view" based on a Parmenidian understanding of reality. He then presents an alternative and Heraclitus inspired view of change, hence the title of the book. It is fascinating to see how in this early book he already have a "theory" of change that later becomes the foundation of his more known work on reflective practice.

Maybe the least known and also most exciting part of the book is when Schön develops what he sees as an ethic of change. In this part of the book he is not as clear as he usually is, which I see as a sign that these ideas are work in progress. Strangely enough, this work on ethics in relation to change and design is something he never really came back to, maybe with an exception of the last chapter in "The Stable State" and in some way in his "Frame Reflection". This is definitely worth some more studies....

Ok, that is it for now....and to repeat myself from some earlier posts. To read Schön is highly recommended. His ideas are extraordinary grounded in solid philosophical reasoning while also based on his professional practice in industry. When a book about technology and change from 1967 feel fresh and exciting to read it is a sign that it contain some great and timeless ideas!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book note: "Design Research Through Practice-from the lab, field and showroom"

I often complain in  this blog about the lack of books in the field of design thinking and research. I know that many would not agree with me since they would argue that new books about design are published all the time. That might be true, but at the same time very few of these new books contribute to an overall understanding of design, even though they can be both interesting and useful on a more concrete and practical level.

A new book that tries to do both is the book "Design Research Through Practice-from the lab, field and showroom" by Ilpo Koskinen, John  Zimmerman, Thomas Binder, Johan Redström, and Stephan Wensveen.  The authors have taken on the task of putting together knowledge that take "a bird's eye perspective" on the growing academic design research field, while at the same time being useful in the practical teaching of design at a more advanced level, and to add some understanding about the scientific method in relation to design. This is a very ambitious goal or goals.

With such ambitious goals it is difficult to fully succeed. To be both theoretically informed, rooted in practice, and relevant to both research and practice is challenging. I admire the project and find it highly inspirational.  I find that overall the authors have been able to do what they set out to do, even though I find the book to also have some issues. The book answers to some extent to the purpose that the authors mention. It is highly practical and it does relate and ground the text, concepts, and suggestions in research.  However, it is also the case that many things are very briefly introduced, defined and explained. Many sections are so short that when reading them it feels as if you only got the abstract. At the same time, the book covers many different aspects of design research.

The authors introduces many highly valuable ideas, concepts and techniques that are all clearly based on practical experience and they situate them in a larger context. They discuss the value of lab and field research and they introduce the notion of the showroom, all as valuable tools in constructive design research.

Overall, I find the book to be valuable, especially for MS and PhD students who are engaged in some kind of design research. The authors offer good arguments and support for using methods and techniques that are not necessarily common and accepted in more traditional research but are useful for design research.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The need for theoretical and philosophical books on design as a "big" thing and the passing of Kees Overbeeke and Steve Jobs

I have earlier written on this blog on topics similar to this post. The reason for writing about it again is my four latest blogposts. They are all about books that approach design as a "big" thing. These books examine design as something at the same level as science and art and of the same importance. There are of course many books out there about design and that has the word design in the title, but so many of them are about some specific approach, skill, competence, or tool. This is all good and well but in times when design is seen as the approach that will save business, a much deeper understanding is needed. And we do not have enough books at that level. We need many more. Write one.

When Steve jobs was asked about what design is and what his "obsession" about quality was all about, he answered something that supports the idea that we need more books that can provide a language and an understanding. Steve Jobs answered "“We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing,”

and he continued

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. ... That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started. This is what customers pay us for — to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.” [my italics]

Jobs gives a condense and distinct definition of what design is all about in this quote. To me, this is an extremely brief theoretical and philosophical formulation of design at the level we need to see more of.

My post is also triggered by the passing of Kees Overbeeke. Kees was one of the most influential thinkers when it comes to design as a "big" thing. He did see design as an alternative approach to change in its broadest sense. He did not hesitate to take on big questions and topics, such as "fun", emotion, or aesthetics. He did inspire many and we will miss his insights. He did write about his thinking but unfortuntely what could have become his major book presenting his understanding of design in its deepest and broadest way will never be written. And this at a time when we really need books from thinkers like Overbeeke.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

New MIT Press Book series on Design Thinking/Design Theory

For quite some time, my colleague and friend Ken Friedman and I have worked as Book Series Editors for a new book series with MIT Press. The book series is called Design Thinking/Design Theory. This is an exciting project. Ken and I have read many proposals and discussed many ideas for books from prospective authors. It has been fascinating to see what authors want to write about and how different the notion of design can be approached. Many are willing to propose a book, but few have what it takes to actually finish a manuscript.

So, today I got the first published book in the series in my mail. It is a highly interesting book by Thomas Binder, Giorgio De Michelis, Pelle Ehn, Giulio Jacucci, Per Linde and Ina Wagner. The title is Design Things.

More books in the series are on their way. If you have a book idea that would fit this series, let me know.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

How to define design

I have mentioned here before that all signs are telling us that our reality is becoming more complex. While we humans spend more and more time making our reality into something that resembles or fulfills our dreams, it becomes more connected, more intertwined, more complex. The question is if this new reality, this complex mess, is easier to understand and to design for than the old "natural" and "simple" environment.

It is clear that complexity is quickly becoming the new research front in many disciplines. Complexity is the new challenge. It seems to emerge anywhere and all the time. There are of course also many ideas on how to approach complexity in a way that can "tame" it and make it manageable, maybe even possible to manipulate and work with (for a good discussion of the "nature" of complexity see Donald Norman "Living with complexity"). This is all good and well as long as the purpose is to study, describe, and maybe predict the structure and behavior of complex "things". But when it comes to design, complexity has a different meaning and practical consequences and has to be dealt with in a different way.

In the article "The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research" I argue that there is distinct difference between what is commonly seen as complexity in a scientific way and what can be labeled design complexity. I also develop the argument that we make a huge mistake if we try to solve design complexity by applying the methods used in science. In the article I show why a design approach is needed when we attempt to design for and within complex systems.

One reason why a scientific approach does not work when it comes to design complexity is that by reducing a problem at hand to something possible to deal with, with the general principles of the scientific approach, we will not reach a rich enough understanding of the whole "system" from a design perspective. There is no possibility to be comprehensive in design or science, which of course mean that we always will deal with some unpredictability. The more we try to handle complexity by making it "tame", contained, or less complex the more we might end up designing based on an understanding of reality that is way too simplistic.

Design is always about the whole, it always involves all possible aspects of reality. It can never be reduced or limited in order to be more precise or "correct". A designerly approach to complexity is therefore very different from the scientific. This insight seems to lead to many definitions of design where design is described as the opposite to the scientific approach, that is, what it is not. This is why we can find so many definitions of design that defines a design approach as not rational, logic, and linear. This is very unfortunate. Design is rational. Design has a logic. Design is linear. That is not the difference. The difference is that design has a different rationality, a different logic and linearity. To advocate design  should instead be done in a positive sense, that is, what it is. In the article mentioned above, I make some attempts at doing that.

I is definitely possible to define the logic of design and the rationality of design. It is also possible to define what validity and rigor means when it comes to a design approach. Any designer knows that you have to be rigorous in your approach. More work needs to be done to formulate design as a rigorous, logic and rational approach.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Note: Donald Schon "Beyond the Stable State"

In 1971 Donald Schon published his book "Beyond the Stable State". Schon has since then been recognized as an impressive thinker in many different disciplines. His fame and reputation are based on some amazing books that still are read and frequently referenced. However, the "Stable State" is usually not among them. Recently I had the pleasure of re-reading some parts of the it.

As often when you go back to something you read a long time ago, you are intrigued by other parts of the text, other ideas stand out. Ideas that you do not remember being in the book. I must admit that "Beyond the Stable State" is one of the books that has had the most influence on me over the years. To me, the message condensed in the title is enough, and is an example of a great idea. 

Anyway, in re-reading parts of the book I realized that the last chapter contains a description of a form of research methodology or learning strategy that is resonating with my own thinking. The notions of "existential knowledge" and "projective models" are absolutely fascinating. Schon provides a clear and wonderful explanation of how to understand "case" studies, especially when the reason is to prepare for action. Schon's theory on how to approach "social change" is absolutely perfect for any professional working in any kind of design. Read the last chapter!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Manuscript of 2nd Edition of the Design Way sent

Yesterday Harold Nelson and I sent the final manuscript of the 2nd Edition of "The Design Way" to MIT Press. The book has gone through quite a lot of changes. Every chapter is edited and refined. Two chapter are fully re-written. One chapter is gone and two new chapters have been added. Hopefully these changes have improved the book... Anyhow it feels good to have sent it. It was a lot of work. The book will not be out until sometime late next year, it is a long production process. It also feels great that this time the book will be published by a wonderful publisher, which will mean that the book will be available in a completely different way and also to much lower cost.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Studying Interaction Designers and their methods

A few days ago, Marty Siegel and I got the final message that our NSF proposal has been approved and that the 3 year project is good to go. The project is called "Design Methods--how they are understood, selected and used by practitioners".

The project is based on the assumption that any work devoted to the development and creation of new design methods (which we define in the broadest possible sense, everything from pen & paper to theories) has to be grounded in a deep understanding of design practice.

If you are doing research on design practice and the use of tools and methods, I would be happy to hear from you.

If you are a practitioner that has ideas, reflections, and thoughts about this topic, you can write to me.

More on this later...

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Organizational Design Competence II

We are getting some great feedback on our Organizational Design Competence (ODC). We even get some nice comments on our ODC website which is still quite small, but it will soon grow. ODC is now on Facebook too, which might be a good way to keep in touch if you are interested.

If you have comments, questions, or want to inquire about collaborations about education or consulting, just let us know.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Organizational Design Competence

Today Harold Nelson and I announced ODC (Organizational Design Competence) which is our new business aimed at supporting individuals, teams, and organizations to develop their design competence.
This is how we state who we are and what we do. 
  • "Our mission is to act as a catalyst in organizations becoming design competent. Our team of design consultants and educators consists of international leaders in the design field with many years of experience working with diverse types of organizations, including business and government, at nearly every scale of enterprise. Our approach is to first gain an understanding of an organization's strengths in design competence and blockages to being design competent. We assist in transforming existing organizations into design competent organizations by establishing a design culture among the leadership and staff of the organization and enhancing their ability to apply a comprehensive design approach, which includes design thinking, design practice, professional development and development of design expertise."
 If you are interested or have questions, just let me know.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Speculative Realism

Ok, I have decided to explore the philosophical movement that today is known as speculative realism. I have earlier read some works in that school of thought and was particularly fascinated by the writings of Graham Harman, especially in his book "The Prince of Networks". Harman is seen as one of the core figures in this new movements. So, on my desk are now

"Towards Speculative Realism--Essays and Lectures" by Graham Harman
"The Speculative Turn--Continental Materialism and Realism" edited by Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman
"After Finitude" by Quentin Meillassoux

I am really looking forward to get into these books and especially to see how this new thinking resonates with design philosophy. I will hopefully be back with some reviews...

Since this philosophical movement has a clear relationship with Bruno Latour I have also a new book from him. It is "On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods". Quite intriguing title...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Scientists as designers...

IN an excellent post on the Advanced Design Institute blog, my colleague and friend Harold Nelson explains the relationship between design and science and how it is possible to see scientists today as 'design critiques'. This is an intriguing observation that deserves  some reflection. Another point in his blog is that we see a lot of cross-over today where scientists acts as designers without taking on the responsibility.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Death of Design Thinking...

Lately there have been some writers arguing that "design thinking" is over, maybe even dead. For instance, Bruce Nussbaum recently wrote "The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on to another conceptual framework: Creative Intelligence, or CQ". Helen Walters discusses this position in her column and makes some interesting observations. As someone who has been dealing with design theory for about 30 years, it is both amusing and sad to see the way the question of the status of design thinking is being approached. The intellectual development around design as a special human approach to inquiry and action has been around much longer than the "last decade" and is a deep and  profound attempt to understand a particular kind of human activity that for a long time was not appropriately understood.

Looking back through history it is obvious that some human approaches, such as art and science, have attracted centuries of intellectual interest. People have tried to grasp what they are, what their purpose is, what they can deliver, what they can't deliver, when they are appropriate, and how they relate to each other. To me "design" is a human approach to intentional change at the same level of importance and stature as art and science.

Over the last 40 years we have come a long way in developing an understanding of design as an approach in its own right. But it is still a new project and we are only taking the first steps. There are serious questions still to explore, for instance, why was design not recognized as an approach worthy of intellectual investigation until recently? What are some of the best ways to define design, how can it best be taught, what are the philosophical foundations best suited to explain design, how does design relate to art and science, etc?

It is however not, as many state, difficult to define design. At least, it is not more difficult than defining what science or art is. As we all know, there is no precise and generally agreed upon definition of either of them, but that does not really make anyone argue that neither of them exist or that it is not important to continue to study them, trying to understand them, and of course to improve them.

However, if we take on a highly simplistic view of design--if we see it as a management "tool", a straightforward recipe to reach innovative new products, or a way of "thinking" that will drastically improve  our capacities in certain ways-- then it will of course lead to failure. But if we see design as an always present human approach aimed at the creation of the not-yet-existing then the challenge and its potential contribution becomes different in size and scope.

In the last 30 years there have been a tremendous change in the understanding of design. We have seen educations, professions, and ideas of competence change. There is a slowly growing understanding of design that has real consequences in real human activities and projects. These consequences can of course be seen as a result of a "fad" that will soon go away and be replaced by something else  (like Nussbaum's attempt to launch CQ). But this is not what is going on. What we are witnessing is a broad and deep, but slow, recognition of the fact that there is a form of human approach to intentional change that is not appropriately captured by our more developed traditions. And as humans, we need to find ways to talk about what that is. We need a language and we can't just borrow that from other traditions.  Design is not a form of art, not a form of science, and not a form of management. Design is not applied art, not applied science, and not the same as business practice. It is not the same as invention or creativity in general. Design is not a simple change in practical step-by-step procedures or the use of particular tools. Design is the activity we humans engage in when we are not satisfied with our reality and we decide to intentionally change it. It is an approach that deals with overwhelming complexity, that rely on judgment as its logic, and that is focused on the creation of the ultimate particular.

Design as an approach or as a form of "thinking" is not dead. At the same time, it is not yet  alive as a fully developed intellectual and philosophical tradition. A lot of people are doing a great job today trying to develop such an understanding, but it will probably take another century to reach a situation where design as an approach is recognized at the same level and in the same intellectual and intuitive sense as art and science.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why email is not stealing time from real work.....

Lately there have been a lot of critique against email and also a lot of ideas on how to improve email. For instance, the idea from the company Shortmail.com about a new form of really short emails. And the idea of an "email charter" by the famous internet thinker Chris Anderson, or "Work smart: conquering your email inbox" by Gina Trapani at Fastcompany.

The assumption, or fact, behind that all these attempts is that the number of emails are increasing and take up way too much of our working time. Email is seen as a "time-suck". The conclusion for most is that we need to reduce the number of emails, or make them shorter, or easier to work with, so we do not have to spend so much time with our emails.

Even though all this sounds rational and sound, I am not sure that the basic premise is correct. I agree that the number of emails have been increasing, but I am also quite sure that reading and answering emails today is not necessary time wasted or time taken away from "real" work. To "work" with your emails is in most cases real work, it is not something else than work. When I work with my inbox, I do real work. A very small number of the emails I "work" with are not important at all (apart form some occasional spam) or are not about something that is a genuine part of my work.

So, an increasing number of emails is not necessary the same as work distraction.

There are of course some consequences of reducing the use of email. First of all, we could have to go back to a system where meetings and close geographical location is a requirement for "work". But that will not be accepted of course. So many things of  what I do when I am "working" is considered to be normal and required for someone in my position, and is not possible to do without email.

We can of course use other technologies for communication, such as social media and other commonly used technologies. However, many of these new technologies are not specifically designed for asynchronous communication that leave a clear trail and a creates a record and is not very useable for ongoing professional communication, which probably is why email completely dominates among professionals. Email offers a functionality that is hard to replace.

Anyway, enough of this. I truly find email to be an extraordinary tool for "work" (and I am consciously using the word "work" here instead of "communication"). Of course, this does not mean that email can not be improved, for instance, the world would be better if we all followed the proposed rules in the "email charter" but that is another issue.

Friday, May 20, 2011

BOOK COMMENT: NIgel Cross "Design Thinking"

Nigel Cross has for a long time been one of the most prominent researchers of design. He has a background as an architect and industrial designer but has mostly been doing research on and about design. His notion "designerly knowing" has had a great impact and influenced many design thinkers. He has also been instrumental in fostering international design research institutions, such as the DRS. He is also the Editor in Chief of the influential journal "Design Studies".

His new book "Design Thinking" is just out, ironically at the same time as Bruce Nussbaum has claimed that design thinking is dead. Over the last few years there has been an enormous interest in "design thinking" especially in some parts of the business and management community. Design thinking has been seen as an approach to innovation that can radically change business as usual and that can transform organizations to be able to act and respond quickly to new demands and challenges in a creative and designerly way. As always when an approach gets this kind of attention it also rather quickly becomes a fad, it loses it richness. Many over-simplified interpretations are spread by those who see the new approach more as a business or consulting opportunity than a substantial new philosophically sound and knowledge-based approach. Anyway, the people and especially researchers who for many years have studied design as a distinct approach for thinking and action are of course still working and producing new insights and knowledge that are far from being simplistic or a fad.

In this new book Cross is bringing together a lot of the existing research, solid research, that has been done on how designers think and act. This research is not just individuals reflecting on design based on their own subjective experiences but produced by people who have conducted serious studies of designers in interview studies, experiments, case studies, observations, etc. Cross goes through a lot of this research and shows how the findings from many of them have led to similar results and can be seen as providing the base for a more overall comprehensive and coherent understanding of design. 

The book is an excellent summary of good design research in the field. And Cross does a good job in identifying some common patterns from the individual studies he draws upon. The book is highly valuable for anyone who is interested in design thinking and who wants to know more than just some over simplistic journalistic versions found in popular business settings and in magazines. Cross also provides a good source of references to the actual research he references.

At the same time I have some problems with the book. These problems do not at all reduce the value of the book for what it is, but should probably more be seen as a wishlist from me for what it could also be.

My issues about the book comes from the perspective of someone who has a very similar understanding of design as Cross and is also doing research on the nature of design. To me, the book is unfortunately very short and each aspect of design thinking is treated briefly and not in the rich and developed way that I think is needed for it to leave a substantial contribution to the field. To me the book does not really provide any new theoretical or conceptual understandings of design that extends the sources that Cross uses. The conceptual structure of the book and the writing is also more textbook like than offering any conceptual or theoretical framework of how to understand design. This also means that there is nor really any argumentation going on in the book where opposing views and interpretations of design is examined. The text becomes quite neutral and reporting. Even though the book must be seen as primarily reporting on empirical studies of design thinking, I do miss references to more theoretical and compositional attempts to understand design thinking, such as the fairly recent books by Krippendorff, Dorst and Lawson, Nelson and Stolterman, and others.

However, even with these critical comments I am really happy that this book is out. This is one of the first books that takes on design thinking based on research knowledge and studies (even if this is to some extent also done in Lawson & Dorst). This focus on empirical studies of design sets the book apart from many other similar books that to a higher extent try to promote or sell design thinking as a (simple) approach to innovation and change built on an over simplistic understanding of design thinking. Cross shows clearly that design thinking, and to act in a designerly way, is a highly complex process that has it own rich logic and rationality that requires training and a developed understanding of the design process itself. Design thinking is not an approach that anyone can just decide to pick and use, it is not a simple prescriptive program for innovative thinking. Instead it is a complex and rich approach that requires theoretical and reflective thinking and also intense practice and training of skills and competencies. Designerly thinking is as specific, particular, and demanding as scientific thinking and Cross shows some of that complexity and richness in the book.

I think anyone who is engaged in design of any kind should read this book. The book will help us all to make a good argument when design thinking is challenged and questioned or even stated as being "dead".

Monday, May 16, 2011

BOOK COMMENT: Richard J. Bernstein "The Pragmatic Turn"

The philosophical tradition that I have always found most appealing and suitable for the kind of work I do is pragmatism. This philosophical theme has been around for about 150 years and include famous thinkers as Charles S. Pierce, William James, John Dewey, and George H. Mead, on to present days representatives such as Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. Of these thinkers, Dewey and Rorty are the ones that has captured my attention over the years.

In a new book, Richard Bernstein goes through the history of pragmatism, how it emerged, who was involved, how pragmatism is related to more traditional schools of thought such as the analytical tradition and the continental. Bernstein is himself an important contributor to pragmatism and has influenced many, especially with his book "Beyond Objectivism and Relativism"(1983), a book that influenced me a lot when it was published. I read it with great interest and learned a lot.

The new book "The Pragmatic Turn" is interesting and full of exciting exmainations of how philosophers have influenced each other over time and how pragmatism can be seen as closely related to other schools of though, and individuals such as Wittgenstein. especially the first chapters are interesting and of course the last chapter that focuses on Rorty. However, overall I found the book a bit disappointing. It did not really give any deeper insights into pragmatism, even though the historical perspective do bring some new understanding to its role and place in the history of philosophy. But I did not really find the book to help me to further develop my understanding of pragmatism. It is more rewarding to read the main thinkers own texts, especially Dewey and Rorty.

Pragmatism is maybe the most suitable philosophical -ism for design theory. It would be great if someone would like to write a book on how pragmatism and design are related and how pragmatism can support and strengthen design theory. The best attempt so far is of course the works by Donald Schon who was himself a trained philosopher and who wrote his dissertation on John Dewey. The ideas and theory of Schon is therefore a good example of how pragmatism can lead to great design thinking.

Friday, May 13, 2011

CHI 2011, the field, development, grand challenge, and the need for more books

Back from this years CHI conference. This time in Vancouver. Bigger than ever before. Amazingly well organized for a conference of this size.

CHI is changing. It is not easy to really understand what the changes are when you are at the conference, but compared with just a few years ago it is easier to see that there is a difference.  The conference is broader, more diverse. I had the chance to go to several sessions and it is exciting to see that not only is the diversity growing but I also found the quality in general to be better than usual.

One clear change to me is a new interest in theory. I was very pleased to see a design theory session filling two large rooms, and so did the more theoretical design methods session. I hope that this is a sign that the field is getting more eager  to find ways to synthesize findings and results from all the studies, experiments, and designs projects.

A field of this size need people who can bring things together, who can conceptualize, theorize on a level of abstractness that covers the whole field or at least larger parts of the field. To me this also means a strong need for more books. The field produces a lot of books already, but they are mostly textbooks or focused on a particular issue, method, or technology. This is of course fine an also needed, but we do need more general books that in more philosophical terms can help us all to find ways to think about the field, what we are really doing, what we should do, and what we should strive for. For this to happen, we need many more theoretical investigations into the core and foundation of the field. This is of course not done by one person in one book. This can only be achieved if many thinkers in the field in their own way contribute their view of the field. A field can only develop when there are a certain amount of friction between different and diverse sets of theoretical views.

At the moment it seems as one way of coming up with conceptual maps of the field is by looking at the sessions at CHI. I met people at CHI who count sessions in different areas and compare to earlier years as a way to determine if and how the field has changed, even though the session design is not a result of any deeper reflection of the field or the content of the papers. However, counting of sessions is one way of developing an understanding of a changing field. It would though be more valuable to have a spectrum of different interpretations of the field by people who take on the task to create  overall theoretical understandings of what is going on.

So, to repeat what I always argue for, we need more books. We need books that allow for broad philosophical and theoretical descriptions and interpretations of what HCI and interaction design is all about. Books that deal with the major issues of how a field like this can stay current, make a contribution to society and be relevant. I don't only see this as something needed from within the field, it is also something that I truly believe is lacking in the society at large. Since  interactions between humans and digital technology will continue to grow and will without a doubt influence every corner of our society and peoples everyday lives, our field should be able to contribute some grand ideas and grand theories based on the perspective and the knowledge that we have developed over the last thirty years. The interactive society at large would welcome theories about what is going on, where it is going, if we as a field took that larger challenge in a serious way. I do not see any other field taking on this challenge....

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Book review: "Smart things" by Mike Kuniavsky

It is obvious that we are entering an era when computation and interaction is becoming ubiquitous and pervasive. Anyone working in HCI, interaction design, user experience design, or whatever it is called, has to deal with challenges that is not only anymore about the layout on a screen. Even though this development is obvious it is still far from recognized and accepted in many corners of academia and industry. This creates a lot of problems since this development has serious consequences when it comes to what are necessary competencies and skill for someone working as a professional in the field.

Kuniavsky has written a book "Smart Things--ubiquitous computing user experience design" that is based on many years of practical experience that has led to insights and reflections that has great value to anyone thinking about interaction design. The book is based on a large number of examinations of particular designs. The creates a good overview of technologies, ideas, and design that have been successful but also many that never really succeeded.

This way of analyzing particular design is an approach that I consider to be highly designerly and exciting.  It is also true that this approach is less common in research and academia where knowledge is usually built on studies aimed at drawing generalities from the study of many manifestations of design. There is a distinct difference between examining a particular design as a way of gaining insights and the traditional more scientific approach. The former is actually more similar to the way scholarship has traditionally been done in the humanities.

I very much like the approach taken by Kuniavsky. To examine a design through the eyes of a skilled designer bring forward highly interesting insights that can be appropriate and valuable to other designers if reflected upon in a serious way. It does not necessarily lead to universal truths or principles, but it challenges the readers own design thinking and over time help to prepare for the next design challenge. This is also where the book delivers when it comes to interesting ideas and insights. The breadth of the examples and the reflections that Kuniavsky offers makes it possible for the reader to compare and contrast those reflections with her own thinking. If I have any negative comments on this part of the book it would be that I would have preferred fewer examples and instead even more detailed examinations and reflections on the particular designs. Especially I would have liked to see even more personal reflections.

Kuniavsky also presents some chapters where he discusses, what he calls "frameworks" and he ends the book with some chapters on "techniques". These chapter are all good and it is interesting to see what frameworks and techniques Kuniavsky as a recognized designer actually chooses to present. However, as someone who knows the field these chapters do not really add anything new, they are a bit too short and Kuniavsky does not really analyze and examine the frameworks and techniques in the same interesting way that he does with the design examples. I would have liked a much more personal presentation of the frameworks and techniques, for instance, what is Kuniavsky himself using, and why, and what is his experience of using these tools as a highly skilled designer.

Anyway, the book has a lot of value and I would without hesitation recommend my students to read this book. It is easy to read. It presents a lot of examples of design with Kuniavsky's interesting comments. It does not prescribe, but it can inform and inspire. I agree with Kuniavsky when he writes "Design books are tools that are picked up as needed, scanned, and then put down when billable work calls".

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