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Designing Meaningful Models for Interaction

Monday, March 24th, 2014 | Posted by scott.gerlach

Recently our class has been exploring modern design history and its intertwined relationship with computing technology and approaches to human and computer interactions.  Technology is both active and contextual in our lives and as a result any discussion of how humans and technology is characterized by both granular detail and broad societal trends.

Designers are rightfully wary of the effects of amplification that are possible through modern technology.  Industrialization showed us the immense power and terrifying unintended consequences of amplifying design ideas.  And in the computer age we have seen many of the same naive, shortsighted views that characterized industrialization repeated in new mediums.

In one of the articles we recently read, Steve Mann advocates for the use of a video capture device that will record every moment of our lives and act as a filter for our perspective of the world.

Having an on-demand photographic memory can help all of us by offloading, to a wearable computer, the task of memorizing now-mundane details that might only later become important.

I couldn’t help but think of the idealized representations of home life in mid-century advertisements for appliances and how they would free women from the arduous everyday tasks.  And while Mann’s perspective may have seemed extreme not long ago the introduction of google glass clearly demonstrates our willingness to continue to hand off tasks to automation.

In another article, Paul Dourish explores (among other things) how our everyday activities shape our view of the world.  Out of this view we begin to see technology that simply attempts to model and replace human activity more realistically: in severing out connection with the environment around us through our activity, we lose our ability to make meaning of the world.

Practice is first and foremost a process by which we can experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful. As technologists, then, our concern is not simply to support particular forms of practice, but to support the evolution of practice—the ‘‘conversation with materials’’ out of which emerges new forms of action and meaning.

Dourish’s wider point is about how the people that we interact with and the social norms that we establish inform, shape, and ultimately collaborate with us to establish the context from which we make meaning of the world.

In another article that Dourish collaborated on this idea manifests into an important implication for designers who wish to affect people rather than divorcing them from meaningful experiences.

This requires a shift from designing systems to model and transmit emotion to designing systems that support humans in producing, experiencing and interpreting emotions.

As designers we design for people to able to understand and use our systems efficiently.  The computing mediums that interaction designers often bring ideas to life in are biased toward an information based approach to the world that relies on representational models.  And so designing for people by creating computational models that match the observational models we see in the world becomes a natural extension of modern mediums.  But over time this disconnects people for the everyday world and leads to hollow, filtered interactions with the world around us.

Liz Sanders explorations in co-design offer a relevant counterpoint to consider.

People are naturally creative. As designers of scaffolds, we need to give them participatory tools to promote generativity in their thinking.

Sanders describes the designer’s role primarily as a facilitator: a conduit for other’s creativity.  I think Sanders overreaches in pushing all of the active creativity out of the realm of the designer and so I think her model is flawed as a model for methodology in the design process.  But they may offer a powerful model for how to think about the systems that interaction designers put into the world.

As with so many themes in design, the ethic for a designer emerges as a tension between competing needs.  Our medium requires us to think about how to leverage information models and our subject requires to consider how to create interactions that lead to meaningful understandings of the world.  So our task becomes to explore interaction scaffolds that give people the opportunity to create their own meaning and then create models of these scaffolds that are appropriate for the medium.  In this way we design systems that embrace the new interactions that are only possible in new mediums rather than simply creating a virtual shadow of meaningful interactions.

Thoughts?

-Scott

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