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


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.

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).

Friday, May 26, 2017

Book note: "Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari

I am apparently one of the few that has not read Yuval Noah Harari's first book "Sapiens". I did not even realize this until I got his new book "Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow". Now after I have read "Homo Deus" I understand why the first book got so much attention and praise. It is not often you find a book that takes on the biggest possible perspective of humanity, its history and future, and manages to do it without completely making a mess of it.

After I read the book, I read several reviews of it, most of them were quite bad. They do not really seem to get the basic ideas in the book and therefore end up with arguments and critique that clearly David Runciman in the Guardian. Runciman presents the book in a way that, in my view, represents the ideas quite well. I will therefore not here write much about the book, instead, just read his review.

A couple of my own thoughts about the book. Harari introduces the notion of "Dataism" at the end of the book. I found the chapter "The Data Religion" to be fascinating. The way he describes dataism, what it means and what it leads to, opens up many questions and challenges especially related to my own field. Of course, Harari is extraordinary bold, uses the biggest possible brush to paint his picture, which means that as a reader you easily react on details that you may find incorrect or problematic. That is unfortunate since it means you might miss the bigger picture. To get something from a book like this, you have to engage with it at the level of the big ideas it tries to explore. Anyway, the notion that dataism is the next religion and that it can make humanism extinct is quite an ambitious and maybe to many a scary idea. Harari states that if this is correct then humans are not 'needed' anymore.

One strength of the book is, of course, the way it is written. It is easy and fun to read. Great examples and clear arguments. The text is full of conclusions and statements that most would not even dare to express. I truly enjoyed reading the book and I agree with Daniel Kahneman who write on the back of the book "Homo Deus will shock you. It will entertain you. Above all, it will make you think in ways you had not thought before".

Monday, May 22, 2017

Brief book note: The Science of Managing Our Digital Stuff by Bergman & Whittaker

I guess all of us are every day reflecting on how to organize our 'digital stuff', that is, our digital documents, pictures, videos, presentations, etc. Even though we know this, we are often overwhelmed by the speed of the growth of our digital stuff and even more about how to handle it. If you read blogs and magazines there are millions of pages with advice on how to organize, de-clutter, save, purge, etc. However, most of this advice are based on some individuals personal experience and experimentation and not on any broad (empirically based) understanding of what works for most people. That means that all of us can be inspired by the advice we read and then try it on our own, but sometimes we might want to know more about what 'really' works.

In the new book by Ofer Bergman and Steve Whittaker we are presented with what they argue is "The
science of managing our digital stuff".

The book is based on many years of research in the field. The book covers aspects of managing stuff that most of us are familiar with but do not really know much about if it works or not. The book is however not a handbook. The authors are quite clear about that. They write "We believe that research should be very careful in recommending 'good practice'. First, it is difficult to measure whether a practice is good or not. More importantly, ....., individual preferences are prevalent in PIM [personal information management], so that even if a practice is good for some people, research still needs to provide evidence that it will be good for others who implement the same practice. For this reason, we refrain from giving practical advice in this book." (p 235) (I really appreciate this position and I wish we would see it more often.)

Even if this book will not help you to solve your everyday problems of organizing your digital stuff it will help you better understand what the problem is and why it is so difficult. And for those who study any form of organization of data at the intersection between people and machines, this is a great book.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Brief book note: The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols

In these days of 'alternative facts' and a growing rejection of science and truth, it is both depressing and refreshing to read a new book by Tom Nichols "The Death of Expertise--the campaign against established knowledge and why it matters".

Nichols has a wonderful way of describing what is going on today with a dismissal of knowledge and expertise. The book is full of extraordinary examples that he examines closely in an intelligent and clear way.

Nichols asks if this is a new problem and his answer is yes. He comments on what is different from earlier times when he writes:

"The death of expertise, however, is a different problem that the historical fact of low levels of information among laypeople. The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it's the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge. This is new in American culture, and it represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other. ... This change is not only unprecedented but dangerous." (p 20).

This is a depressing picture and as Nichols argues it is not only unfortunate, it is actually "dangerous" and as such something that needs to be dealt with.

Even though Nichols does not provide any simple solutions and ways forward, he is a strong advocate for reason and rationality. And he discusses to some extent what it would take to strengthen the role of reason in our society.

What I particularly like about the book is that Nichols is not looking at the problem from an elevated and superior position, he is not just complaining and blaming others, instead, he approaches the issues with a lot of self-reflection and also criticism of those who are supposed to 'know'--the experts. Overall, a timely and great book.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"..matters which no lips of man could teach"

One of the most frequent questions and comments I hear in relation to the notion of 'Design Thinking' is actually not about design, instead it is about the word 'thinking'. "If design thinking is such an efficient approach to change why is it only about thinking?" This is a very good question and in many cases a question that leads to highly uncomfortable answers.

In our book, The Design Way, we argue that designing is about the hand and the mind, about thought and action. We do this by introducing the old greek notion of sophia as a form of knowledge that combines the hand and the mind. Or as we call it "the knowing hand".

This idea that as an excellent designer of any kind you need both your mind (theory) and your hand (practical skills) is not new. For instance, in one of the first books on design, Vitruvius wrote: "Pytheos made a mistake by not observing that the arts are each composed of two things, the actual work and the theory of it." (Vitruvius, P 11). In the following pages Vitruvius makes a strong case that any architect [or designer] needs to be trained and skilled in both theory and practice.

Christoffer Frayling makes a similar comment in his book "On craftmanship". In one of the chapters, he elaborates on the need for students to have practical hands-on experiences complementing their education. He refers to John Ruskin who wrote: "Let a man once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick  level in its mortar, and he has learned a multitude of other matters that no lips of man could teach him." (Frayling, p 84)

Of course, Donald Schön made the same argument over and over in his writings (heavily inspired by the ideas of John Dewey). One of my favorite texts on this topic is to be found in Dewey's book "How we think". In the chapter on Judgment, Dewey makes an extraordinary case for how to develop once judgment ability. One core argument is the need for repeating encounters with situations of different kinds, that is, the particulars of each practical situation teaches us more than any theory without action can.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where the 'split of sophia' is still alive, where the hand (practical knowledge) is separated from the mind (theoretical knowledge). The proponents for each of these tend to look down on the other. It is as common to see statements that denigrate any form of theoretical or philosophical knowledge as to see statements that look down on practical knowledge and skills.

When it comes to designing, this type of division is completely out of place. Designers need to have a deep understanding of the theory, principles and philosophy that guides their own work and how it relates to more universal ideas and philosophies, while at the same time have sophisticated training in the concrete skills, materials, techniques, and procedures needed in their field. And of course, neither of these two is enough in itself, it is only when they are combined into a whole, when 'sophia' is reconstituted that they create the knowledge foundation that can lead to excellent designs.

This means that 'design thinking' is not only about thinking. It is about doing design. And doing includes both the hand and mind. I mentioned above that this is a conclusion that is in many cases highly uncomfortable since it means that those who are drawn to the thinking aspects of design has to accept that no design is a result of pure thinking. At the same time, those who love to do design, has to accept that excellent design is a result of their actions being inspired and informed by thinking. So, go think and do.


Dewey, John. (1991, originally 1910). How We Think. Prometheus Books.

Frayling, Christoffer. (2012. On Craftmanship--towards a new Bauhaus. Oberon Masters.

Nelson, H. & Stolterman, E. (2012). The Design Way – Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World. 2nd Edition. MIT Press.

Vitruvius. “Ten Books on Architecture" Chapter 1. ( the whole book is here http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20239/20239-h/29239-h.htm)