Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Don Norman: "The Design of Future Things"

Today I got the new book by Don Norman, "The Design of Future Things". After having read the book tonight I have some words about it. As usual, the book is a typical Norman. It is easy to read, full of good stories and great examples. It also addresses issues that are clearly becoming some of the most interesting emerging design challenges in our society, at least when it comes to technological aspects of our everyday reality.

The basic question in the book is based on the assumption that we are at a point when we are able to develop "intelligent" and autonomous devices. The question is then how to live and interact with such devices? What if the car "takes care of us" and makes decisions that override our own actions as a driver. How can we establish a symbiotic relationship (a concept that Norman uses and likes) with the smart car? The book is full of examples of smart technology that in most cases just seem annoying and terrible to live with. Norman gives very few examples of designs where the symbiotic relationship is designed in such away that it works. His favorite example is the relation between a horse and a rider. He suggests that such a relationship is what we should strive for. He also proposes a number of Design Rules that he says "designers and engineers can implement [them] in the innards of machines".

The book is of course stimulating to read. Just the number of examples and Norman's ability to create a good story around the use of a specific technology or device is an enough reason for reading the book. He raises issues that are at the forefront of interaction design today. Of course, there are also aspects of the book that is not fully in line with my way of thinking. For instance, I think he focuses too much on the notion of "intelligence" and on the idea of "smart machines". I prefer to see most of the issues he is raising less as a question and consequence of "smartness" as a question of intentional design of interactivity. Any move towards "smartness" and autonomy must be dealt with in the design of the interaction. Many of the examples of smart devices in the book are (also in the eye of Norman) bad and lead to situations that no one would see as desireble. I am not sure that these examples are consequences of the level of smartness, instead I see it as examples of simply bad design. We have the same situation with non-smart devices, i.e., regular physical things. Some designs fit perfectly well in their environment and people enjoy them, while other are just annoying and create frustration (see Norman's earlier books). We do not see this as a consequence of the device's non-smartness, instead we see it as a question of how well the designer can shape their functionality, form and appearance in relation to the purpose and environment (and of course in relation to their smartness"). Anyhow, this is not a criticism of Norman's ideas, it is more an example of the kind of thinking and discussions the book will lead to.

I recommend it for anyone who is involved in the design and development of any kind of interactive artifacts. It is a fun and stimulating reading!

HCI theory and HCI practice

This semester I am teaching a course on philosophy and theory of design. The course also covers theories in HCI and how they can be understood from a design perspective. The more I work on this, the more I realize that the field is not paying enough attention to the difference between theories/methods/concepts to be used in HCI research and theories/methods/concepts intended to support interaction design practice.

It is to me obvious that these two forms of activity, HCI research and design practice are so distinctly different that they have also distinct different requirements for what can constitute useful intellectual support. This distinction that has to be made more clear. There is nothing that says that an intellectual tool that works well for HCI research would support design practice, or vice versa. For instance, the theory of distributed cognition, is an intellectual tool that, used in the right way, can be quite useful in a research setting, while as a tool for practice is quite cumbersome, time consuming, technical, difficult, etc, to be useful. At the same time, in design practice, an intellectual tools such as brainstorming can be quite useful, while it might not provide the rigor and rationale for the outcome that is needed in a research setting. This is of course quite obvious, but the literature in HCI does not address this distinction in a clear and serious way--which causes a lot of confusion....

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Real world design by game designers

It is fascinating to read this little story. In the new Nissan GT-R there is a new multifunction dash display designed in collaboration with the game designers behind the game Grand Turismo. So, is this the first case where game designers move their design skills into the real world? It raises many interesting questions and ideas.....
(Thanks Daniel Fällman for the link)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The history and genealogy of interactive artifacts

It is time that someone writes the history of interactive artifacts. I would love to find books similar to what is available in architecture, product design, and art. Large wonderful books with beautiful pictures covering the important and significant exemplars in our field. In these books we would be able to find pictures of the first command line, the first Visicalc version, the first Word, the first Tetris, etc. This would of course reveal earlier and present design philosophies and design styles influencing our field during different time periods, and would/could lead to extensive theoretical debate and discourse, all valuable for anyone in the field.

This could further be developed into a genealogy of interactive artifacts, which is something I have frequently discussed with my colleague Jeff Bardzell. This would mean that we would analyze how artifacts over time have influenced other artifacts, how "design genes" live on from "generation to generation". Such a genealogy is needed if we want to create a common understanding of the history and development of the field. It would, of course, be a core part of any education in the field.

So, where can we find these books, and the genealogy of interactive artifacts. Who is working on this today and what is already done?

Cooking -- scientific design and design space

In a recent article in Wired magazine, "the father of molecular gastronomy" is portrayed. This is a really interesting text. First of all it is fascinating to see how you can approach cooking as a scientific enterprise. Herve This is the scientist who invents new dishes based on scientific analysis of ingredients and their chemistry. He is looking for, what he labels "cooking precision" leading to "molecular gastronomy". According to the article Herve has been able to create some new dishes that are loved by customers. Of course, the formal system that Herve has created does not prescribe how to cook and even less what to cook :-) But, it can stimulate our understanding and imagination of what is the possible design space for new dishes. To me, this story shows the power of "frameworks" in design. Good frameworks can support the exploration and opening up of possible design spaces. This is radically opposite to the idea of developing prescriptive guidelines aimed at reducing the design space. Anyhow, to me this example also supports the idea that interaction design needs much more of interaction studies (i.e., studies of the qualities of designed artifacts).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Design-driven business

There is today a growing interest in how design thinking can change the way businesses approach their challenges. Design is becoming the new "thing" in some innovative business schools. This is also being recognized in media, see for instance this article in Business Week, and here is one from Financial Times.

I find this development encouraging and am looking forward to the day when there are business programs that fully embrace a design driven approach. I think we are still not there. Even though many talk about design, claim to be design oriented, few have a deeper understanding what it actually means and entails in practical educational settings. It is in relation to this development good to be involved in a program that for several years have developed a strong sense of design and that produces highly skilled interaction design students that are successful on the job market. An education that takes design as the premier approach seriously is still difficult to implement in the existing academic system. This is less a problem for students, it is however a serious problems for any teacher/researcher who want to be true to design as an approach and at the same time have to "live" in a scientific environment with its different measure of success. This is why design in academic environments in many cases loses its true design character and becomes a simplistic and streamlined predefined process that borrows the basic thinking from science, with serious and disastrous consequences.

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