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Previously published as: Hart, G. 2008. Book review: Theories and practice in interaction design. Technical Communication 55(4): 439–440.

Theories and practice in interaction design

by Geoff Hart

Bagnara, S.; Crampton Smith, G. eds. 2006. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ. [ISBN 978-0-8058-5618-7. 356 p., including index. $79.95 USD.]

Interaction design (ID) recognizes that user experience is described by more than completion times and error rates; it also includes unquantifiables such as product-evoked emotions. Theories and practice in interaction design gathers essayists from realms not ordinarily considered ID and from outside North America to open our minds to neglected design dimensions and offer a literal and metaphorical “view from another shore.” (It’s emphatically not an interface design manual.) The book offers seven themes, each with differing perspectives on ID that encourage us to think outside our professional boxes, even if differences in word use may trap the unwary.

Theme 1, activity, shows how meaning arises from using products to achieve goals within social and historical contexts. ID can account for these contexts through iterative participatory design, leading to products progressively better adapted to users and their contexts. Activity can be conceptually or contextually coherent (one goal or context, respectively), but always requires compromise among competing activities.

Theme 2, emotion, addresses the complex, multidimensional nature of emotions, and the false dichotomy between feeling and thinking. Emotions cannot be separated from cognition and perception; all are equally valid, necessary design targets. Emotions are also contagious, evoked and transmitted as products mediate interactions with our environment. In robot design, for example, we must avoid exaggerating a product’s capabilities while clearly communicating its purpose: Roomba (tool) versus Aibo (pet). Design can produce emotion by accident or by design. Though designers cannot control emotional responses, they can strive to eliminate the undesirable (frustration) while inspiring the desirable (confidence).

Theme 3, situatedness, refers to the emotional, physical, social, and historical context (situation), thereby linking our internal and external worlds. Too often, we neglect the internal (cognition and emotion, “sense and sensibility”). Humans are situationally irrational and emotional, and we must recognize the unquantifiables generated by this situatedness. Designers, too, are situated, with design repertoires that should help them construct analogies between past experience and current context rather than blinding them to other ways of knowing.

Theme 4, community, defines how communities with common interests collectively define the meanings, uses, and language of products. “Social ecology” arises, in which signs (speech, gestures, actions) transfer information. Design accommodates these transfers by capturing these interactions in products. Personalized design (for example, single-sourcing) may undermine community by presenting unique rather than shared experiences. In contrast, blogging succeeds by combining the objective (predictable, controllable tools) with the subjective (emotional experience) and the social (creation of community).

Theme 5, conversation, comprises explicit and implicit signal exchanges (conversation) between user and product. Signification conveys a signal’s significance (its function), whereas communication conveys intent. Good ID makes an object’s response visible, expanding signification into dialogue, and situates signal exchanges within local (interaction) and broader (sociocultural) contexts. Successful design accommodates both, producing useful, pleasant interactions; designers fail by assuming independence from users and contexts. “Persuasive” ID recognizes that promoting understanding (argumentation) and acting upon an understanding (persuasion) differ greatly, and that different combinations are necessary in different contexts.

Theme 6, memories, focuses on community memory, such as that created dynamically by discussion groups while defining their shared experience (memory) and language, shaped by social and cultural contexts. Interactions also create memory, as in workflows that reflect consensus on how to proceed. Memory uses the past to create meaning from the present; in shared (communal) remembering, stories create consensus reality. Prospective memory focuses on remembering future actions. Contradictory? Not if you see all planning as prospective. ID must support both retrospective memory (how to do something and why) and prospective memory (when to act). Their support for creating and sharing memories may be what makes FaceBook and Del.icio.us so popular.

Theme 7, market, reveals how all actions entail costs, including opportunity costs from choosing one action and sacrificing other opportunities. Interaction costs may be tangible (money, time) or intangible (effort, frustration). Affordances and embedded help reduce action costs by being visible (not concealed in documentation), and reduce the perceived risk by revealing consequences. Some products become inaccessible because of their costs. Bad design sometimes becomes economically inevitable; “optimally bad design” encourages the production of both inexpensive, suboptimal products that sell profusely and expensive, less-common optimal versions. Though inefficient from an ID perspective, this maximizes profits.

The conclusion splits many hairs reaching for an overall ID framework, and ends by recognizing that debate among competing philosophies and choosing the right theory for each job proves more fruitful; adopting a single theory wraps a straitjacket around designers. The “Trickster,” who switches worldviews as needs dictate, proves more useful than any single theory, and the book encourages us to become tricksters by escaping the confines of our individual disciplines. Despite generally clear and comprehensible writing, some dense stretches take effort to get through. But if you appreciate having your eyes opened, the effort is rewarded.


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