December 18, 2011 1 Comment
In a capitalistic-dominated history of electronics industry, interface design becomes a medium for commercial benefits. Human and user-centered design turns out to be a profitable slogan than a design method. In an interview (1), Hiroshi Ishii, a computer scientist and professor at MIT Tangible Media Group, discusses his opinions on the current trend of an economic and technology driven design methodology. He says, “After all, technology becomes stale within a year, and applications disappear in ten. A strong vision, however, will live on after we are gone and continue to generate light.”
This thesis paper is my exploration into alternative electronics interface design methodologies that focuses and speculates in the realms between future psychological, sociological and ecological territories. It contains both research materials and design experiments. The design projects presented in this paper includes Diagnosis Eight, Activity Calculator and Wish Machine. They are my prior experiments to investigate reciprocal and complementary design philosophies to the existing ones. These projects contain the explorations of the meanings and purposes of electronics interface design outside commercialism and brings three perspectives to further my discovery. “Object Mind” introduces the concept of the interaction between human and his/her inner self, “Process-Based Interaction” discusses non-task orientated design methodology, and “Interface as Digital Medicine” speculates a new type of interface from a critical perspective in the context beyond practicality and functionalism.
Interaction designers are in a point in time where the transformation shifts from an environment surrounded with screen-based devices to a future that contains mixed possibilities. Technology has enhanced objects’ ability which transcends their given purposes but the sales-driven industry narrows the variety in electronics interface design by repeatedly promoting trivial improvements for similar functions, and follows particular sets of interaction design methodologies such as user-centered design. It defers the advancement to favor human interests and profits. Interface design, under the control of electronics industry, needs a new set of values, a vision driven design methodology. The dilemma facing today’s makers and designers is how to increase profit by inspiring buyers to discard still usable products and buy the newest model. In Hiroshi Ishii’s interview (2), he points out this dilemma perfectly applies to the current situation in the field of consumer electronics industry. Products are being made for economic and technology driven reasons. The industry will need a different driving engine for a future with visions, maybe shifting from a problem solving and profit generating industry to a problem finding and vision generating one.
The development of electronics interface design is also tied into the same path. Due to the improvement of technology, we are able to perform tasks faster and easier than we ever could. Nevertheless, attentions have been brought up recent years by HCI experts such as Donald Norman to question the benefits of user and human-centered design in the realm of interaction. His article Human-Centered Design is Considered Harmful (3) discusses the negative effects HCI field. User-centered design is originally a methodology to improve poor usability of products or services. However, he analyzes things that do not follow this approach, and yet still work perfectly well. He takes the opposite direction and suggests humans do adapt to technology and objects that have more complex interactions. We have moved from an analog age where forms follows function to a digital age where interaction happens on screens and moving to an era that features such as voice control once only existed in science fiction can now be easily accessible for everyone. The features are improving but more importantly, the purpose and the idea of interface remain unchanged. It is represented through an altered channel for marketing purpose. However, just like Anthony Dunne once stated “Innovations won’t emerge unless we move away from commercialism.”(4). Examining the spectrum of this ecosystem, we find roots of practicality and featurism besides commercialism limits its expansion of imagination. The article “The computer for the 21st Century” by Mark Weiser (5) suggests a future that personal computer will disappear and the way we communicate and transfer information will derivate into two different directions, virtual reality and interaction manipulated by physical objects, which later becomes the concept the “Internet of Things” (5). It proposes future modes of interface and interaction. A case study might closely relate to Mark Weiser’s vision is “Clocks”, a project by BERG London (6). It’s a digital clock with time information on two separate displays,, one readable by humans and the other display readable only to robots. It’s a project that accounts for a robot-readable future, a different way of communication and interaction in the era of the Internet of Things. This project investigates alternative interface design that contains perspective for both human and machine point of view. However, even though it does discuss a different mode of interaction, it still makes me question the direction of future interaction this project takes. It is still immured in the cell of featurism and functionalism.
There are enlighten concepts such as Productive Interaction (7) which is introduced in the book “The New Ecology of Things” (8) by Philip Van Allen, an interaction designer, producer, entrepreneur and a professor at Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design. He proposes a unique perspective and theory and states that Productive Interaction requires different approach to design, which includes; non-linear, smart, associative and dynamically updatable. He claims that Productive Interaction means that designer should free the control and pre-set rules for the users by allowing certain degree of self-generating results in the process of interaction. The changes of designer’s role might lead to a path for a more provocative design methodology.
Based on the related case studies, theories and questions, my first attempt is to inverse and challenge the existing the interface design process. By asking, “If consumer electronics move away from commercialism, what directions can we speculate into the future?” “What new directions in design can we discover by inverting human-centered design?”
My prior experiments start with taking the opposite approach to the industrial interaction design rules, such as user-centered design method. The attempt is to challenge the existing system with different perspectives to discover the unseen in between gaps. The following projects take familiar electronics and service systems such as a camera, a calculator and a message system to experiment with different design approaches and intents than their original purposes.
2.1 Diagnosis Eight
Diagnosis Eight uses a camera and its build-in interface as the target to my first experiment. It discusses the reasons behind human’s needs of taking photos. It suggests the motive is triggered by the commercial promotion of trivial features and unnecessary functions. Consumers are under the impression that digital photos cost nothing to develop, and with functions like fast shutter speed, large aperture and automations, they can take photos under any conditions and circumstances. The effects are people take photos without knowing the reasons why; it results in users abusing the functionalities without thinking about how it is shaping their behaviors.
Diagnosis Eight is an extreme design speculation that suggests human behavior is shaped by these camera functions and leads to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The design implies a scenario when a user is aware of the occurrence of his/her technology-caused symptoms, by pressing the medication button, Diagnosis Eight will then release multiple shutter buttons on the screen that fulfills the patients’ desire of clicking and taking pictures. The numbers of the shutter button increases and decreases depending on the user’s previous behavior. The interface diagnoses the patient’s symptom and generates appropriate amount of digital medicine.
The design and interaction focuses on the process instead of a purpose. It is also an interaction that lives with the main camera interface. It challenges the traditional task-orientated interaction. The purpose of the design is not about performing the main task, which is to take photos. It’s a byproduct of the main interface.
2.2 Activity Calculator
The second experiment is about serendipity and complexity in interaction. The current electronic interface design is based heavily on logical interaction and set UI flows. There is a lack of surprises. In Donald Norman’s book “Living with Complexity”(9), he addresses the issue in the realm of HCD where he believes the designer’s focus on simplifying interaction is actually contradictory because complexity is an important element in interaction. “Simplification is as much in the mind as it is in the device.” He uses an engineer calculator and music instruments as examples to explain why complexity matters. The simplification is in the mind but zero learning curve is not the solution. User-centered design usually means methods to make things easy-to use, bring the information to the surface without having users to spend much time in exploration. This project challenges the notion of simplicity, the principle rule of User-centered design. In this design experiment, complexity is intentionally revealed. By removing the graphics on the calculator and rearranging their position, a user starts to experience the complexity in interaction. Moreover, by assigning music notes to each key, users can transfer any kind of numeral input into melodies. The purpose is to add layers on the existing UI structure, therefore, transferring actions into unexpected results.
2.3 Wish Machine – Interaction in both Virtual and Physical Environments
Wish Machine is a message system that mixes physical journey with virtual interaction by adding value and weight to the once airy action of wish. It borrows the idea of a camera that requires the physical presence of both human and the device to perform a task, this project takes the similar initiative and applies on a poetic scenario. When a friend makes a wish for you, a wish coin will dispense from the Wish Machine. The person who receives it will not be able to reveal the message until he/she experiences the physical journey of traveling to the sender’s geolocation. The physical interaction is inserted in the digital communication. The interaction involves physical relocation of a person from point A to point B to complete the process.
This project focuses on the experience rather than tasks. The design suggests spiritual supply other than current consumer electronics can offer which are text, sound and visual entertainment services. The design is beyond the artificial imagery and sound behind a screen. It is an experiment that cuts the virtual interaction into pieces and replaces a section with a different approach and de-virtualized digital interaction in the process.
3. Defined Concepts
By analyzing iterations of the three experiments, they convey three perspectives to my further explorations. “Object Mind” introduces the concept of the interaction between one person and his inner self, “Process-Based Interaction” discusses non-task orientated design method, and “Interface as Digital Medicine” speculates a new type of interface in the context beyond practicality and functionality.
3.1 Object Mind
The connection between humans and objects was never a master-servant relationship as we narcissistically imagined. In fact, we are often unconsciously being maneuvered by objects around us. When an emotional connection is established between human and an object, our mind automatically divides our brain and creates a different partition like the way a hard drive works with an operating system installed. This newly created space is called “Object Mind”. Our brain is constantly operating this artificial mind that represents the external thoughts of an object. Object Mind interaction happens when one falsely believes one is interacting with an external object instead of his other mental self. It is a self-interaction where object (machine) is only an intermediary that circles the interaction back to oneself.
3.2 Process-based Interaction
In interface design, interaction designers tend to ignore the process due to user friendly and efficiency matters, jumping from a start to an end when performing certain tasks. Despite the industry preferred simplicity design method; process-based interaction is an alternative design methodology that embraces the complexity in the missing process. The interaction can take place in any virtual-to-virtual, virtual-to-physical interaction or any other combinations. It can also be a human-computer, a machine-to-machine or an interaction between a person and his/her inner self. Unlike any type of digital interaction, it is a physical, virtual or even psychological journey that is not about performing certain functions to achieve specific tasks. The process could be an infinite loop where there is neither a clear start nor a defined end while the interaction repeats itself. The purpose of process-based interaction is beyond featurism. It is a different way of thinking interaction for a future scenario.
3.3 Interface as digital medicine
Digital medicine is not a type of medication that cures diseases, nor is it the kind of interface that monitors, tracks or assists patients for medical issues. Unlike existing interface design in the realm of health care electronics, it is a type of interaction category that raises awareness of medical issues caused by digital electronics. It is a system to express, an interactive medium that allows designers to address biological, psychological or sociological syndromes caused by current or future technologies. It allows designers to turn the virus into a viral communication, manipulate the cause to transform it into a problem-raising weapon through interaction design. The interface is the virtual disease and digital medicine itself at the same time. Digital medicine is not limited to digital interfaces or physical interaction. It also is not trying to provide an answer nor a solution to a cure.
4. Current Experiments
The three concepts discovered through the experiments lead me to another departure point for my current design projects. Based on the foundations, I try to speculate different modes of interactions and explore the details in them.
4.1 Digital Medicine for Digital Withdrawal
To extend variety of Digital Medicine, my current experiment plans to discover the richness of this concept. Speculating a future where people suffer from over usage of the digital devices and the Internet. When not being able to access these apparatuses and contents to satisfy their needs “Digital Withdrawal” occurs. Patients who suffer from Digital Withdrawal are similar to people who suffer from the real withdrawal, the normal way of interacting with the Internet no longer satisfies their needs. This is where interface as digital medicine comes in to play. It provides different kinds of interface, which allows patients to be relieved from their symptoms.
The organic process and repetition of raising questions and speculations have shaped my thesis project to a point that is not expected at the first place. By numerous design experiments and iterations, it allowed something that seemed trivial at beginning to turn into important findings and departure points into unknown territories. Based on the findings to date, my future direction is to build on these concepts that will provide structure for future projects that may include an interface, an object interaction, or a system which will provide a more provocative interaction that differs itself from the existing ones which will offer different opportunities and contributions to the field.