Book: Thoughtful Interaction Design

ThoughtfulThoughtful Interaction Design 1 is about how to be a reflective design practitioner. They suggest that interaction design is “an extremely complex and difficult task” that normative methods are not sufficient to achieve. Instead, they argue that “In order to handle the complexity of interaction design, there is a need for a reflective mind – what we would label a thoughtful designer.” [2]

“Thoughtful interaction design is build on a thorough understanding of the design process, design ability, the designed product, and design as part of a larger context.” [2]

They introduce the notion that design artefacts are knowledge, not products: “Design knowledge is primarily intended for other members of knowledge construction culture.” [2]

Suggest that designing digital artefacts is particularly difficult because the material – digital technology – is “a material without qualities.” [3]

“… knowing the qualities of everyday products does not necessarily mean knowing the qualities of digital artefacts. We are dealing wight a strange material here, one where the spatial and the temporal meet in new ways. Much of our general sense of quality, what we know from handling the physical objects of everyday life, is not adequate when it comes to describing digital artefacts.” [102]

Identify dilemmas as a fundamental aspect of the design process: “A dilemma is not a problem in the logical sense, since it does not have one given solution. In fact, it does not have a solution at all in the most basic sense of the word. Instead, we know that something is a dilemma when we realise that the situation involves choices that all lead to unsatisfactory solutions. The complexity of design and the nature of dilemmas make creativity fundamental … a dilemma can only be resolved by a creative leap, by transcending the limitations of the present. Since design is inevitably concerned with dilemma situations, creative thinking becomes one of the fundamental aspects of the process.” [17]

Outline three levels of abstraction in early design work: the vision; the operative image; the specification.

The vision is the “first organising principle that helps the design to structure the initial attempts to respond to the situation” (ref Nelson and Stolterman 2003) [18]

The operative image is the first externalisation of the image, usually captured in sketches, metaphors or analogies. “The operative image is probably the most important part of the design process. It has the function of bridging the abstract and elusive vision to the concrete and complex situation.” [19]

The specification emerges when “the operative image is sufficiently detailed” that is can function as a specification of the final design. This is the point at which then construction process begins.

“There is no clear division between design and construction. In the design process, there will always be considerations based on constructional issues, and in the construction process new design situations inevitably come up.” [20]

This is a “fully dynamic dialectical process. The vision the operative image, and the specification influence each other continuously.” [20]

Use the term ‘problem’ to refer to the designer’s idea on how to shape her intervention in the situation.

Draw on Grundin’s (1991) categories of digital artefacts: contract development; product development; in-house development.

Refer to JC Jones’ conceptualisation of the designer as a self organising system who has the capability to look for ideas and solutions as well as the capability to assess their own process. This feeds in to their conceptualisation: “the designer as a reflective practitioner, with the ability to act and the ability to reflect in and on her action”. [64]

They see methods as being “appropriated” rather than used, which requires critical judgment and self awareness [64].

Outline five activity-oriented concepts for appropriating methods and techniques: inquiry; exploration; composition; assessment; and coordination. [64]

>> might work better than the concept-driven framework.??

>> see chapter on Methods and Techniques for more on these activities

“New digital artefacts have the potential to transform much of what it currently understood as good practice, but not all of it. If the analysis of a design situation is not sensitive to this distinction, there is a risk that the outcome of the design process fails: either by merely proposing computer-supported versions of current manual tasks, if the transformative potential of new technology is anxiously underexploited, or by proposing insensitive innovations where the timeless qualities of the current practice are overlooked. Design takes place at the delicate balance between what exists and what could exist, and it would be presumptuous to attempt to predict the future by merely analysing the current situation. A better basis for decision is obtained by experimenting repeatedly with the dialectical relationship between the present and elements of a possible future. [65-66][cont]

“In a nutshell, this means that inquiry at early stages of a design process is extremely hard. It is essential, of course, to provide an initial understanding of the design situation, but inquiry does not end after the first steps of a design process. It proceeds in the continuous reframing of design ideas and problem formulations that are a core characteristic of design. In fact, inquiry becomes easier the further on we move into the design process. In this sense, it is hard to distinguish between inquiry and exploration …” [66]

On exploration they note that while divergence is important it’s not uncommon for designers to become stuck on the first idea. Something that can occur when the problem is familiar. The outline some techniques for getting out of “design fixation”. See page 75.

Note that many designers “have a tendency to look for incremental improvements to address the problems identified, whereas an attempt to look for entirely new ideas would probably be well worth the effort.” [77]

Mention shaping as part of the composition phase, these include: sketching; storyboard; scenarios; interface sketch, [all resonate with Buxton on sketching]. Another form of shaping is a dynamic digital prototype.

“A dynamic digital prototype offers a more realistic preview of the experience of using the intended system that the other shaping techniques presented here. The trend has been to use dynamic digital prototypes mainly for detailed design work … then problems that can emerge because of how easy it is to perceive it as something that is more or less final. This is particularly true of people who do not know how unfinished the prototype really is and how much work that remains before delivery.” [89]

“Another aspect of dynamic digital prototypes is that they form an undemocratic material, in the sense that you need special technical skills in order to modify the prototype.” [89]

Identify  some typical qualities in interaction design, such as technical, performance features. “However, most product qualities of interest to a designer are not that visible or easy to isolate. How do you measure usability and flexibility in a useful and practical way? How about the economic viability and ecological sustainable of a product? Even harder and less notices are qualities such as social appropriateness, ethical justifiability, and aesthetic adequacy.” [101]

They also note that “The lack of objective measures does not mean that it is impossible for a designer to ponder product qualities – quite the contrary. A strong awareness and a set of powerful tools-for-thought are essential. A designer is never allowed to skip the question of product qualities …” [101]

They outline 18 use-oriented qualities of digital artefacts that “should be seen as proposed tools for questioning, elaboration, and making informed choices in thoughtful interaction design.” [104]

The qualities, that are based on “our experiences and best understanding of digital design material” [137] include:

Motivation: playability, seductivity, anticipation, relevance and usefulness.

Experience: pliability, control/Autonomy, immersion,.

Outcomes: social action space, personal connectedness, identity.

Engineering ideals: transparency, efficiency, elegance,.

Meaning: ambiguity

Dynamic Gestalt

One last quality, not captured above but that “might be the most important quality of them all” is the Dynamic Gestalt: “the overall character of a digital artefact” [105] “The artefact is more than the sum of its constituent parts; it has qualities that cannot be deduced from the structure and configuration of its parts.” [105]

“In order to perceive the whole, or the dynamic gestalt, of a digital artifact, we need to experience it as a process, which is to say that we need to try it. The gestalt of a digital artefact emerges in the interaction wight he user over time. There is no way of a user to get an idea of the dynamic gestalt without interacting with the artifact and exploring different possibilities and courses of events.” [137]

“The idea tat the digital artifact has an overall character or gestalt that might overrule the effect of a single quality is a problematic – but particularly important – notion. Even though we still have no comprehensive way of characterising the dynamic gestalt or overall character of a digital artifact, there is no excuse for not attempting to do so. Every interaction design will lead to a product, a digital artifact, that has a unique gestalt. Developing ways of describing, examining, criticizing and categorizing  the overall character of such products should be a fundamental priority for our field and for anyone who wants to become a thoughtful designer.” [138]

Design studies

Drawing on Cross (1984) outline four historical generations of design studies:

  1. the management of the design process – 60s
  2. the structure of design problems – 60s and 70s
  3. the nature of design activity – 70s and 80s
  4. the philosophy of design methods

Suggest that interaction design has passed through phases similar to the first two: faith in systemic, scientific methods followed by interest in participatory design. They question whether the field is turning toward introspection. See thoughtful interaction design as part of that change.

On form and function

Louis Sullivan: “form follows function”

Refer to Lambert 1993 “Form Follows Function?” – quoting Lotz and LeCorbusier. Suggest that the functionalistic spirit is dominant in the style of digital artefacts but that function only satisfies one part of our mind (quoting Le Corbusier) and that there is a bend for beauty.

On Design process, methods

“We regard the design process as complex and highly dynamic, where visions interrelate to operative images and specification in a context of individuals, social structure and organisational structures.” [167]

“Design methods are tools for thought, noting more or nothing less. A skilled designer is capable of assessing the applicability and effects of a method, appropriate it among other tools for thought, and use it in suitable situations in the way afforded or dictated by the circumstances.” [168]

Nice quote from Pelle Ehn:

In the foreword, Ehn provides a nice definition of design theory: “Design theory is not a scientific theory in the narrow sense of predicting the outcome of an action irrespective of context and situation. Instead, it is concerned with transforming the conditions and potentials for human action, with the intellectual virtue that is nearly forgotten in our technology-obsessed times but that Aristotle viewed as the most important one and labeled phronesis. Phronesis refers to action-oriented and context-dependent design theory based on practical value rationality. It is practical theory with which designers can develop their sense of ethical and aesthetically judgement and create designs appropriate for their contexts.” [viii]


  1. Jonas Löwgren and Erik Stolterman. 2004. Thoughtful Interaction Design: A design perspective on information technology. MIT Press. Cambridge, MA. pp 198