Last semester, the Design-group had the pleasure hosting Will Odom. During his nearly two-week long stay, Will shared his knowledge with us in the group. During his public lecture in the department, he described two of his finished projects in depth, as well as a briefer explanation of two ongoing projects, giving us an insight into both how he thinks and how he creates digital artefacts.
Slow interaction design
The four projects explore and develop the concept of Slow Interaction Design. Within Slow Interaction Design, the digital artifacts created aim to explore values in design beyond efficiency and usability. Rather, it offers the opportunity, through presence of these artefacts in everyday life, to reflect upon the technology and its meaning in our lives. The projects Odom presented tackle problems around experiencing and living with personal digital content, such as music and images. He has both current and finished studies with projects where the digital artefacts are used the key means to inquire into questions tied to the way contemporary humans generate, share, collect, and experience digital materials.
Some of the projects is inspired by the way contemporary humans generate, share, and collect digital materials. New technologies that converge social, cloud, and mobile computing has made it increasingly easy for people to create, store, and share digital content. This has enabled people to create vast collections of their life experiences—a valuable resource for connecting with others and reflecting on one's own life. Throughout the lives of people, the size of their digital archives increase as ever more material is accumulated. However, as these digital archives are not experienced by end-users as taking up much physical space, it is not only hard to obtain a real grasp of how large the collection actually is, but people are also less willing to select, organise, and otherwise care for their collection constituted by snippets of their everyday life experiences. On a similar note, as digital space does not offer the same constraints as physical space when it comes to storing; a person may never be forced to make decisions about which material are most important to them at the time as they must with physical artefacts. The digital material accumulated during the lifetime of a person can become overwhelming not only for the person collecting throughout their lives, but also for those left behind when their loved one is no longer around.
The Photobox is the oldest of the projects, which he conducted with Microsoft Research collaborators Mark Selby, Richard Banks, David Kirk, Abigail Sellen, and Tim Regan. It address the lack of material presence even as the archives grow into incomprehensible sizes which discourages people to engage with them, and explores how slowing down digital photo consumption could create an interaction pace that supports anticipation, reflection, and long-term interaction. Olly, an in progress project with collaborators from TU/Eindhoven, is in some way the continuation of the same thought, but in the context of supporting consumption of music.
The Technology Heirlooms project, also conducted with collaborators at Microsoft Research, explored opportunities and complications introduced by the passing down and inheriting of digital material. The artefacts facilitates physical storing of digital data in a way that enables the archives to be opened up and experienced or packed away and simply lived with. For example, Timecard is a device that enables family members to create a Timeline of digital content capturing a loved one’s life as a form of honouring and commemoration; it is enclosed in wood and has hinged doors that literally enable family members to open it up and engage with it, or simply let it persist in the backdrop of everyday life.
Lastly, the Slow Game, a project in collaboration with Ishac Bertran and Garnet Hertz, is slowly enacting the once popular game Snake, but at an extremely slow pace. In the version that Odom, Bertran, and Hertz are developing, the game is no longer played on the mobile phone, but on a small wooden block that the player rotates in order to indicate the direction the snake should move. By greatly extending the time gap between action and received feedback, the Slow Game challenges the player’s memory, observation, patience, and experience of game play.
The future of Research through Design
Will Odom is Assistant Professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He holds a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction and focuses his work on designing and studying technology that positively shapes the human condition. Often, the methodology of choice for doing so is Research through Design. This implies that research questions are tackled by design and making of technological objects and by reflecting on their meaning in use. Dr. Odom has won numerous best paper awards at top-tier venues including ACM CHI, DIS, Ubicomp.
On the occasion of his brief return to Oslo we asked Will some questions about the role of Research through Design in HCI; about its future in interaction design and its role in striving towards creating a sustainable future.
- Why do you think that Research through Design is of increasing relevance for HCI community?
As focus in the HCI community continues to expand beyond the workplace to the messy, diverse, and dynamic contexts of everyday life, new approaches are needed to understand what roles technologies might play in people’s lives, and the potential implications and consequences that could emerge. Many different kinds of methods and approaches can (and should) be drawn on to investigate the complex question of what role(s) technologies ought to play in everyday life and for whom are they being designed. RtD offers a productive approach in this context because it concretely grounds research inquires in the making and study of actual design artifacts. The commitments, stances, and questions of the research team are manifested in the unique and particular existence of a designed thing (e.g., in HCI, this is often a device, application, system, and/or service). Through this process, new theoretical insights can be developed and advanced through the making, crafting, and critical reflection on a design artifact, and new empirical insights can be discovered through people’s experiences of living with the artifact over time. This approach is valuable for the HCI community as we expand to investigate questions like: What roles could—or should—interactive technologies play when we consider it as a long-term, evolving component of everyday life? How do technologies mediate between humans and their everyday actions in the world? How do choices that go into the materials, form, and computation of interactive systems shape human relations to them? And, how do they change over time? These complex questions can seem unwieldy. Research through Design offers an approach for materially grounding investigations into them in ways that can yield new insights through the crafting and study of design artifacts. The resulting design artifacts can also operate as boundary objects that are capable of bringing together researchers from constituent disciplines of HCI (e.g., design, computer science, and the social sciences) by providing a shared reference point to catalyze and mediate collaborations on and debates about new forms of technology in everyday life and the potential social, cultural and, ethical implications that they might suggest.
- How do you see the HCI community scaffolding sustainable futures? In particular, how could RtD be a part of this scaffolding in a meaningful way?
The question of how we might achieve more viable human and environmental futures is so complex and systemic that it can be paralyzing for anyone. There will be no single ‘solution’ to the achieving a sustainable future; indeed, the notion of what constitutes a ‘sustainable future’ is dynamically evolving. We need a multiplicity of approaches to develop strategies that will enable us to achieve sustainability on very specific and situated local levels as well as a broad global level. Striking this balance can be particularly challenging when developing sustainable design interventions. Research through Design offers a productive approach in this context because the crafting and study of new design artifacts can in-and-of-themselves operate as articulations of questions about or stances on how technology might play a role in enabling people to live more sustainably in the unique everyday contexts they inhabit. The complexity of designing for sustainability offers a great example of a context in which RtD artifacts can play important roles in bringing together researchers and practitioners from a variety of different disciplinary backgrounds to discuss, debate, and mobilize new ideas. Transdisciplinary collaborations are essential to grappling with the deeply complex question of how new strategies can be developed to create a more sustainable future. RtD offers a valuable approach to catalyzing and nurturing these kinds of cross-disciplinary exchanges as we continue to investigate the roles that technology can play in redirecting and transforming unsustainable practices into sustainable behaviors.
- How do you teach future generations of Interaction Designers? What do you consider to be the important principles to pass on?
Developing a critical understanding of what is at stake in becoming a practicing designer is one of the most important things for the next generation of students studying interaction design. Echoing Victor Papanek, few professions are more harmful than design; design will always be about politics and power and will always produce unintended consequences. Emerging interaction designers must develop a deep, engrained understanding of their core commitments and values and, ultimately, what their identity is as a designer. This is an evolving and ongoing process. Beyond teaching key design principles and beyond the classroom, a design culture of critical practice and reflection must be in place to nurture and support this growth. Developing a sensibility for maintaining focus, perspective, and awareness in one’s design work is equally crucial. It is so easy for students to get caught up in lower-level details of their design work and completely lose perspective on for whom they are designing, what the effects will be for this group, what broader consequences might emerge, and, ultimately, how the world will be shaped. It is crucial that students understand and embrace the importance of all aspects their design; all elements from the lowest-level pixel placement to the highest-level conceptualization come together to form an intentional argument for a possible future. Having the demands to attend to and concisely argue for each and every detail of a proposed design on social, cultural, political, and ethical levels provides a foundation for educating the next generation of interaction designers that will play a critical role in developing new strategies for achieving more viable human and environmental futures.