Design and Irritation: Designing unfamiliar interfaces for interpretation in use

In this project, we explore ways of how to provoke people to utilize material products in use by providing experimental and open interfaces. We see this approach as complementary to design processes that start with user study, and propose it to be suitable to negotiate the use of new technologies. By keeping the final purpose open to be defined during use, we aim to maximize the number of possible readings for a designed product, including those not intended during designing.
Until recently, the development in design methods has emphasized user study as a way to inform design. Although the final form of an object is also regarded to communicate its meaning (and not merely its functionality), design should assure a smooth interaction and easy understanding of the interface. However, for new technologies without existing final goal, irritation at first sight seems almost inevitable.

Currently it is both informal observation and directed context analysis in search for latent needs that informs the design of new products. User-centered product and interface design normally looks at a particular context and use practice. It then adapts the new artifact to the understanding that it finds in this context. This works fine if the design context already exists. For new technologies, the context often changes or even emerges with the artifact. Things like cars, televisions, mobile phones and computers are examples for an emergent use context.

So what if the thing that we are about to design does not solve a particular problem? Or if with the thing itself, we wish to create new possibilities on how to engage with the world? We propose that all the tinkering and improvisation that we can observe during use, the strange and productive misunderstandings and funny reinterpretations of material products are a source for designers rather than a problem. However, utilization is a random phenomenon; we cannot force it, but only try to provoke it.

Our research thus aims to investigate how the form of a designed material product relates to what people can do with it (not only what they are supposed to do according to the designer’s intentions) What does a product actually need to be open for interpretation?
We propose that unfamiliar interfaces that ‘irritate’ our understandings are helpful in (re-)opening our notion of what a particular thing can be. In doing so, we follow a similar line of research on affective, non-efficient interface design in HCI, that emphasizes the idiosyncratic nature of people’s relationship with their electronic objects. Considering the projective nature of design, we think of irritating objects to “push” people towards developing new social practice. By confusing the users’ expectations, we acknowledge their situated interpretation skills. Unfamiliar and irritating artifacts can probably provoke more successfully design-in-use than objects with incremental modifications.

You can find examples for this approach in the various textile interaction prototypes such as the textile radio, the Undercover, the Shuffle Sleeve and the Wavecap, that make up the practical and empirical part of this research.



Confuse the user! A use-centred view on Participatory Design

Katharina Bredies: Confuse the user! A use-centred view on Participatory Design. Workshop “Designed for Co-Designers”, 30 September 2008, Bloomington, US