Reflection: HCI & Art

Design has always been caught between technology or engineering and art. It is not really either of them, not craft, not technical skill, not artisan, but it also draws on all three of those. Design is everywhere and everything which makes it even harder to distinguish.

Currently I think HCI is heading down a similiar path. While formerly bound to a desk quite literally, it has started to explore movement, experience, situation and much more. It is work, leisure, fun, behaviour changing, games and much more. The way interactions are designed starts to shape the way we live together, the way we interact with each other., the way we see each other and much more.

Voices are starting to emerge that HCI needs to rethink its approach to fit into this novel world. That it has to acknowledge its impact and find new ways in which to find potential issues and address them – before facts are made and it might be too late. A turn towards the humanities, towards art practices, has been asked for. Art knows how to make people uncomfortable, to engage in critical thought and to pose problematic questions in aesthetic ways. Critical design has borrowed from this. Now it may be time that HCI does the same.

Probes in all their different shapes and forms have always done so in my opinion. They embraced the ambiguity that comes with creative expression and used it to create pieces that cannot always be called products. Work that does not always address one specific, clearly defined problem, but work around the general queaziness that people experience in their everyday life. It is art trickling through, making tentatice steps into the realm of technology.


But I think what is called for now is a different approach. One that fits both, bends both and makes them work together. Finding a languange with which to manage expectations and communicate results will be one important step into this direction. Finding the gap that technology design currently does not go into very much, asking all the uncomfortable questions will be one important task. Drawing from critical design and learning what worked there, what did not and what has to change to make it fit for HCI will be a great source for inspiration to make it work.


Weekly reflection: Padding out

While I am happy to see a new argument emerging from my current project report, I have also taken this opportunity to look deeper into some areas that I only sketched in the last report. It helps me to gain confidence in my argumentby looking into some of the historical arguments that surround the area I am interested in. I am aware that I do need to be careful not to use this as procrastination and get lost in the details again, but at the moment I find it useful to go back to the literature and identify aspects that I have not given full attention to in the last report.

One measure I apply at the moment is the length of the report: Even though I plan to add things, I think it will be shorter than the last version, showing that I make my argument more precise and that I dare to get rid of the things that do not really fall into the argument. As long as this is the case I will stay with my current method.

Weekly reflection: Sculpting

This week I have worked mostly on my project report again. Starting over and over again. Refining and editing until I feel I get the story right. I feel like a sculptor, hacking away until only the form I want is left. Luckily enough in contrast to many sculptors I can add items again, add new ones or change the shape entirly. Though one of the problems I find it to look beyond what is already there, asking for each sentence: Is this really necessary? Does it have to go here?

I have restructured my literature review and I feel it works much better now. I also have been able to voice a question that is more defined and I feel more confident to give an answer to. Overall I feel this has been quite a successful week even though I have not yet to show it it but fragments and ideas.

But within next week I will be able to get that into shape so that I will be able to get feedback on the text and develop my project and report from there.

Additionally I have started to look into my ethics application that I hope to submit soon so that I can start the studies early next year. With which I feel just about in the timeframe discussed with my supervisors.


Design idea:Location Box

For my PhD project I did a study in which my partner got access to my location via a GPS tracker as it is used in dementia care. One of the issues I struggled with was that he had control over the data and would be able to change the settings without my knowledge. I responded to this by drawing out a speculative idea of how design could support trust.

communication_machineThe cube enables control over two functionalities: access to location and access to sound (potentially also image). If furter has a button with which to establich contact. Two sides show the same arrangement of buttons, one for each partner. The top shows a light that either shines green, when both have the same settings or red, when the settings are different from each other. The front shows a notepad on which to leave messages, e.g. why one partner changed the setting. The back could show the location of those partners who agreed to it.

The device has one problem that I have yet to overcome. While studies show that caregivers would like to prevent people with dementia from changing the settings on purpose or by accident, people with dementia would like to have control. It would be interesting to test though if this applied to all situations. I imagine this to be used quite early on after the diagnosis, more as a tool for communication and exploration, rather than practical support. Another question that needed exploration is how this device would affect quality of life and whether it would be considered to increase the stigma around the illness or be a painful reminder of the changes that become necessary.


This solution still has many flaws that have not been overcome. It is still based on monitoring, still might lead to conflicts between the partners, but I think it approaches the problem from a slightly new angle by giving control to both partners. It is still possible for one to control it on their own, but the knowledge and understanding of what is happening with the data is shared.

Weekly reflection: Consolidation

There have been no reflections last week as I have been to a conference and took the chance to take a couple of days off. The combination of new ideas and not thinking about work at all have been highly energising to me. With the help of a couple of reflections on this blog I have started to bring the elements that I felt far apart in my research so far come together.

I picked up my report again and try to rework it to clarify this new line of argument. I use the term “holistic technology” for now which I define as such that addresses the person with dementia as an active user of technology and take potential future technologies into account. I acknowledge participatory design as a useful and needed method to achieve this, but raise the point that this will not be able in all projects, e.g. short term student projects or commercial projects and emphasise the need for alternative methods.

I propose a range of workshops to explore critical and speculative methods to raise empathy as a response to the challenges presented by dementia.

Research: Borgmann’s device paradigm

When doing my initial literature review I came past a book with articles on Borgmann’s device paradigm, which I kept on rumbling in the back of mind as it was not directly applicable, but touches on something I am after. When hearing a talk by Holly Robbins from the Connected Everyday Lab at the TU Delft at NordiCHI 16 conference referencing the concept and using it to inform design that makes the user aware of the impact of technology use, I decided to go back and dig deeper into it.

In my understanding Borgmann compares the use of devices with so called ‘focal things’ and outlines that devices do one thing very well, but limit our experience as they do not require much skill or attention. They do not shape our behaviour as focal things do, thereby distancing us from the effects of the technology. His main example is the hearth, whose function of warmth we have replaced by central heating, which has freed time. But according to Borgmann it has also deprived us of the exercise of preparing wood, of the turning of time by the rythm of the fire.

While I understand the reoccuring criticism that Borgmann’s view are quite nostalgic, I find aspects of his theory resonate with my project. Many tele-health technologies focus on one aspect of health, e.g. medication monitoring or monitoring of physiological signals but do not take the full experience into account: emotional state, general well-being or the impact of human contact. We do not yet know which important factors we leave out, but the devices used in tele-health seem to limit our expectation and understanding what care means. Can knowing where someone is be equaled with knowing they are safe?

A comparable point is made by Fry (2012) who argues that the technologies we use today are black-boxed which does not allow us to get close to it. We are not able to fully understand it, respond to it, repair it on our own and we might not know how it works.

I am interested to see how we could bring a more hollistic approach to dementia care. While I think participatory design is an excellent method to do so and I am looking forward to new methods being developed that will make it easier to engage people with dementia throughout the design process, I think limits to time and expertise will hinder the full implementation of these methods to all projects, particularly in a commercial setting. I therefore aim to use methods of bringing empathy into the design process by identifying more with the potential user group. Designing for ones own future is one method which I explore throughout.