Features

XVIII.4 July + August 2011
Page: 34
Digital Citation

Engagement through mixed modalities


Authors:
Christian Dindler, Ole Iversen, Peter Krogh

In 2010 we were commissioned to design an installation for an archaeology-museum exhibition in Denmark. The exhibit, targeted particularly toward a younger audience, would have to explore the life and death of an 18-year-old prosperous female bog body (a Bronze Age mummified corpse), whose life and early death is a mystery even today. After exploring the potential for audience engagement in the museum, we ended up designing a digital burial mound, in which museum guests could act as archaeologists and unearth digital representations of relics from a representational bog find, investigating the mystery of the young woman’s destiny.

As the field of interaction design grows, so does the diversity of topics and agendas that researchers and practitioners address in their work. Research in interaction design has grown beyond the classic topics of HCI to encompass issues such as aesthesis, playfulness, and sustainability. This research has been fueled not only by technological advances and artistic ambitions but also by more nuanced notions of what people might want to do with the technologies that we design and what personal and societal ends they might serve. An important part of this process has been acknowledging the fact that serving people through design is not necessarily about relieving them of the burdens of everyday (working) life. We understand that people are resourceful as individuals and in groups and that richness of experience grows from people investing the full range of their human faculties in their everyday lives. From this perspective, serving people through design entails creating the conditions that motivate them and allow them to invest their time, skill, ideas, and creativity. In our research we have explored this approach through the practice of designing engaging interactive environments.

In his book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, philosopher Albert Borgmann cautions us to consider how the technological pattern of modern life is largely one of disengagement, in which technological devices might relieve us of tedious effort but do so at the expense of our engagement with the world [1]. If we are to revive engagement, Borgmann argues, we must recover the depth of design and provide material settings that promote engagement [2]. The call for a design agenda focusing on engagement has reached beyond philosophy and into the center of more technical disciplines. In 2006, Yvonne Rogers took stock of the developments within ubiquitous computing research and proposed a shift in agenda from promoting “calm computing” to supporting engaging ubiquitous computing experiences [3]. Rogers suggested this shift was one of moving from proactive computing to proactive people and discussed how this perspective might be adopted to address diverse issues ranging from playful practices to scientific work.

However distinct the perspective of engagement might be, it remains a broad concept in terms of both its applicability and its conceptual anatomy. Consider, for example, people engaged in cooking a meal for friends. In this situation, there are arguably several modes of engagement, particular ways in which we invest our capacities. We might be physically engaged with the preparation of the food, making sure the ingredients have the desired texture, flavor, and presentation. Part of our engagement might also be more social in nature, such as discussing with friends the qualities of various ingredients and what food means to us in our everyday lives. Through the practice of preparing a meal, we shift between these various modes, which overlap and intersect to shape our engagement. For interaction designers, of particular interest are the means in the situation that promote particular modes of engagement. As in our brief example here, these means are multiple and fundamentally intertwined in the ways in which they promote or discourage engagement. Pots, pans, and kitchen utensils provide means for us to engage with the qualities and textures of the food and promote particular ways of engaging with the ingredients. Finally, a critical part of understanding engagement is the issue of motivation [4]; what drives people to engage in particular situations rather than others is not merely a function of the designed surroundings, but depends on what people bring to the situation. Considering the complex interrelations between means, modes, and motivation provides a starting point for understanding and designing engaging environments.

Particular designs or situations may promote certain modes of engagement. Designers might invite people to be physically engaged or might invite more contemplative or reflective modes of engagement. However, more often than not, designers strive for multiple or mixed modalities. As we design interactive environments, we not only invite particular modes but also provide the means that allow people to shift between different modes of engagement. In the example of preparing a meal, an open kitchen arrangement might encourage us to engage in conversation with guests who are enjoying a glass of wine, or the kitchen might provide a view out into the garden, prompting us to reflect on the life cycle of our ingredients. In many situations we are likely to observe that engagement unfolds as dynamic transitions between various modes of engagement [5]. These dynamics in people’s engagement often serve to fuel prolonged use and deeper engagement. We stay engaged and return to particular activities because, for example, they offer a diversity of action and reflection that allow us to use and challenge a wider range of our human faculties. The consequence for interaction designers is that we are not only designing particular means of engagement that bring people into particular modes; we might also attempt to support transitions between various modes as a way of engaging people. In our work on designing engaging interactive environments, we use the four central concepts—modes, means, motivation, and transitions—as a way to approach our design work and as elements of inquiry that help us to strengthen our design sensibility and argument. Concerning the modes of engagement we want to promote, we consider what kind of investment we are asking of our users. Concerning motivation, we consider why people would want to invest their time and resources in the situation. And concerning the means of engagement, we consider what particular qualities of our design will support people in becoming engaged. Finally, considering engagement as unfolding through transitions between various modes, we consider the qualities of our design that will make people stay engaged.

Here, we provide a more detailed example of how we have worked with the notions of modes, means, motivation, and transitions in a particular design case.

The Design of the Digital Burial Mound

The digital burial mound is a 2x3-meter custom-made table with a 10-centimeter-deep surface of fine sand, as illustrated by these photos. The table is decorated with stones to connote a burial mound. Accessible from four sides, it allows multiple users to interact with the installation simultaneously. Different authentic archaeological digging devices are available on the table to encourage audiences to participate in unearthing the burial mound.

When a museum guest stumbles upon a spot in the sand in which a digital object, such as an earring, a comb, or a belt buckle from the bog body is located, a projection of the entire bog body appears for a few seconds on the sand’s surface. The object that was unearthed is highlighted in relation to the bog body, providing some hints to the audience about the location of other related objects. When a digital object is uncovered, the object slides from the sand surface to an LED display placed in front of the burial mound. Here, the visitor is encouraged to choose among three stories relating to the bog find: One is narrative and proposes how the object might have been significant in the young woman’s life; one is related to more general aspects of the Bronze Age; and one is about the properties of the object itself. By choosing among the stories related to the different objects unearthed in the burial mound, visitors create a unique story, mixing facts and narrative, that can be printed out for further investigation and discussion.

Means and Modes of Engagement

The installation is closely tied to the museum’s ambition of becoming the local center for archaeology and reflects its dedication to communicating the practice and importance of archaeological work. The installation connects to the practice of archaeology by allowing visitors to dig for relics in the large sand box. Searching for hidden objects was envisioned as the primary means of spurring a visitor’s initial curiosity, promoting tangible, sensuous modes of engaging with the installation. The ambitions of the installation did, however, stretch beyond engaging people in the playful activity of digging: To engage visitors in the particular story of the bog body remained a central concern. Encouraging visitors to choose between three different stories, or aspects, related to the unearthed digital artifacts promoted reflective and contemplative ways of engaging, prompting visitors to reflect on the life of the young woman and on life in the Bronze Age. The layout of the table allows several visitors to actively dig at the same time, while each of them uncovers various artifacts from the bog body. Since visitors most often go to museums in groups, it remained important during the process to support social modes of engagement and to promote interaction among visitors. This is reflected not only in the design of the table, which provides even access to the interaction, but also in the screen layout where visitors collectively construct the emerging story of the bog body. The screens are placed at the end of the table within sight of the people digging, allowing them to keep track of the emerging story and discuss potential actions even when they are not actually interacting with the screens.

Motivation

The installation initiates a movement from visitors being recipients of information to being participants in solving a mystery and reflecting on its significance. Visitors are actively exploring the burial mound and partially constructing their own stories about the young woman and how life in the Bronze Age was experienced and lived. The installation promotes people’s innate curiosity; rather than providing a fixed story of the bog body, the installation encourages visitors to invest their own ideas and assumptions in the activity. As such, the modes of curious, sensuous digging followed by reflections on potential stories and meanings of the revealed artifacts and back again form a cycle of dynamic transformations, motivating increasing depth and engagement in the interaction.

Transitions

Throughout our design process, we were particularly focused on two transitions in the interaction. The first transition is the move from observing other people digging and collaboratively creating a story to becoming actively engaged in the activity. We chose to use sand and real archaeological tools, as these provide straightforward clues to how the installation works, to support visitors in shifting their mode of engagement. The second transition we wanted to support was the shift from the explorative and sensuous engagement with the digging tools to the reflective activity of constructing a narrative from the stories associated with the objects. This was achieved by placing the table and screens within auditory and visible distance of each other and supporting the connection by animating the unearthed digital artifacts to move across the table toward the wall-mounted displays, where visitors explore the objects in more detail and choose among any of the three stories. Furthermore, as a digital relic is uncovered, the entire bog find is briefly projected onto the sand surface. This reminds visitors that the relics are associated with the life of the young woman, and that more relics can be found. These means were designed to support the transition between inquisitive and reflective modes of engagement.

Our design case illustrates how exploration of means, modes, and motivation provides a starting point for understanding and designing engaging environments. By considering what kind of investment we are asking of our users, why people would want to invest their time and resources in the situation, what particular qualities of our design will support people in becoming engaged, and, finally, how the engagement will unfold through transitions between different modalities, we nourish a particular concern for engagement in our design inquiries.

Acknowledgments

We thank Martin Kofod Ludvigsen for his work on conceptualizing and realizing the digital burial mound and the staff and guests at Museum Sønderjylland for inspiring cooperation during the design process. We also thank Redia for their work on the software and graphics.

References

1. Borgmann, A. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1984.

2. Borgmann, A. The depth of design. In Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies. V. Margolin and R. Buchanan, eds. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1995.

3. Rogers, Y. Moving on from Weiser’s vision of calm computing: Engaging UbiComp experiences. Ubicomp 2006. P. Dourish and A. Friday, eds. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2006, 404–421.

4. Dindler, C., and Iversen, O.S. Motivation in the museum—Mediating between everyday engagement and cultural heritage. The Nordes Conference (Oslo, Norway, Aug. 2009).

5. Dalsgaard, P., Dindler, C., and Halskov, K. Understanding the dynamics of engaging interaction in public spaces. Accepted for presentation at INTERACT 2011, Lisbon.

Authors

Christian Dindler is an assistant professor of interaction design at Aarhus University. His research involves designing engaging interactive environments and exploring issues ranging from fiction and design competence to motivation in interactive environments.

Ole Sejer Iversen is an associate professor of interaction design at Aarhus University. His research focuses on theory and practices of designing engaging interactive technologies for children, with children.

Peter Gall Krogh was educated as an architect and is now a professor of design at Aarhus University. In his research he tries to bridge academic and commercial interests in interaction design for pervasive computing.

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