XXV.4 July - August 2018
Page: 69
Digital Citation

Designing superstructures for interaction

Mikael Wiberg

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Today the sites of computing are increasingly blurred. On the one hand, there are seemingly nonexistent, dissolved, and widely distributed sites in the form of cloud computing. On the other, the sites of computing are ever more concrete, as computing is instantiated into physical materials, shapes, and forms—for example, in the emerging Internet of Things. Clearly there is a dual trend at play here that simultaneously stretches toward the immaterial dimensions of computing while moving in the direction of more material and tangible forms of computational objects. No matter its various forms and instantiations, computing is made accessible to people as structures for interaction—and it is precisely these structures we need to become better at imagining and designing for as interaction designers.

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In this article, I discuss interaction as the central object of design that is at the same time seemingly immaterial. I problematize this from the viewpoint of how this object of design stands in relation to the materials and structures that enable it in the first place, in the same way that spatiality relates to the built environment in architecture. I approach this topic by looking at how the practice of architecture can be seen as Lefebvre's "production of space" [1] and how matters of spatiality [2] relate to architecture in similar ways as the design of interaction relates to interactive technologies. In particular, I will focus on the notion of superstructures—a term explored in architecture—and what it can tell us about designing desirable superstructures for interaction.


There are many efforts to formally unite the areas of interaction design and architecture—for instance, in initiatives toward the development of smart cities, smart buildings, interactive environments, and augmented reality. However, in this article I will look more into the fundamental question of what we can learn from architectural thinking that can help us see interaction design as a related field of imagining new and emerging social practices through a material lens.

For sure, materiality is as necessary to interaction design as it is to architecture. And both interaction design and architecture share a fundamental concern: that neither spatial explorations nor interaction can be fully "designed" [3]. Instead, and at best, we can design only the material and structural preconditions for some intended experience. Or we can design for opportunities for interaction—a process that is as much about imagining future opportunities, experiences, and engagements as it is about the thoughtful and careful arrangement of materials that might enable such experiences and interactions to unfold. Once these material preconditions are in place, the rest is up to the people inhabiting spaces, or interacting with computational objects. Exactly what will unfold can never be designed; it can at best be carefully imagined and scaffolded.


back to top  On Interactivity and Spatiality

Interactivity relates to technology in the same way that spatiality [2] relates to architecture. Depending on how we understand where new technologies are going, we can imagine new forms of interaction. Interaction design and the development of new interactive technologies go hand in hand. For instance, the development of cloud services, seamlessly accessible from just about any location and from any device, moves us in the direction of imagining interaction design that allows for interaction across many different devices, supporting the easy sharing of information and ensuring secure solutions for backups and storage. In a similar way, different types and styles of architecture enable us to see different forms of spatiality, from the traditional and historical buildings to the most contemporary, modern, and even futuristic spaces we inhabit. Again, these different spatial experiences depend heavily on their material instantiations. As with any design, it needs to be grounded in a particular material manifestation to move from something imagined to something that someone can experience. As such, imagination and manifestation are fully interdependent; both are necessary for good interaction design and for good architecture.

Exactly what will unfold can never be designed; it can at best be carefully imagined and scaffolded.

In line with these ideas, it becomes clear that interactivity relates not only to what mode of interaction it is intended to support and the materials used to orchestrate the preconditions for this interaction. It also relates to the imagination of its designer, to his or her material sensibility, and, perhaps foremost, to the people who will interact with the final design. Interaction design thus becomes a practice similar to architecture. It moves from ideas about material configurations to material manifestations that people can make use of—in relation to their needs, and formed through their social, cultural, and historical understandings, as well as their interpretations of what designed things and places can do for them. In short, we can draw parallels between these two areas of design.

back to top  Interaction Design Through an Architectural Lens—Superstructures

Moving forward, if we think more generally about these connections between architecture and interaction design, it is good to start asking some fundamental questions. For instance, and maybe most important, what can we learn about interaction design viewed through an architectural lens? What are the advantages of viewing one field of design through the lens of another? And, as formulated in an earlier article [4], what are the implications of intersecting interaction design with architectural thinking?

First, there are a number of things that the field of interaction design can learn from the field of architecture, particularly as interaction design is a relatively young design discipline in comparison with architecture. Further, there are in fact historical connections between these two fields [5]. Architectural thinking on structures helped to push the technological envelope forward in the development of the Internet as a global infrastructure for information, communication, and interaction. Second, there is a lot that can be learned from the field of architecture if we look into what has been labeled "the spatial turn" in architecture [2]. In describing this turn from buildings as material constructions toward a focus on spatiality, Robert Tally [2] takes a point of departure from The Production of Space, originally published in 1974 by the French Marxist philosopher and social critic Henri Lefebvre [1].

In Tally's work, the production of space and its associated notion of spatial imagination were introduced to enable a conversation about not-yet-existing sites of architecture and how they can be seen as a social and material product made possible by human effort. As formulated by Lefebvre:

Space is not produced in the sense that a kilogram of sugar or a yard of cloth is produced. Nor is it an aggregate of the places of such products as sugar, wheat, or cloth. Does it then come into being after the fashion of the superstructure? Again, no. It would be more accurate to say that it is at once a precondition and a result of social superstructures [1].

So what is a superstructure? And how can we become better at understanding and designing along such superstructures in the area of interaction design? The notion of superstructure, with its roots in Marxist theory, refers to governing social structures including culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and the state.

Again, if we relate this to interaction design as the practice of designing for interaction, we can say that we can design good preconditions, and that we can support interaction with material interactive products, platforms, and systems that are the result of social superstructures.

back to top  Imagining, Developing, and Cultivating Superstructures for Interaction

In moving forward, we can now see a clear overlap with existing approaches to interaction design that call for attention to people, activities, and social and cultural context. We already have a tradition in HCI and interaction design that suggests we need to design along such superstructures. We can see this need in interaction design practice. For instance, the design of social media platforms needs to follow a number of social rules to deal with friendships, privacy, and so on. Any other interactive system we can imagine also needs to be carefully designed within these superstructures in order to reach user acceptance and wider adoption. In short, successful interaction design is already heavily dependent on these superstructures.

Given this, the implications are clear. As interaction designers, we need to better understand the superstructures already at play. We might also need to think about whether such structures can be altered, and if so, how? Through regulations or through processes of cultural cultivation, to mention two approaches. Finally, perhaps the main implication here is that even though interaction design obviously seems to be about the visual and experiential aspects of design—the surface and the look and feel of interactive systems—in fact those things might be a secondary design concern. Given the superstructures at play, the central design challenge becomes one of thoughtfully imagining and designing interactive systems that build upon, challenge, or even ultimately change existing superstructures for the better. This is what it means to design along—or to create new—superstructures for interaction.

back to top  References

1. Lefebvre, H. The Production of Space. D. Nicholson-Smith, trans. Blackwell, Oxford, 1991.

2. Tally, R. Spatiality: The New Critical Idiom. Routledge, 2012.

3. Wiberg, M. Interaction design meets architectural thinking. Interactions 22, 2 (March+April 2015).

4. Wiberg, M. The Materiality of Interaction: Notes On The Materials of Interaction Design. MIT Press, 2018.

5. Wright-Steenson, M. Architectural Intelligence. MIT Press, 2017.

back to top  Author

Mikael Wiberg is a full professor of informatics at Umeå University, Sweden. He has held positions as a chaired professor in HCI at Uppsala University and as research director for Umeå Institute of Design. His research interests focus on the materiality of interaction and ways of integrating architectural thinking with interaction design.

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