In 1971 Alan Kay stated “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” For the classical sciences, prediction has always been a cornerstone and an evaluation criteria for any proposed theory. In short, a good theory should not only be helpful for describing aspects of the world around us, but also enable us to predict changes and help us to foresee cause-and-effect relationships.
However, after approximately 15 years of doing interaction design research (including the development of a wide range of prototype systems), I have arrived at the conclusion that our field differs quite a lot from the traditional sciences. Interaction design research is not so much about predicting the future as it is about exploring possible interaction technologies and alternative uses of interactive systems. In short, interaction design research is about design and it is about research through design. Inventing the future is part of the research process, and accordingly part of the research method.
The classical sciences were concerned with the best way to predict the future. One can in a similar way ask if there is a best way to invent the future, as seen from a design research perspective. We can all agree that we want to push the research agenda forward in our field, but the creation of knowledge related to approaches for inventing the future seems to be a more pressing concern than developing interaction theories capable of helping us to predict it. Predictions about the future might not be an issue, but how to arrive there—the methods—is that a central concern?
Back in the late 1990s when I did my Ph.D. on mobile HCI, I did ethnographic work, I designed prototypes, and I did user studies. During this endeavor the design work was a challenge. The difficulty was not in generating ideas and programming prototypes, but rather in methodologically describing how ideas and concepts were embedded in the designs. Accordingly, the evaluations conducted were less about understanding whether the users liked the system than the extent to which the fundamental concept or idea behind the design was actually implemented and digitally manifested. In short, while I had an idea about the future, how could I turn that into a rationale for how I decided to make it real?
Over the years the HCI/interaction design research community has been very successful in the development of methods and approaches for guiding explorations from a current situation, through the design process, and toward a future situation. User studies, user-centered design approaches, and the development of personas, sketches, and low- and high-res prototypes are all well-established methods and techniques for moving forward.
So, given this successful history of method development in our field, maybe the challenge is not in developing methods but rather in making explicit the rationale for the designs we intend for the future. There are movements in our field in this direction. For instance, Erik Stolterman and I have developed a method for conducting concept-driven interaction design research . With a focus on how ideas can be explored through design, we make no separation between theory development and the creative exploration of the digital in terms of design. Instead, design is a necessity for the generation of new knowledge; on the flip side, concept development is key for moving forward when doing interaction design research.
In taking idea-driven design as a point of departure, we still need to have many discussions. This includes discussions about what might count as a design concept and how we can describe and work with ideas in acts of design. We can, for instance, work with popular areas such as cloud computing and debate, for example, how this notion might be understood as fundamentally built around a central concern for making data accessible and computable anywhere and in just about any form. This would be in conceptual contrast to, for example, the Internet of Things and tangible computing, which on a conceptual level might be discussed as representing a movement in our area toward a concern for the materialization of computing.
We can also work with ideas in design on additional levels of abstraction. Conceptually, the invention of future interaction designs can be guided by thinking in terms of new concepts or genres of interaction modalities (e.g., design explorations that challenge and extend our vocabulary of interaction design). And further on, major areas such as embodied interaction, affective computing, and mobile computing can help in guiding design thinking and idea development about the possible futures we’re striving to invent.
There is something noble about aiming for the future. However, it is at the same time highly problematic as an object of research, since the future will always be out of reach. This is true if we accept for our field a traditional understanding of science as being about the “here and now” (anchored in empirical data) and about the development of theories for making accurate predictions about the future (yet to come). However, as Alan Kay said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” For interaction design research, this is key! It relocates the future to the here and now. As we design new interaction technologies, devices, apps, and platforms, we simultaneously make the future part of the present—ideas about the future become anchored and manifested in the now. The question is then a matter of what to design, as it will simultaneously form the present. Now, this leaves us with a fundamental yet classical research concern: How do we know if something is really a good idea? To come up with an answer, we need to have frameworks for the evaluation of designs and design ideas. I am at least sure about one thing: We need further conceptual development in our field!
Mikael Wiberg is a professor of informatics at Umeå University, Sweden. He has held positions as chaired professor in HCI at Uppsala University and research director for the Umeå Institute of Design. firstname.lastname@example.org
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