Eli Blevis, Kenny Chow, Ilpo Koskinen, Sharon Poggenpohl, Christine Tsin
In this article we focus on interaction design education and share a vision for its future based on our combined years of teaching in design schools, in HCI-oriented programs, and in hybrids of the two . Our larger goal is to overcome the guild-like thinking in much of design pedagogy in order to make design learning a foundational form of learning education and mode of being for everyone, in the interest of broader society. Our more modest goal is to present our ideas on curriculum, with the intention of creating a shared understanding of how best to teach interaction design.
To structure the discussion, we provide a framework of four paradigms modeled after the work of others. We use the framework to analyze two programs in terms of their curricular coverage, faculty competences, and the degrees to which the curricular needs and faculty competences align as a measure of program robustness. The framework also allows us to compare the relative weights of emphasis of the two programs concerning some aspects of interaction design and HCI. We do not use the framework to analyze particular student work in the two programs; however, we intend to present this in future work.
From Three Paradigms to Four
Steve Harrison, Deborah Tatar, and Phoebe Sengers give an account—inspired partly by Malcolm McCullough—of how HCI can be understood in terms of three waves or paradigms that correspond roughly to how HCI has developed alongside the academic disciplines most prevalent in forming its multidisciplinary character . In our conceptualization, we add a fourth wave, which serves primarily as an instrument for understanding curricular organization and secondarily as a thesis about what is and is not already represented within each of the other three waves of HCI. The three waves described by Harrison et al. are: the technical paradigm or first wave (W1), the cognitive paradigm or second wave (W2), and the ethnographic paradigm or third wave (W3) . To this we add the transdisciplinary design paradigm or fourth wave (W4).
The interchangeability of the terms paradigms and waves are by now conventions of the discourse in HCI. The naming of paradigms or waves and related disciplinary methods and expertise has both utility and danger. On the positive side, these distinctions help articulate the varying expertise of HCI and interaction design faculty and provide a framework for understanding what needs to be taught for the curriculum to be complete. On the negative side, there is a risk that people may interpret these names more literally than is desirable, reinforcing old silos, reifying disciplinary parochialism, creating arguments about how many named paradigms are the optimal count, or creating arguments about what sort of knowledge belongs to which particular paradigm, when in fact there are many overlaps. Needless to say, our goals are the positive ones and not the negative.
W1 technical paradigm (first wave HCI/ID). The technical paradigm may be defined as a focus on expertise concerning interactivity and digital technologies as materials of design . The kinds of curricular matter associated with the technical paradigm within an interaction design program may include skills training in HTML/CSS, wireframing, methods such as use case analysis, pattern languages, application prototyping, information architecture, and tangible computing (as with Arduino and so forth). As a matter of core competence, students learn how to understand new technology developments much in the same way that an architect needs to understand the possibilities and limitations that new materials present, and be able to predict which materials and technologies will become available in two, five, 10, and 20 years.
W2 cognitive paradigm (second waveHCI/ID). The cognitive paradigm may be defined as a focus on understanding how people understand digital materiality in order to inform the design of interactivity. The kinds of curricular matter associated with this paradigm may include skills training in interviews, surveys, behavioral prototyping, usability studies, user experience studies, and empiricism. As a matter of core competence, students learn how to study and characterize human cognitive models and the mappings between human cognitive models and technology operational models to improve design usability and experience.
These distinctions help articulate the varying expertise of HCI and interaction design faculty and provide a framework for understanding what needs to be taught for the curriculum to be complete.
W3 ethnographic and criticism paradigm (third wave HCI/ID). The ethnographic and interaction criticism  paradigm may be defined as a focus on understanding and describing human experience as a form of interaction design research and interaction design in and of itself. The kinds of curricular matter associated with this paradigm may include skills training in ethnographic methods including photo-ethnography, observations, collections (i.e., curatorialism), and critical theories (e.g., feminism, ontological design, reflective practice, activity theory, practice theory). As a matter of core competence, students learn how to endow interactive forms with meaning and content and interpret interactivity in terms of meaning and content.
W4 transdisciplinary paradigm (“fourth” wave HCI/ID). The transdisciplinary  paradigm may be defined as a focus on a values orientation for interactivity design as a concern of higher order than particular collections of methods or domains of expertise. The kinds of curricular matter associated with the transdisciplinary paradigm may include skills training in design frameworks, values, and ethics, and design for important themes such as sustainability, equity, adaptation, justice, and social responsibility. As a matter of core competence, students learn how to bring a values orientation to interaction design and the explanation of interaction design.
To justify the distinction between W4 and W3, which are not presented as separate waves in Harrison et al., we would argue that it is in fact not possible to undertake a focus on any of the waves in a purely politically neutral, values-neutral, teleological way. At the same time, values, ethics, and politics are not the primary foci of these first three waves. Thus, we argue that transdisciplinary design is distinguished from the other paradigms by its primary focus on politics and values and ethics. This focus certainly must be present in the actual practices of the other waves, but it is not the primary focus.
Table 1 summarizes the four waves.
Human-Computer Interaction Design (HCI/D) at Indiana University
The theoretical framework described here is used as an organizing structure for the Master of Science in Human-Computer Interaction Design program at Indiana University in Bloomington. This two-year program has approximately 40 students in each single-year cohort.
Table 2 shows the courses that make up the M.S. degree. For each course, the emphasis (primary, secondary, none) of the four curricular waves is indicated. The data in the table was supplied by the program director based on his knowledge of the content of each course. From the diagram, one can see a balance among the different waves; however, in keeping with the design orientation of the program, the ethnographic/critical third wave is more highly represented—indeed, within HCI, the program at Indiana is known as the design-oriented HCI program. It’s important to note that the four waves theory arises out of a historical account of HCI (augmented to include notions of transdisciplinary design as the fourth wave) and does not include everything covered in the curriculum. For example, it is hard to place enterprise-centered notions of design strategies within the four waves; Design Strategies is a course currently taught by faculty with MBAs.
Table 3 shows the faculty core competences in terms of their research and scholarship foci (again, ascribed by the program director). Although all four waves are represented, the third and fourth waves are more prominent. Other HCI programs are better known for their technical and cognitive paradigm foci; the table shows that these are not the foci of the Indiana faculty. As with the courses, it is important to note that the four waves do not necessarily characterize every competence of the faculty. Moreover, these ascriptions of faculty competence refer to the present circumstance at the time of writing—many faculty change their primary and secondary foci over time. All but one of the faculty in the program are appointed.
Table 4 shows how the four wave theory can be useful for organizing a curriculum. Combining Tables 2 and 3 allows one to see the likely way in which courses may be assigned to the faculty, how many faculty are qualified and/or inclined to teach each course, and where the system is brittle in terms of dependence on particular uniquely focused faculty.
Interaction Design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design
The four wave theory described here was not specifically used as an organizing structure for the Master of Design (MDes) Interaction Design program at the School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). Nonetheless, it is possible to apply a post-hoc analysis of the program similar to the Indiana University example. Doing so highlights some of the differences and similarities between the two programs. The PolyU program occurs in a single year, with three semesters. There are approximately 16 to 20 students in a cohort.
Table 5 shows the courses that make up the MDes degree, and for each course, the emphasis in terms of the four curricular waves. The data in the table was supplied by a past acting program director based on his knowledge of the content of each course and descriptions by the present program director and a senior rank administrator. From the diagram, one can see that all of the waves are represented in the curriculum; however, in keeping with the production-oriented design-orientation of the program, the technical wave is more prominent. For example, every demonstration project at the PolyU is required to have some sort of significant prototype, whereas in the IU program it is a regularly occurring practice to accept design-ethnographic research, or a strategic design plan, or design-theoretic scholarly writing as the outcome of the final thesis. As with the previous example, the four waves theory does not necessarily characterize everything covered in these courses.
As in the previous example, Table 6 shows the faculty core competences in terms of their present research and scholarship foci, as ascribed by the prior acting program director. The faculty below the line in the table are visiting faculty, and those above the line are appointed. Looking only at the appointed faculty, the emphasis is on first and second wave paradigms. Looking at all the faculty, there is a very balanced representation of the four waves. The focus of the appointed faculty makes sense in the service of the production-orientation of the program as it is presently constituted. As stated in the previous example, it is important to note that the four waves do not necessarily characterize every competence of the faculty. And as with the Indiana faculty, these ascriptions of faculty competence refer to the present circumstance at the time of writing.
Also, as in the previous example, Table 7 shows the utility of the four wave theory applied to curricular organization. Combining Tables 5 and 6 allows one to see how the courses may be assigned to the faculty, how many faculty are qualified to teach each course, and where the system is brittle in terms of dependence on particular uniquely focused faculty.
Reflection on the Four Wave Tabulation as a Method
In what precedes, we have presented the four wave theory and used it to analyze two interaction design programs, selected because they are familiar to the authors. For each example, we provided a matrix illustration of course content in terms of the waves (W2C), faculty competences in terms of the waves (FC2W), and possible faculty per course in terms of the waves (C2PF). Producing these tables and looking at the patterns that emerge constitute a method for characterizing interaction design programs—as a way to analyze their focus and as a means of comparison . We present only these two examples, but the method shows enough promise to warrant application to other HCI and/or interaction design programs in future work. The method also provides a means for understanding a program’s internal focus, as a tool for reflecting on the degree to which a program aligns with its values and vision and the degree to which it has the faculty resources to carry out its mission.
Teleological and Ontological Interaction Design
The four wave framework is in part a means to avoid the centrality of teleological, positivist notions of interaction design. While programs of study in interaction design can emphasize “making things,” it is important to be thoughtful, especially in terms of transdisciplinary thinking, about the ontological implications of what we make, or indeed unmake. What we mean by this is that interaction designers may in fact regard ideas of eliminating interactivity as possible sound outcomes of design. For example, designs that encourage people to find meaningful friendship in the real world rather than less meaningful friendship in online social networks may be a first-class result of interaction design. This notion is bundled into the idea of ontological design, first introduced within HCI by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores . The point we raise here concerns the tension between the design of things within economic frames that involve ever-increasing consumption and externalities , and the design of sustainable lifestyles as a cardinal goal of interaction design.
We are not arguing that making things is unimportant; we are arguing that being thoughtful about what to make and the implications of making are central concerns. Indeed, making and thinking are to some degree inseparable. In an ideal world, interaction design students would master the skills and competences associated with each of the four waves. As a practical matter, programs of study need to work with the faculty, students, and resources at hand to focus on what is practical for the particular circumstances. The two programs we describe above have different faculty foci, different student demographics and class sizes, and especially very different resources to scaffold research and/or production.
Two Senses of Scale
As we stated at the outset, the ambitious title “Billions of Interaction Designers” refers to an ambition to make design learning a foundational form of learning and mode of being at great scale. The four waves scaffold this notion of scale in terms of intellectual breadth for curricular composition, and this is the sense of the term scale that prompts the title. In this sense, we believe that training interaction designers in broad notions of values-oriented transdisciplinarity, in addition to ethnography, cognition, and technology, yields greater societal benefit, as the designs they create are ontologically engaged in promoting and affording positive lifestyles for everyone. Insofar as interaction design becomes a foundational form of learning and interaction designs are more and more implicated in our daily lives, we are all interaction designers.
There is another, more common sense of the term scale that is important. What is problematic for interaction design is the relatively small-scale numbers under which design education operates. The question of how to make design education foundational and available for larger numbers of students outside of the studio context remains open.
Do you direct or teach in an interaction design program? If so, we invite you to contact us to participate in future refinements and augmentations of this framework to describe the actual practices in interaction design programs more broadly and comprehensively. Please write to the authors. We would be delighted to include you and your description of the practices and relations to epistemological underpinnings of your program in future expanded versions of this article. Our approach is not to conduct surveys, but rather to scaffold a broadly based collaborative reporting of experts.
We gratefully acknowledge the many administrators, faculty, students, and other support staff who participate in the programs described in this article.
1. This article extends a paper presented at DesignEd Asia 2013, namely Blevis, E., Chow, K., Koskinen, I., Poggenpohl, S., and Tsin, C. Billions of interaction designers. Proc. of DesignEd Asia 2013. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the Hong Kong Design Institute, and the Hong Kong Design Centre. Hong Kong, 2013.
3. The notion of third-wave HCI owes in our reading to Suzanne Bødker’s work wherein it is more broadly traced and attributed. See Bødker, S. When second wave HCI meets third wave challenges. In Proc. of the 4th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Changing Roles. A. Morch, K. Morgan, T. Bratteteig, G. Ghosh, and D. Svanaes, eds. ACM, New York, 2006, 1–8.
4. See: Löwgren, J. and Stolterman, E. Thoughtful Interaction Design. MIT Press, 2004; Blevis, E. and Stolterman, E. Transcending disciplinary boundaries in interaction design. Interactions 16, 5 (Sept.–Oct. 2009), 48–51.
5. See: (Ethnography) Dourish, P. Implications for design. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2006; (Interaction Criticism) Bardzell, J. and Bardzell, S. What is “critical” about critical design? Proc. of the 2013 ACM Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2013, 3297–3306.
6. For notions of transdisciplinarity see: Max-Neef, M.A. Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics 53 (2005), 5–16; Nicolescu, B. Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity. State University of New York Press, 2002.
8. See: Winograd, T. and Flores, F. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Addison-Wesley Longman, Boston, 1987. See also: Willis, A.M. Ontological designing. Design Philosophy Papers. #02/2006.
9. See: Friedman, K. Models of design: Envisioning a future design education. Visible Language 46, 1/2 (2012), 132–154; Fry, T. A New Design Philosophy: An Introduction to Defuturing. NSWU Press, New South Wales, Australia, 1999; Papanek, V. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (2nd ed.). Academy Chicago, Chicago, 1985.
Eli Blevis is director of and an associate professor of informatics in the Human-Computer Interaction Design (HCI/d] program in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is also a visiting professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic School of Design. His scholarship concerns sustainable interaction design, visual thinking, and design education.
Kenny K.N. Chow is an assistant professor of interaction design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where he is also the specialism leader for both graduate and undergraduate programs. His scholarship and expertise include semantics of human-computer interaction, affective user experience, digital media and non-verbal communication, and cognitive and expressive play.
Ilpo Koskinen works as a professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Lately, his main interest has been in methodological approaches in design research, especially in research through design. Though he is a sociologist by training, his work merges industrial design and interaction design.
Sharon Poggenpohl focuses on postgraduate design education, both master’s and Ph.D., and design research. Taking a human-centered position with regard to design, she teaches to help students humanize technology, to learn to work creatively and collaboratively, and to prepare them to contribute to building a body of design knowledge.
Christine Tsin was trained as a graphic designer. She led design teams serving international clients for more than 20 years before joining the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where she currently administers the Master of Design programs.
Figure. The Jockey Club Innovation Tower, designed by Zaha Hadid, houses the School of Design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Shown in December 2013, the building was in service but still had some construction scaffolding.
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