What we mean by interactive form

Authors: Mattias Arvola
Posted: Tue, November 28, 2017 - 12:31:55

The following blog post is nothing more and nothing less than an email conversation between Mattias Arvola, Jeffrey Bardzell, Stefan Holmlid, and Jonas Löwgren about the concept of interactive form, which incidentally is the name of a course given at Linköping University. If you do teach a course, it might be good to understand the meaning of the course name.

Mattias: I thought that I would ask you what associations come to mind when you hear the term interactive form. We have a course with that name for the students in graphic design and communication, but I have never really been comfortable with the course name. I have taught it for many years, but never appropriated the term. Stefan Holmlid was the one who decided that the course should have that name almost 10 years ago. So here it goes—this is my initial understanding of what interactive form is:

Interactive form is the totality of a design's interactive elements and the way they are united, without consideration of their meaning. The non-interactive formal elements are things like color, dimension, lines, mass, shape, etc., and the interactive formal elements are interactivity attributes like concurrency, continuity, expectedness, movement range, movement speed, proximity, and response speed. The user experience of mystery and intrigue a piece evokes are informal effects of the user’s response.

We can contrast this definition of interactive form to the related concepts of interaction style and interaction design patterns. Interaction style is how people interact. This is a question of what steps and means they employ in the interaction (quibus auxiliis), and with what attitude or manner they interact (quo modo). Design patterns are schematically described compositions of elements that are used in response to recurrent problems. Since I’ve never felt completely at home with the term interactive form, I avoided and focused the course on interaction style and interaction design patterns. So, Jeff, Jonas, and Stefan, what are your takes on the notion of interactive form?

Jeff: I think the problem is partly that form has a lot of meanings in English, and when you put interactive in front of it, it becomes easy to misread form altogether. The deeper issue is that form in the traditional aesthetic sense typically characterizes features of an object—the formal elements of a poem, sculpture, or fugue and their composition. But with interaction, this becomes a problem, since the form that matters isn’t in and of the artifact, but of the human-artifact interaction. Jonas’s work on concepts like pliability helps reveal the difference and its significance. I think if you use form to qualify interaction, we’re sort of hard-wired to go to the object, the artifact—so you’re starting the game with a negative score. You might not be able to rehabilitate that word from that usage. I wonder if formal qualities of interaction gets at what you want? 

Jonas: I agree that form in the context of design is tightly bound to the object and its features, and the construct you propose (formal qualities of interaction) might actually do the trick. It sets the right object (which is interaction), yet still uses the word formal which pulls in the direction of appraisal. Aesthetic appraisal, that is, in a suitably wide sense; connoisseurship and criticism rather than user testing.

Mattias: I'm onboard with interaction qualities, but if we say formal qualities we don’t necessarily imply the experiential qualities of interaction. Formal qualities of interaction would relate more closely to the sensory fabrics of the interaction. Then we add an interpretative level to get to the meaning, i.e., what an interaction might mean to someone. Perhaps we should think of the formal qualities of interaction as how a designer conceives the designed elements and their composition to contribute to certain experiences and responses. This is basically what Jonas said: aesthetic appraisal, connoisseurship, and criticism.

Jeff: You might just use the word poetics, which I understand to mean how formal qualities of aesthetic objects contribute to, cause, or shape human experiences (e.g., how hamartia in a tragedy leads to feelings of pity and fear in the audience). So, the question is where you want to situate this: in the elements and compositions of interactive objects or in interactions. It sounds like you have at least ruled out situating it in the phenomenal experience of the subject (which makes sense to me, too). 

Mattias: Now we're getting somewhere. If we speak of the formal elements and compositions of interactions, then I would speak of the entry, the body, and the exit of joint action. That would allow us to take a closer look at the composition and elements of the entry, the body, and the exit. This could help the students to appraise the details of the interaction in different designs.

Stefan: I would say that interactive form is about the experiential, aesthetic qualities of (or in) interacting. It is then important to articulate, discuss, and critique how these phenomena are formed, and how a designer can approach an understanding of these phenomena. A jumble of questions that can be used as a reflexive sounding board:

  • Are the phenomena situated in the experiencing subject alone? 
  • In what way can they be viewed as cultural constructs? 
  • How are the material manifestations of interactivity correlated to the phenomena of the experiencing subject? 
  • How are ideas about such “qualities” manifested or fulfilled through the creation of new contexts and possibilities for our situated cognition extended through the material manifestations, or mediated acting in and on the world by proxy?
  • How are the articulations formed by conventions, expectations, and individual and joint instrumental goals? 
  • How can a designer explore designs to not only form an understanding of an “interactive form,” but also extend his/her experiences of different ways of experiencing, understanding, and articulating interactive form? 

To me, that last point goes beyond the ordinary understanding of the concept of repertoire. However, interaction gestalt is also a related term that we could use in this context.

Mattias: I think it relates well. It seems that when we speak of interactive form, it relates to the constituents and constellation of the designed artifact, i.e., primary qualities, but also the subjective experiences it gives rise to, i.e., secondary qualities. Interaction is, however, about the relation between the artifact and the subjects interacting with it, and qualities of interaction can hence be said to be tertiary qualities. As you note, Stefan, the qualities of interaction do not take place in a vacuum, nor do the experiences they give rise to. This means that the topic of interactive form must be understood as inherently cultural, historical, and social, and not only subjective experience or objective materiality. Interactive form can also give rise to an interaction gestalt, i.e., a composition that gives rise to an expression in a unified concept or pattern that is more than the sum of its parts.

This will indeed prove to be an interesting course both for the students in graphic design and communication and for the teachers. It also highlights an important issue for the interaction design community: What do we actually mean when we speak of form in interaction design?

Mattias Arvola is an associate professor of cognitive science, especially interaction design and user experience, at Linköping University.

Jeffrey Bardzell is a professor of informatics, especially design theory and emerging social computing practices, at Indiana University—Bloomington.

Stefan Holmlid is a professor of design, especially design in service development and service innovation, at Linköping University.

Jonas Löwgren is a professor of interaction and information design, especially visualization and collaborative media, at Linköping University.

Posted in: on Tue, November 28, 2017 - 12:31:55

Mattias Arvola

Mattias Arvola is an associate professor of cognitive science, especially interaction design and user experience, at Linköping University.
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