Day in the Lab

XVIII.1 January + February 2011
Page: 84
Digital Citation

Interaction research studio

William Gaver

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How would you describe your lab? First of all, we describe it as a studio, not a lab. We are interdisciplinary, but at our core we pursue our research as designers.

We make physical devices—tables, trolleys, tabletop appliances—in which interactional and material properties are designed as an integrated whole. They're computational but not meant to be experienced on (or as) computers. They're often perceived as examples of ubiquitous, pervasive, emotional, or tangible computing, among other things, but we don't identify our work with any particular movement in HCI. We simply try to design things we think are compelling.

Our projects are usually defined around particular settings or situations that have conceptual potential. We study them using design-led methods. Our designs respond to what we find by picking up on relevant topics and issues, but in a way that involves openness, play, and ambiguity, to allow people to make their own meanings around them.

An essential part of our process is to let people try the things we make in their everyday environments over long periods of time—our longest trial so far is over a year—so we can see how they use them, what they find valuable, and what works and what doesn't. It's the people who use them who really complete our designs.

Over the course of a project, we tend to concentrate on crafting compelling designs, without distracting ourselves by thinking about the high-level research issues to which they might speak. It's only once our designs are done and field trials are well under way that we start to reflect on what we have learned. Focusing on the particular in this way helps us ensure that our designs work in the specific situations for which they're developed, while remaining confident that in the long run they will produce surprising new insights about technologies, styles of interaction, and the people and settings with whom we work—if we've done a good job in choosing those situations.

What is a unique feature of your studio? We call the things we make "prototypes," but they're actually highly finished one-off products. We spend time crafting the details of our designs—the exact form and color of a casing, the timing of a graphical transition—often making several iterations to ensure that our prototypes are highly robust and easy to use. We do this for two reasons: First, so our prototypes can be deployed to people and treated as products rather than lab demos, and second, because we love it. It is incredibly rewarding to see an idea that we've slowly nurtured in the studio finally realized as a finished, self-contained artifact with a life of its own, and even better when we see people interacting with it without our having to explain that it's only a prototype.

How many people are in the studio, and what is the mix of backgrounds and roles? Seven of us are routinely in the studio, and there are a number of visiting researchers who work with us regularly to help out with projects. Our backgrounds mainly include product and interaction design, as well as sociology and HCI, but this is misleading—most of the studio members have picked up other skills along the way, so as a group we have a fair electronics and software competence and can do a good job with photography and communications design, among other things.

There are no formally defined roles in the studio. Members contribute to projects according to their interests and abilities, so everybody is usually involved to some degree in everything—site visits, conceptual design development, making and deployments. This fluidity of roles is important for group cohesion and the quality of our designs. One of the implications is that our designs cannot be credited to individuals; they are always studio productions.

Describe a day in the life of Interaction Research. Our days vary a lot: Some days only a few people are in the studio; others, it's a maelstrom of activity. People usually head for the coffeepot when they first arrive, and then we might gather around the big board table for a design meeting, often to discuss proposals for a project. A visitor might come in—a representative of a funding agency, for instance, or an industrial colleague, project partner, or student—and we'll offer them tea, show them around, and have a discussion. Throughout the day, people are in and out of the workshop, using the laser cutter to make components or assembling a prototype. One of us might pass around a poster we've been working on, or a press release or paper, and people will gather around to discuss it. And, whatever we're doing, there's usually an ebb and flow of companionable chat, with long periods of concentrated silence punctuated by a burst of discussion about a recent design show, or perhaps the benefits of Marmite.

Are there any features of your studio you could not do without? Apart from money, which looks to be getting tighter in the current U.K. funding climate, it's probably the camaraderie of our group. Our workshop, our board table, the kettle and fridge, the fantastic view we have—we appreciate all this, but could do without it if we had to (and have, at various times). It's the fact that we all get along and respect one another (despite the banter) that is really indispensible.

Is there anything you wish your studio had that it currently lacks? There are a few things we want—a rapid prototyping machine, a larger parts bin (some of us dream of having, in-house, every fixing ever made, and all the electronics we could ever need)—but we have plans to get most of them. The most difficult thing to find is a suitable technical research fellow to join the studio, one with top-notch technical skills, sympathy toward our design, and the right kind of ethos to join our group. We've tried, but so far without success.

How would you describe the way people interact in your studio? There's a fundamental friendly rapport, but we argue over the details of everything—from how much milk to put in our tea, to the exact angle of a screen. At root, both the friendliness and the arguments are symptoms of a shared sense of endeavor.

What is the one thing you see as the most important about what you do here? Making unorthodox ideas real.

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As told by Bill Gaver Interaction Research Studio | [email protected]

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UF1Figure. For more information on the Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths, University of London, visit

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