XVIII.4 July + August 2011
Page: 40
Digital Citation

Hand waving and the real work of design

Elizabeth Goodman

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It's the second week of a six-week website redesign at a San Francisco design consultancy. The visiting researcher asks the senior interaction designer about his work. He responds, "Oh, I'm not doing any real work on the project anymore. I'm just showing up at client meetings and hand waving."

"Hand waving" is an apt name for what happens when designers meet with clients. To make good decisions about the direction of a project, clients or other external decision makers need to understand designers' proposals, whether they are for an interactive interface, a product, a system, or a service. But there's an inevitable gap between the existing representations and the experience of the future interactivity. Static wireframes might not effectively convey how a menu drops down, or the emotional effect of an animated transition. Or perhaps a video scenario for a future product family needs to reference detailed research on everyday media consumption. To make matters worse, the goal of interaction design is often not a menu drop-down, a transition, or even a scenario, but rather relationships between varying combinations of humans and machines that support human goals and activities.

Visual and interaction designers bridge that gap between representations and future imagined interactions through hand waving. That is, they supplement visual representations with verbal explanations and evocative body movements. This hand waving for clients is treated as a routine part of their jobs, but is often dismissed as not "real work."

For many designers, the real work of interaction design does not happen in client meetings. Real work involves collaboratively envisioning future products and services, then creating artifacts that represent them, such as wireframes, videos, and site architectures. It takes place in generative, free-flowing team meetings and in focused, solitary "heads down" work on computers as the ideas move from paper sketches and Post-it notes to InDesign and Keynote. So, despite the visible presence of client communication in project schedules and everyday conversations, hand waving is often invisible in accounts of interaction design as a profession.

Nevertheless, if we closely observe designers' hand waving in the context of their work on commercial interaction design projects, it looks more and more like a very hard-won accomplishment. I'd like to argue that instead of dismissing the kind of articulation work involved in hand waving, educators, students, and certainly working designers should understand it as a critical part of successful interaction design. Indeed, successful hand waving requires a range of practical skills, from role-playing client reactions to choreographing movement through complex visual presentations and staging convincing demonstrations of expertise and effort.

The theatrical metaphors I'm using here are not accidental. I believe that in order to understand how hand waving works and why it's important, it helps to treat it as a kind of embodied performance.

back to top  Embodied Performance

Most obviously, hand waving happens in the context of a presentation. There's a performer (the designer) and an audience (clients and other designers). There's a stage (the conference room or, more specifically, a projection space or whiteboard). I'm using the word "embodied" because it helps us to remember that hand waving requires not just hands but also full bodies, architectural spaces, and tools. It relies on a panoply of material supports: conference rooms, whiteboards, Post-its, wall projections, presentation documents, conference telephones, and so on.

Here, I'm drawing on the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who was interested in the production of "the interaction order" between people. In his classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life [1], Goffman proposes a theatrical model of action in which people consciously (and unconsciously) produce "performances" that influence how others see them. Goffman's work on performance suggests two concepts that help in understanding hand waving.

The performed self. Identity is the result, not the cause, of the performance. That is, it's not that social performance results from an objectively existing stable identity. Rather, the interaction between performer and audience produces that seemingly stable, well-bounded identity.

Stages and staging. In Goffman's world, performers move between what members of a team or group consider a backstage and a frontstage. Team members create a backstage by controlling access by outsiders, and often engage in conduct backstage that contradicts the impressions they are trying to create on the frontstage. For example, Goffman describes a restaurant in which the waitstaff behave quite differently in the kitchen and in the dining room. The location and attributes of a frontstage and a backstage can't be taken for granted; part of the performance lies in enacting those different regions. As the settings for performances, those stages may be carefully managed, in terms of both appearance and configuration.

back to top  Hand Waving in Practice

My recasting of handwaving as embodied performance comes from research on commercial interaction design processes. I wanted to know how decisions were made in commercial interaction design projects, particularly those involving new and potentially unfamiliar platforms, such as tablet PCs, iPhones, appliances, or automobiles. These new technologies present not only technical challenges for designers who typically focus on networked technologies on the desktop, but also ethical and cultural challenges that stem from making decisions about the final forms of these systems. I was particularly interested in consultancies (such as IDEO, Cooper, Frog, Adaptive Path, and others), whose members have been prominent in describing, codifying, and popularizing the profession and methods of interaction design.

To that end, I have conducted participant observation at three Bay Area design consultancies over the past year, watching designers on four projects. I've observed more than 100 hours of individual work, team meetings, and client presentations and workshops. From that work, I've drawn three dimensions of hand waving as embodied performance that seem particularly significant.

Backstage work. The kind of hand waving I'm discussing here is a frontstage, client-facing activity. Clients or visitors rarely see the backstage work that supports the frontstage of client meetings. In part, that's because a considerable amount of work goes into creating divisions between the stages. Through digital tools such as project blogs, research wikis, and even daily video tours of the project space, clients may feel as if they are keeping on top of design work. But, as one might imagine, client access to the physical and digital spaces of interaction design consultancies is carefully managed; their visits are scheduled, and they receive access only to specific project spaces on company servers. When clients do make in-person visits, information about other clients and projects is physically hidden; doors to offices are closed, while foamcore boards may be used to conceal Post-it-covered walls. So the hard work of building a frontstage on which to perform is actually integral to seamless-looking hand waving.

Although the actual clients are usually shielded from backstage activities, imagined clients make regular guest appearances in back-stage design work. Studies of gesture and explanation in design more frequently discuss how designers work through the implications of their sketches by role-playing future users, or even components of an interactive system [2]. But clients are also role-played in design meetings. Designers imagine how clients will respond to various ideas, speculate on client-team relationships, and strategize ways to handle difficult news. This kind of strategizing is intended to be persuasive, but not in a Machiavellian or deceptive way. It is just one way in which design teams work through the consequences of their sketches and recommendations.

In practice, this means the presence of hand waving is not limited to frontstage activities. It permeates real work—anticipated, rehearsed, and then used to influence internal design team decision-making.

Performing deliverables. Deliverables, documents that represent the future product or service, often underpin hand waving for clients. Designers often use client meetings for walk-throughs—guided progressions through system representations. As the term "walk-through" suggests, a third dimension of hand-waving performance is choreography: the movement of participants around and through a set of documents.

Take a set of wireframes originally created in InDesign. As part of a walk-through, they could be printed out and mounted on a wall. In that case, the presentation consists of a designer physically moving the group across the wall and directing their attention to specific areas with her hands. The wireframes could also be imported into Keynote as sequential slides, and then projected onto that very same wall. In that case, the audience is seated and watches as the mouse cursor moves them sequentially through the frames. Alternatively, they could all reside on a single, large digital document. The designer then digitally jumps around the document, zooming in and out of each region as he or she walks through an activity or use case. Contrast this with a situation in which the clients and the designers are reviewing the wireframes over a distance. At that point, the designers have no control over how the wireframes will be viewed, and may find that their deliverables are being reviewed on the small screen of an iPhone, with the client skipping around the presentation at will.

As described earlier, there is always an experiential gap between the deliverables being presented and the future product or service. The collaborative effort of bridging that gap requires choices about the medium and spatial configuration of those representations. There is no one best choice, but sensitive designers are aware of the consequences of their choices for focusing attention on the material details of the interface and translating movement on paper or a linear progression of slides into a feeling of interacting with a digital space.

Staging the project. Client meetings, then, typically involve rehearsed performances about the actors and the project. Part of making those performances compelling and convincing is providing persuasive evidence of expertise and effort. After all, as one designer said, "Part of my job is to make people feel better about spending half a million dollars on a process that isn't predictable." Hand waving, for him, involves a physical performance of confidence in his recommendations, from tone of voice to body language. But staging is also important in providing evidence of hard work. As a backdrop for a presentation of a set of personas, for example, one group of designers used a 10x7-foot whiteboard entirely covered with affinity diagrams made with handwritten Post-it notes during data analysis. They did not present details of their process. Instead, at key points during their presentation, they pointed at the whiteboard while justifying their conclusions. The hundreds of hand-written notes, carefully arranged into labeled groups, was a visually overwhelming demonstration of collaborative effort that otherwise would not have been as visible to the clients.

Choreographing movement through deliverables is what we usually talk about in terms of design—designers bridge the gap between what exists (wireframes) and what is absent (the future users, the system, and the resources and goals both bring to bear on the interaction between them). However, hand waving also supports project-level stories about why, when, and how certain decisions were made, which, in turn, helps make sense of those deliverables.

back to top  What Embodied Client Performances Do

Hand waving can involve physical pointing and gesturing at paper print-outs, navigating through a digital presentation and pointing with a mouse, or even verbally talking a remote client through the navigation of their own copy of the presentation. The goal of this, however, is always the same: to ensure that all parties agree on not just what they are looking at, but also what it means. One could say that they are trying, literally and metaphorically, to remain on the same page in terms of how a visual representation relates to a future interactive system.

The issue for the designers, the clients, and the developers is that the future system doesn't exist. Just as in Goffman's notion of the self, there is no stable, objective system out there to be performed. The goal of the client meetings is to use conversations based on representations to "stabilize the object" [3], that is, to produce enough agreement about the future system so that it can be built. In this case, sketches and other representations of digital structures are "material anchors" [4] for the more transitory and ephemeral actions of talking and gesturing.

It is the combination of the staging, the deliverable, the gesture, and the verbal explanation that allows a group of people with different backgrounds and interests to come to some agreement. Otherwise, we end up with a situation much like that of the famous blind men and the elephant—except there is no actual elephant against which to compare their different explanations! Designers are, in a very real sense, hand-waving imagined elephants—new products and services—into existence.

However, one of the provocative implications of taking on Goffman's notion of performed selves is that in doing so, interaction designers are performing themselves as interaction designers into a stable identity as well. What's being stabilized by all that gesturing is not just the nature of the object being made, but also the relationships and identities of the people making it. If that's so, then more skillful hand waving benefits not just individual projects but also interaction design as a profession.

Hand waving is the kind of activity that has been called articulation work [5]—efforts that keep cooperative work on track when the distribution of tasks between various groups threatens to derail it. What's important about articulation work, as is often pointed out, is that it tends to disappear from rationalized models of work process. Such is often the fate of hand waving, which can be dismissed when designers talk about their work with outsiders, but in day-to-day work requires considerable time and effort.

Hand waving may not necessarily feel creative, but it is key to how decisions are made in commercial interaction design. It permeates the entire process, from the role-playing of clients in team meetings to staging presentations and choreographing movement through user, product, and project narratives.

back to top  Why Does This Matter?

Of course, given the amount of time and resources devoted to client meetings, many of my observations will not surprise working designers. What I do hope is that reframing hand waving as an embodied performance will help recontextualize that effort as "real work."

Part of design is attending to the material details of how we work and what we make. The kinds of tools we use are not incidental to how we influence the shaping of future products and services [6]. Taking hand waving seriously helps us think in more specific and concrete ways about how values, interests, and priorities are inscribed into technical choices made when building systems and services.

These embodied performances are a critical fulcrum in that process. Managing relationships with decision makers, such as clients, lies at the heart of how designers effect change in organizations and in the larger world. Embodied performances such as hand waving do so by helping to stabilize future systems—what they do, how they do it, and what they mean—throughout the design process.

What we count as work matters if we want to change how designers work or what kinds of questions and concerns are seen as relevant—for example, introducing greater consideration for environmental sustainability or ethical and just employment conditions.

Hand waving does feel ephemeral. The stories we tell in gestures and words are not inscribed into artifacts; they are literally written on air. But the techniques that help embodied performances successfully stabilize the features and functionality of a service or product—or even the continuing relationships of designers, developers, and clients—are, in fact, part of the real work of interaction design.

Hand waving, in effect, has significant consequences. It is a fulcrum in the design process, and thus a place to gain some leverage in changing the process and outcomes of that work. For that reason, we cannot ignore how deliverables are delivered—staged, choreographed, and carefully performed—if we want to understand how to teach and work as interaction designers.

back to top  References

1. Goffman, E. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday Anchor, Garden City, NY, 1959.

2. Arvola, M., and Artman, H. Enactments in interaction design: How designers make sketches behave. Artifact 1, 2 (2007).

3. Fleming, D. Design talk: Constructing the object in studio conversations. Design Issues 14, 2 (1998), 41–62.

4. Hutchins, E. Material anchors for conceptual blends. Journal of Pragmatics 37, 10 (2005), 1555–1577.

5. Star, S.L. and Strauss, A. Layers of silence, arenas of voice: The ecology of visible and invisible work. Computer Supported Cooperative Work 8, 1–2 (1999), 9–30.

6. This kind of embodied performance may involve different practices in different industries. An industrial designer and an interaction designer and an architect might each perform design differently.

back to top  Author

Elizabeth Goodman is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information. An interaction designer, Goodman examines commercial ubiquitous computing product design in her research. Her work has been supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship and an Intel Ph.D. Fellowship.

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