Looking at things differently

XV.3 May + June 2008
Page: 16
Digital Citation

FEATURETake a chance on me

Tuck Leong, Steve Howard, Frank Vetere

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Randomness has long beguiled and fascinated human beings. It is widely used as a powerful computational resource, as mathematicians and scientists use it to encrypt, model, and predict. Artists, on the other hand, have recognized randomness's versatility and ability to provoke, seed, and capture our imagination. They exploit the ephemeral qualities of randomness, utilizing them as creative tools to produce innovative artistic output.

For interaction designers, randomness can be used to enrich designed user experiences. Encounters with randomness exploit our natural urge to interpret and our tendency to try to make sense of things when engaging with content in unpredictable and unexpected ways. As design discourse shifts from "beyond the object" into "experience design," the design of digital devices is increasingly motivated by users and their experiences, and an appreciation of the role of randomness can provide designers with a unique perspective as they grapple with the complexities of "users" and "experiences."

back to top  Experiencing Randomness

Our experience of randomness is suffused with a host of other phenomena, including the concepts of luck and chance. Our encounters with randomness also result in qualities such as uncertainty, unpredictability, indeterminacy, and unexpectedness. Randomness is often something to be managed, and whose negative effects mitigated. Culturally, "uncertainty avoidance" is considered one of the five defining dimensions of human beings [1].

Yet unanticipated encounters can also lead to particularly pleasant experiences with desirable ends, such as that of serendipity. Van Andel's extensive study of more than a thousand examples shows that serendipity has had very strong relevance in the progress of science. Many scientific breakthroughs have been credited (in part) to the accidental, unforeseen nature of randomness [2].

back to top  Approaches to Randomness

An exploration of how randomness has been harnessed to influence people's experiences reveals two broad approaches: 1. the use of certain qualities of randomness as a creative resource by artists and designers, and 2. digital devices expressing certain qualities of randomness during use. More recently, there is an emergent approach whereby users can manipulate and modulate randomness directly during the use of the digital device.

Randomness as a creative resource. Qualities of randomness such as unpredictability, indeterminacy, and unexpectedness have been used as a creative resource to generate innovative output. Performance artists, painters, musicians, writers, and poets (particularly those from the early to mid-20th century) relied on their own indeterminate actions, free association, and accidental movements to generate these qualities of randomness. Some also took to randomizing devices such as dice to determine artistic decisions. Randomness provides the input, and the designed artistic product is the output.

The Dada movement claimed that chance is a vital new stimulus to artistic creation; it encouraged the use of free association, fragmentary trains of thought, and unexpected juxtapositions. A notable example is the work of Duchamp, who harnessed indeterminate and accidental actions to create "Network of Stoppages"—tracing outlines of strings he randomly dropped from the height of one meter [3]. In music, John Cage devised what he called chance or aleatoric music, consisting of elements that are chosen by chance, via dice or the I Ching [4]. In literature, Samuel Beckett wrote "Lessness," a prose piece in which he used random permutation to order sentences. The aleatoric piece is experienced as a process that depends upon the reader's attempts to comprehend and create meaning [5].

In the hands of artists, randomness is a creative tool to inspire and generate innovative outputs: a means to an end. Our encounters with such outputs may result in a range of affective and experiential outcomes, such as ambiguity, senselessness, and unpredictability. These may lead to reactions of surprise, delight, shock, and even disgust, yet during these experiences we remain the readers, the audience, the interpreters, and the consumer of these random-led outputs.

Randomness during use. The growth of digital interactivity has been accompanied by a burgeoning legion of interactives that express certain qualities of randomness during use. We see this in blogs, Web surfing and searching, and music listening where people are interacting directly with randomness.

Bloggers can use random text generators or plug-in tools to generate interesting and unexpected content, such as random graphics or "quotes of the day" on their blogs. Although content is generated, most bloggers' aims are different than those of the experimental artists. The latter are not only interested in generating innovative output: In most cases, they are also very selective about the actual aesthetics of the output.

Randomwebsearch.com promises to "help you waste your time more efficiently" by giving visitors the ability to simply click a button to randomly generate a word that is then searched for on the Web. More recently, stumbleupon.com created a browser plug-in that helps users find interesting Web pages they may not have thought to search for. After defining some general areas of interest, a person need only click the "stumble" button to be randomly taken to highly regarded websites (ranked by other users via the plug-in). Likewise, the open source encyclopaedia Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) offers Web surfers an opportunity to discover new and unexpected knowledge via a link to random articles on its main page.

Randomness in the hands of users. An emergent approach toward randomness is to allow users to interact directly with the randomness. In some desktop image-viewing applications, users can let the system decide random transition effects from picture to picture, or users can randomize particular albums, mixing up the order before viewing. A more sophisticated approach is seen in shuffle listening, whereby its application of randomness has publicly captured many people's imagination. Shuffle listening is an alternative listening mode offered by digital music players, whereby listeners can abdicate choice to the system to deliver the digital music tracks to them in a random order.

The threads of online discussion forums, blogs, and other online news sites report positive experiences of fun, joy, thrill, and even serendipity when listening to music in shuffle mode. In some cases, these experiences have caused listeners to rethink what they thought they knew about the music they enjoy and to pursue new ways of reinvigorating their audio palate. Listeners use the unpredictability of shuffle listening to engender certain affective responses, such as to feel refreshed, to be surprised, or to be thrilled, etc. In some cases listeners report more intense and richer experiences, such as a "happy coincidence" or serendipity [6].

Unlike the use of randomness in random blogs and random searches, the shuffle listener is able to constrain randomness. For instance, a listener may choose only to shuffle from a particular playlist or set of genres (instead of shuffling from the entire music library)—thus constraining the level of randomness in the presentation of content. With Apple's iTunes 5 software, a "smart shuffle" slider function further allowed listeners to adjust the degree of randomness during playback. Compared with all previous examples, shuffle listening (at least in conjunction with music software such as iTunes) offers a high level of listener control in the management and manipulation of randomness. This management of randomness is found to be influenced in part by the listener's mood, activities, and different contexts of use, e.g., when shuffling music through a system in social situations or the use of shuffle through an individual player such as an iPod. From this it appears that the affordance of interactivity (mediated by computational technology) may provide new and novel opportunities for emergent approaches to randomness, whereby it could be harnessed in designs to enhance and stimulate user experiences.

back to top  Harnessing Randomness Purposefully

Devices today can cheaply store a great deal of digital content. The standard 30 gigabyte iPod can store up to 7,500 songs, 20,000 photos, or 75 hours of video playback. When interacting with some content, particularly with personal content such as images, music, or even videos, our needs are often noninstrumental—our actions are without any explicit or clear goal, and instead are experiential. We seek to simply enjoy, reminisce, or explore. When designing digital devices for such contexts of use where there is often no strong preference for a particular choice, letting the digital device choose randomly may stimulate positive user experiences.

However, abdicating choice to randomness may not always lead to positive or desirable experiences. Examination of digital-music listeners reveals that not all choose to shuffle their content because the experience may be jarring and unpleasant. When drawing from their music libraries, different listeners have differing levels of tolerance for unpredictability and uncertainty. The designed interface must also feature the ability for people to individually configure the level of randomness encountered through the device, pointing to the important duality between randomness and constraint. This enables people to modulate randomness on the fly under different and changing contexts of use. Through a device, randomness in the consumers' hands can act as a resource for designing their own experience.

In the shuffle example, the random presentation of familiar content and content that is inscribed with its own memories smudges the person's original conception of the content, marking it with ambiguity, and—to an extent—defamiliarizing the familiar. When people encounter unpredictability and surprise, they exercise their natural and creative urges for interpretation. To make sense of this, they draw upon their own biographies and histories—they consider their hopes, fears, and expectations in order to bridge and complete the work and to finalize the experience. This is particularly relevant in shuffle listening because music is a powerful auditory mnemonic device, which can evoke memories lucidly.

Shuffle listening also resonates with McCarthy and Wright's approach toward designing for experience. They draw upon Bakhtin's commitment to unfinalizability—valuing "suprisingness, potentiality, freedom and creativity [7]," which invites us to see technology as always becoming. Thus, harnessing randomness this way—designing it as a feature in an interactive device through which users can discover, create, and modulate their encounters with unfamiliar content—is an example of an "unfinalized digital device." An unfinalized device is not one that is poorly designed or half-finished, but instead is a device that allows the person to finalize it through use. In designing an unfinalized device, we treat each person as a source of creative potential coming to the interaction with a rich history of experience that engages with the technology in a dialogue about what the technology is and could be, and what the person is and could be. Such a device allows people to play into their potential and fits into recent calls for design and evaluation that are open to multiple interpretations.

In determining where (and how) such a random feature can be used, considerations should include the types of content, the domain, and contexts where these digital devices are used. While further investigations will reveal the full extent of its fit, it is apparent that suitable content is often evocative, can be imbued with meaning, is "malleable," and can withstand multiple inscriptions such as music and photographs or content that is familiar and meaningful to the consumer.

Harnessing randomness in the design of an unfinalized device has many implications. Theoretically, the concept of randomness in design flies in the face of traditional design activity, which is usually purposeful and goal-oriented, aimed at transforming requirements that embody the expectations of the purposes of the resulting device into design descriptions [8]. Any analysis that is too heavily goal- or intention-oriented will miss or fit uneasily with the essence of the random experience, uncertainty, or unpredictability. While this echoes a call for theories of experience that don't anchor so strongly to goals, it also hints at a need to broaden our current theoretical conceptualisation of experience to include such notions as randomness.

Clearly, randomness has limits on its design utility. There are obvious domains in which such an approach would not be applicable, such as in safety-critical systems of an aircraft or missile guidance. There is a boundary of applicability around the idea of randomness in designs and in application. However, domains that appear to immediately benefit (and grow) from such surprising and unexpected encounters and discoveries include that of entertainment, creativity, education, social networking, and self-awareness.

Designing for an unfinalized, random-rich device also blurs the boundary between the designer and consumer. This calls for a reexamination of the role of the designer, especially the act of professional design. To design for an unfinalized device requires the designer to share their act of design with the consumer. In an unfinalized design that exploits randomness as a resource, the final product is discovered in use through finalization by the consumer.

back to top  References

1. Hofstede, G. Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind : Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival. London: Harper Collins, 1994.

2. van Andel, P. "Anatomy of the Unsought Finding. Serendipity: origin, history, domains, traditions, appearances and programmability." British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 45 (1994): 631-648.

3. Hughes, R. The Shock of the New. New York: Knopf, 1981.

4. Pritchett, J. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

5. Drew, E. and M. Haahr. "Lessness: Randomness, Consciousness and Meaning." 4th International CAiiA-STAR Research Conference 'Consciousness Reframed,' 2002.

6. Leong, T.W., F. Vetere , and S. Howard. "The Serendipity Shuffle." Proc19th OZCHI, (CHISIG) Australia, 2005, 1-4.

7. McCarthy, J. and P. Wright. Technology as Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

8. Gero, J.S. "Design Prototypes: A knowledge representation schema for design." AI magazine 11, no.4 (1990): 26-36.

back to top  Authors

Tuck Leong
The University of Melbourne
[email protected]

Steve Howard
The University of Melbourne
[email protected]

Frank Vetere
The University of Melbourne
[email protected]

About the Authors

Tuck Leong is a doctoral student at The University of Melbourne, with a background in immunology, music, and multimedia. The focus of his thesis is non-instrumental interactions with interactive technologies—exploring approaches to support richer user experiences and engagement such as serendipity. This is carried out via close examination of listeners' experience of shuffle listening when using an iPod. His previously published works examine the experience of serendipity and the role randomness plays in supporting richer and more meaningful user experiences.

Steve Howard has worked in many areas of HCI, including usability engineering, use-centered innovation, and "post-usability" interpretations of user experience. Steve's current primary focus is "IT in the wild," mostly mobile and pervasive computing applied to problems of real social need.

Frank Vetere is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. After working as a secondary school teacher and briefly as a usability consultant, Frank now leads the interaction design group at the University of Melbourne. He has a Ph.D. in HCI and research interests in tools and theories for use-base innovation, especially in non-work settings.

back to top  Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1353782.1353787

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Network of Stoppages, Marcel Duchamp

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