XXX.6 November - December 2023
Page: 36
Digital Citation

Designing for Uncertain Futures: An Anticipatory Approach

Tim Moesgen, Antti Salovaara, Felix A. Epp, Camilo Sanchez

back to top 

As climate change, economic instability, new uses of AI, and other transformations are affecting the world, life is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (often referred to as a VUCA world). This poses a challenge for humans, organizations, and governments to navigate.


Exploring the potential impact of these transformations is important for us HCI researchers and designers, as we strive to build better futures through new technologies. Through prototyping, workshops, user studies, and other future-oriented activities, we can craft possible futures and thereby shape the way by which future societies, economies, and environments develop from the present. New technologies may have unexpected direct and indirect impacts that could pave undesirable pathways for the environment and for our future societies. A key challenge is how we can take a systems approach across these transformations, rather than scrutinizing individual aspects in isolation.

back to top  Insights

HCI and design fields must better take into account the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world where multiple factors are simultaneously shaping the future.
Technologies may have unintended consequences and end up being used in unexpected futures.
By being able to holistically anticipate possible futures and by studying them "in action" in prototype-based field studies, HCI and design can increase their importance in shaping futures.

One problem is that the future is uncertain and there are myriad possible futures. Methods such as speculative design [1] can help us explore possible futures and can remind us to be critical of overly optimistic or technology-centric utopias. While these are useful approaches, there is room for more systematic techniques, whereby naive visions (such as simplistic dystopias) can be avoided, and comprehensive, substantiated viewpoints can be created. We propose holistic and analytical methods that deal with uncertainties about the futures and consider the trajectories by which different futures may come about. Such approaches could complement speculative design by providing HCI researchers and designers with additional means for considering technologies that they would like to propose and develop, or warn about.

A key challenge is how we can take a systems approach across these transformations, rather than scrutinizing individual aspects in isolation.

This article presents methods for dealing with future-related uncertainties in different phases of HCI evaluations. By evaluations we refer to studies where new technologies are designed and then their uses are studied with possible futures in mind. These studies include not only "near futures," such as when a new version of a technology is developed and usability studies are conducted to evaluate its match with user needs, but also "far futures," where designers inquire how it might be like to live with a new technology that mediates our lives in new ways. We consider evaluations consisting of three phases: envisioning a potential technological innovation, concretizing that innovation by means of a creating a prototype and carrying out a user study about it, and projecting the findings and interpretations of the study "back to the future" to improve our understanding of this possible future [2]. We propose an approach, building on the concept of anticipation, that offers a means for HCI scholars to assume an active stance toward the uncertainties that need to be addressed.

back to top  Anticipation of Uncertain Futures

Uncertainty may appear as a problem or challenge to be overcome. "Future-proof" innovations are designed to match the requirements of forecast futures that are highly probable and have high impact (such as global warming). This implies that focusing on them has more weight than considering alternative futures. Uncertainties about futures on such a macro level can indeed be disciplined, and simulations, forecasting, and trend analyses exist for such purposes.

Much will remain unknown even after such measures, however, since high certainty about the future may be achieved only in broad strokes. In addition, there are high-impact futures that may warrant consideration even if their occurrence would be highly improbable. Foresight researchers in futures studies identify and analyze such futures, primarily by applying scenario-based qualitative methods. Instead of attempting to predict only the most likely futures and present them as worthy for analysis, scenario-based foresight seeks to map a variety of trajectories, threats, and opportunities, and increase preparedness and sensitivity to these futures [3].

With this constructive turn where futures are actively envisioned instead of passively predicted, an anticipatory conception about uncertainty can be adopted. One can begin to ask what kinds of reflectively created possible futures one should generate and be prepared for and possibly act on [4]. This aligns well with how HCI operates: As a matter of course, we envision technologically mediated futures, discover consequences and implications of technology, and show how users may behave in such futures, possibly in unexpected ways that make us change our view of such futures.

In the remainder of this article, we suggest in more detail how anticipation of futures, and the active stance that it introduces, can be fruitfully carried out in HCI research. HCI exploration does not entail only scenario-building activities. We propose we can utilize our field's unique strength—that of being able to study possible futures "in action" by building interactive prototypes and conducting user studies.

back to top  Anticipation of Futures in Diverging and Converging Phases of HCI Evaluations

Evaluations of futures in action can be conducted only on selected few possible futures, because user studies with prototypes are resource-heavy exercises. Selecting the most relevant future is a challenge, but can be dealt with by alternating between diverging and converging ways of working: widening to a multiplicity of possibilities, reflectively selecting candidates among them for a closer study, carrying out the study, widening the focus again by generating implications, and so on. This way, HCI researchers can apply the principle of divergence and convergence in design processes to the anticipation of possible futures, and integrate it with the well-known Futures Cone, as discussed in Dunne and Raby's book about speculative design [1]. They present a cone-shaped visualization for divergence to different futures—preferable, probable, plausible, and possible—each one potentially reachable from the present.

Building on the Futures Cone, Figure 1 illustrates how HCI evaluations alternate between divergence and convergence in three phases. The first phase is divergent and includes the envisioning of possible HCI-related futures. Phase 2 is convergent, where the most relevant futures are concretized in the form of user studies in which prototypes and arrangements stage the futures that are interactable for users. The final phase is divergent, projecting user studies' findings "back to the future," with a goal of expanding the insight of the futures beyond those that were already envisioned in Phase 1.

A three-phase view of future-oriented HCI evaluations: 1. Envisioning by diverging to consider possible futures; 2. Concretisation by converging to futures that are important to investigate via prototypes and user studies; 3. Projection by diverging to possible future implications from user study outcomes. The diagram's colouring follows the convention introduced by Dunne and Raby, where a preferable future is presented with a brown outline, and the uncertainties of different futures are represented with different hues of blue and distance from the center line. Figure 1. A three-phase view of future-oriented HCI evaluations: 1) Envisioning by diverging to consider possible futures; 2) Concretization by converging to futures that are important to investigate via prototypes and user studies; 3) Projection by diverging to possible future implications from user study outcomes. One can examine potential future scenarios, user studies, and implications from various STEEPLE perspectives, each depicted through differently colored dots. The diagram's coloring follows the convention introduced by Dunne and Raby [1], where a preferable future is presented with a brown outline, and the uncertainties of different futures are represented with different hues of blue and distance from the center line.

In the following sections, we consider ways by which an anticipatory approach can be applied in these phases so that uncertainty about possible futures becomes a starting point for an anticipatory, active approach to designing. We present methods developed in futures studies that we find applicable for HCI practice and research, so as to increase our field's sophistication in futuring and envisioning credible futures.

back to top  Phase 1: Envisioning Possible Futures

At the start of a project, designers explore possible directions, outcomes, opportunities, and alternative pathways in a divergent working mode. Similar practices can be found in future studies (e.g., [5]), where the creation of a set of possible futures, even extreme ones, can drive awareness and anticipation of future opportunities and risks. Similarly, in HCI, when considering future products and services, we should not immediately fixate on just one future or scenario, but rather explore possible futures, thereby enabling ourselves to anticipate those that are most relevant to our design efforts.

Building on this idea that extreme futures may deserve consideration, the cone in Figure 1 illustrates a process where the envisioned futures are not the most probable ones: The one with a brown outline is a preferable future, but it is only on the boundary of being a probable one. The others are more uncertain and speculative. The diagram also shows that the starting point for futuring is speculative: The blue (i.e., technologically motivated) circle is not located within the band of probable futures. Instead, it represents a starting point, such as a trend, whose eventual relevance is uncertain, yet important to examine.

The quality of future scenarios is also important in this diverging phase. Appropriate methods are needed for the ideation of possible futures, to improve their insightfulness and to avoid field-specific biases. HCI needs to avoid gravitation toward naive techno-centric futures that single-mindedly present new technologies as the sole shapers of the lives of future people.

Futures studies literature offers several methods by which one can stay mindful of a larger set of future-shaping factors than technology alone. A widely used list is STEEPLE (future-shaping social, technological, economic, environmental, political, legal, and ethical factors). Considering these factors in combinations (as illustrated in Figure 1, where different futures are represented as multicolored circles) can help HCI researchers and designers remain holistic in their envisioning of possible futures.

STEEPLE can be used as an ingredient of methods, such as the Future Ripples [6]. Similarly with the Futures Cone, the Future Ripples starting point is the present world, and particularly an aspect of it, such as an ongoing trend or a weak signal. That aspect serves as a seed for envisioning consequences of different kinds (e.g., using STEEPLE as a guide). When immediate (first-order) consequences have been generated, waves of higher-order ones are created. This generates concentric wheels of mutually connected possible futures, and suggestions of increasingly unexpected scenarios, all of which can be traced back to the present world.

Compared to Delphi—a well-known envisioning method in futures studies—the methods presented above are lighter and faster to apply in a design process. For a Delphi study, a panel of experts willing to contribute their reflections is required. The study therefore takes weeks or even months to be completed. Techniques involving STEEPLE and Futures Wheel, in contrast, may only take from a few hours to a couple of days to perform, depending on the amount of preparation and background work dedicated to identification of weak signals, trends, and other future-oriented intelligence. Even if their rigor cannot match that of a Delphi study or more-extensive scenario-based methods in strategic foresight [5], these approaches can nurture both academic and corporate innovation teams' holistic capability to anticipate possible futures in practice.

back to top  Phase 2: Concretizing Futures in a User Study

After having created a set of anticipated possible futures that are important to consider for design efforts, and when the evaluation process thereby changes to a converging phase, the possible futures can be studied "in action" with interactive prototypes and user studies. This lets us learn about futures in more detail and anticipate how humans might behave in them. Concretization via prototyping and user studies requires convergence to only those futures that have the highest anticipated importance. In Figure 1, the concretization is illustrated through a drop from five scenarios to two for which user studies are arranged. This can happen by discarding and synthesizing the existing scenarios. To avoid biases, this convergence should be carried out mindfully. The choices the team makes will affect how the user study can enact the possible future in the present and how implications can be drawn from its outcomes.

HCI needs to avoid gravitation toward naive techno-centric futures that single-mindedly present new technologies as the sole shapers of the lives of future people.

In choosing between the futures that were envisioned in the diverging phase, we can apply the Critical Uncertainties [3] analysis to HCI. This entails identification of unpredictable but influential factors in the envisioned futures (such as the five shown in Figure 1). If the team identifies two uncertainties from the scenarios, such as the effect of global warming and severity of political unrest, they can use the 2x2 matrix technique [3], whereby they combine and shape the scenarios, and finally place them into the matrix's four quadrants. This process seeks to crystallize the scenarios' significance for the study.

The 2x2 matrix technique helps in converging two or at most four possible futures. However, the convergence becomes its narrowest at the execution of a user study, where possibly only one of the futures will be concretized. Other futures, in turn, will remain at a scenario level. In the user study, the enactment of a believable future is essential so that user behavior in the would-be future would be most natural.

User studies require staging [2] where future-related features are made live and experienceable through propping. The most important staging elements are interactive prototypes. In near-future studies such as usability evaluations, the prototype can be supported with mock-up materials, purposely prepared content, and tasks that increase immersion. In far-future studies, more techniques may be needed, such as recruitment of lead users, use of external actors, and more-elaborate technological setups. Furthermore, controlling techniques [2] may be necessary to temporarily remove those present-day features from the study that would not belong to the future world of interest. For example, users may be prohibited from using those present-day communication technologies that in the envisioned future would no longer be used.

To summarize, the converging-oriented activities in this second evaluation phase focus on two important goals. From a conceptual point of view, through identification of critical uncertainties and the use of techniques such as the 2x2 matrix, the anticipated possible futures are conceptually crystallized so that the critical aspects of the envisioned features are identified. In turn, from an empirical point of view, through staging of a prototype-based user study, the possible future can be enacted "in action" so that users can experience it interactively and more information can be learned about it.

back to top  Phase 3: Interpreting Findings and Projecting Implications to Better-Informed Futures

In most HCI evaluations, user studies are followed with analyses of the findings and reflection about implications. Paradoxically, this is a phase where findings obtained from the present-day user study are projected "back to the future." This is essentially a divergent process where emerging issues can lead the HCI team to consider new or more-informed interpretations. In the framework of future-oriented research, these activities are ways by which teams increase their anticipatory capacity about possible futures by learning about futures with more detail, correcting assumptions, and discovering new courses of action.

Projection requires holistic analysis in the same way as the envisioning and concretization phases. Building on the idea of the STEEPLE factors, one should avoid considering one-sided implications, where a future is considered from a one-factor POV only. Similarly, it may not be beneficial to consider entirely positive or negative implications, since more-nuanced views may be more insightful.

Although we are not aware of HCI studies that would have applied any of the future studies' scenario assessment methods in this evaluation phase, we find a lot of promise in the cross-impact analysis method, where future-contingent factors are systematically juxtaposed pairwise in a table so that the factors' interdependencies can be assessed. This directs researchers to consider how phenomena, courses of action, and other factors, as discovered during the study and also during the evaluation's earlier phases, may affect one another. This method can safeguard HCI teams from overemphasizing one finding's importance. Instead, the teams may identify implications that are deeper and more overarching than if each finding is considered in isolation. To additionally safeguard the process from crossing the boundaries of realism, "margins of tolerance" [2] can be added to the projections: The team can explicate what conditions and state-of-affairs must hold in the future for each possible implication to be plausible.

back to top  Conclusion

Over the past decade, the HCI field has deepened its engagement with systematic and more-holistic approaches in shaping the future and raising awareness of the problematic issues related to technological progress. Speculative design is one approach that has become more popular and has started to address this need.

In this article, we have proposed a complementary approach that builds on anticipation. We have stressed the importance of recognizing and reflecting on the intrinsic uncertainty around possible futures, and offered methods, building on the work in this research tradition, for systematically and thoughtfully addressing that uncertainty and anticipating its possibilities. Combined with our field's strengths in building future-oriented prototypes and studying their use in action, we can contribute to society by anticipating possible futures that are worth striving toward or that should be avoided.

back to top  References

1. Dunne, A. and Raby, F. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press, 2013.

2. Salovaara, A., Oulasvirta, A., and Jacucci, G. Evaluation of prototypes and the problem of possible futures. Proc. of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2017, 2064–2077.

3. Schwartz, P. The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World. Currency, 2012.

4. Alvial-Palavicino, C. The future as practice. A framework to understand anticipation in science and technology. Tecnoscienza: Italian Journal of Science & Technology Studies 6, 2 (2016), 135–172.

5. Schoemaker, P.J.H. Multiple scenario development: Its conceptual and behavioral foundation. Strategic Management Journal 14, 3 (1993), 193–213.

6. Epp, F.A., Moesgen, T., Salovaara, A., Pouta, E., and Gaziulusoy, I. Reinventing the wheel: The Future Ripples method for activating anticipatory capacities in innovation teams. Proc. of the 2022 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference: Digital Wellbeing. ACM, New York, 2022, 387–399; https://doi.org/10.1145/3532106.3534570

back to top  Authors

Tim Moesgen is pursuing his doctoral degree in human-computer interaction at Aalto University. With a background in haptic interaction design, he is interested in studying the sense of touch in order to create novel haptic experiences. He is also intrigued by futures studies and questions of how we can become more future aware when researching emerging technologies. [email protected]

Antti Salovaara is a senior lecturer in the Department of Design at Aalto University. In his research, he seeks to integrate futures foresight methodology into prototype design in HCI research and practice. [email protected]

Felix A. Epp is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Design at Aalto University exploring the intersection of technology, design, and social experiences in his interdisciplinary research on the implications of technology. His qualitative approaches encompass fieldwork, research through design, and collaborative design, drawing on future studies and social practice theory. [email protected]

Camilo Sanchez is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Design at Aalto University exploring alternative and collective future visions by adapting futures studies methods to HCI design. In particular, his research applies the concept of anticipation to the design of interactive prototypes to question the motivations, beneficiaries, and implications of HCI in the face of uncertainty and possible futures. [email protected]

back to top 

intr_ccby.gif This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution International 4.0 License.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2023 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found