#2 Temporal interactables—toward interaction dance design

Authors: Mikael Wiberg
Posted: Mon, January 14, 2013 - 10:58:58

Ever since the days of Einstein (1879-1955) space and time, or spatiality and temporality, has served as a categorical, yet integrated, theoretical framework for sense-making and as a point of departure for understanding our world.

From a philosophical standpoint in terms of ontological and metaphysical baseline, Martin Heidegger took a point of departure in temporality in his seminal work Being and Time (1927). In his work he used this notion in an exploration of the meaning of being, and in which temporality served as a perspective for the understanding of being.

"Temporality" has indeed governed our worldview and is still doing so. Not least in interaction design we notice how temporality is essential for understanding interaction. What kind of interaction can we imagine that is free from any form of temporal dimensions? Further on, and from a normative position, interactables (see blog post #1) can be arranged with temporality as a scaffolding structure from a number of different, although still interrelated, standpoints or dimensions. In this blog post I will outline four such standpoints or different takes on temporality, including seeing temporality as a matter of rhythm, timing, pace and order. Below I will go through these four interrelated perspectives, provide some examples, and then reflect a little bit further on how these perspectives might be useful to human-computer interaction design.

Temporality as rhythm
A lot of traditional musical instruments are right now being digitized. For example, while maintaining its physical appearance and form, there are no longer strings operating "under the hood" of a piano but computers (in the case of digitized pianos). In addition to this development, even more musical instruments are available now in the form of digital software (including, e.g., drum machines). The development of digital music studio software and music composition software is also growing quickly. While many of these can be fine-tuned in terms of adjusting pitch levels, etc., the basic interaction model underlying these instruments is that the user needs to have a basic understanding of rhythm. While the fine-tuning of the instruments is kind of taken off the table there is still a requirement that the user knows about this kind of temporality in order to produce anything close to a piece of music. Temporality in the form of a sense of rhythm is on a fundamental level governing the interaction here.  

Temporality as timing
While a sense of rhythm seems to be essential for playing musical instruments (digitized or not) a sense of what temporality can mean in terms of timing is a perspective well explored in game design. For instance, in most arcade games the challenge for the gamer is typically constructed in the spectrum of "eye-brain-hand" coordination in combination with the user’s sense of timing. On a more general level, it is an interaction model built around an assumption that if the computer does something then the user is supposed to react in relation to it within a certain time frame. 

Temporality as pace
In many cases it is not only the timeframe that is of relevance, but also the pace in which the interaction is supposed to be carried out. A word processor is an example of an interaction model that has implemented a deliberately slow pace so as to allow for two delicately integrated aspects of writing, typing and reflecting (nothing happens in the user interface until the user decides to type in the next letter or take another action). In other designs, such as the computer game Tetris, the interaction cycle begins at quite a slow pace (bricks moving slowly towards the ground) and then increases to medium and then fast as the interaction continues. While this is a good dimension to use in game design to raise the challenge for the gamer, it can also work as a good model from a usability perspective. If a piece of software is built around temporality in terms of rhythm or timing, then by lowering the pace the user can learn how to interact with it and then adjust the pace in relation to his/her own learning curve. 

Temporality as order
While temporality can be used as a design resource in many different ways (including the three perspectives listed above), I would guess that temporality in the form of order might be the must commonly applied perspective in interaction design. Temporality as order means that the interaction is designed to be carried out in a certain order (of course, an interface might provide several such models for the same operation). For instance, to make a piece of text italics in a standard GUI-based word processor, the user first needs to select the text to be altered into italics and then press a particular button in the interface. This is the implemented interaction model for this particular case and nothing will happen if the user switches the order of it. Temporality as order governs the possible sequences of interactions that can happen between user and machine.    

Using the different standpoints in interaction design—towards interaction dance design
Temporality is indeed fundamental to how the turn-taking between user and machine is structured. However, beyond seeing this turn-taking purely as a structure, I would like to see it through an aesthetic lens. Through an aesthetic lens on these four perspectives, design is not about implementing interaction as just any kind of turn-taking loop between user and machine. Instead, in applying an aesthetic eye to this we can ultimately view the challenge of designing a good, joyful, and efficient interaction loop as a matter of interaction dance design. What I am proposing here is that temporality can be used as a resource for designing well-functioning, even elegant, dances of interaction co-performed by the user and the computer (in any imaginable form of interactables). If we can take on this challenge we might need to develop our ideas about what kind of dances of interaction we would prefer for different activities, situations, and use contexts. It would as such expand our thinking from not only considering overall activity to be performed and available interaction modalities, but also the appearance of the interaction per se [1]. 

Taking the dance metaphor even further as a way of thinking about interaction design through the four perspectives of temporality outlined here, we can then see how this dance is not only relevant to the design of the turn-taking loop between user and computer. Instead, rhythm deals with frequency and as such with things that are frequently re-occurring in general (i.e., routines), opening up a design space in which we can imagine how a particular interaction loop is designed to further entangle with other loops and routines. Further on, timing is again not only of relevance when thinking about the loop between one user and one machine but this dance can be deliberately designed to work in time with other loops of interaction. We have quite a rich body of published work in HCI that has looked into the multitasking nature of human activities. At the same time HCI is growing into landscapes of integrated digital devices and services [2]. It is this dance floor we can explore with temporality as one key interaction design resource. 

Temporality in terms of pace can also probably be further explored in HCI design. In my view, pace is not only related to the outcome of the interaction loop (how quickly a result can be produced) but also brings with it a huge potential for usability. Instead of designing for novice vs. expert users, an alternative might be to explore whether the adjustment of pace might be an alternative way forward. From a dance perspective, pace can also make interaction look easy or extremely difficult. A user performing a simple, yet rapid interaction dance can come across as being highly skilled. Finally, temporality as order is ultimately a question of interaction logistics. Given one such take on temporality, then what kinds of interaction logistics can we imagine, build, and test? And to what extent can we re-imagine already existing interaction logistics? Again, temporality from the viewpoint of interaction logistics might open up a new dimension of the design space for HCI.

In the end, what I have tried to say in this blog post is that when we arrange interactables in our interaction design projects we not only arrange these things spatially, but also arrange our interactions temporally. As such, the arranging of interactables brings us back to Heidegger's work. Ultimately, if we subscribe to the idea that we're increasingly entangled with computing through our interactions, then the ways in which these things are arranged temporally will probably also define our beings—or at least how we dance along.


1. Wiberg, M. Interaction per se: Understanding "the ambience of interaction" as manifested and situated in everyday & ubiquitous IT-use. International Journal of Ambient Computing and Intelligence 2, 2 (2010).

2. Wiberg, M. Landscapes, long tails & digital materialities—Implications for mobile HCI research. International Journal of Mobile Human Computer Interaction 4, 1 (2012).

Posted in: on Mon, January 14, 2013 - 10:58:58

Mikael Wiberg

Mikael Wiberg is a full professor in informatics at Umeå University, Sweden. Wiberg's main work is within the areas of interactivity, mobility, materiality, and architecture. He is a co-editor in chief of ACM Interactions, and his most recently published book is The Materiality of Interaction: Notes on the Materials of Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018). [email protected]
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