#3 Spatializing interaction – Architecting interactables

Authors: Mikael Wiberg
Posted: Tue, February 12, 2013 - 3:17:16

The previous issue of interactions (Nov. + Dec. 2012) featured the cover story, “On Attention to Surroundings,” by Malcolm McCullough. For sure, surroundings, spaces, contexts—or on a more general level, “the spatial dimensions of HCI and interaction design”—seem to be a recurring and fundamental cornerstone of our field. In this blog post I suggest that since spatiality seems to be essential to HCI and interaction design we should also take it seriously. If we’re taking spatiality seriously then architecture seems like a valid candidate approach. Therefore, I will use this blog post to propose the architecting of  “interactables” as a grounded approach for moving forward with spatiality as a design dimension in interaction design, an idea that I have elaborated further on in my recently published book, Interactive Textures for Architecture and Landscaping [1]. 

Spatiality in interaction design: A paradox?

While digital technology does bring with it a promise to bridge spatial distances (see for instance the book, The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Our Lives, by Frances Cairncross [2]), it almost seems like we’ve been occupied in advancing an almost diametric position. In short, during the last 30 years we have advocated a design agenda in which we have pushed dimensions of spatiality forward in HCI and interaction design. Over the past couple of decades, HCI research and practice has done so by systematically working through a repertoire of explorations of spatial dimensions of interaction design labeled under notions of VR and 3-D worlds, game design (including 3-D games, platform games, and arcade games), mobile computing, ubiquitous computing, smart/intelligent environments, location-based and context-aware services, augmented reality and most recently mobile augmented reality, notions of proxemics/proxemic interaction, and, at architectural scale, “smart cities.” On one level these are of course different notions, but on another level these are all built around spatiality manifested through interaction design.

While this repertoire does represent quite recent explorations of spatiality in interaction design, our interest in advancing interaction design through spatial thinking also links back to the early days of the graphical user interface (GUI). Not only did the ideas behind GUIs enable us to imagine, and, accordingly, design, interfaces in which we organized interaction graphically, but also the graphical user interface came with a clear agenda for spatial organization of information and interaction (see, e.g., Wiltse and Stolterman for a more in-depth discussion of architectures of interaction [3]). As a consequence of this advancement of an interaction design agenda built around the visual and the spatial, we advocated recognition rather than recall as a design guideline and research into information navigation grew in popularity.

Indeed, as I also pinpointed back in the year 2000, interacting with computers is very rarely about “anytime, anywhere” work, i.e., interaction free from spatiality [4]. On the contrary, it needs to be understood and designed for in relation to spatial dimensions of our reality. As a field we have taken on this design challenge. In fact, we have been almost preoccupied with spatializing interaction—making use of distance, location and geography in interaction design.

Understanding spatiality

Looking in a dictionary it can be seen how the definition of spatial is closely related to ”extension in space” and to the concept of “navigation.” The implications of this have been obvious in HCI and interaction design. Not only have we explored the potential of spatializing interaction in terms of organizing things, thoughts, and actions spatially, but we have also explored interaction modalities for spatial navigation and for performing interaction through movements in space (ranging from gesture-based interfaces to location-tracking, etc). Clearly, it seems like we have an interest in the potential of “spatializing interaction” and clearly it seems to be the case that we can successfully advance this design agenda even further. Spatiality is nowadays not only a concern for GUI design, nor an exclusive vision for “urban computing.” More profoundly, it seems to be a ubiquitous dimension of interaction design, from obvious design cases built around spatiality (like geo-caching) to implementations of multitouch commands for handheld devices (e.g., zooming in/out on a multitouch screen by holding two fingers on the screen and then decreasing/increasing the spatial distance in between these two).

Given this central position of spatiality in HCI, I suggest that we might benefit from thinking about ways for deliberately and systematically moving forward if we are to continue down this road. In doing so, I suggest that we explore approaches for the architecting of interactables. Architecture is a deliberate approach for advancing spatial thinking and as such it comes across as a strong candidate for manifesting ideas of interaction in material and spatial form. In fact, it might be the case that this architectural approach could guide systematic and informed processes of architecting interactables.

A contemporary example: Spatialization of interaction in practice

There are already commercial actors out there exploring this potential of architecting interactables as a complementary approach to using digital technology to bridge distances, i.e., companies working deliberately with the spatializing of interaction and the flow of people in composition with the design of flows of bits. They achieve this by integrating interaction technologies with a spatial layout. One such example can be found in my hometown Umeå, located in the northern part of Sweden. In this town we have a quite interesting newly opened restaurant. When arriving at the entrance, the guest borrows a special plastic card with an RFID tag to be used during his/her stay at the restaurant. The guest can then move around in the restaurant with this RFID card and order different dishes, coffee, etc., swiping this card at different locations in the restaurant from which he/she orders something. Further on, when a dish is ordered the guest borrows yet another electronic device to bring with him/her back to any table in the restaurant. When the dish is ready to be picked up by the guest, it is communicated wirelessly to this device, which then starts to blink, and at this signal the guest can go and get his/her dish. When finished eating the guest can check out from the restaurant at the entrance/exit location, return the borrowed RFID card, and pay for the meal. This design illustrates spatializing of interaction. The guests with their borrowed RFID plastic cards become mobile tokens in this environment, rather than bypassing spatiality by sending bits across the restaurant to serve stationary guests, which is in fact a much more typical restaurant implementation—not least today with the integration of the traditional restaurant layout complemented with modern restaurant systems to bridge distance (including billing systems, table management systems, mobile menu/order systems, etc.).

Architecting interactables: An approach for working deliberately with spatial dimensions in interaction design

In this blog post I have argued that since spatiality seems to be central to a wide range of interaction design agendas we should also seek to approach this from a viewpoint fundamentally grounded in spatial thinking. Accordingly, I have suggested architecting of interactables as one such approach for moving forward with spatiality as a design dimension in interaction design. From my perspective, there are at least two clear benefits from applying an architectural approach to this. First, it might be a fruitful way forward for dealing with interaction complexity, and second, it might be a fruitful approach for carefully and systematically designing not only representations and the flows of bits in interaction design, but also design the flow of activities, things, and people in designed spaces. Here, an architectural approach comes in handy. Now, let me at the end of this blog post expand a little bit on these two aspects.

Architecting Interactables to deal with interaction complexity. As we adopt the architecting of interactables as a deliberate and systematic approach for spatializing interaction, like in the restaurant example provided above, we should notice that it does not only allow us to approach our surroundings as a design possibility and as a complement to using technology to bridge distance, but it also comes with a potential for dealing with interaction complexity. Instead of designing complicated interfaces and routines, we can arrange interaction spatially in a room and as such “spread out” the complexity, not only temporally (as discussed in my previous blog post on “temporal interactables”), but also spatially, very much in line with how Janlert and Stolterman discuss this under the notion of “diluting complexity”:

Strategy 5 (dilute complexity) is to spread and divide complexity over a wider area of interaction with several users (copresent or not) operating a spatially extended artifact, so that no single user has to face the system in its total complexity; it is an approach of distribution and decentralization. As with the hiding and confining strategies, the diluting strategy has important implications for control, attenuating and relocating it, to which we will return below. The strategy presupposes that the artifact is or can be distributed in space, which makes it apt for the latest, well-connected digital artifacts and distributed systems [5].

Architecting interactables to design spatial arrangements of interconnected interactables. Further on, and as to stress the second benefit of this proposed approach, we can take on the interaction design challenge of creating meaningful spatializations of interaction. This is an exercise fundamentally interrelated with the temporal dimensions of interaction design (see my previous blog post). This is a matter of designing architected flows in space, i.e., intentionally designed flows of people, activities, and objects and the architectural approach will manifest this in reality through spatial arrangements of interconnected interactables. In other words, this is where spatiality meets temporality in interaction design.

What this means, to design “arrangements of interconnected interactables,” is something I will expand upon in my next blog post.


1. Wiberg, M. Interactive Textures for Architecture and Landscaping—Digital Elements and Technologies. Information Science Reference, IGI-global, 2011.

2. Cairncross, F. The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Our Lives. Harvard Business Review Press, 2001.

3. Wiltse, H. And Stolterman, E. Architectures of interaction: An architectural perspective on digital experience. Proc. of the 6th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. ACM, 2010, 821-824.

4. Wiberg, M. and Ljungberg, F. Exploring the vision of “anytime, anywhere” in the context of mobile work. Knowledge Management and Virtual organizations: Theories, Practices, Technologies and Methods. Brint Press, 2000.

5. Janlert, L-E. and Stolterman, E. Complex interaction. ACM Trans. on Computer-Human Interaction 17, 2 (2010), 6.

Posted in: on Tue, February 12, 2013 - 3:17:16

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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