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A note on ‘compositional design thinking’


Authors: Mikael Wiberg
Posted: Tue, October 29, 2013 - 12:17:17

Design thinking is growing as an explicit approach to interaction design. By acknowledging the thoughtful aspects of making, our community simultaneously acknowledges how design is both about doing/making and about thinking/reflecting. This is, however, not something new to our community. Donald Schön made this point two decades ago in his book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action.

In his book Schön also stated that these creative acts of thinking and doing are not only about the reflective designer implementing his/her ideas in the material. Contrary to this position, Schön describes how “the material talks back to the designer” in acts of making. This dual relation between the designer and his/her material at hand has been widely acknowledged in our field and right now we can see how the interest in this “close to the material at hand” relation is manifested in a renewed interest in craft traditions, hand-made objects, and DIY movements.

While this duality remains true, and while craft-based approaches to interaction design are growing in popularity, we should at the same time acknowledge that the landscape of interaction design is rapidly changing and that right now we´re in a moment where additional skills will be needed to craft powerful interaction design.

When I say that the landscape is changing I am referring to the fact that HCI is no longer limited to the single man-machine loop characterized as a turn-taking act between the human and the machine. On the contrary, we surround ourselves with more and more complex device landscapes tangled together through pairing, subscriptions, scripts, and services running across different devices. Commercial solutions like Airplay demonstrate how information and interaction is no longer restricted to a single device and streaming services like Netflix demonstrate how sessions can live across a multitude of devices. These commercial services demonstrate to the public eye innovations explored in our HCI labs. Proxemic interaction, “point-and-beam” interaction modalities, etc. are now finding their way out of the labs and into the hands of everybody. Interaction in these new formats is becoming ubiquitous and interaction is no longer limited to the box.

At the same time the “computational box” is also questioned. Cloud computing and tangible user interfaces represent two different critiques of the box. Cloud computing teaches us how services and content can be accessible from just about any device, and tangible interaction illustrates that interaction design is not only about designing the digital material for the user to operate. Instead, interaction design becomes a matter of thinking about interaction across different substrates—computational and non-computational materials.

As we move forward it is likely that this “palette of materials” will also increase. For the skilled interaction designer it will be an ontological challenge to look beyond the digital material and see how just about anything can be part of interaction design. In areas such as personal informatics, just to point at one area, this is already happening at a rapid pace. Interaction designers are increasingly reflecting on how dimensions such as position, speed, everyday movements, eating habits, pulse, blood pressure, weather conditions, running shoes, bracelets, etc. can be used as part of new interaction designs. 

The message is clear. The skilled designer still needs a good understanding of the materials at hand. However, for the skilled interaction designer it is no longer about a single (digital) material at hand. It is about a whole palette of materials, ranging from a material understanding of how interaction can play out across a multitude of devices and take almost any shape and be represented in any format (a lesson learnt from the tangible UI movement); to the acknowledgement of information as material; to an understanding of how networking, code, scripts, service integration, open APIs, component-based design, and so on can be thoughtfully brought together in design. 

For the reflective interaction designer “compositional design thinking” is a key competence to develop to fully take advantage of possibilities for interaction design already present and to prepare for the years to come!


Posted in: on Tue, October 29, 2013 - 12:17:17

Mikael Wiberg

Mikael Wiberg is Professor of Informatics in the Department of Informatics at Umeå University, Sweden.
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