Conceptual precision in interaction design research

Authors: Mikael Wiberg
Posted: Wed, October 01, 2014 - 11:13:28

Interaction design research is to a large extent design driven. We do research through design. A design can be seen as a particular instantiation of a design idea. Accordingly, interaction design research is also about the development of ideas. However, there is no one-to-one relation between design ideas and design instantiations. A design idea can be expressed through a wide variety of designs. That is partly why we work with prototypes in our field and why we think iterative design is a good approach. We explore an idea through a number of variations in terms of how the design idea is manifested in a particular design.

Of course, precision is always a key ingredient in research. We appreciate precision when it comes to definitions, measurements, and descriptions of research methods applied, data sets, data-collection techniques, and formats. As a community I also think that we all agree that research contributions and conclusions should be stated with precision. Precision enables us to position a particular research contribution in relation to an existing body of research.

However, do we work with similar precision when it comes to articulating our design ideas? And do we work with such precision when we articulate how our design ideas are manifested in the designs we produce as important outcomes from our research projects? I certainly hope so! At least I have noticed a growing concern for this matter in our field over the past few years. In a recent paper Erik Stolterman and I discuss the relation between conceptual development and design [1], and in a related paper Kristina Höök and Jonas Löwgren present the notion of “strong concepts” in relation to interaction design research [2].

So, if we can agree that design and conceptual development goes hand in hand in interaction design research, and if we can agree that precision is key for this practice as well, then maybe we should also ask the question of how we can advance our field through design. That is to answer the fundamental question of whether we can make research contributions, i.e., progress, through design? In a forthcoming NordiCHI paper we elaborate on this issue (see [3]). In short, we suggest that we should focus on the formulation of classes of interactive systems and that we should develop ways of analyzing designs both in relation to the elements that constitute a particular design, and in relation to how a particular design composition can be said to belong to, extend, challenge, or combine such classes. We discuss this in relation to the importance of a history of designs and a history of design ideas for interaction design research, under the label of “generic design thinking.” Again, if we as a research community should take on one such classification project then precision will again be key! For reviewing the past, and for moving forward! 


1. Stolterman, E. & Wiberg, M (2010) Concept-driven Interaction Design Research, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Vol 25, Issue 2, p. 95-118.

2. Hook, K. and Lowgren, J. 2012. Strong concepts: Intermediate-level knowledge in interaction design research. ACM ToCHI. 19, 3, Article 23.

3. Wiberg, M & Stolterman, E (2014) "What makes a prototype novel? - A knowledge contribution concern for interaction design research", Full paper, In Proc. of NordiCHI 2014;

Posted in: on Wed, October 01, 2014 - 11:13:28

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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