Maximising academic technology-practice adoption by hitting the Interaction Design sweet-spot using Design Thinking – Part 2


This is the second part of a two part article, presenting the initial draft of a chapter in highly compressed form. Read the first part here.

“Innovation outruns codification and trying to catch up with it is like trying to open the fridge door fast enough to see the light come on.” (Margaret S. Archer, 2012: p.306)

In the first part of this article, we looked at some of the sources of individual and social variation that seem to be disrupting conventional models of invention and the diffusion of innovation (both expert and community driven models):

  • rapid diversification and complexification of the technosphere;
  • an evolutionary-adaptive explosion of forms driven by ubiquitous computing extending the digital into every aspect of the analogue;
  • individual social and professional lives becoming loosely-couple assemblages of heterogeneous roles and identities;
  • emergent forms of invention and diffusion, unofficial experimenters working in vertical and ad hoc heterogeneous collaborations;
  • changes in the modes of reflexivity through which people deliberate on choices, with an increase in the proportion of meta-reflexives;
  • the uneven spread of designerliness.

In any given social process, for which we might be choosing/designing technologies, we are engaging with these complexities as they have interacted over time in the massively complex system in which users are embedded. But also, as they form our own understanding, structural conditions and agentic possibilities. These complexities interactively accommodate each other in trying to form future arrangements. And all the time technological developments are accelerating the intensity of these interactions. Imagine yourself in a kayak on a river in which you are being dragged inescapably downstream on the rapids created by social and technical complexity. And suddenly you realise that you are in a nightmare – every time you try to steer with your paddles, the river reacts by becoming even more turbulent. It is what designers call a wicked problem (see for example Richard Buchanan’s 1992 article Wicked Problems in Design Thinking).

But it’s not always like that. People are able to glide elegantly through the rapids. How?

To begin with, the motivation to get it right is strong, especially in Higher Education. My personal starting-point is an assumption that I think is shared by many in HE, in various guises: the university exists as a way for us to develop practices (philosophical, psychological, biological, sociological, economic, technical etc), including knowledge practices, that allow for the sustainable and equitable optimisation of life – optimising the life academic and life beyond the university. Perhaps I am especially meta-reflexive? In small practical choices (designs) I can see the global implications for the environment, society, humanity, as they are carried by graduates and research products out of the university bubble. That’s not at all an unusual way of thinking in HE. Universities are places of constant innovation. Take a long-view from above, watching the flows of people, money, materials, ideas coming in, being transformed, reconfigured by and reconfiguring the institution, flowing out into the wider world, and feeding back so as to alter the relation between the institution and its sustaining inputs. Change has been and remains constant. We optimise this life by innovating. Higher Education is primarily concerned with the invention and diffusion of innovations for improving life. This is as true of teaching and administration as it is of pure research and the communication of research. However, the invention and diffusion of innovation follows many different patterns. As we have seen, these differences are the result of significant and ineliminable variation in humans and their innovation practices: a deep diversity stemming from epistemological, ethical and aesthetic difference.

Two key tasks face us when seeking to optimise through Higher Education: to understand diversity in innovation (innovation studies) and to find a strategy that allows us to work with that diversity. In other domains of human activity, such as architecture, designers have evolved sophisticated meta-practices to cope with and to exploit these variations in a way that produces widely and durably adopted good designs. These meta-practices are their designerliness, ways of perceiving, thinking and acting that have crystallized around a methodology called Interaction Design (IxD) – an idea pioneered by Bill Moggridge of design firm IDEO (Designing Interactions, 2006).

As with any new discipline, not everyone agrees with the term, it’s trendy acronym (IxD) or with its meaning. There is great variation in this discipline of designing for variation. But we can pick out some influential themes and concepts, starting with the notion of “optimal experience”. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book flow: the psychology of optimal experience has for many designers defined the purpose of designing – good design enables focussed, barrier-free work (and play) to achieve personal goals. Also coming from a cognitive science background, Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (1988, originally published as The Psychology of Everyday Things) is a must-read for all designers. Norman urges designers to take a user-centric perspective, and to consider how the interfaces (informational and haptic) and processes in the everyday things that we use can be meaningful or confusing, offering affordances (ways of functionally using an object) that fit with or disrupt our mental schemas and physical capabilities. The concept of affordances is taken from the work the psychologist J.J. Gibson (The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979). Norman builds upon this with the idea that constraints (limits on what we can do with an interface) and enabling constraints (the ways in which we are channeled into courses of thinking and action by constraints) are just as important as affordances. These approaches vary in the importance that they ascribe to the role of the individual in the interaction – the role of deeply learned mental schemas in directing attention and action.

More recent work has focussed upon how we develop a longer-term relationship with designed objects and systems, based upon deeper and often less explicit cognitive processes. Norman has written about emotional design, considering more subtle and complex human visceral responses to objects and systems based upon aesthetic rather than strictly functional criteria (Emotional Design, 2005). Jonathan Chapman has introduced the concept of emotionally durable design, as a value towards which designers should work (Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy, 2005) – where durable designs are ones to which we become attached and which stick with us, avoiding shiny-new-tech-churn. Personally, I ride a 20 year old motorcycle. I have customised it and updated it over the years, but I’m not rushing out to buy the latest BMW super-hi-tech rocket bike. It is for me an emotionally durable design. But it’s not necessarily the object that endures. I might, for example, get a different bike of a similar design. It is the design itself to which I have a durable attachment.

But “what makes something emotionally, cognitively and functionally durable?” is as complex a question as “what make human emotions, understanding and actions?”. We might track how aesthetic, social, cultural, political, economic, biological and linguistic aspects converge to make and to sustain these tendencies in individuals and groups for specific design-attachments. Sherry Turkle’s book Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2011) follows this track. As we have seen, it is a complex problem. Interaction Design has quickly expanded its interdisciplinary connections into this complexity, in search of a more comprehensive understanding of what makes designs work and what makes them stick – much as our understanding of how learning works in practice has expanded to see it as an assemblage of all of those various planes. Increasingly, the distinction between designing/adopting and teaching/learning is breaking down. When designing a building, for example, an architect might think about the new ways of thinking and behaving that they want its occupants to learn (for example, different types of community interaction). A good architect will find out about where the prospective occupants are starting from, and how they might learn these new ways of thinking and acting. The newly redesigned and refurbished Ramphal teaching spaces at the University of Warwick are an excellent example of this kind of Interaction Design for Learning (IxDfL). The architects Berman Guedes Stretton worked as part of an interdisciplinary design team, with an English Department academic (Nicholas Monk) leading the way, but with the direct involvement of students, other academics and service providers (including Audio-Visual Services). The redesign aimed to introduce new concepts about teaching and learning, new practices in teaching and learning, and new ways of supporting teaching and learning. These ideas were encoded into the affordances, constraints and enabling constraints of the room, but with enough flexibility to allow for new thinking and adaption. It is an emotionally durable and pedagogically rich design. The Ramphal redesign was influenced by the Open-Space Learning (OSL) movement in teaching and learning – a movement that critically re-assesses assumptions and expectations about the relationship between space, physical movement (or lack of) and learning (see Open-Space Learning: A Study in Transdisciplinary Pedagogy, Monk et al 2011). OSL is fundamentally aligned with IxDfL and the emergence of a re-invigorated designerliness in education – for other good examples, see Keri Facer’s recent book Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change (2011) in which basic assumptions about the shape, size, distribution, interfaces and workflows of schools are challenged and re-imagined.

Effective invention and diffusion of innovation requires such a sophisticated designerliness, especially now that the starting points are so diverse. But design-for-diversity works most effectively and sustainably when design agency is given to the people who will operate, maintain, sustain and benefit from innovations. Rather than formulating requirements analytically, or as more often happens inventing requirements to fit with current products and services, by sharing design agency out more widely requirements and designs can emerge through an informed, experimental dialogue between people and others, and between people and designs. As the design educator Bryan Lawson discovered in his study of How Designers Think (2005), good designs are edged towards through a complex, iterative dialogue with prototypes and sketches – a dialogue that must be informed by the many perspectives or stories that will eventually define the design in practice. Tom Kelley (a partner in the IDEO design company) describes how Prototyping is the Shorthand of Design (2010) – designers “build to think”. Most importantly we don’t just prototype to test possible solutions, but also to help us to get a better understanding of the problem. Requirements emerge with successful and failed prototyping experiments, as vivid stories of designs in use.

This prototyping and testing is best done with, or even by, the people who will use the design, who will be able to make the most realistic stories. This strategy of handing back design agency, facilitated by the designer, has become known as Design Thinking – a strategy for engendering and facilitating designerly practice, and consequently innovation, amongst diverse communities of non-professional designers. In an influential Harvard Business Review paper entitled Design Thinking (2008), Kelley’s colleague at IDEO Tim Brown describes their strategies for facilitating design thinking. Brown talks about three spaces that are maintained throughout the design process: inspiration space, ideation space and implementation space. They are, as far as possible, real spaces, but also social and mental in that each has its own identity and rules. Whereas a professional designer might mentally but unconsciously move between the spaces at just the right time, the diverse groups of domain specialists (e.g. doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators, patients) who make up a Design Thinking collaboration are learning to work in this designerly way – the three room approach helps them. Most importantly, they will start in the inspiration space, and spend much more time there than they might expect. The biggest challenge that faces design facilitators is that people want to rush straight to the implementation space. Typically, the initiation of the design project has been pushed forwards by a manager struggling to get their company moving. The biggest motivator for change is when someone comes along with The Big Idea. The design is already there in the minds of the people who are driving the change. The Design Thinking process has to slow them down, get them to play and to widen their vision. Inspiration inspires prototyping. We move to the ideation space, where we build prototypes to think. If we lose impetus, go back to inspiration, widen-out the vision again. Over time there should be a growth in clarity for the implementation space. Eventually, a new product, service, technology and practice should emerge, along with a broad sense of ownership, an understanding of how it fits and what new practice (e.g. social organisation) will be necessary, and where the collective are going. But that’s not all. The members of the design collaboration will have learned about themselves, their relationships and will have developed a more sophisticated designerliness, all of which will enable further collaboration and personal development. Again, we can see that designing is learning. Learning is design.

In response to the challenges discussed in part one of this article, Design Thinking is the strategy through which we collectively create designs and new practice, a strategy that has learning built into its core. Interaction Design for Learning (IxDfL) is the method by which designs are fine-tuned and evaluated, our guidelines as to what makes a good design. And again it has considerations of learning built into its core.

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

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