Sunday, 2 December 2007

A horse and cart epiphany

Christmas deadlines are approaching and I am just assessing assignments for a recent module I taught on Graphical Interface Design. The students from Sony Computer Entertainment in Liverpool, predominantly games testers, had to build a working prototype for the front-end of a game. The game itself was a concept that they had devised as a team in an earlier module. To illustrate their game idea they had previously built in-game 3D assets, characters and environments; ultimately making a FMV (full motion video) to demonstrate the tone and pace of the proposed gameplay. As part of my Interface module the students individually used the created assets to visualize the game's graphical user interface.

On the surface this wasn't a challenging design problem. GUIs are easy to build aren't they!? Just join some screens together with a few buttons over the top of an in-game graphic. That'll do. Surely? Game GUI's sometimes are just last minute bolt-ons; the little plain sister always in the shadow of its sexier gameplay sibling, where a convoluted and behemoth navigation path is imposed over a 3D graphic and a cool-looking logo. Hey-presto, that'll do… As my students test games professionally for Sony they are quite adept at uncovering bad usability. As a lecturer in interface design I personally do not adhere to the previous attitude towards GUI design. The students were a dream to work with as neither did they.

Through a series of practical sessions and lectures I engaged the students in the iterative process of conceptualising, prototyping and testing their interface concepts, until they arrive at a final working prototype. From initial brainstorms on what makes a good (and bad) game interface, we explored how a typical existing title structures its navigation through the many different screens of variables, from the first screen to the game starting. The tools we used to do this was both hi- and low-tech: an xBox 360ยบ; a digital projector; a small, dark, airtight room (>gasp<); several games; Blu-Tack; string (pink, don't ask); scissors and post-it notes.

Through this back-engineering of an existing interface's information architecture the students began to see how interactive theory actually applied itself. The task was playful yet illuminating. Although the exercise was challenging the students worked well as a group to achieve a tangible diagram. We then consequently ripped the post-its and string navigation apart, reconstructing a new 'ideal' information architecture from the remains, discarding and relocating content on the fly. This playful, team-based exercise was the first step in a process for them to develop their own individual interface structure and design through constant prototyping and testing. In his book The Art of Innovation Tom Kelley from IDEO comments on this playful experimentation as a process we "understood as children and lost it gradually as we matured". IDEO has a far-reaching impact within the design world, a company so enthusiastic about design they happily evangelize their working methodology for cross-disciplinary team-based iterative design. One such UK company that embraces this cross-disciplinary approach to design with aplomb is Brahm based in Leeds, with whom I have an invitation to visit. Now that I have a brief respite from a busy schedule at work, I should see if Brahm can fit me in for a pre-Christmas tour. But I digress.

The final student submissions are all the more successful for the many iterations they individually took to get to the final product. They all used Flash as a fast prototyping tool, to get the functionality into their prototype to demonstrate to a programmer how the visual interface should work. The visual assets they produced conformed to the 2x ratio for textures the games industry use, so that their designs could (in practice) use the smallest amount of scalable assets to create a final game front-end. Overall the students gained a valuable practical and theoretical insight into the production of a game's GUI, and has awakened them to the value of redesigning and retesting their designs through small iterative steps in order to achieve their final product. That is always good to see. At least this group wont be fooled into shoe-horning a navigational system around a piece of graphic imagery. They now know the cart goes behind the horse.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Has it been a month? Wow!

I left my last post mid-way through as I had to prioritise my time. Since the last post (which I will continue soon) a lot has happened. I have prepared and applied for two new jobs (one of which I have been anticipating for over a year); finally overcome a niggling ActionScript problem to launch my website properly (the beta test lasted 3 months); built and then rebuilt in CSS a website (my first CSS website) to promote an animation degree I had written earlier this year; planned and began the design for another CSS website for a degree I am writing now; redrafted the same degree and took this new degree through 2 reviews with flying colours so that it can be validated in early 2008; and still find time to read more papers and books on interactive design whilst still having a life. A tall order so I'm sure I am forgiven for not updating this blog.

This note about time between updates nicely segues into a point I wish to explore. I have just read Brendan Dawes' new book, which reads more like a blog, (a blook?) Analog In, Digital Out. In fact I have just closed it and put it down to type this post as I sit on the comfy sofas in FACT with my iPod ear phones in although the battery died about half an hour ago (a great way to stop people talking to you when you are busy). Dawes discusses how the nature of DIGITAL artefacts fail to feedback signs of use as physical artefacts do. With physical artefacts there are visible signs of wear and tear that denote ownership, that demonstrate a history of use for that artefact. His issue is that other than "last date modified" what visual information is there that indicates that a digital artefact has been "touched"? He does use Flickr as an example of appending extra data to an image, but we do not see digital fingerprints or tears/folds/scratches that you would get with a real photo that has really been viewed and shared over time. By no means is Dawes suggesting that some pedant invents an algorithm to add fingerprints/tears/folds/scratches to digital images. His point is simple: digital artefacts are simply not degradable in a visual way that records the passage of time.

This idea made me think of the work by Steve Rogers (head of production at BBC New Media) on digital patina as a method of demonstrating the elapse of time since a digital artefact was used/visited or updated. He used this concept in the design of the BBCi homepage to semiotically feedback to the user the most visited sections. The more faded the content is the greater the time between visiting that content. The brighter the content indicates the user has used/visited that content recently.

Just imagine websites with an algorithm that makes the pages fade over time if they aren't updated. The older the page the more digital patina it acquires. If you leave a bike outside eventually it will rust up. If you ride it occassionally you offset the formation of rust. Imagine the emphasis this would place on contributors to the web. Update the pages you create (even if it is just a quick reload of the page) to prevent the onset of digital dust or rust collecting on your work. It would also be a good indicator to visitors if the content is old or new. I know that would make me more motivated in keeping the content I post current.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, 25 October 2007


In expanding my previous post on All In The Mind about perception playing a part within interactivity I am re-reading Kiousis' paper "Interactivity: a concept explication" and here is my summary as I go through his thesis. I make no apologies for this post being a summary: just look on this post as watching me wrestle with attempting to explicate my own understanding of interactivity and in doing so help you to do the same.

Kiousis concerns himself with how theoretically and operationally interactivity should consensually be defined. In doing so he suggests that interactivity is a variable factor of media and psychology, and is affected by people's perceptions. Kiousis draws attention to the need to really agree what interactivity means before researching its many empirical studies of its effects. His paper attempts to do just that. He first discusses the assumptions made by researchers regarding their understanding of the term. Generally we are discussing interactivity in the context of new communication technologies (DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach, 1989) and, for most of the last 10 years, online (Lanham, 1993; Stromer-Galley, 2000). But, as Kiousis argues, interactivity is applied to empirically recorded conditions without actually considering what is meant by 'interactivity' in the first place. The term is ambiguous and I would argue suffers from the same problems as the words 'art' or 'artist'.

Everybody perceives they understand what 'art' and an 'artist' is, but in practice no-one can agree on a consensual definition (isn't that right Martin!). The problem with perceiving an understanding of the concept leads only to ambiguity, and that is not helpful. I am not after quantifying the unquantifiable but so far I applaud Kiousis' desire to reach a consensual definition. He acknowledges the term suffers from the many academic and professional perspectives and, like us all, he seeks to synthesize these into a coherent definition. Although communication technologies are often cited Kiousis has found the term has non-communication perspectives too. Therefore his literature review focuses upon the explicit meanings of interactivity due to the interdisciplinary nature of the sources of research.

Third-order Dependency
Referring back to the theme of my previous post Kiousis quotes S.J. McMillan, "while some scholars see interactivity as a function of the medium itself, others argue that interactivity resides in the perceptions of those who participate in the communication." (McMillan, 2000). It is this point of tension between medium and perception that I find fascinating. His review starts with 1940s Cybernetic Theory where interactivity is seen as an attribute of the communication channel where communication is seen as a "dynamic, interdependent process between senders and receivers." (Kiousis, 2002). But with the rise of New Media, Kiousis narrates that during the 1980s a new 'conceptual deliberation' was forged in the literature by S. Raffaeli and F. Williams (et al) into third-order dependency. Williams cites this as "the degree to which participants in a communication process have control over, and can exchange roles in, their mutual discourse is called interactivity" (Williams et al, 1988). Interactivity has "transfered from channel to message relationship" (Kiousis, 2002).

This aspect of third-order dependency ties nicely into the outline definitions I highlighted in my post on Semantics. Under the concept of third-order dependency the definitions of EXERTIVE (Heeter, 1989), INTERCHANGEABLE (Rice, 1984) & (Rogers, 1995) and TWO-WAY EXCHANGE (Rice and Williams, 1984) and (Rheingold, 1993) no longer appear to contradict each other. But is this as full a definition of interactivity as we can get? Kiousis sees this approach to interactivity as restrictive as it does not take into account modification as suggested by Steur as "the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real-time". In the typology of interactivity this definition falls under a technological heading and can be judged effective through the functions of range, speed and mapping capabilities of the medium being used, whilst still giving the ultimate control to the user. But with control the user can use whatever controls they feel they need. No more. No less.

Range of Functionality
This does not make a new medium even more interactive if the user only uses the minimum of the functions. I have just upgraded my mobile to a Nokia N95 because it is the only phone I can view PDFs on. I didn't upgrade because I wanted a super-computer in a mobile with WiFI, 5m mega-pixel camera and a multimedia console all-in-one. I probably wont use a fifth of the phone's functionality over the next 18 months. I perceive I wont need them, so I wont use them. I am over-burdened by the range of functionality, therefore my approach to the medium's interactivity is psychological rather than functional.

Nokia N95

Heeter summarizes interactivity thus (Heeter, 1989) with my annotations drawing from the definitions listed in my Semantics post:

• Complexity of choice available (allocution)
• Effort the users must exert (exertive)
• Responsiveness to the user (two-way exchange)
• Monitoring of information use (registration)
• Ease of adding information (modification)
• Facilitation of interpersonal communication (conversational)

Information Speed and Timing
The exertive nature of the effort the user applies to the medium, together with the complexity of choice available must have a perceived response for the user. There is another argument that interactivity is the "extent to which the communicator and the audience respond to, or are willing to facilitate each other's communication needs" (Ha and James, 1998). Whether the response or facilitation is synchronous or asynchronous, dependent upon the speed of information flow through a system or the degree to which the user can control that rate in real-time response (synchronous) or delayed-response (asynchronous) as in email. Interactivity defined through a lens of communication sees itself as ascribing "human" characteristics.

When we communicate with/through an interactive system, whether we are communicating with another human or computer, we perceive this communication as an extension or simulation of our face-to-face communications. The common ground between speed of information and the timing between communications needs the difference between realness and interactivity to be clear, otherwise the boundaries between physical and mediated realities will be blurred. New Media's procedural and participatory environments are deemed the elements that make this media interactive (Laurel, 1991). Laurel has developed her understanding of interactivity toward a perceiver-based position. She sees interactivity occurring when "you either feel yourself to be participating in the ongoing action of the representation or you don't."

This post is taking longer than I thought to summarize Kiousis' paper so I'll post at this point and then come back and continue it later. Not exactly a cliff-hanger but I need to get on with other work. Check back soon and/or comment on my summary so far. This is, after all, only my own ruminations on the subject of interactivity and is not set in stone. If you think I'm way off mark I'd like to hear your point of view.


DeFleur, M.L. and S.J. Ball-Rokeach (1989)
Theories of Mass Communication. New York: Longman.

Heeter, C. (1989)
‘Implications of New Interactive Technologies for Conceptualizing Communication’, in J.L. Salvaggio and J. Bryant (eds) Media Use in the Information Age: Emerging Patterns of Adoption and Computer Use, pp.221–5. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kiousis, Spiro (2002)
Interactivity: a concept explication New Media & Society, SAGE Publications, Vol4(3):355–383

Lanham, R.A. (1993)
The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Laurel, B. (1991)
Computers as Theatre. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

McMillan, S.J. (2000)
‘Interactivity is in the Eye of the Beholder. Function, Perception, Involvement, and Attitude Toward Web Sites’, in M.A. Shaver (ed.) Proceedings of the 2000 Conference of the American Academy of Advertising, pp. 71–8. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University.

Rheingold, H. (1993)
The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Rice, R.E. (1984)
‘New Media Technology: Growth and Integration’, in R.E. Rice
(ed.) The New Media: Communication, Research, and Technology, pp.33–54. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Rice, R.E. and F. Williams (1984)
‘Theories Old and New: The Study of New Media’, in R.E. Rice (ed.) The New Media: Communication, Research, and Technology, pp.55–80. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Rogers, E.M. (1995)
Diffusion of Innovations (4th edn). p314. New York: Free Press.

Steur, J. (1992)
‘Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence’, Journal of Communication 42: 73–93.

Stromer-Galley, J. (2000)
‘Online Interaction and Why Candidates Avoid It’, Journal of Communication50(4): 111–32.

Williams, F., R.E. Rice and E. Rogers (1988)
Research Methods and the New Media. New York: Free Press.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

All in the mind?

As I'm not a psychologist I am well out of my comfort zone with this next attempt to understand interactivity but is interactivity dependent upon perception? I am an avid listener of Melvyn Bragg's Radio 4 programme In Our Time. One programme deals with perception and Bragg introduces the programme by saying "Perception is a tangled web of processes and so much of what we see, hear and touch is determined by our own expectations that it raises the question of whether we ever truly perceive what others do." Certainly within interactive design perception is crucial but is there an inherent problem when we attempt to make an interface intuitive that we cannot solve?

If we attempt to put into place enough visual cues and spend time perfecting the interactive loop (see image, adapted from a diagram by Bill Verplank of Stanford University) in order to make the interface usable for as many people as possible, are we still being kneecapped by a philosophical bullet. That is do we assume the user (insert your preferred nomenclature here) perceives the interface in the way we expect? Not exactly an earth-shatteringly original concern but when we consider that interactivity is more than just hand and eye, but also factors such as asynchronous and real-time communication, interchangeability of roles, modification of content within real-time etc. and tangibility affect the way that the perceived interactivity works.

The interactive loop, adapted from a diagram by Bill Verplank of Stanford University

It is therefore a little disconcerting for me to think that even taking into account semiology, typography and the psychology behind colour theory I may still need to consider deeper philosophical issues such as suggested by Spiro Kiousis in his 2002 paper "Interactivity: a concept explication". Kiousis proposes that interactivity, on an operational basis "is established by three factors: technological structure of the media used (e.g. speed, range, timing flexibility, and sensory complexity), characteristics of communication settings (e.g. third-order dependency and social presence), and individuals’ perceptions (e.g. proximity, perceived speed, sensory activation, and telepresence)." We already are aware that each individual has different ability in reading on screen and hand-eye coordination with input devices, but is there deeper issues we need to be aware of.

I am re-reading Kiousis' paper and will post again my own observations.


Kiousis, Spiro (2002)
Interactivity: a concept explication New Media & Society, SAGE Publications, Vol4(3):355–383, Pp 379

Friday, 12 October 2007


I've been taking Level 2 undergraduates from Graphic Design and Games Design for Research Techniques and this week I was getting them to discuss their propositions for a research project. One Graphic Design student had decided upon "What makes a good design?" as her initial investigation. I had during the group tutorial made each student really think about their questions so that they were looking at a specific area of inquiry rather than being too broad. I got this student to consider that 'good' had to be defined clearer as it was too subjective and also what she meant by design. Design like art is a word that everyone knows what it means but can never truly agree a definition. In order to further illustrate my point to the students I used my own experience of researching interactivity.

During my research I have come across many different papers all attempting to address the definition of interactivity. To illustrate this I will discuss a few of them here.

The Interactive Typology
As cited in a paper by Rob Cover (Cover, 2006) Sally McMillan draws upon other work by Bordewijk and van Kaam (1986), into a four level classification of (a) Allocution, (b) Consultation, (c) Registration and (d) Conversational interactivity. Essentially (a) passive audience involvement, ie: watching TV (b) database dissemination of content upon user request, (c) more dynamic dissemination through collection of patterns of engagement by the user, ie: browser cookies (d) Face-to-Face (F2F) real-time communication.

In another paper McMillan and co-author Downes (Downes & McMillan, 2000) are thorough enough to provide further definitions that I will lay out here.

Exertive Interactivity
Where the user exerts more effort to accomplish a task when it comes to the use of digital media compared to older media that is more passive. This is a form suggested by Heeter (1989).

Interchangeable Roles
The positions of role-taking and providing feedback are interchangeable allowing mutual discourse between communicating entities (Rice, 1984) & (Rogers, 1995)

The amount of real-time modification a user can perform upon the content whilst interacting with it. (Steur, 1992)

Two-way Exchange
Whether real-time or asynchronous both Rice and Williams (1984) and Rheingold (1993) both suggest that media can only be interactive if it has the potential for two-way exchange between entities whether these are human or processor.

Downes and McMillan do admit these terms are contradictory and have drawn attention to the need for a more consensual definition, but I am not the person to do this. Obviously. But the need to understand your medium is important to any designer and interactive design is no different. I will come back to these defining terms in another post once I have time to ruminate on this post. This is the first time I have actually brought this research together and what you are reading is my research in progress.

Cover, Rob (2006)'Audience inter/active: Interactive media, narrative control and reconceiving audience history', in New Media & Society Vol6(4):487–506, pp.142, SAGE Publications
Downes, Edward J. & Mcmillan, Sally J. (2000) 'Defining interactivity: A qualitative identification of key dimensions', in New Media & Society Vol2(2):157–179, pp.159, SAGE Publications
Heeter, C. (1989) ‘Implications of New Interactive Technologies for Conceptualizing
Communication’, in J.L. Salvaggio and J. Bryant (eds) Media Use in the Information
Age: Emerging Patterns of Adoption and Computer Use, pp.221–5. Hillsdale, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
McMillan, S. (2002) ‘A Four-Part Model of Cyber-Interactivity: Some Cyber-Places are
More Interactive than Others’, New Media & Society4(2): 271–91.
Rice, R.E. (1984) ‘New Media Technology: Growth and Integration’, in R.E. Rice
(ed.) The New Media: Communication, Research, and Technology, pp.33–54. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Rice, R.E. and F. Williams (1984) ‘Theories Old and New: The Study of New Media’,
in R.E. Rice (ed.) The New Media: Communication, Research, and Technology, pp.55–80.
Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Rogers, E.M. (1995) Diffusion of Innovations (4th edn). p314. New York: Free Press.
Rheingold, H. (1993) The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New
York: Addison-Wesley.
Steur, J. (1992) ‘Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence’, Journal of Communication 42: 73–93.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Back to Work…

As I mentioned in my little diatribe I had had 2 interviews in September for a Senior Lectureship in New Media and Digital Media respectively. For diplomatic reasons I wont mention at which HEIs they where held but I will say that both opened my eyes to the reality of the Interactive Design industry and it's spectrum of interpretations as to what a job title entails. I really enjoyed both interviews and gained a great deal from the experience but although both wanted a lecturer who could deliver interactive design modules they hugely differed in what they were looking for, so much so it was challenging to select the relevant parts of my experience to support my application.

What was really helpful was that both institutions were enthusiastic about my desire to start a PhD and it was useful to discuss my areas of interest. But the matter still stands that I keep losing sight of what it really is that I can sustain 5 years of research in. Since then I have fortunately had a couple of breaks that I want to pursue with a PhD in mind. Firstly I attended a conference on collaborations at the University of Huddersfield on Wednesday as a guest speaker. I had been asked to present a case study on my own experience and good practice in collaboration with Sony Computer Entertainment (SCEE). Before my group's slot (which was a triple-hander between myself, my colleague who is an ex-student and employee of SCEE, and the HR manager of SCEE) I heard a presentation by the MD of 'Brahm based in Leeds about their collaborative work practice across disciplines. I really enjoyed it and was impressed with their ethos so much so that we are arranging a visit so I can tour their facilities and to discuss possible future collaborations. I am hoping to get some insight there to ideas that will sustain 5 years of a practice-based PhD.

Also at work today I discovered my new pigeon hole stuffed full of mail that had been waiting for me for weeks. In there was a prospectus from the RCA. I was about to file it in the bin after a quick flick through but discovered their Design Interactions PhDs. I know there is kudos associated with studying at the RCA but I am a Scouser which means I'm a Northern mongrel, essentially from a Scots-Irish background with a healthy disregard for anywhere below the M62. Whilst I wouldn't rule out the RCA I personally favour the ECA.

What caught my eye was their current/recent areas of research. This at least helps me focus on the possible design-led areas of interactive design. There are 6 areas of research they detail covering:
• Design Futures
• Design for Debate
• Design Fiction
• Extreme Design
• Complicated Pleasures
• Designing Design
Out of these the Extreme Design area is interesting. According to the blurb it covers "exploring new approaches to interaction design in relation to extreme needs, desires and situations (emotional, intellectual and physical)." This concise summary of the area of research is really helpful as I really want to begin my literature review part of my contextual review.

Give me some time and I will try to finally resolve the parameters of my research interest.

The Irony of Digital

Over the last month I have had an unfortunate hiatus in posting to this blog as technology has conspired against me, so hopefully I will be forgiven if I spend a little time on a little diatribe before resuming.

Firstly the keyboard and trackpad on my 2 month old MacBook Pro broke. This happened straight after my last post and a week before two interviews for lectureships. So I had to firstly use a USB mouse and keyboard to complete the work on the presentations I needed to give before putting the MBP into my local AppleCentre for repair under warranty.

Around the same time as my last post I discovered I could not upload to my web server hosted by After the post I discovered it was worse than that as my website was also down. It is to the credit of 123-reg that they quickly got to work in sorting out the problem and before I could say four weeks they eventually reset my FTP account. Of course practically four weeks had gone by before this happened and I had already transferred my website to Lycos, but only after I had left progressively angrier posts on their support forum.

So you can see it hasn't been a good month for me in regard to technology which is ironic as the lectureships I was interviewed for were for a Senior Lectureship in New Media and Digital Media respectively.

It is impossible to guage if my September digital problems had any bearing on my lack of success but at least I found ways around the technical problems in the interim.

On a final note I would like to leave you all with two notes of caution.

Anyone thinking of buying hosting from 123-reg please do not base your decision on my experience alone but do read the following before the before you buy.

Customer (…) 09/09/2007 22:44

My website at is not (a) allowing me to upload any new content via FTP and (b) is not displaying any of the content(in this case CSS formated code and a swf file).

I did report this last week but this email form doesn't appear to have worked.

My website is down as we speak and I cannot afford this downtime.

Customer (…) 11/09/2007 14:19

It has been over 24 hours since I last posted my problem and I have had no response from 123. My subscription is up in Novemeber. If I don't get my problem sorted out ASAP and my website back up and running I will move my account to a different hosting company. Please respond immediately.

Customer (…) 13/09/2007 09:54

This absolutely fucking ridiculous! Support my arse! My website has been down for god knows how long, I cannot FTP and 123 does not make it easy to get any help. If any one does read this then its too late I wont be renewing my hosting. 123 has now lost a long standing customer.

Response (…) 22/09/2007 17:24

Dear (…)

With regards to your email on 13th September 2007.

123-reg would like to apologise for the delay in responding to your support query, this has been caused by an
unprecedented amount of contacts to our support team.

We have reset the password for yout FPp which now logs in successfully. The new password has been emailed to the email address in your 123-reg account.


123-REG Support

My MBP took just over 2 weeks to be repaired AND the full 3 weeks to be returned to me, and even then I had to ring the AppleCentre to ask if it was fixed after Apple sent me a questionnaire to guage how well the repair had been handled. The MBP had been sitting in AppleCentre Liverpool for 7 DAYS and no-one had rang me. Now I have experience of the maxim "great product, shit customer service". I still continue to endorse the Apple product over the Windows/PC platform anyday but just wish Apple would finally get their act together.


That's the end of the diatribe, I promise.

Friday, 31 August 2007

Honesty Room

Who said digital media is easy?

I started this post over a week ago and it has been delayed due to the keyboard on my brand new laptop and trackpad breaking on me just when I have a lot of work to prepare. On top of that my webspace server has deemed itself "full" and wont let me upload any assets despite the fact I know it isn't "full". So I am completing this post typing on a usb keyboard plugged into my laptop which is now acting as a desktop machine instead of being wireless and mobile, whilst preparing two presentations on digital media. Mmmm… I'm really biting my tongue tonight.

Those of you who are astute will realise I have been reading Bill Moggridge's excellent book Designing Interactions, nearly 800 pages of great information on designing interactions. As Helen Walter of Business Week describes the book it's "part history lesson, part computer science thesis, part design education, part personal design philosophy". More than that I found it really inspirational and the best £25 I've professionally spent. I have thoroughly enjoyed each contributors' stories tracing a variety of differing interactions from inspiration to final outcome, and each chapter is full of my highlighted paragraphs and annotations.

An annotated page from Designing Interactions will appear as soon as the server realises it isn't full!

This book is one of many I have recently read as part of my continual professional development and in a way this blog is partly to help me to formulate my own understanding of my own specialism that I teach. So some of my posts will be just that, online summations of existing theory and practice, observations, synthesis and a forum to test one's own hypotheses. I'll write more after next week as I have two presentations to make and a lesson on graphical interface design to give to a group of students from Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, alongside getting my laptop repaired. It's only 3 months old… I couldn't have overworked it THAT quickly, honest!

Friday, 17 August 2007

Self-evident interfaces and perceivable possibilities

In attempting to understand Durrell Bishop's research into self-evident design with more clarity I thank Fusewire and Alec for their comments to my previous post. Cultural mediation and perception appear to be two aspects that need considering with Bishop's thesis. With further reading around the subject I have read highlights of an interview with Bill Gaber, professor of design at Goldsmiths College in London. In this interview he cited the work of perception theorist J.J. Gibson, in particular Gibson's 1979 book on The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.

As I have an interest in human evolution and the development of human creativity (in the words of Douglas Adams "the secret is to keep banging the rocks together guys!") Gaber's thesis was understandably of interest. If, as Gaber hypothesizes, our evolution has allowed our species to benefit from perceiving what actions would be useful to our survival over those that wont, we are able to perceive, validate and combine complicated actions together such as our ancestors' stone tool-making. This outcome of perceiving the possibilities when flint is struck with another stone, mammoth meat can then be butchered for the tribe back home is disseminated through perceptual experimentation and then cultural-mediation. Each stone age tribe makes stone tools with their own twist on the technology, evolving it through an ongoing iterative process of constant development. This perceptual process is the same as we use to evolve interactive design.

Gaber in his research and work when at Xerox EuroPARC has tried to demonstrate that people can deal with graphical elements within interface designs as if they are self-evident physical objects by "thinking about the interface being a physical environment rather than being a kind of command-line-driven conversational metaphor". This is more than just creating an icon of something from the physical world and placing it into the visual design of an interface. A rewind button on a tape deck does not function in the same way as a backwards button on a physical or digital CD player. A scrub wheel does not function in exactly the same way on an iPod as it does on an analogue device. The physical function may be similar but the perceived outcome may not match the outcome. Gibson's theory refers to these perceivable possibilities for action as "affordances" and Gaber has applied Gibson's affordance theory to interactive design by attempting to peel back "the notion of affordances to its real essentials".

Has anyone read Gibson's work? I would be interested to hear if his theory has been advanced further or has been dismissed in favour of a more robust thesis. Any further reading on this matter would be greatly appreciated by myself.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Monopoly and designing interactive digital artefacts

What would happen if the design principles of Monopoly where applied to an interactive digital artefact?

In the words of Durrell Bishop the real-world is full of self-evident objects where their shape displays their mechanical properties. What if digital tools could actually be clearer in their display as to what they performed? I am not talking about icons here. I have lost too many man hours trying to decipher the icons on Microsoft Outlook Web Access when I need to send an email due to some egoist insisting on using icons they thought were >cool< that no-one else does… but I digress.

Bishop uses Monopoly to explain his premise on self-evident design. The game itself has a complex system that is as complex as using a video recorder (slightly old school but hang in there) and he argues that it's functions are self-evident. The board graphics demonstrate clearly the possibilities and route around the board; the pieces show the players' proximity and the dice demonstrates the position of both the current and previous spatial position of the latest player. Houses show both ownership and risk. At each stage there is a physical signal as to where the game currently is.

If a player has to go the toilet or make a cuppa during play, when they return it doesn't take a full debrief to resume the game. Bishop's main point is that at one glance you know where you are. Using the comparison to a video recorder he suggests that videos would have been more user-friendly if at a glance the user would know what is on the tape, where the programme they want lies on the tape, how much is left on the tape and who else needs to watch the programmes remaining on the tape before it can be recorded over.

So my point of interest in Bishop's research is whether digital interface design can transcend the icon-centric bull and harness more self-evident design principles to make the usability of interactive digital artefacts more intuitive for the user. Does anyone have anything to add to this idea?