Suggested reading: Hallnäs, L., & Redström, J. (2002). From use to presence: On the expressions and aesthetics of everyday computational things.

When investigating how we frame technology in the design process, and specifically technology that produces data, I found this publication by Lars Hallnäs and Johan Redström, published in 2003 in the journal “ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction”. The article raises a few key points that are instrumental to research the role we, as researchers and designers, have in introducing new technologies to the general public.

In particular, the authors highlight the complementarity between “use” and “presence” of technological objects, and how we have extensive methods and techniques to evaluate “use” but not enough to evaluate “presence” of technological artefacts.

In interaction design for computer systems, use is traditionally in focus when determining design variables and their instantiation. We seek a solution that satisfies the basic criteria for usability such as efficiency in use, low error rate, and support for recovery from error, based on a general knowledge about what to do and what not to do to meet such criteria. […] If we instead turn to artifacts as they are defined in terms of their place and role in everyday life—an existential definition—the situation is quite different. There is no longer a well-defined general notion of use that will cover all these different definitions in sufficiently many nontrivial cases.

The set of descriptors (or adjectives) that we use to describe technology frames it in a way that well functioning designs and products perhaps avoid discourse on their role as part of our everyday life and, from a larger point of view, as part of society.

That people sit down in the chair belongs to the expression of the chair, but the users disappear as we refrain from referring to why they sit down and what they are doing sitting in the chair.

The authors argue that a big part of how to design for presence rests on “aesthetics”, and how aesthetics become an integral part of the identity of design objects. Aesthetics is closely related to the concepts of “space” and “time”: interaction with design objects may be ephemeral, but their “dwelling” (or their peripheral persistence) may last years.

Hallnäs and Redström adopt a Critical Design standpoint to construct a framing that brings “presence” into the center of the design activity. As a speculative exercise, they try to reframe a “phone” as an conceptual artefact that focuses on atomical expressions of its uses:

To do this, we consider its expressions [the phone’s, nda] in various elementary acts of phoning, such as the following: writing, listening, talking, sending, being open for communication, being connected, waiting, communicating etc. […] However, thinking about how a mobile phone expresses itself in acts of waiting, listening, talking, etc., is clearly different from thinking about what we use it for. […] What does, for instance, “waiting” mean in the design of a phone?

Framing computational objects with this point of view opens up discussion and reflection on how we, as designers, construct narratives and metaphors to make technology understandable (or not) in design products.

Enlarging the scope of presence to “data” as a design artifact

This stance on technology and computational objects mainly refers to the field of Human-Computer Interaction, the ontological meaning of this interaction and its implications. However, it could be expanded to designing with data as well: specifically, “designing for presence” could be a meaningful exercise in evaluating and pondering how technology can be used to capture user’s data without their full awareness from a designer’s standpoint.

What would it mean to design the “presence” of personal data? What are the possible expressions and aesthetics that convey their identity? In this space, communication design can play a pivotal role in exploring how aesthetics and expression of data can convey their presence in either everyday life or society.

Full paper: From use to presence: on the expressions and aesthetics of everyday computational things: ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction: Vol 9, No 2

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