How bodies matter

Five themes for designing tangible interactions.

One of the best reads on tangible interactions I came across lately is a paper from Standford Univeristy HCI Research group. It is titled: How Bodies Matter: Five Themes for Interaction design. In it they use theories from psychology, sociology and philosophy to come up with five themes for designing tangible interactions. Because they bring all these sciences together on one subject, it offers some interesting insights in the field of tangible interactions.

The themes

1. Thinking through doing – Here they discuss how the body and mind are deeply integrated and how they co-produce learning and reasoning. It makes you realize how important tangible interactions are throughout our lives. Thinking/learning through doing is the way we learned how to walk, talk and ride a bicycle. Even the way we’ve been able to create a general understanding of our direct environment is a product of such interactions.

Gestures also play a big role in this process. It is said that next to just being a visual or sensory aid, they also lighten the cognitive load. Even blind people use gestures. A interesting conclusion they draw here is that systems which constrain our gestural abilities are likely to hinder our thinking and communications. They make a reference here to the mouse and keyboard.

Another interesting point they make is about epistemic action (the way we manipulate the environment to get a better understanding of things). In a game of Tetris, when someone gets better, the amount that he/she rotates the block before it is placed between the others, actually increases instead of decreases. It’s the same with scrabble; players that are better, move around the letters on their plate way more often than others.

2. Perfomance – With this they mean the complex performance of what our bodies are capable of. How we are able to master the use of an object to such an extend that it becomes an extension of ourselves is quite extraordinary when you think about it. Surgeons and musicians are an example they use. They do this every day, using their hands to operate their tools. Yet such rich interactions are hardly used in today’s human-computer interaction.

3. Visibility – This is about the the role of objects in collaboration and cooperation. Here they refer to a study about the use of flight strips in air traffic control. Air traffic controllers used these paper flight strips to make a physical representation of the airplanes. The outcome was that the person was managing the strips he had laying down in front of him thereby managing the air traffic, not the other way around. Visibility facilitates coordination.

But there are more ways visibility plays a role. Think about how we can learn skills by looking at someone else performing a task. Or why we still go to concerts while we can also listen to the music at home.

4. Risk – Tangible interactions come with a certain risk. Where we can undo our actions in a digital environment, in a physical environment they are often permanent. Therefore it demands more commitment and trust to perform a physical action compared to a virtual one.

Because there is more risk involved, people also tend to have a bigger sense of personal responsibility. That’s partially due because the consequences of their acts are visible and there for others to see. An interesting example of this which isn’t mentioned in the paper is Hans Monderman’s approach to road engineering. He was a Dutch road engineer and innovator who came up with the idea to make roads look more dangerous, and as a result to that, they became more safe. This was al due to the fact that people payed better attention.

5. Thickness of practice – This is about the tangible vs. the intangible. Technology has provided us with reliable and accurate systems. A intangible replacement for the tangible. The point they’re trying to make here is that though intangible solutions have their advantages, we should take great care before replacing the tangible with the intangible without reflecting upon it. There is just so much in the physical world we could benefit from.

Where did all the tangible interactions go?

That’s what this paper made wonder. How can it be that today’s most widely used human-computer interaction is still based on a mouse and keyboard. Tangible interactions play such an important role throughout our lives. Even in our design process, almost every time when we need to get creative or get more insight into something, we result in tangible methods. We start sketching on paper or brainstorming on a whiteboard or with post-its, we create physical prototypes or do field research.

I believe that a tight cooperation of the tangible and intangible can result in a much richer experience. Good progress is being made nowadays. Tangible interactions are starting to enter the field of mainstream human-computer interaction (look at the iphone or the nintendo Wii). However it’s still far from reaching it’s full potential.

The paper is called: ‘How Bodies Matter: Five Themes for Interaction Design’ and is written by Scott R. Klemmer, Björn Hartman and Leila Takayama. It is published in 2006 and can be found here amongst other Stanford HCI publications. It’s an absolute must read for everyone involved in experience design.

Dennis Koks

Dennis Koks (1987, The Netherlands) is a designer | conceptual thinker for interactive media and co-founder of Transparent Spaces. Dennis is fascinated about the social impact of interactive design and how it can improve our daily lives.

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