Do you know about phenomenology? If you’re an interaction designer, you should. It’s a branch of philosophy that will change the way you work, especially if you’re used to the idea of ‘invisible interfaces’. But it’s highly likely you don’t, as up until now phenomenology has been one of academia’s best kept secrets. I hope to change that by giving you a quick guide to this thought provoking field and its relevance to interaction design.
Phenomenology is, as you might guess from the name, the study of phenomena. To be exact, according to Stanford, phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.
Though it’s a branch of philosophy, it also owes a lot to psychology. In particular, if you know about Gestalt psychology you’ll see a lot of parallels. However, the most important difference is that phenomenology does not see a person and any object they perceive as being completely separate (for those who know Descartes: the subject-object paradigm). Instead the two are fundamentally linked, we are never just conscious, we are always “conscious of …” something, and so on.
Phenomenolgy is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.
This “conscious of” gets more relevant when Martin Heidegger explores using tools. In an example from “Being and Time” known as “Heidegger’s hammer”, he describes the hammer shifting between being “present-at-hand” and “ready-to-hand”. When we pick up the hammer, it’s “present-at-hand”: we can feel its weight, texture, and perceive it as being something separate from us. Once we start using it to hammer a nail, it becomes “ready-to-hand”: we act through it, and in a way forget that it’s there. Once we stop, it’s “present-at-hand” again. What’s important is that it disappears through use but can always come back.
However, using the body comes to the fore with the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In his book “The Phenomenology of Perception”, he describes us as perceiving the world as we do because of our bodies (two eyes facing forwards, standing upright etc). What’s more, our perception of our body isn’t necessarily the same as our body itself: when we use an object, it becomes part of our body:
To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body. Habit expresses our power of dilating our being in the world… (p 143)
This may seem pretty much the same as Heidegger, but there’s an important difference: the object does not disappear. Instead it becomes part of us. Take the example of using a car. No one who drives would ever say the car disappears. Instead, through sitting in the seat, putting your hands on the steering wheel and your feet on the pedals and starting the motor, it becomes an extension of you. The car doesn’t become invisible, your bodily awareness expands to include the car.
The final aspect of phenomenology most worth touching on is about learning. Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty both agree that there is no such thing as a priori knowledge; knowledge from a higher consciousness (it may sound strange now, but a lot of philsophy assumed this!) and that instead we learn through doing, and in doing so create flexible ways to carry out actions. Hubert Dreyfus describes these as ‘purposeful without purpose’.
How it is relevant
Over the last few years, we’ve seen the way people relate to digital devices completely change. Thanks to the popularity of laptops and smartphones, people are no longer using one eye, one finger and their ears to interact with their computers. (See my previous post for more about that paradigm)
How do we design for this new way of using devices? In the desktop era, many designers used semiotics (the study of signs) to help inform their work. But now, as we use more of our bodies to manipulate computing devices, we need another framework. That is phenomenology. It helps us get away from the idea of the “invisible interface”, and instead look at the how our interactions are “embodied” (Paul Dourish) or “coupled”.
Taking a phenomenological approach, it’s easy to see why the Wii has been such a runaway success: the controller is pretty much Heidegger’s hammer gone digital. (However, it’s worth noting that it is almost a gestural device, which is something different altogether).Portable devices require a bit more thought – unlike Heidegger’s hammer or Merleau Ponty’s blind man’s stick, they have the extra layer of the virtual domain. In these cases, it is how the physical interactions relate to the virtual ones that can be considered by phenomenology.
Schultze and Webber explain that with the Palm, it’s the action of taking it out of its holster:
When you unholster a Blackberry, you don’t need to turn on or unlock the keypad. Perhaps this makes it easier to “act through” the physical device to directly manipulate the data of emails and appointments.
From a more computational perspective, it also helps us understand how we learn things through doing. Hubert Dreyfus, arguably the world’s best interpreter of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, showed this in the 1970s when his book “What Computers Can’t Do” correctly predicted that artificial intelligence would be a failure. He used phenomenology to show that assuming people learn using rigid systems of knowledge was wrong.
For those who want to try and find a quick way into phenomenology, Hubert Dreyfus has a number of readable articles (his paper “The Current Relevance of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Embodiment” is particularly useful). For more of a design bent, Paul Dourish’s (albeit academic) book “Where The Action Is” looks at social computing and tangible interaction along with phenomenology. Those who are interested in mobile communications should look at Myerson’s “Heidegger, Habermas and the Mobile Phone” (though the book is beginning to date as mobile phones become more like computers).
For those who want to deep dive into phenomenology, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are where to go: Heidegger’s “Being and Time” lays the groundwork, while Merleau-Ponty’s “The Phenomenology of Perception” deals with the main area that Heidegger did not cover, namely the body. However, be warned that neither are easy going (Dreyfus suggests that Heidegger is dense to the point of being cryptic and Merleau-Ponty is badly written!). If you choose to go that far, for Heidegger at least there is a great resource to help you: Hubert Dreyfus’s Berkeley lectures are freely available from Berkeley or iTunes.