Saturday, 27 November 2010

What it's all about… (I hope)

I am interested in the aesthetics of interaction, specifically visualising and facilitating behavioural change in the user’s actions for the benefit of the user. My own journey into interaction design has come through my native design discipline of Visual Communication, and it’s design outcomes of graphic design and illustration. For too long Visual Communication’s contribution to the design of better interactions has (wrongly) been at the end of the design, engineering or construction process - “doing” the aesthetic bit, the artifice. Over the Twentieth century the design outcomes of graphic design and illustration have become so “deeply ingrained in the texture of daily life that (they are) taken for granted” (Crowley, 2004). The misconception that graphic designers are merely the ‘decorationists/dictators of style’ (Laurel, 2003), or just contribute ‘added value’ (Petersen et al., 2004) belies a perceived prejudice based on its commercial service to marketing and advertising. This is unfortunate as Visual Communication’s outcomes go beyond mere decoration, and beyond subservience to consumerism. It leaves out so much of the intellectual design process, and the emotional and social contexts (Kolko, 2010, p102) that the discipline draws from, I am going to suggest a way Visual Communication can be influential earlier in the process of designing interactions.

The visual is a central communication channel in humans’ ability to communicate; together with vocal, touch and smell. Neuroscience, together with anthropology, is even beginning to shed light on understanding our ancient visual communication skills, unlocking our implicit, experiential capacity for communication (Lewis-Williams, 2004). Although the original meanings and messages contained within the earliest images of Visual Communication such as cave paintings are no longer explicitly understood, the power of the visual resonates over millennia. It is clear that the images do encapsulate meaning, we have the semiotic signifiers but what is signified is culturally lost to us. It is within that semiotic framework that is still used that modern designers now use word and image effectively to communicate. As such they have developed the visual culture of 20th and 21st century life, shaping new aesthetic forms across a variety of old and new media, and changing human behaviour as a result. This is why I am interested in using Visual Communication as an influence on designing better interactions. The aesthetic is crucial in designing for use of an interaction and is linked into usability in many ways that can not be measured. Tractinsky (2004) has gone some way to measure the effects of aesthetics on interactions, but aesthetics can only be truly understood qualitatively. I will, in this paper, suggest that this understanding can be done using a pragmatist philosophical view of aesthetics, and the visualising of a phenomenological methodology to interpret experience as directly from the viewpoint of the user as possible. In both cases I will present an argument, both theoretical and practical, on how Visual Communication can help in this. I have two main themes: the connecting of Visual Communication to HCI through a phenomenological study of ‘aesthetics of use’ to understand the phenomenon; and that Visual Communication is a facilitator for behavioural change and therefore well placed to confidently contribute to both design of interactions and ‘aesthetics of use’.
The use of a phenomenological methodology draws on Heideggerian Hermeneutics (1982)(1993), and is based upon a qualitative research framework proposed by Moustakas (1994) where the ‘phenomena’ of an experience can be revealed, which is beyond the reach of quantitative measurement. Moustakas’ framework is adapted to an interpretative phenomenological model using the guidance of van Manen’s (1990) suggestions. Within Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research Harrison (2007) has been researching into how to qualitatively understand experience. In a pragmatic philosophical way the meaning of what is experienced is “constructed on the fly, often collaboratively, by people in specific contexts and situations, and therefore that interaction itself is an essential element in meaning construction.” (p7). This meaning construction is interpretable and is “irreducibly connected to the viewpoints, interactions, histories, and local resources available to those making sense” of the experience (p7). This HCI perspective allows for synergy with the strengths of Visual Communication, and which can provide an alternative methodology within which to study the ‘aesthetics of use’.

In the first section of this paper I will expand upon my rationale behind my argument of repositioning Visual Communication as an influence upon Interaction Design. I will expand this rationale with a review of the literature strengthening the argument for facilitation for behavioural change, and the use of phenomenology to connect Visual Communication to HCI, in order to understand actual experience of behaviour. The following sections will explain the methods I am engaging to practically create a visual phenomenological methodology, and the initial results of this visual research. Finally I will end with a discussion of the directions, strengths and weaknesses of the current approach. Future work will be discussed before reaching a conclusion.

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