MPhil Transfer 2011

MPhil Transfer Document

Visual Communication and the Aesthetics of Use: A Visual Phenomenological Methodology

© Dave Wood 2011
MPhil/PhD Visual Communication
(Practice-based) Part-time Student
Edinburgh College of Art

Chris Speed, Mark Wright, Simon Biggs

As a part-time ECA postgraduate student I am proposing my transfer to complete a practice-based PhD in Visual communication. My researched thesis is an inquiry into a new practical Visual Phenomenological Methodology to aid interaction designers to design better interactions. This is proposed by using visual hermeneutic interpretation of collected “sensory data” to reveal to a designer the phenomenological structure of a studied experience. The development of a hermeneutic phenomenological framework to generate visually interpreted “inspirational data” will enable interaction designers to design from a fresh perspective of proximity to their users. By understanding the experiences a user actually has within an interaction, the designers can inform their future design decisions based on users' aesthetic perception of what users (want to) experience.

In synthesising Visual Communication methods with phenomenological research methods, Visual Communication can demonstrate its worth in the development of the ‘aesthetics of use’ beyond the ‘aesthetics of surface’. The creation of such a design methodology would cultivate a closer alignment between HCI and Visual Communication, repositioning it as a fresh influence over Interaction Design much earlier in the idea-generation and modelling phases. This paper will present my thesis in a context that argues for a successful transfer from MPhil to PhD in order to complete the doctorate. In this paper I succinctly introduce the framework and area of study before explaining my research plan. This plan includes research questions, methodology, timeframe and proposed PhD chapter titles. It will end with a discussion of work completed to date including peer reviewed papers and practical project work. The appendices include more detail on aspects of the practical work beyond the scope of the main paper.  

Beyond the help and guidance of my supervisors, I would like to thank Kate Ho from Interface 3, New Media Scotland and Mark Daniels for their support in making the research project Internal | External 2010 possible to run at Inspace during November 2010.

1. Introduction

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 through the ‘aesthetics of use’1. 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 been at the end of the design, engineering or construction process - “doing” the aesthetic bit, the artifice.
This is unfortunate as Visual Communication’s outcomes go beyond mere decoration, and beyond service to consumerism (Laurel, 2003, p16). It leaves out so much of the intellectual design process, and the emotional and social contexts (Kolko, 2010, p102) that the discipline draws from. This research will present an argument for how Visual Communication can be influential much earlier in the process of designing interactions, offering valuable inspiration for the ‘aesthetics of use’. The following sections will explain my research plan to develop a Visual Phenomenological Methodology to interpret the themes of an experience to inspire the design of better interactions. I propose that a development of a Visual Phenomenological Methodology will enable designers to understand an experience from the point of view of their audience to aid better user-centred design. Finally I will end with a discussion of the directions, strengths and weaknesses of my research currently undertaken. Future work will be discussed based upon my proposed framework for the structuring of both the practice-based creative work and the written thesis.

The Visual Communication methods I propose here are designed to reveal the phenomenological structure of an experience to a designer through the eyes of their target audience, rather than by ethnographic cultural or motivational influences. Initially this will enable Interaction Designers during their idea-generation and modelling phases to understand the revealed multi-dimensional and multi-layered meaning or ‘essence’ (van Manen, 1990, p78) of an experience, based not on user needs but on a user’s aesthetic perception of what they (want to) experience. This is also an alternative to the goal-orientated persona (Cooper, 2007, p20). This Visual Phenomenological Methodology is designed to connect with the HCI community whom are working within Harrison’s Phenomenological Matrix (Harrison et al., 2007), as a method to capture and visually understand the phenomenon of experience. I propose also that my visual adaptation of the established phenomenological methods would become a new qualitative model.

2. Framework and Area of Study

2.1 Area of Study
In the first section of my practice-based MPhil transfer document, I will expand upon the rationale behind my argument of repositioning Visual Communication again as an influence upon Interaction Design to design better interactions. I will present an argument, both theoretical and practical, as to how Visual Communication can be re-positioned as a creative facilitator to interpret experience, as directly from the viewpoint of the user as possible, to help interaction designers understand the experience they are designing for. To achieve this I have two main themes to develop in my PhD:

1. That Visual Communication is a facilitator for behavioural change, and therefore well placed to confidently facilitate the design of better interactions by adopting a phenomenological theoretical framework to visually interpret the phenomenal themes of an experience;
2. The connecting of Visual Communication to HCI through a phenomenological study of ‘aesthetics of use’ to ultimately support the design of better interactions.

In addition, this section will provide a literature review to place into context a carefully structured synthesis of theory and practice. To ensure that the reader can follow this synthesis I will need to explain several key different steps in my thesis to reposition Visual Communication’s influence. In the following sub-sections I will define the specific use of the term aesthetics. This is in order to focus on aesthetic experience and the phenomenology of enjoyment; both important factors involved in arguing for Visual Communication’s focus upon the ‘aesthetics of use’. I will then go on to define Visual Communication as a facilitator of behavioural change. This point begins to connect Visual Communication to a phenomenological position.

To connect the ‘aesthetics of use’ to Interaction Design and I will show where HCI, as an influence on Interaction Design, has now shifted to a phenomenological paradigm. This paradigm shift will be important in demonstrating where Visual Communication’s repositioning can be secured. Before I move onto explain the Research Plan I will discuss phenomenology as a research methodology, which school of phenomenology I will use, and briefly, prior uses of phenomenology in design. This will allow me to end this section on outlining a visual framework to phenomenologically interpret the themes of an experience.

2.2 Aesthetic Experience & The Phenomenology of Enjoyment
To advance my thesis I will first briefly define the use of the term ‘aesthetics’ to ensure that it is clearly understood from both Visual Communication and HCI perspectives. I will then discuss what is meant by an aesthetic experience, and lead onto a phenomenology of enjoyment before defining Visual Communication.
Visual Communication has always understood that higher aesthetic values aid the enjoyable continuation of an experience until consummation. Aesthetics within Visual Communication has three essential functions: to attract, to retain attention and to communicate (Frascara, 2004, p85). Aesthetics specifically serves the purpose to keep active in the mind of the participant their immediate options for continuing the designed experience, through the structuring of the “perceptual, emotional, and cognitive processes to be followed by the viewer” (ibid., p65). This goes beyond the issues of aesthetics of form and surface, into use. To understand this experience of an aesthetic in use, psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentimihalyi in his research on FLOW (1990) lists eight major components of a phenomenology of enjoyment that frames an aesthetic experience. Before discussing these components I’ll first briefly establish a pragmatist view of aesthetics, one which the HCI community have embraced, which will be used throughout my thesis.

Classical Aesthetics places a creator as someone identifying and creating works that can be appreciated through immediacy, and understood from direct perception by the viewer. In this context the human is a processor constructing disembodied independent realities that are based on perception and critical cognition. This disembodied, cognitive approach to aesthetics leaves out an important factor that pragmatist philosopher John Dewey [1859-1952] argued should be considered - the embodied experience of the person (1980). With Dewey’s thesis, later continued by Shusterman (1992), he argued that we do not see aesthetics solely cognitively but experience it emotionally as embodied subjects. Therefore a pragmatic position is more able to accommodate an embodied experiential understanding of aesthetics beyond the surface and into use, taking into account emotion, intellect and engagement.
Dewey describes aesthetic experience as the “conversion of resistance and tensions, of excitations that in themselves are temptations to diversion, into a movement toward an inclusive and fulfilling close” (1980, p58). From a pragmatist perspective an aesthetic experience is shaped not only through visuals, touch, smell, and hearing, but also from the past experiences of the individual experiencing it. But past experiences can at times be contradictory, ambiguous or complex. An aesthetic experience emerges from a lived experience, where the self can be lost in the moment but can return, feeling nourished and contented, the “irreducible totality of people acting, sensing, thinking, feeling, and making meaning in a setting, including the perception and sensation of their own actions” (McCarthy and Wright, 2004, p85). Dourish suggests from a pragmatist perspective that the world is “already filled with meaning. Its meaning is to be found in the way in which it reveals itself to us as being available for our actions” (2004, p116), and that a foundational understanding of embodied interaction can be made from a perspective that phenomenology affords. Dourish is aware that a phenomenological perspective framed using pragmatist aesthetics is only one perspective amongst others that has embodiment as a central focus. But he argues that phenomenology looks at “the pretheoretical, prerational world of everyday experience” (p106) making phenomenology a relevant starting point to account for the relationality between meaning and action.

Before embracing a pragmatist position on aesthetics, HCI’s established apprehension was a tradition of seeing aesthetics as “inversely proportional” to usability (Ahmed et al., 2009, p564), with warnings as to negative and detrimental affects upon efficient functionality (Tractinsky, 2004). Therefore aesthetics had no use or function beyond a pure intrinsic value (often reduced to the shorthand term ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful’). This is due to a functionalist assumption that everything is reducible to a ‘means-end’ equation, an equation to define a capacity to produce a single desired result or effect. Both Dewey, followed by Shusterman, have attempted to correct this error of thought on aesthetics. Shusterman argues that the function and value of aesthetics lies not in a specialised ‘means-end’ but in a more universal way of serving a variety of ends. He says that aesthetics enhances, invigorates and vitalises our immediate environment thus “aiding our achievement of whatever further ends we pursue. [Aesthetics] is thus at once instrumentally valuable and satisfying in itself” (Shusterman, 1992, p9), something that Interaction Design founder Bill Moggridge called a “lasting satisfaction and enjoyment” (2007, p14) in the design of better interactions. HCI has come to see that to understand interaction from an emotive, experiential, aesthetic position it must do so pragmatically from a phenomenological socio-cultural context (Petersen et al., 2004, p270). Lim et al. in their paper on Interaction Gestalt (2007) draw upon embodiment in parallel with symbolic representations (semiotics of the interface) where aesthetics is appropriated through both the analytical mind, and embodied experience. Therefore the design of an aesthetic, interactive experience needs to be inter-dependent with both body and mind working together.

Csikszentimihalyi’s eight components of the phenomenology of enjoyment gives a framework for how this inter-dependence is achieved. The components are: a chance of completing a task; concentration on actions; action has clear goals; immediate feedback on actions; a deep but effortless involvement; a sense of control over own actions; concern for the self disappears (yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger afterwards); and the sense of the duration of time is altered (p49). In these phenomenological components the four existentials of spatiality, corporeality, temporality and relationality (van Manen, 1990, p101) manifest themselves. McCarthy and Wright argue that it is the dynamic involving “cumulation, conservation, tension and anticipation” (p64) within a user that is always moving toward a fulfilment. During which the diversion away from natural obstacles, resistances and tensions are overcome, leading toward a culmination that is both fulfilling and inclusive (Dewey, 1980). This instrumentality of means-end is not exclusively functional but emotionally felt. It sits within an existential situation where the event is always becoming, conditional on the context and the temporality of a situated action (Suchman, 1987). I will return to phenomenology soon, but first I need to discuss both Visual Communication and Interaction Design as design disciplines.

2.3 Visual Communication
Visual Communication is a design discipline focused upon communication through manipulating the relationship between text | image. Within this discipline the main design outcomes are graphic design, illustration, motion design and interface design. The discipline’s name places the emphasis upon the method (design), the objective (communication) and the medium (visual), rather than just the creation of graphic forms (outcomes). (Frascara, 2004, p4). 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. Graphic design certainly is a commercial activity with a connection to marketing and advertising, but it performs beyond mere subservience to business models. Although designers traditionally have focused upon practice, there is a theoretical basis to their work that maximises the transmission of the central message within their design solutions.

Barnard says that “communication is a cultural phenomenon, not an engineering problem” (2005, p28) by which he means that this construction can only be investigated semiotically and through qualitative methods. Jorge Frascara (2004) attempts to reposition the understanding of Visual Communication as a proactive facilitator of behavioural change. The core of their arguments rests in the relationship between text | image to incite a change of behaviour in the viewer, using the rhetorical and semiotic structure underlying this relationship. Frascara says, “It would be a fundamental error to believe that in design one can deal with the form independent of content, or with sensorial, independent of the cognitive and the emotional.” (2004, p65). Barnard folds into this the semiological roots of Visual Communication, “Signs and codes are the bases of meanings in semiology. And signs and codes are explained in terms of learned and variable cultural rules.” (2005, p28).

The sender of the message operates from a perspective of intention; the messenger (the designer) operates from a perspective of proximity; and the receiver reacts interpretively from a perspective of reception using their feelings and perception (Bergström, 2008, pp32-33). The materials to achieve this go beyond the printed page, and include typography, colour, form, texture, line, weight, composition to create discourse and emotional engagement with the communication. The shaping and selecting of the most apt visual combination of elements is important in order to transmit an intended message. The semiotic process of the visual signifier leading to a signified communication to an audience is usually within a specific socio-cultural context, and is intended to rhetorically elicit some form of behavioural change in the audience. The designer’s skill and ability to do this effectively is more complex than it first appears, and less self-serving and subjective the more it is understood. It is true, to a degree, that to some designers their work is implicit and creatively intuitive and devoid of theoretical rules; but the discipline is deeper than this.

Neuroscience, together with anthropology, is beginning to shed light on understanding our 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 contextual framework that contemporary Visual Communication designers have developed a visual culture of 20th and 21st century life (Crowley, 2004), interpreting word and image effectively to communicate data in new aesthetic forms across a variety of old and new media. In doing so designers are changing human behaviour by tangible and experiential engagement with physical or digital designed artefacts, ideas or in situations; interpreting and balancing the “tension between structure and freedom” (Helfand, 2001, p61). Interaction designer Jon Kolko sees this contextual framework as a methodology to connect “people, technology, and the emotional qualities of sensory data” (2010, p41) together to interpret the effectiveness, scalability, usability and engagement of the solution. His use of the term “sensory data” suggests that data is mediated in some way. If data is to be understood as sensory with emotional qualities, then pragmatically an aesthetic is emerging. This is a phenomenological position. Usability and functionalism is just another form of a structured clarity, and Visual Communication can use the freedom of a phenomenological position to reframe an influence on Interaction Design. This balancing of freedom within a structure affords the opportunity for Visual Communication to make visual the themes of an experience, through the synthesis of text | image and hermeneutic phenomenology into a practical methodology. But before I can begin to explain how I will develop such a methodology to visually interpret the ‘aesthetics of use’ to aid interaction designers to design better interactions, I first need to define the Interaction Design discipline.

2.4 Interaction Design
Interaction Design emerged as a discipline out of an overlap of several disciplines (including HCI, Industrial Design and Visual Communication) over twenty-five years ago. The term Interaction Design was coined by Bill Moggridge (2007) who felt that there was an opportunity to define a new user-centred design discipline, dedicated to creating imaginative and attractive solutions based upon real needs and desires. This would provide a designed level of aesthetic pleasure in the use of products, systems and services (p14). Kolko describes the discipline as designing a person’s physical and emotional dialogue. This is a satisfactory experience and engagement, resulting in a form of positive and enjoyable behavioural change, achievable by the interplay of aesthetics, functionality and usability that goes beyond the computer desktop screen. This “emphasizes the human side of technology” (2010, pp11-13), presenting interactive opportunities within the ‘aesthetics of use’ where aesthetic value is culturally situated.

With HCI researchers working within a phenomenological, rather than a functionalist, paradigm they are now closer to Visual Communication in exploring aesthetics, thus providing an opportunity to reposition the latter as an influence on Interaction Design. Within recent HCI research, Harrison (2007) has been inquiring into how to phenomenologically 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). HCI’s exploration of designing interactions within a Phenomenological Matrix of the user’s embodied and situated personal understanding, has moved from aesthetics being perceived as inversely proportional to usability to now “recognizing a plurality of perspectives (…) taking into account but not adjudicating the varying and perhaps conflicting perspectives of users.” (pp7-8). The move to a phenomenological paradigm allows for a profitable linkage between HCI and Visual Communication to support Interaction Design. This 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’. But before I can begin to explain my research plan I need to discuss phenomenology as a research methodology.

2.5 Phenomenology
Phenomenology is both a philosophical movement and a research methodology. In explaining phenomenology as a valid methodology Johnson (2000) clarifies that a researcher’s aim is “to describe and/or understand the meaning of the participants’ lived experiences” (p134). The tension between describe and/or understand illustrates two schools of underpinning philosophical theory that phenomenology is built upon: Husserl’s school of eidetic (descriptive) phenomenology, and Heidegger’s hermeneutic (interpretive) school (Lopez and Willis, 2004, p727). Phenomenology investigates the ‘how’ and ‘what’ meaning of a phenomenon, making known the structures of an experience through discovering its themes. As a research method, it is performed step-by-step to illustrate a phenomena by eliminating “everything that represents a prejudgment, setting aside presuppositions” to see the phenomenon in an unfettered way (Moustakas, 1994, p41), as themes that can be interpreted.

I have followed the phenomenological research literature back to Nursing sources. Nursing has long used phenomenology as a valid practice-based research methodology, and has established rigorous methods for using it. This makes the literature useful exemplars of good practice. Lopez and Willis state the importance of positioning research clearly within one of the two philosophical schools of phenomenology otherwise "it can result in research that is ambiguous in its purpose, structure, and findings" (p726). They summarise that an interpretative approach is "useful in examining contextual features of experiences that might have direct relevance to practice” and that a “critical hermeneutic framework can enable the researcher to bring to light hidden features of an experience that would be overlooked in a purely descriptive approach" (p734).

I have already stated that I propose to take a phenomenological position to align Visual Communication with progressive HCI research, as I am interested in how the themes of an aesthetic experience can phenomenologically be visualised using techniques of interpretation of text | image. Benner (1994) describes hermeneutic phenomenology’s aim as “to use indirect discourse to uncover naturally occurring concerns and meanings” (p112). It is hermeneutic phenomenology that proposes that all understanding is interpretive (Johnson, 2000, p143). My approach to such a visual methodology, within a design context, to uncover these themes is interpretative. Therefore the established phenomenological methodology I have adapted is influenced primarily by van Manen’s (1990) hermeneutic techniques, but modified with a structure suggested by Moustakas (1994).

Principally phenomenology in design has been used within product, architecture and interior design in order to understand spatial-temporal-corporeal relationships. But this has mostly been philosophically implemented and not as a practical methodology. I have discussed this at length in my third paper (Wood, 2011) that can be read in Appendix A.4, and so I will now only briefly outline it here. Within architecture, Wang and Wagner (2007) have recently attempted a mapping of phenomenological philosophy to the design process. This is a theoretical geography, and beyond the mapping discourse into phenomenology it remains theoretical rather than practical. Folkmann (2010) has within Product Design proposed a phenomenological model codifying levels of aesthetic-ness, that can be selected by a designer based upon their relevance to a particular design solution. But the focus on aesthetic-ness - the quality or state of aesthetics - appears to be a method to frame studies on design practice, rather than to help the designer design better solutions. Other models of phenomenology have employed comparative (Blackwell et al., 2009) and pedagogical (Poldma, 2003) frameworks. These two approaches use theory as a meta-study to understand and interpret studio practice rather than a design process within design itself. Finally, from another product perspective, Brown (2006) goes some way closer to a practical application of phenomenology in the design process, but his structuring of a phenomenological research methodology to apply to a designer’s thinking. His methodology falls within a descriptive model of phenomenological research, rather than a Heidegerrian interpretive model.

To summarise my position before discussing the methodology in the next section I have established that Visual Communication, as a facilitator for behavioural change is well placed to adopt a phenomenological framework to visually interpret the phenomenal themes of an experience. This repositioning of Visual Communication earlier in the design phase will create synergy with HCI within a phenomenological paradigm. This reposition I propose will influence interaction designers through a new research methodology to understand the experiences a user actually has within an interaction. I will discuss this in the next section.

3. The Practice-Based Research Plan

3.1 Research Questions

1. By adopting a phenomenological theoretical framework to visually interpret the phenomenal themes of an experience, how effective can Visual Communication be a facilitator for the design of better interactions?

2. How successful will a synthesis of Visual Communication and a hermeneutic phenomenological methodology be in repositioning the discipline as an influence on interaction design?

3.2 Aims of Methodology
Since the development of graphic design as a recognised design field (Heller, 2006), the Visual Communication discipline has explored the ‘cultural phenomena’ in order to connect, to communicate, and to alter behaviour. Its literature often discusses ‘phenomena’ but then uses other qualitative methodologies to try and understand it (Kenney, 2009) such as Grounded Theory, Ethnography etc. These qualitative methodologies, such as ethnography and anthropology, just study the context of an experience of an observed group. They uncover the group’s socio-cultural norms and proclivities, or un-social or sub-cultural variations and alternatives to the group norm. It is through a phenomenological framework that experience can be understood as directly as possible from the point of view of a person. In the next section of this document I explain the proposed framework for the Visual Phenomenological Methodology synthesising phenomenology in a visually practical way. This new methodology is more than ‘hermeneutics using pictures’ as it will be deeper and richer than mere artifice. Using “sensory data” collected from a pilot research project (see 4.4 Internal | External 2010 and Appendix A) I will develop and test the following methodology against my research questions.

As has already been highlighted in the above section on Phenomenology, design has mostly used phenomenology as an ontological inquiry into how a designer ‘designs’. This only focuses phenomenology on the study of practice instead of phenomenology’s application within practice. It may go some way to explain some design processes (Poldma, 2003; Blackwell et al., 2009) and design thinking (Folkmann, 2010), framing it with strong links to philosophical schools of thought (Wang and Wagner, 2007), but it currently falls short of providing designers with a way of understanding whom they are designing for more intimately. A visual phenomenological interpretative research methodology is very useful for a designer to understand the themes of an audience’s actual experience. Visual data is a valuable source for both understanding and inspiration. A descriptive practical phenomenological study of an experience (Brown, 2006) is only partially useful for inspiring an interaction designer to understand a particular experience directly from the perspective of their target audience.

3.3 Inspirational Data and a Hermeneutic Circle
Although description has long been sufficient to understand a phenomenon, description is not solely useful to a creative designer. Lopez and Willis (2004) summarise that an interpretative approach can "bring to light hidden features of an experience that would be overlooked in a purely descriptive approach" (p734). Visual stimuli are a valued source for inspiration, what Gaver describes as “inspirational data” (1999, p25). Gaver and his team in 1999 first developed a ‘Cultural Probe’, a kit of inspirational materials designed to elicit visual and textual “inspirational responses (…) fragmentary clues about their lives and thoughts” (Gaver et al., 2004, p53). Crabtree sees probes as being “the first stage in an ongoing and difficult process of design” (2003, p9) providing useful insights that can be explored through the design phase or through a more detailed qualitative study. The probes returned un-scientific, un-comprehensive data that a designer outlines and interprets to understand a design problem (Mattelmäki, 2006, p88) from the perspective of their target audience. Not wishing to make a distinction at this point in the research inquiry between other iterative reflexive practice-based research methods, I instead propose a continuation of Gaver’s probe’s “inspirational data” within a Phenomenological Matrix, developing a new an interpretative Visual Phenomenological Methodology to reveal the themes of felt experience. Using a visual hermeneutic circle of interpretative inquiry, this methodology will be more than ‘hermeneutics using pictures’.

A hermeneutic circle is a dialogical interpretative process between the researcher’s pre-understanding (bias) and understanding (objective) (Earle, p288) of a phenomenon. In the process fresh understanding is made by reciprocally relating the studied experience back to already existing understanding, and then that understanding back to the experience to find new insights (Parsons, 2010). In phenomenological research the process gains rigour and validity through each turn within the hermeneutic circle, externalising the structure of the studied experience as it reduces all the possible interpretations down, to understand the phenomenon in an unfettered way (Moustakas, 1994), into a deeper understanding of how that experience is structured.

By beginning with a researcher’s pre-understanding, personal bias can be identified and made explicit, so that the interpretation will result in rigorously un-biased fresh understanding (Parsons, 2010, p63). Within the narrative of each studied participant’s experience of a phenomenon themes are isolated. These rich themes may be understood as structures of a participant’s internal and external experience (van Manen, 1990). Initially each theme is taken to be of equal importance without any sense of meaning hierarchy - this is referred to within phenomenology as horizonalisation. When the themes are recombined and interpreted as a whole, they are being tested for validity and uniqueness to the particular experience under study.

It is important to quickly re-emphasise the constant connections I am making between HCI and Visual Communication. HCI academic Jeffrey Bardzell positions HCI as hermeneutic. He urges his colleagues to using a hermeneutic circle in their inquiries, as it is “not a trap to avoid, but rather an opportunity to participate in the constructive development of (HCI)” (Bardzell, 2009). My proposed Visual Phenomenological Methodology, using a four stage visual hermeneutic circle, is complimentary to Bardzell’s position and offers a practical design tool.

3.4 Visual Phenomenological Methodology
My Visual Phenomenological Methodology analyses “sensory data” (interview transcripts, mp3s, video screenshots etc.) collected using existing qualitative research tools (probes, interviews, observations etc.), but guided by a semi-structure based on Csikszentimihalyi’s eight components of the phenomenology of enjoyment. This semi-structured phenomenology exposes the four existentials of spatiality, corporeality, temporality and relationality through which the hermeneutic circle can reveal themes within each participant’s actual experience. My methodology follows a four stage visual hermeneutic circle of pre-understanding, interpreted visual reduction, imaginative variation and finally synthesis. The steps were piloted with a group of 2nd year undergraduate graphic design students in November 2010 to test the validity. What I present here is a rudimentary framework synthesising what was successful. Later in 4.5 Future Work I will discuss how this framework will be attempted in practical projects.

3.4.1 Pre-understanding:
The first phase of the visual hermeneutic circle begins with processing the “sensory data” by the researcher. But this process is based on the researcher’s personal bias, their pre-understanding or preconceptions of the themes (what Heidegger calls ‘forestructure of understanding’ (Parsons, 2010)) to the experience being studied. Each participant’s narrative testimony of the experience is identified and sectioned into separate explicit themes. These themes are identified through the researcher’s own pre-understanding, as moments within each participant’s experience.

3.4.2 Interpreted Visual Reduction:
The pre-understanding bias will be eliminated through this stage of visual interpretative reduction. This is so that a fresh understanding can emerge through the hermeneutic circle and un-biased by the researcher. Every isolated theme becomes a mini narrative that is central to that participants’ internal/external story of what the participant saw/thought/felt/experienced. Each theme can be reduced down into a rich visual that interprets, using image and typography, the main ‘essence’ (van Manen, 1990, p78) of the theme. When each interpreted theme is placed in order sequentially, they illustrate an inspirational narrative leading to a revealed meaning of that participant’s experience. This is repeated for each participant within the sample.

Those themes that are comparable with each other are then clustered together to define the core experience, beginning a process of depersonalising the experience. These composite visual themes are explicit expressions of the samples’ collective experiences, and any visual themes that are irrelevant are dismissed. Those that have been clustered are then examined for core features and are further reduced through another set of visual interpretations into composite visuals. This a reiterative visual act of interpretation through the hermeneutic circle, but remaining contextualised within the studied experience. These visual composites are at this stage susceptible to subjective and imaginative interpretation. The next phenomenological stage ensures that this is protected against.

3.4.3 Imaginative Variation:
This phenomenological stage is performed to illuminate any “invariant structural themes” (Moustakis, 1994) revealing the underlying existential structures: the temporality, spatiality, corporeality, and relationality pertaining to the studied experience; providing last minute clues to understand its core meaning. This stage in the methodology focuses on establishing the validity of the revealed meaning of the experience to arrive at a core structure for that experience. This is done by visualising imaginative variations to the composite visual themes and then re-examining them once more with the original “sensory data”. This phase is reflective and is not concerned with facts or measuring or reality, but other possible meanings to those that have been interpreted. This ensures the validity of the original interpretations and any subjectiveness is corrected before the final visual synthesis.

3.4.4 Synthesis:
This final phase of a turn through the hermeneutic circle is a visual synthesis. It is an act of severance from the personal internal experience, to externalise the experience as a structure of the experience with a beginning, middle and an end. The entire methodology up to this point has been visual interpretation, stripped of bias by any perceived or desired practical outcome. This final visual synthesis in its own right doesn’t provide a particular design solution, but works as ‘inspirational data’ providing stimulation and inspiration for a designer in a more existential way than a persona , or mental model would. This is due to the directness of the synthesis from the visuals of individual experiences reduced to a visual of the whole embodied, spatial and temporal experience. This is intended to communicate the meaning of the experience devoid of communication noise and supposition. In its own right the synthesis is a conclusive piece of Visual Communication represented with validity and all the reliability a qualitative model can provide, to show the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of experience as directly experienced.

3.5 Significance and Original Contribution to Knowledge
Within phenomenological research it has been established that visualising of data has been “central to many lines of inquiry amenable to interpretive phenomenology, particularly social practices, embodied skills, and the study of lived experience” but is not “yet well developed” (Benner, 1994, p120), and van Manen has commented that the phenomenological researcher must be “creative in finding approaches and procedures uniquely suited” (p163) to their purpose. I have taken guidance from van Manen to dovetail the new HCI research paradigm, working within Harrison’s Phenomenological Matrix, with Visual Communication’s techniques of visual manipulation to aid communication. My methodology, although related to Gaver’s ‘cultural probe’ or the established method of personas, will be discernibly different to its progenitors. My proposed methodology is an alternative to the goal-orientated persona to enable interaction designers, during their modelling phase to visualise the revealed multi-dimensional and multi-layered meaning or ‘essence’ of an experience (van Manen, 1990, p78). It naturally fuses a phenomenological methodology within a visual context, to utilise the inherent qualities of Visual Communication to demonstrate the internal and external qualities of experience.

I am radically mixing disciplines here, so my nascent research methodology will not be perfect, as it will have initial limitations and weaknesses. Therefore in my research I obviously expect to face criticism, intransigence, dismissal and even hostility from traditional graphic designers, phenomenological researchers, interaction designers and HCI colleagues. Through academic papers, conferences, workshops and symposia I will discursively engage with any criticism, using the process to constructively strengthen my position. I have already been accepted to take part in an interaction design symposium in Newcastle in July at The Second International Symposium on Culture, Creativity, and Interaction Design. I am confident that this methodology will provide a fresh approach to designing for interaction, and will be seen as an original contribution of knowledge.

4. Work Completed to Date

4.1 Research Completed to Date
At my current MPhil to PhD transition point I have written and presented three papers for international design conferences and designed an ‘experience probe’ to collect “sensory data” through a project called Internal | External 2010. In this final section I will give an overview of the papers, probe and Internal | External 2010, finally presenting a brief summary of the indicative findings to support my future research.

4.2 Published Papers
Since beginning the MPhil I have written and presented three international conference papers. Each peer-reviewed paper has explored specific areas of my research and advanced my understanding of each point I’ve established. The first paper Interaction Design: Where’s the graphic designer in the graphical user interface? (Wood, 2009) established the history and current position of Visual Communication’s influence on interaction design. In this paper I make the case for Visual Communication’s ability to freely move across disciplinary boundaries based upon precedent. This paper was presented at IASDR 2009 Conference in Seoul in 2009. To advance this idea my second paper dealt with connecting Visual Communication to HCI’s third phenomenological paradigm. Moving Across The Boundaries: Visual Communication Repositioned In Support of Interaction Design (Wood, 2010) was presented at CREATE 10 in Edinburgh in 2010. The latest paper has been peer reviewed and accepted for publication by Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal sometime in 2011. The paper entitled A Can of Worms: Has Visual Communication a Position of Influence on Aesthetics of Interaction? (Wood, 2011) establishes how phenomenology (as a research method) can and has been used in design. As a paper it presents the proposition for a Visual Phenomenological Methodology as valid. This paper was presented at the Design Principles and Practices conference in Rome in 2011 and is archived in Appendix A.4.

4.3 Internal | External 2010
This small research project took place between September and December 2011 within a gallery environment in the University of Edinburgh’s Inspace. Through participants individual immersion within an experience in a gallery context, and within a time constraint of using an interactive artefact, a “sensation of their own actions” (McCarthy and Wright, 2004, p85) was captured as “sensory data” through observation and interview, revealing rich themes of each participant’s experience. Within it I experimented with three variants of established qualitative data generating methods: an ‘experience probe,’ videoed observation, and two semi-structured contextual interviews. The implementation of this project’s methodology is detailed in Appendices A.1, A.2 and A.3. This “sensory data” will be processed and phenomenologically visually interpreted in my future PhD research projects.

4.4 Experience Probe
To prepare for the Internal | External 2010 project I designed a method to elicit “sensory data” from each research participant, that would calibrate their responsiveness to an ‘experience’ and document internally and externally phenomenologically how this manifested itself. My phenomenological ‘experience probe’ was a variant on Gaver’s ‘cultural probe’ and consisted of a DVD size tin case.

It contained two sealed tasks using various visually aesthetic and various tactile materials using metal, card, paper, plastic, wood, and stickers (see Fig. 1). Each tin performed two roles, first as a container for the tasks, and secondly when empty it became a numbered participant certificate.

The probe tasks (see Fig. 2) provided inspirational, interpretative “sensory data” through self-documentation of each participant’s own awareness and understanding of an experience. Using text | image exercises the participant’s externalised their response to ‘experience’ in a form that cannot be captured in any other way. As Mattelmäki states, “To be asked to verbalise experiences, they become more aware of them” (2006, p128) subconsciously calibrating themselves to be more responsive within the November observation. The “sensory data” collected from these probes will be used in the next stage in my research, and discussed in the next section. More detail on the use of the probe can be found in Appendices A.1 – A.3.

4.5 Future Work
My future work focuses upon developing a new Visual Phenomenological Methodology, and I propose the following two practical projects in which to do this:

4.5.1 PhD Practical Project #1: Interpreted Visual Reduction

This first project will develop the techniques of interpreted visual reduction. This project’s outcome will result in visual work, written papers and perhaps an exhibition. The “sensory data” from Task 1 of my probe (Fig. 3) and the contextual interview (Fig. 4) will be used. Out of a sample of eleven participants I will initially use three participants experiences to perfect the interpretative skills needed to perform the forestructuring, visual reduction, clustering and further reduction. By selecting only an initial set of three it allows for enough “sensory data” to repeat the process if required to perfect the method.

This first project will essentially be testing the first part of the methodology, which is heavily interpretative and reductive. It will result not in a conclusion but a framework that can be further applied.

4.5.2 PhD Practical Project #2: Imaginative Variation & Synthesis

The second project will build upon the knowledge gained from the first project and then take the methodology towards a full conclusion. This project’s outcome will also result in visual work, written papers and perhaps an exhibition, and will conclude my PhD inquiry. This final project will use as “sensory data” the footage of the observation (Figs. 5 & 6), Task 2 of the probe (Fig. 7) and the final contextual interview. Its purpose is to develop from the practical insight into interpretive visual reduction into imaginative variation, and on to a final synthesis. These last two stages will be the main objective behind the second project.

This second project will essentially be testing the whole of the methodology leading toward a synthesis of a visual interpretation of an experience. The results of these two projects will be discussed in my final PhD dissertation. In this document I will also discuss both future post-doctoral/industrial application of the methodology and a risk assessment in case the final findings are inconclusive.


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6. Appendices

The first three appendices explain how I gathered the “sensory data” to be used in the Visual Phenomenological Methodology. The fourth appendix is a copy of my latest peer-reviewed paper.

A.1 Applying the Experience Probe
The first ‘experience probe’ task comprised of four postcards with four separate images on the front and four separate questions on the reverse (see Fig. 3a). This combination was in every participant’s pack. The images and questions were only related on an abstract level, and the images were carefully selected to provoke the participant to question their significance to the questions, to inspire them to think deeper about their potential answers. The four questions were: (1) What is experience? (2) What is your most enjoyable experience? (3) Tell me of an experience you’ve had where you remember how it began, and how it ended… (4) What does performing this task make you feel? The participants could respond to the questions in any way they preferred. The majority of participants opted for a textual response (see Fig. 3b). One participant provided their response verbally. This task helped the participants to begin to heighten their awareness of their own previous experiences, readily calibrating themselves for the observation.

The second task comprised of a photo of the interactive device used in the observation on rubberised paper and jewellery stickers (see Fig. 7a). This was an exercise in emotional collage, where the participants could use the image and stickers to attribute their thoughts and emotions to the image of the artefact. Participants were advised at the end of their observation to begin Task 2 as soon as possible. This would afford the participant an immediate opportunity to record their experience (see Fig. 7b). This playfulness was important in order to keep the participant thinking about a phenomenon from their perspective. The image of the artefact was digitally distressed, through the application of subtle visual noise to the pictures, in order to hierarchically indicate that the artefact was subservient to the attributed emotional labelling of the stickers. This task was discussed in the first part of the final interview.

A.2 Contextual Interviews
A semi-structured contextual interview is an established qualitative method, and is central to phenomenological research (Barriball & While, 1994; Sorrell & Redmond, 1995; Annells, 1996; Earle, 2010). van Manen (1990) reminds the researcher to “keep the question (of the meaning of the phenomenon) open, to keep (…) the interviewee oriented to the substance of the thing being questioned” (p98). Johnson (2000) paraphrases Heidegger’s view that meaning “is always in the context of something” and that meaning “arises not from consciousness, but from the essential finitude of being human” (p135). The semi-structured nature of an interview acknowledges an individual’s use and understanding of vocabulary. Words may mean different things to each person. To aid validity, reliability and comparability the questions asked where tailored to each individual participant, but conveyed an equivalence of meaning that allowed comparison between all the participants’ answers (Barriball & While, 1994).

Within Internal | External 2010 there were two contextual interviews lasting on average forty-five minutes each. The pre-observation interviews took place during October, and the post-observation interview was in November. Each participant’s semi-structured interview was recorded using an iPhone app so that it could be transcribed, analysed, and archived for future use. The semi-structure of each interview was based upon a framework using Csikszentimihalyi’s eight major components of a phenomenology of enjoyment. The components were never explicitly communicated to the participants, as this would influence the participants’ reflections of their experiences. The interview questions encouraged each participant to expand upon their probe tasks and observation experience, affording deeper and richer detail in their reflections. To capture this detail notes were taken of the participants’ responses in accordance with established qualitative methods (see Fig. 4). These notes supplemented the recorded audio and videos of the observations. These interviews provided transcripts of the participants’ own descriptions of what they experienced, that together with the probe tasks and video footage can be phenomenologically processed in the development of a Visual Phenomenological Methodology.

A.3 Observations
Observation as a valid data collection or generation tool within qualitative and quantitive research has long been acknowledged academically. This can be traced as far back as Aristotle who believed that “knowledge could be gained at a fundamental level through the empirical observation and cataloging of phenomenon” (Brown, 2005, p24). Creswell (2003) advises generally on the options, advantages and limitations of observation (p186) in regard to designing a qualitative study. But in his later work (2007) he discusses observation in more depth regarding recording protocols and field-notes.

The observations (see Fig. 5) took place over a two-day period at the beginning of November within the semi-controlled environment of Inspace. The interactive artefact to be used by the participants could have taken any form, as long as it had interesting default applications that could be used. The observation’s focus was to capture experience and not to test the artefact or the applications. But the artefact did need to be suitably different to anything the participants may have encountered in their everyday life. My first choice was an interactive Puffersphere, a large spherical touch-sensitive globe, but this wasn’t calibrated in time for the observation. A second choice was a touchscreen PC borrowed from Interface 3. This was laid flat so that it appeared to be a large interactive tablet.

To ensure that the observation maintained personal objective independence from the researcher, each participant was given a minimal of instruction on how to use the artefact. The interactive artefact had six default applications the participants could explore in any way they wanted. Each participant did have a maximum of thirty minutes observation time, and they could control that time in any way they wanted. They could at any time bring the observation to a halt.

In lieu of traditional field-notation the observation was recorded using a small handheld digital video camera from a distance of about two metres on zoom. This allowed myself as the observer to take a non-participatory position within the observation, remaining on the periphery of the participants eye-line. This afforded the participant the opportunity to concentrate upon their actions within their allotted time, with no communication with myself (except with hardware technical problems). Therefore the video captured their body language during this set experience generating external visual data of the participants’ actions. As it took place within a working semi-controlled gallery environment any distractions created by the environment could be recorded as legitimate variables between observations (see Fig. 6). This footage would then be analysed, and discussed at the post-observation interview to reveal the participant’s own perspectives and internal processes of their experience.

A.4 Latest Academic Paper
A Can of Worms: Has Visual Communication a Position of Influence on Aesthetics of Interaction? my third peer-reviewed academic paper that underpins the development of a Visual Phenomenological Methodology is archived here.