Where the Action Is, by Paul Dourish

Amazon link

This book is an attempt by Dourish to develop underlying design principles for user interfaces that take into account the situated nature of interaction. I’ve been mentioning Dourish’s book recently (e.g. here, here, and here), because I really like a lot of the concepts that he mentions throughout his book.

Dourish is explicitly building on Lucy Suchman’s work by examining the ways in which computing is becoming more of a situated action. Suchman’s book was written in 1987, when the prevailing mode of interaction with a computer was sitting at a desk. Dourish, writing in 2001, uses tangible computing and social computing as examples of how computing is breaking out of the user-computer interaction mode, and becoming more a part of the environment. By tangible computing, he’s referring to the increasingly ubiquitous presence of computing in every device, leading us towards methods of interaction other than a keyboard and mouse. In social computing, he’s referring less to Friendster-like services than to the increasing awareness of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) field of the social matrix in which computing is embedded, as I discuss obliquely in this post.

After setting the stage for the rise of what he calls “embodied interaction”, he brings in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, the most famous proponent of which is Heidegger. One might wonder what the relevance is of Heidegger, a philosopher whose work is nigh impenetrable, to user interaction, but I’ve already written a post about it. Phenomenology provides a framework of ideas which provide a new set of assumptions for interaction design. Or, as the book’s subtitle states, the philosophical ideas can provide the “foundations for embodied interaction”.

After the detour into philosophy, Dourish brings the book back towards practical considerations and attempts to formulate principles that take this design framework into account. One of the things I took away from his discussion of principles was that meaning resides on multiple levels. An example I’ve already discussed is the distinction between present-at-hand vs. ready-to-hand. But it can extend beyond that. The user needs to be able to flip between many ways of using the tool. For example, when developing a presentation, I may be:

  • Looking at Powerpoint’s help files to figure out how to do something
  • Designing a particular slide layout
  • Figuring out the overall outline of slides to create the most cohesive presentation flow
  • Thinking about how a particular slide will be received by my manager
  • Thinking about how that slide will be received by the customer.

Each level of how I relate to the presentation has different requirements for interaction. And I will flip back and forth between the levels, and there’s often no way for the software to know at which level I am working.

Another principle that is illustrated by this example is how the user creates meaning. Of those various levels I suggested, the last two are of meaning only to me, and how I make that connection to the software is only going to be of relevance to me. So both of these principles demonstrate how important it is for the software to be “accountable” in the sense of Garfinkel, meaning that the software’s workings are transparent and discoverable, such that the user _can_ construct their own levels of meaning on top of the software or, to use other terminology I’ve used, incorporated into the user’s cognitive subroutines or internal collective.

Latour’s idea of collectives is actually entirely relevant to this discussion, now that I think about it. The principles that Dourish is describing as being relevant to embodied interaction are the same principles that Latour observes as being important for the collective, that participants must be available for consultation such that proper decisions can be made by the collective, giving all elements due process. Huh. That connection just occurred to me, but I like it. I will have to think about it some more.

I’m going to wrap things up here. I’m sure Dourish’s ideas will continue to be crop up in my posts over the next few months. Apologies for this post’s semi-incoherence – I wrote it while watching football, so I was losing my train of thought every minute or so. That wraps it up for this week’s round of Book Review Weekend posts. I think the only book that I’ve finished but haven’t written up is still the Jane Jacobs book. One of these days…

One thought on “Where the Action Is, by Paul Dourish

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *