The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research
- ISSN: 09501991
- DOI: 10.1016/j.phymed.2007.09.005
The focus of this paper is interaction design research aimed at supporting interaction design practice. The main argument is that this kind of interaction design research has not (always) been successful, and that the reason for this is that it has not been guided by a sufficient understanding of the nature of design practice. Based on a comparison between the notion of complexity in science and in design, it is argued that science is not the best place to look for approaches and methods on how to approach design complexity. Instead, the case is made that any attempt by interaction design research to produce outcomes aimed at supporting design practice must be grounded in a fundamental understanding of the nature of design practice. Such an understanding can be developed into a well-grounded and rich set of rigorous and disciplined design methods and techniques, appropriate to the needs and desires of practicing designers.
The Nature of Design Practice and...
Dealing with a design task in an unknown or only partially known
situation, with demanding and stressed clients and users, with
insufficient information, with new technology and new materials,
with limited time and resources, with limited knowledge and
skill, and with inappropriate tools, is a common situation for
any interaction designer. Dealing with such messy and “wicked”
situations constitutes the normal and everyday context of any
design practice (Alexander, 1964; Dunne, 1993; Cross, 2001;
Schön, 1983; Pye, 1995; Heskett, 2002; Rove, 1987; Lawson,
2005; Thackara, 2005).
Research about design practice has shown that designers
who successfully can handle complex design situations use an
approach sometimes labeled as a designerly way of thinking and
acting (Cross, 2001; Buxton, 2007; Moggridge, 2007). There has
also lately been a more general and growing interest in what is
seen as an increasing complexity in our society and how to deal
with it (Castells, 1996; Coburn, 2006; Friedman, 2005; Gladwell,
2005; Pink, 2005).
A substantial part of interaction design research has for
some decades developed theoretical approaches, methods, tools,
and techniques aimed at supporting interaction designers in their
practice. This research has showed significant progress, and the
field is today rich with a diverse set of approaches, methods, and
techniques. Some of these approaches are new constructs, but
many of them have intellectual roots in other academic areas,
such as science, engineering, social science, humanities, and in
the traditional art and design disciplines (Carroll, 2003; Rogers,
2004). (In this paper, the terms Human-Computer Interaction
(HCI) research and interaction design research are used
Over the last few years, criticism has been raised concerning
the success of some of these contributions. It has been argued
that the results are not always useful for practitioners, and that
the developed approaches are too time-consuming, too difficult
to learn, too abstract and theoretical, or that they do not lead to
desired results when used in practice. An excellent overview and
formulation of this critique is found in Rogers (2004). Rogers
presents a thorough analysis of the state of the major theoretical
approaches in HCI in relation to practice. She also presents
empirical results that confirm her theoretical analysis. Rogers’
analysis shows quite convincingly that if the measure of success
for this kind of research is that it is understood and actually used
in practice then the results are minor.
One assumption in this paper is that the critique presented
by Rogers is valid and that it constitutes a serious and real problem
for the interaction research community. Based on that assumption,
I will examine why it seems so difficult for HCI research to
produce results that are appreciated and useful within interaction
It is important to recognize that there exist many examples
of successful HCI research reaching and influencing a large
population of practitioners. This is also recognized by Rogers, and
Received December 2, 2007; Accepted March 21, 2008; Published April 1, 2008
Copyright: © 2008 Stolterman. Copyright for this article is retained by the author,
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Corresponding Author: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Nature of Design Practice and Implications
for Interaction Design Research
School of Informatics, Indiana University, USA.
The focus of this paper is interaction design research aimed at supporting interaction design practice. The main argument is that this kind
of interaction design research has not (always) been successful, and that the reason for this is that it has not been guided by a sufficient
understanding of the nature of design practice. Based on a comparison between the notion of complexity in science and in design, it is
argued that science is not the best place to look for approaches and methods on how to approach design complexity. Instead, the case is
made that any attempt by interaction design research to produce outcomes aimed at supporting design practice must be grounded in a
fundamental understanding of the nature of design practice. Such an understanding can be developed into a well-grounded and rich set of
rigorous and disciplined design methods and techniques, appropriate to the needs and desires of practicing designers.
Keywords - Design Research, Interaction Design, Nature of Design.
Relevance to Design Practice - This paper makes the case that design research aimed at improving design practice has to be grounded in
a deep understanding of the nature of design practice.
Citation: Stolterman, E. (2008). The nature of design practice and implications for interaction design research. International Journal of Design, 2(1), 55-65.
The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research
is something I will discuss later in this paper. It is also important
to recognize that this paper is not about all forms of HCI research.
It is only about research aimed at improving interaction design
My main argument is that one reason why HCI research
(aimed at supporting design practice) has not (always) been
successful is that it has not been grounded in and guided by a
sufficient understanding and acceptance of the nature of design
practice. As a consequence, HCI research has developed and/or
borrowed approaches and methods not always appropriate for
interaction design practice, even though they may be successful
in their respective “home” fields or in research settings.
In this paper, the notion of complexity, and especially the
concept of design complexity will be used as a focal point of
analysis. As mentioned above, design practice is to a large extent
about handling complexity and a “messy” reality. However,
the case will be made that complexity in design is not at all the
same kind of complexity seen in other areas of human activity.
Therefore, the notion of design complexity will be compared and
contrasted against complexity in science. The purpose is to show
how the underlying philosophy and principles in one area, in this
case science, might be incommensurable in another field, in this
The overall message of the paper is that HCI research
undertaken with the purpose of supporting design practice has to
be based on a deep understanding of design as a unique human
activity of inquiry and action. I am aware that this is not news to
all readers, but I believe that mainstream HCI research is still far
from recognizing this, which is why it is worth exploring.
The structure of the paper is as follows. The next section
will briefly position the analysis and discussion in relation to
contemporary HCI research and design studies. In the following
section, I will examine the notion of complexity in design and
science, making the case that borrowing methods and approaches
from science may not be appropriate for design practice. After that,
I will argue that design practice has its own rigor and discipline
that can be further developed and explicated. I will end the paper
with some suggestions on how HCI research can be successful in
HCI research has in many ways been extremely successful over
the years. The basic tool set for interaction design practice, taught
in most HCI programs, is used over and over again by practitioners
in the industry. So, what is the problem?
Rogers (2004) reports that nearly all respondents in their
study “used a range of design methods, including scenarios,
storyboards, low-tech and software prototyping, focus groups,
interviews, field studies, and questionnaires and use cases” (p.
123). On the other hand, almost no one used “predictive modeling
methods, like GOMS, and only a few used software engineering
methods (8 percent), experiments (10 percent), contextual design
(10 percent) or guidelines (5 percent)” (p. 124). When it comes
to how practitioners interpret the data and findings they gather in
their design process, 85 percent said that they rely mainly on their
own intuition and experience. Even though theoretical approaches
were not used, respondents said they “used” individual concepts,
such as affordance, context, situatedness, etc. (Rogers, 2004).
Many respondents answered that they were familiar with
most major theoretical approaches in HCI but they did not use
them. Rogers (2004) states that “the problem seems to be the
gap between the demands of doing design and the way theory is
conceptualised” (p. 123).
Rogers’ study reveals both positive and problematic results
when investigating how HCI research is used and viewed by
practitioners. One interpretation, in line with the argument in
this paper, is that the basic tool set (see above), used by many,
can be described as designerly tools. These kinds of tools have
qualities that are traditionally recognized as useful by designers.
That means that they are clearly defined tools with a precise
purpose that have to be used in a skillful way by a competent
designer to be useful. These tools do not remove any “power”
or freedom from the designer. These tools do not prescribe the
overall process or demand a specific step-by-step sequence of
activities that would impact the designer’s own way of doing
things. These tools do not demand any sophisticated theoretical
understanding or knowledge. This is in line with the fact that the
more intricate models that require more from the designer (such
as contextual design, experiments, engineering methods) were
less used in Rogers’ study (2004). My assumption is that these
methods would be recognized as less designerly if judged by
Based on the work by Rogers, I would argue that it is
possible to predict the potential success of new approaches,
methods, and tools based on how designerly they are. It is
obvious though, that any prediction of this kind must rest on a
fundamental understanding of what designerly means. This paper
will examine what constitutes such an understanding and what are
the preconditions for successful development of new approaches
and tools intended to support designerly practice.
There has in recent years been a growing interest in the
role and nature of design in HCI research (Winograd, 1996;
Zimmerman, Forlizzi, & Evenson, 2007; Löwgren & Stolterman,
2004; Fallman, 2003; Atwood, McCain & Williams, 2002;
Bartnek, 2007). We have also lately seen some knowledge-based
contributions intended for design practice that are genuinely
designerly and based on a firm understanding of design practice.
These contributions have already had some impact and have
increased the interest in a deeper understanding of design practice.
Premier examples are the recent books by Buxton (2007),
Moggridge (2007), and Kolko (2007). These contributions can all
be seen as examples of what I am arguing for in this paper, that is,
knowledge produced with the specific aim of supporting design
practice that is firmly grounded in a deep understanding of design
practice. It is notable that these three books are written by authors
Erik Stolterman is Professor and Director of the Human Computer Interaction
Design program at the School of Informatics, Indiana University. Stolterman’s
research focuses on interaction design, the philosophy of design, information
technology and society, information systems design, and the philosophy of
technology. Stolterman has published his research in articles and in five books,
including Thoughtful Interaction Design (2004, MIT Press), The Design Way
(2003, ITP) and Methods-in-Action (2002, McGraw-Hill).
who describe themselves more as practitioners than researchers.
They all have a strong design background and long experience in
There have also been a number of papers advocating the
importance of distinguishing between design and research in HCI
(Fallman, 2003; Dourish, 2006; Bartnek, 2007; Wania, Atwood,
& McCain, 2006; Taylor, 2003), or that design is an appropriate
model for “real” research (Zimmerman et al., 2007), or that design
practice has its own rigor (Wolf, Rode, Sussman, & Kellogg, 2006;
Buxton, 2007; Bartneck, 2007). These advancements, together
with others (Laurel, 2003; Winograd, 1996), are promising and
will over time influence the way HCI research is done. However,
none of these attempts specifically addresses the question raised
in this paper, which is how to improve HCI research aimed at
supporting design practice.
After this brief overview, it is time to engage in the overall
argumentation of the paper. In the next section, I will, as part of
my reasoning, examine the notion of complexity in design practice
and relate that to the notion of complexity in science.
Design complexity is here defined as the complexity a designer
experiences when faced with a design situation. Almost all
design situations offer potentially infinite and limitless sources of
information, requirements, demands, wants and needs, limitations,
and opportunities. These “infinite and limitless sources”
usually present themselves in the form of diverse technological
possibilities, numerous and constantly changing contextual factors
and societal preconditions, sophisticated and/or non-informed
clients, customers, and user demands and desires. Even though all
of these sources can inform the designer about a potential design,
it is not possible to exhaustively explore them for all potentially
useful information. Facing such “infinite” information sources
might lead a designer (even an experienced one) to experience
an overwhelming design complexity. The designer has to make
all kinds of decisions and judgments, such as, how to frame
the situation, who to listen to, what to pay attention to, what to
dismiss, and how to explore, extract, recognize, and chose useful
information from all of these potential sources. An inexperienced
designer might suffer from “design paralysis” when confronted
with such endless opportunities. These design situations are
sometimes characterized as “under determined” problems, or
in Schön’s words as a “messy” situation, or in Rittel’s words a
“wicked problem” (Schön, 1983; Rittel & Webber, 1974).
According to the definition presented here, it is not possible
to objectively measure design complexity. We cannot, based on
some objective measurement, argue that “this situation has a
higher design complexity than that situation.” Instead, design
complexity is the designer’s subjective experience of complexity.
This experience is a consequence of the nature of the task in
the specific situation, in relation to the specific purpose, and in
relation to the professional skill, competence, and experience of
the designer. This means that one designer might experience a
particular design situation as complex, while another might not.
Design complexity, as defined here, is not anything new.
It is a classic problem that has been addressed in many academic
design disciplines, and interaction design is no exception. The
assumption made above—that designers are experiencing an
overall increase in design complexity—has been recognized in
the field of interaction design, even though it is not always framed
as design complexity (Carroll, 2003; Löwgren & Stolterman,
2004; Maeda, 2006; Norman, 2004; Krippendorff, 2006). Some
of the established theoretical attempts in the field place a strong
emphasis on finding ways to cope with complexity, usually by
offering approaches intended to dismantle the complexity of
reality, at the same time as they offer ways of understanding
its richness (overviews are found in Carroll (2003) and Rogers
(2004)). There are also some newer attempts within the field of
HCI explicitly focused on complexity (Johnson, 2005).
Most approaches and methods are aimed at reducing
complexity in some way, but reducing design complexity
is not an easy task. If it were, we would probably see a lot of
approaches offering simple solutions at a low “cost.” Instead,
it seems, as Rogers shows, as if attempts to reduce or control
design complexity in many cases lead to highly time- and energy-
consuming approaches. It seems as if the design approaches
themselves become too complex.
complexity, control and richness
When it comes to reality as we experience it, our lifeworld, it
seems as if humans, at least in the Western societies, strive towards
control, and try to move away from the natural or from nature
(McCullogh, 2004; Buchanan, 1992; Thackara, 2005). It seems as
if Western culture is inclined to create artificial environments in
which everything can be controlled.
In the attempt to create desirable environments, humans
try to reduce complexity, to establish control, by making things
simpler (Greenfield, 2006; Janlert & Stolterman, 1997; Maeda,
2006; Norman, 2005; Thackara, 2005). But rather than being a
universal human ideal, simplicity is also disapproved of and
looked down upon in our everyday lives. “Simplicity” sometimes
provokes condescension and even contempt. Humans seem to seek
and enjoy certain experiences of complexity. In some contexts,
complexity may be understood as richness, generally found to
be a positive and desired quality. The experience of being in a
forest, with its overwhelming richness of different life forms and
natural structures, is seen as richer than being in the controlled
and simplified environment of a park. The simpler an environment
is, the easier it is to understand and deal with, but at the same
time, the more it lacks the richness and stimulus that we seem to
appreciate and enjoy (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Norman, 2004).
So, complexity does not only bring problems, it also
brings positive experiences. Complexity is not just a necessary
“evil.” Given the right circumstances, direct encounters with
the complexity of a system can give us positive experiences of
challenge, fullness, and entertainment, as well as aesthetic and
sublime experiences, and can spur and develop our abilities
and ambitions, and maybe even push us to develop our minds
and characters (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Nelson & Stolterman,
The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research
There is apparently something intriguing about complexity.
It constitutes a challenge, something we can explore and experience,
something we can attempt to learn, to master, something that can
send us off into new and unpredicted directions—almost like an
It seems as if design complexity also can have positive
values, maybe even an entertainment value. A design task that
is too simple might be considered boring. It is to some degree
the complexity of the design task that makes design such an
entertaining and rewarding enterprise for the individual designer.
This aspect of complexity as a balance between challenge, skill,
and achievement and as a source of personal enjoyment and
development has been developed in detail with the concept of
“flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Design complexity is therefore not necessarily in itself
a problem. It is obviously something that gives designers rich
experiences and variation, and makes it possible for them to be
surprisingly creative in their design adventures. Complexity is
probably even a required condition for innovative and creative
design to happen.
Even though many would agree with this positive
understanding of design complexity, there still exist a strong desire
and striving for approaches that can be used to handle complexity
in a more structured and organized way. In the search for such
approaches it seems as if many turn to science—a tradition known
for its ability to deal with complexity and its well-developed
methods for doing so. The question then becomes: Can science
provide interaction design with tools that are suitable for handling
complexity in Science and in Design
It is generally accepted that science has been extremely successful
in dealing with complexity in the process of uncovering the
mechanisms and structure of reality. But are the underlying
principles of scientific methods and approaches transferable and
suitable to design practice? I will argue that they in general are
not. I am aware that this is not news within the international design
research community, where the question of the relation between
science and design has been studied and where such study has
led to theoretical contributions that have proven invaluable in
this discussion (Simon, 1969; Rittel & Webber, 1974; Alexander,
1964; Cross, 2001; Pye, 1995; Krippendorff, 2006; Nelson &
Stolterman, 2003; Lawson, 2005).
When methods and approaches are borrowed from science
without a sufficient understanding of design practice, it has
sometimes led to situations in which scientific methodological
principles have been adapted and radically changed to better suit
design practice. This has in some cases led to severe criticism, since
it has been seen as resulting in distorted versions of and “sloppy”
use of established scientific methods, as is the case between “real”
ethnography and the quite popular “quick-and-dirty” ethnography
(Dourish, 2006). Another example of a science-based approach
that has been adapted by design is the controlled experiment.
This method has mostly been adapted and used in the area of
interaction usability. A controlled experiment is, in science, a way
to restrict and isolate variables that might influence the outcome
of the experiment. The purpose is to find a way of measuring the
role of a small number of variables. However, with the growing
understanding of interaction as an overall experience including
all aspects of the design, and the importance of in situ studies,
and the notion of emergent qualities as a result of the designed
composition, the controlled experiment if copied from science
does not fit the needs of design practice.
I will argue that the remedy for this situation is a better
understanding of how fundamental scientific methodological
principles differ from what is needed in design practice. This is of
course not important for the well-being of the scientific tradition
and its practice, but it is important with regard to the possibility of
building and formulating an independent philosophical foundation
for design that can inspire attempts to develop new designerly
complexity in Science
Complexity in Science has its place within all forms of scientific
and research activities, and it influences our ability to explore,
understand and explain reality as it is. Reality is, of course, of
infinite complexity and may therefore never be fully explored or
understood. Time or resources do not, however, limit science as
a project. Science is, if seen as a project, something humans will
continue to work on forever, or as long as it takes, or as long as we
are curious. The aim of science is to formulate universal knowledge
that explains the complexities of reality on a level removed from
specifics and particulars. With the risk of being overly naive, I
want to quote Webster’s definition of science (n.d.):
“knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or
the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested
through scientific method”
and “scientific method” is defined as:
“principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge
involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the
collection of data through observation and experiment, and the
formulation and testing of hypotheses”
Within the scientific project, the focus is on regularities,
mechanisms, patterns, relationships, and correlations with the
attempt to formulate them as knowledge, preferably in the form of
theories. The intention is to form theories that constitute knowledge
that is valid and true at all times and everywhere. The knowledge
should also be something that is possible for other researchers
to reproduce and should be completely detached from and not
influenced by the researcher. There cannot be any influence from
the person conducting the research. If science is successful, that
is, if knowledge and theories are created and corroborated within
a research community, then the complexity of reality is seen as to
some degree explained or at least reduced.
This description of science is of course extremely crude
and does not take into account the vast richness, diversity and
controversies that exist within the different scientific communities,
which are well documented within the disciplines of sociology
and the philosophy of science. But this description of science,
however crude it might be, is still useful in the present context
and for the specific argumentation at hand. It provides us with a
simple description of a relatively well-known intellectual tradition
and practice against which design, as another tradition of inquiry
and action, can be contrasted.
complexity in Design
Let us move on to the second type of complexity, design
complexity. In contrast to the scientific focus on the universal and
the existing, design deals with the specific, intentional and non-
existing. Interestingly enough, dealing with design complexity
involves almost fundamentally opposite goals and preconditions
as does the scientific approach. This is especially true when it
comes to the notion of universality. In design practice, the goal
is all about creating something non-universal. It is about creating
something in the world with a specific purpose, for a specific
situation, for a specific client and user, with specific functions and
characteristics, and done within a limited time and with limited
resources. Design is about the unique, the particular, or even the
ultimate particular. Designers have to address the people and
situations at hand, and the desires and needs at hand, while taking
into account the limited time and resources at hand (Buchanan,
1992; Krippendorff, 2006; Nelson & Stolterman, 2003). This can
be seen as the invariants of design and as universal “features of
design task environments” (Goel & Pirolli, 1992).
Design practice is about the creation of a desired reality
manifested as an ultimate particular. The ultimate particular is
a design concept of the same dignity and importance as truth in
science (Nelson & Stolterman, 2003). The ultimate particular is
the actual final manifested outcome and as such a result of an
intentional design process. A digital artifact or an information
system implemented in a specific organization is an ultimate
particular. Such an ultimate particular may be similar to a specific
type or class of systems, but it is nevertheless a unique particular.
This means that if the system is not satisfying the demands and
needs of the organization, it is not reasonable to argue that, “Since
this system works well in another organization, it can’t be the
system that is causing the problems” or, “Since this system was
designed in accordance with agreed upon methods and techniques,
there can’t be anything wrong with the system.” Each system,
each design, even if exactly the same as another, makes up an
ultimate particular that has to be understood in a designerly way
as evoking emergent qualities in the composition made up by the
system and the organization together.
The meaning of the ultimate particular is not to be confused
with whether the design is unique or not. An object is unique only
if it exists in one or maybe few exemplars. It is not unique if it
is mass-produced and exists in thousands or millions of copies.
However, each of these exemplars is still an ultimate particular
in its specific use context. And a designer always designs for that
specific use context. This is why notions such as qualities-in-use
and experience have lately become core designerly concepts in
interaction design (Ehn & Löwgren, 1997; McCarthy & Wright,
Design practice is also, as mentioned earlier, different from
science in that there are always time and resource limitations.
Science has similar limitations, but since science, as a “grand”
project, is aimed at revealing truth, the limitations are only local
and temporary. That is why there is the notion of cumulative
knowledge production in science, wherein each new contribution
has only to deal with a minute aspect or part of the field, and
can still be valuable. In design you have to design the “whole,”
and you cannot reduce design complexity by limiting yourself
to those things that you have the time or resources to handle, or
those things that you have sufficient knowledge and information
about. For instance, you cannot limit the design of a new mp3
player to concerns about the shape and form of the physical object
while ignoring its functional and interactive aspects. In science
this is done by deliberate and careful separation of aspects, with
the purpose of reducing complexity by focusing on one relevant
aspect or variable at a time. In design, on the other hand, methods
and approaches have to take the whole composition, the emerging
qualities of the whole, into account, which of course creates
distinct methodological requirements when it comes to testing
Finally, while the measure of success in science has to do
with how well the researcher has performed the research process
in accordance with agreed upon methodological standards, the
measure of success in design is all about the outcome. The quality
of the final outcome (the design) is not a question of how well the
designer performed the design process, or whether the designer
followed a correct design process, whatever that would mean.
This has been recognized in interaction design with the advent of
notions such as experience design (McCarthy & Wright, 2004).
The final measure of success for a design is something revealed in
location, in real use, and over time.
contrasting the two Forms of complexity
The two forms of complexity discussed here are, unfortunately,
commonly mixed and seen as related or even similar, with the
consequence that the remedy for dealing with one type of
complexity is copied from one to the other.
Several influential design thinkers have historically
addressed the relation and dissimilarity between science and design
that is discussed here. Herbert Simon made such an argument in
his famous writings on design (Simon, 1969). He did not argue
that we have to abandon the idea of scientific methods as a ground
for design, but he did advocate that these methods have limitations
and that we could only talk about “bounded rationality” when it
comes to design. He also made a clear and important distinction
between the nature of the “real” world (the realm of science) and
the artificial world (the realm of design). Rittel and Webber (1974)
argued further that real-world problems have the characteristic of
being “wicked problems,” and as such they are not “solvable”
and have to be approached using completely different means.
Donald Schön (1983) developed a similar but more radical idea.
According to Schön, people try to use “technical rationality” to
solve problems that are not “solvable” or, to be more precise, that
are not even “problems.” Design is about “problem setting,” not
The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research
about “problem solving,” according to Schön. He also argued that
design is all about “messy situations.”
In messy situations, the methodological underlying
principles developed within the tradition of science are not
necessarily suitable; in fact, Schön claimed that they cause more
problems than they solve (Schön, 1983). Schön specifically
developed his argument in relation to education. He argued that if
“technical rationality” is used as the foundation for professional
higher education, it hinders students from developing real
design competence and design skills, while allowing them to be
trained in techniques and skills not appropriate in design (messy)
It is probably fair to argue that while Simon tried to
bring scientific approaches and design together in some blended
fashion, both Rittel & Webber and Schön argued that they are
incommensurable. Schön’s thinking was deeply rooted in the
philosophical tradition of pragmatism and heavily inspired by
the philosopher John Dewey. Based on the pragmatists’ tradition,
the notion of outcome (product) in any activity is stressed more
than the method (process). Truth is for Dewey and Schön not
defined by the level of methodological refinement and how well
methodology has been followed (as in science), but instead the
outcome has in itself a special standing in relation to intention
and worth. Zimmerman et al. (2007) have presented a model for
design research that is heavily influenced by these ideas. They
argued that it is possible to use design practice as a model for
HCI research. This is an excellent suggestion that enriches our
understanding of HCI research and opens up the way for new
interesting forms of HCI research.
It is important to remember that the argument here is not
that design research cannot be done in a scientific way. Design
research conducted according to strict scientific procedures can
produce highly valuable knowledge for practicing designers.
To summarize this section, I have made the argument that
dealing with complexity in science and in design are different
activities with different purposes, outcomes, and measures of
success. Acting on design complexity in a designerly way demands
appropriate approaches, methods, techniques, and skills. Science
has over time developed detailed, rich, and diverse understandings
of its purposes and approaches. Methodological rigor and
discipline is at the core of what science does. I am advocating
that there is a need in HCI research for a similar philosophical
and methodological understanding of what constitutes the rigor
and discipline of design practice in order to better support that
Acting Designerly with
Discipline and rigor
While having demonstrated the difficulty of handling design
complexity, it is obvious that good designers can handle design
complexity, and they can do it in ways that lead to innovative and
surprising results that people appreciate and value as wonderful
examples of good design. Even in the most demanding situation,
one with a design complexity that most people would agree is
overwhelming, some designers are still able to deliver a design
that seems both to “conquer” complexity and to be surprisingly
functional and appealing. So, design complexity is apparently
possible to deal with, and there seems to be a designerly approach
that is practical and that can, despite complexity, deliver good
Wolf et al. (2006) make the case that to act designerly
in interaction design requires a highly disciplined and rigorous
process. One of the most common misunderstandings about
design is that since it is not as intellectually and methodologically
well developed and refined as the scientific approach, it is seen as
fuzzy, intuitive, subjective, and difficult to grasp. Sometimes this
fuzziness is even seen and labeled as irrational. And of course,
sometimes it is. Bad design practice is as fuzzy and irrational as
bad scientific practice. The point is that even though the design
process is not structured in the way other rational processes are,
it does not mean that we have to see the process as a “black art”
(Wolf et al., 2006). Instead, design has its own internal structure,
procedures, activities, and components that are well recognized
by skilled designers and that also are explicated in the design
literature mentioned above.
A designerly approach has been “used” by humans
throughout history, at times when they have approached and
dealt with an immediate, rich and complex environment, and
have changed that environment to align with their needs and
desires. However, this is not a tradition that has developed into
an intellectual discourse with theories and externalized insights
in the same way as within the scientific tradition, or within
other traditions such as religion or art. But, there are intellectual
foundations and fundamentals that support design thinking and
acting, and there is a rigor and discipline in design. Below, I will
briefly touch on some of the aspects that constitute the rigor and
discipline of design. This is far from a comprehensive overview,
but it is a start.
Existing Understanding on Design
Even though I have argued that an understanding of design
practice needs to be developed, there is no need to start from
nothing. If we turn to the broader, generic fields of the theory
of design and the philosophy of design we can find excellent
texts that provide fundamental understandings of design. There
are a number of researchers that have provided insights that are
already considered to be seminal (Cross, 2001; Dunne, 1993;
Krippendorff, 2006; Nelson & Stolterman, 2003; Lawson, 2005;
Rove, 1987; Pye, 1995; Schön, 1983).
These texts, taken together, outline an intellectual
progression from an early engineering-based understanding of
design, fostered in a scientific tradition, that has developed into
a modern designerly-oriented understanding of design practice.
These authors do not provide one clear understanding or theory of
design; instead they give us several different, and sometimes even
contradictory, explanations of what the foundations of design are.
But, they all argue that there exists something that we can label a
designerly approach, and that design is a unique human activity
deserving its own intellectual treatment. They all also agree that
such an approach is different from the scientific approach and
is solidly based in design practice and in the situated and the
concrete. It is an approach that deals with particulars and with the
richness of reality, and with the purpose of creating and forming
These authors also argue, in their own ways, that tools and
methods that create predefined ways of approaching reality are
not helpful in design. Instead, all tools, techniques, and methods
supposed to support design practice have to be intentionally
incorporated as part of a situated designerly approach by the
acting designer. As a consequence of this, it becomes important
for those who produce support for design practitioners to make
that “incorporation” into the designer’s own approach possible.
For example, Rogers (2004) makes the case that even though
designers do not necessarily “use” certain theoretical concepts,
they recognize them and are influenced by them, as can be seen
with the notion of affordance. The idea of affordance does not
predefine the interaction design process in any way, but it can still
be “used” by a designer as a “tool” for inspiration. This means
that the notion of affordance can easily be incorporated by a
designer and adapted to any kind of process suitable in a specific
Prepared-for-action, not Guided-in-action
These authors argue that methods and approaches aimed at
improving design practice have to be designed with a sincere
respect and understanding of the positive aspects of the complexity
and richness of the particular qualities of the case at hand. Most of
these authors argue that the only way to keep that richness is for
the designer to be fully immersed in the context of the case and
to make sense of that context based on an understanding of the
particular situation, and then to create an appropriate approach
for the specific design task at hand. This fundamental idea can
be condensed into the notion that designers can be prepared-
for-action but not guided-in-action by detailed prescriptive
procedures. When a designer is in a complex design situation, she
has to act on that situation with a regard for all of its richness and
complexity, and in a way that is appropriate for the specifics of that
situation. Design education can prepare for such situations, but it
cannot prescribe how to act in them. If someone is not prepared
to handle such complexity, methods and techniques cannot with
any “guarantee” guide anyone through such situations. One
example of an approach that manages to fulfill this requirement
is manifested in the notions of reflection-in-action, reflection-
on-action and design repertoire by Schön (1983). With these
concepts Schön intended to give designers tools for reflection
that they can use to continuously develop their design abilities.
Through these processes of reflection, a designer can develop a
useful repertoire of design ideas or design concepts to be used in
future design situations. The design approach that Schön argues
for and the concepts that he introduces have been influential
among practitioners. Schön managed to find a way to describe
design practice that can be recognized by practicing designers, as
well as providing concepts that can be used as intellectual tools
in the planning and development of the design process. And he
did this without prescribing the process on any detailed level.
His approach is therefore a good example of a strategy based on
the understanding that designers should be supported by being
“prepared-for-action” and not “guided-in-action.”
Designers in action are commonly described as being intuitive
or sensitive to a situation. Sometimes the process is even seen
as badly structured, subjective, or fuzzy. This same process can,
however, also be seen as a highly rigorous and disciplined way
to act if seen from a designerly point of view. It is possible to
understand and describe the underlying rationality of design, and
such an understanding of design rationality has been labeled with
concepts such as the thoughtful designer (Löwgren & Stolterman,
2004) and the reflective practitioner (Schön, 1983). These authors,
and others such as Buxton (2007) and Krippendorff (2006), have
outlined what they see as the rationality of design and what is
the disciplined activity of design. It is obvious that many of these
attempts show strong similarities when it comes to what the
authors see as acting rational as a designer. This means that since
it seems possible to talk about a rationality of design practice, it
is also possible to build a deeper and explicated understanding
of what defines the disciplined behavior of a designer. More
detailed descriptions of what it means to be a disciplined designer
can be found in Kolko (2007), Buxton (2007), and Moggridge
(2006). These authors show, for instance, that sketching is at the
core of design. Sketching is a disciplined way of exploring the
relationships between diverse design ideas, between a whole
and details, between form and function, between appearance and
materials, etc. These authors also mention that a rational designer
works on many alternative designs in parallel in an iterative way,
while going back and forth between the whole and the details.
This way of doing design is not a choice. It is at the core of what it
means to act in a rational, disciplined, designerly way.
To act in a designerly way, and to be able to use judgment and
intuition as precise intellectual tools in the right situation and for
the right purposes, is of course extremely difficult and puts a lot
of pressure on the designer. This is why the designer’s judgment
becomes the primary “tool” in dealing with design complexity
in a designerly way. One way to develop the skills of rigorous
and disciplined design practice is to focus the training and
education of designers around the notion of Schön’s “repertoire,”
and to intentionally help students build a heightened sensibility
of quality and composition, all with the purpose to prepare-for-
action. Within several design fields this has been developed into
disciplined educational structures and processes built around
concepts and activities such as the use of design studios and the
act of design critique. Architecture, product design, visual design,
and other fields have to some detail refined these approaches,
whereas such approaches have not to any great extent been
developed in interaction design education, even though there is a
growing interest. These educational approaches are similar to what
is actually used in design practice, and there are several anecdotal
and experienced-based reasons to believe that they serve their
purpose well; for instance, some highly successful design firms,
such as IDEO, are famous for their rigorous designerly approach.
The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research
Another aspect of the idea of acting in a disciplined way is that,
both in science and design, we have to argue for our outcomes and
their value. In science this is done by making a convincing case
that the research has been conducted in accordance with the rules
and procedures of an agreed-upon scientific method. In design
practice this is accomplished by making our judgments visible
and open for critique. One unique aspect of design is how the
design itself becomes a vital part of the argument (Krippendorff,
2006; Schön, 1983). Similar ideas have been introduced in HCI
with the notion of “artifacts as theories” (Zimmerman et al., 2007;
Dillon, 1995; Carroll & Kelloww, 1989). Designers need to argue
for their designs, but the grounds for what constitutes a good
argument are different from what constitutes an argument for a
Design of the Design Process
A final aspect of being rigorous and disciplined is concerned with
process awareness. Design and science both require close attention
to the process, but for different reasons. While researchers spend
time designing and planning their research process to concur with
the established and universal standards of science, designers need
to design their process to accommodate the specifics and unique
conditions of the task at hand. Buxton (2007) writes: “In order to
create successful products, it is as important (if not more) to invest
in the design of the design process, as in the design of the product
itself” (p. 408).
Taken together, these aspects constitute only a small
fraction of what can be seen as the core of the discipline and rigor
of design practice. The message in this paper is that HCI research
should adopt further exploration and development of design
rigor and design discipline in interaction design practice as one
important part of its research agenda.
Implications for research
There is a growing interest in research aimed at supporting
design. This is seen, for instance, in the strong interest in the
notion of design science, a concept recently being explored by
many researchers and strongly pushed by funding agencies. In
the National Science Foundation (2004) synopsis of the Science
of Design program, it is stated that, “Complex interdependencies
strain our ability to create, maintain, comprehend and control these
systems.” It further states that in order to rectify this problem,
“The goal of this Science of Design solicitation is to develop a set
of scientific principles to guide the design of software-intensive
systems.” The basic idea seems to be to make design more reliable
by making it more “science-like.” The success of this initiative is
therefore seen as dependent on how well methods from science can
be transferred to design. The measure of success for the program
is stated like this: “Ten years from now, the design, construction,
testing, commissioning, and modification of complex, software-
intensive systems should be based on a coherent, systematic body
of scientific knowledge and rationalized experience.” It is of
course possible to develop rigorous approaches that can support
certain specific forms of design practice, especially the design of
complex technological systems that need reliable solutions that
can guarantee stable structures and mechanisms. I would argue,
though, that it is unfortunate if the design science approach is
also adopted for the design of interactive systems. If that happens,
it is likely that interaction design will end up with borrowed
approaches, methods, and techniques that are not at all appropriate
for dealing with interaction design complexity. In fact, it is even
possible to argue that in some cases these techniques will make
things worse, since they will increase design complexity instead
of reducing it. Instead, what is needed is for HCI research aimed
at supporting design practice to be grounded in a well-developed
and designerly understanding of the design process. It is possible
to suggest a number of research activities that are needed to
establish such an understanding.
On a practical level this could mean that readings in the theory of
design and the philosophy of design should be brought into HCI
curricula and especially into HCI doctoral programs. The good
news is that there is already a substantial amount of literature that
can serve this purpose. For any HCI researcher trying to improve
design practice by creating and developing approaches, methods,
techniques, or supporting software tools, such readings should
also be required.
the Study of Practice
Another implication for HCI research is that some of the time
and effort now spent on developing new models, methods, and
tools for practice should be devoted to careful and detailed studies
of existing interaction design practice. In order to change design
practice, we need more research that examines, uncovers, analyzes,
and interprets what interaction designers are already doing.
Studies of existing practice are important for many reasons,
including from a pedagogical perspective. Practitioners are usually
not inclined to listen to researchers who do not express sincere
respect for their practice and who cannot show that they have a
deep understanding of the preconditions and reality of that practice.
This relationship between suggested practice and existing practice
has been labeled rationality resonance (Stolterman, 1994; Russo
& Stolterman, 1998). Any attempt to introduce a new “rationality”
into practice has to resonate with the already existing rationality.
Without such resonance the introduction will be extremely
difficult. It is reasonable to assume that approaches not used by
practitioner (as shown in Rogers, 2004) do not resonate with what
practitioners experience as the nature of their existing practice.
Serious study of practice is a source of invaluable richness for any
area that tries to support a specific practice.
Forms of Design Support
There is a need for studies on what kind of support interaction
design practitioners actually care about and see as useful. Some
research has been conducted within more general design studies
(Schön, 1983; Krippendorff, 2006). Based on these and similar
studies, it seems as if (interaction) design practitioners are inclined
to appreciate and use: (i) precise and simple tools or techniques
(sketching, prototypes, interviews, surveys, observations, etc.), (ii)
frameworks that do not prescribe but that support reflection and
decision-making (design patterns, ways of using prototypes, styles
of interaction, etc.), (iii) individual concepts that are intriguing
and open for interpretation and reflection on how they can be used
(affordance, persona, probe, etc.), (iv) high-level theoretical and/
or philosophical ideas and approaches that expand design thinking
but do not prescribe design action (reflective practice, human-
centered design, experience design, design rationale, etc.). This
list is at least partly supported by the results in Rogers (2004). I
do not claim that the list is correct or in any way complete, but
I would argue that closer studies and attempts to create a better
understanding of a list like this is an important task for HCI
research. Such an understanding would greatly support the field in
its own attempts to evaluate and predict the usefulness of research
Interaction research Measure of Success
If interaction research is able to provide support for design
practice, then another question becomes apparent, namely, how
to measure the success of such research. Rogers (2004) reports
on a study in which the success of theoretical approaches in
practice was measured by how much practitioners know about the
approaches that research has developed and to what extent they
actually use them. This is of course a first condition for success.
If practitioners do not pay attention to research results that are
supposed to support practice then nothing is achieved. However,
the fact that methods are used in practice does not necessarily
make the research successful. A method might be used, but not in
a way that leads to the results anticipated by the researcher. The
question could instead be: Have the research results been used
and led to intended improvements in the final designed outcome?
All of this opens up what might be seen as the ultimate
questions when it comes to research aimed at supporting practice.
These questions have to do with the purpose of the intended
improvement. The researcher that creates support for practice is
guided by some basic values and underlying intentions behind his/
her attempts. What is it that the research results ultimately are
supposed to lead to? Is it to improve process efficiency or product
quality? Is it to lead to new creative and innovative designs? Is it
to lead to competitive designs successful on a market? Who is the
support supposed to serve? Is there a “final” client? Is the purpose
to support design practice in a way that would lead to a “better
world”? Traditional science is guided by the search for truth,
while research aimed at changing and improving “reality” always
takes on responsibility in relation to whom or what it serves. This
means that HCI research aimed at changing existing practice must
take on the responsibility of its own eventual success. If change
takes place, if practitioners actually use the research outcomes,
what does this lead to and how is the researcher responsible? The
overall argument in this paper is that questions like the ones above
can only be answered and handled if the research is grounded in a
well-developed understanding of design practice.
This paper is based on the idea that we need to recognize and
accept design complexity as a real and practical problem that
every interaction designer faces. We also need to accept that
design complexity is not something that can be dealt with by the
use of approaches and tools aimed at reducing complexity by
“borrowing” methods and approaches from the realm of science.
Instead, design disciplines such as interaction design have to
develop and foster their own designerly approach for education
and practice. The good news is that we need not start from
There exist a number of excellent design theory and design
philosophy works produced by contemporary design thinkers.
These authors have over recent decades produced an intellectually
rich and diverse foundation of design knowledge and insights
that is well suited for the field of interaction design. There also
exists a solid understanding of the nature of design among skilled
practitioners. This is a source that has not been fully explored and
exploited in relation to the potential value it would bring. So, there
is a lot of work to be done. A practice-based and philosophically
sound understanding of interaction design practice can be
developed into a well-grounded and rich set of rigorous and
disciplined design methods and techniques, appropriate to the
needs and desires of practicing designers.
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