John Kolko – Thoughts on Interaction Design

•October 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment


This lovely treatise strikes a compelling balance between meditative handbook, practitioner’s guide (to navigating practitioners’ political spaces), and manifesto. It is decidedly not, nor does it attempt to be, a quick reference toolkit for aspiring or currently practicing Interaction Designers. There are no lists of techniques, no screenshots, no sample code, and no step-by-step procedures. In this way, the book is actually rather refreshing (this coming from an academic, admittedly).

While it’s not a deeply researched book, it is nevertheless an expediently researched one, which seems quite adept at citing the “canonical” work in the fields that inform Interaction Design. The book is actually committed to carefully presenting and advocating for design and usability methodologies such as Contextual Inquiry, the creation of personas, think-aloud protocols, and visualization procedures such as concept  maps and process flow diagrams. This discussion of process is not a pedantic digression to highlight Kolko’s education (he has a degree in HCI from Carnegie Melon). In fact, it highlights the indispensability of methodology in light of the philosophical fact that “the creation of an experience is, most likely, impossible in and of itself” (83). Although pure experience cannot be generated, what Interaction Designers CAN create is a “structure in which an experience takes place” (83). Therein lies the necessity of understanding processes for understanding who the users are, what their needs are, and the social and physical context in which products are used.

The book is refreshing in its call to arms for designers to become “thinkers” as opposed to (mere) “doers.” The conduit for this move from designer as instrumental to designer as “strategist” (86) is a more situated understanding of communication and of the exigence for design work in the Conceptual Age [1]. Kolko and the others he includes in the book as supporting voices for the vision of Interaction Designer that the book sketches, believes that design is rhetoric. Not rhetoricAL, but rhetoric: “Design is rhetoric. It is the act of communicating an idea to a particular audience, generally using a particular medium” (136). Moreover, he explicitly characterizes the designer as “persuader” when he writes, “A product does not only speak but in fact attempts to convince…A pursuit of argument can be viewed as an attempt to shape one’s attitude. Design is to communicate, and this communication is not a monologue. It is a dialogue of persuasion, and argument, and learning” (100). This is, in fact, a mantra that runs throughout the book: Design is a bi-directional dialogue between user-as-participant and product. In this view, Interaction Designers are humanists who are fundamentally concerned with creating structures for experiences which are “not merely stylish, attention-grabbing ephemera but vital form[s] of discourse augmenting…the cultural (and experiential landscape in which we live and thrive” (114).

The ‘Poetic Interaction’ Framework

One of the most fascinating (albeit underdeveloped) parts of the book is Kolko’s “poetic” model of interaction. He writes, “An interaction occurs in the conceptual space between a person and an object. It is at once physical, cognitive, and social. A poetic interaction is one that resonates immediately but yet continues to inform later—it is one that causes reflection, and one that relies heavily on a state of emotional awareness. Additionally, a poetic interaction is one that is nearly always subtle, yet mindful” (104). Kolko claims that what amount to the ‘common requisites’ of poetic interaction are “honesty, mindfulness, and a vivid and refined attention to sensory detail” (105). He devotes but 4 pages to the entirety of this fascinating idea of poetic interaction.

The Need for Interpellation Techniques

While the characteristics intuitively make sense, and certainly appeal to the right-brain aptitudes Interaction Designers hold dear, they unfortunately lack both construct validity and explanatory power. Perhaps if more attention were given to the framework it would stand sturdier, but as it is quickly presented, it leaves much to the methodological and instrumental imagination (indeed, even the philosophical imagination). Thus, while the presentation of this ‘thoughtful’ framework does allow Kolko to keep his promise to steer clear of heuristics, it nevertheless hangs in the balance as a tantalizing glimpse of what Interaction Designers aim for, with no clear guidance on how to achieve this decidedly NOT low-hanging fruit. To me, this is presents a hugely rich and, now, at least partially articulated need for the interpellation work I am doing, for it will, I hope, pick up where this part of Kolko’s book leaves off, and empower designers with some specific techniques for just the sort of persuasive communication Kolko and his cohorts call for.

[1] Kolko, who cites Pink, very much believes that designers need the “right-brain aptitudes” which characterize the Conceptual Age skills of value. In a world which is increasingly commodifying technology by outsourcing it, designers must be responsible for more than just the “plastics” of a product,  or else they are in danger of losing their jobs.


Nathan Shedroff – Experience Design

•October 12, 2009 • 1 Comment


Shedroff’s main point in this book is that great experiences are both deliberate and designable, provided designers know the underlying principles and learn the practical tools (2).

Like Jakob Nielsen and Edward Tufte, Shedroff values a “clutter” free interface (91). Yet, the book is almost schizophrenic in this regard, as its attempt to perform an experiential book design is often distracting from the reading process itself thanks to the busy background images and often difficult-to-read text (p 92-93 & 96 are good examples of this).

Nonetheless, the book retains relevance for its prescient views of audience (on the Internet, they are active participants, not passive viewers) and the idea that experience is a central aspect of iterative, user-centered design. One quote that I found particularly relevant for interpellative design was: “Great designs communicate first and are beautiful second” (278). Since we are amidst a web design culture which is as in love with rich media as early web design was with scrolling marquees and animated gifs, it is often easy to be taken in by a site’s play with these media. And this is quite alright, until you realize that you’re more taken with the play than the purpose, and that the two are not working in concert to create a meaningful experience.

Points of Critique


Shedroff believes narrative and stories are “one-way” experiences (84), which is not the case. Yet here again Shedroff appears to contradict himself when he references MUDs & MOOs as perfect examples of interactive narrative (152).


Shedroff writes, “Interface design is concerned with the effectiveness and usability of a software interface but this should also extend to the usefulness and purpose of the product too” (109). The ‘extension’ suggests that usability cannot speak to the “usefulness and purpose of the product.” This is also not the case. Usability testing methods can be employed in the service of implementing the very experiential techniques Shedroff discusses. So at the very least the two must work together. At the most, they are one in the same.

Although he concedes that “usability applies to all experiences on some level (110, emphasis mine), he goes on to argue that “usability is sometimes used to squash innovation or to enforce the status quo” (110). However, a few paragraphs later he apparently contradicts this when he says, “Usability (or a concern for ‘ease of use’) is often the starting point of innovative design” (110). The reason for this is that considering usability allows designers to view the interface from the audiences’ point of view, which can often “open up the possibilities to create more satisfying experiences” (110). So, usability is presented as a sort of double-edge sword: if one relies on patterns, which are borne from usability research, to the exclusion of all else, the interface might end up staid. On the other hand, if user research is capitalized on, and designers are allowed to explore potentialities, usability testing could help iron out kinks to create a truly dynamic, interesting, and functional interface.

Joseph Pine & James Gilmore – The Experience Economy

•October 7, 2009 • 1 Comment


The subtitle of this book says it all: “Goods and services are no longer enough.” Pine and Gilmore’s central assertion is that in an economic environment in which it is increasingly difficult to stand out amid all the choices, companies that market experiences as their product are more likely to succeed than companies which rely solely on the sale of goods and/or services. Experiences are distinct from both goods and services because they leverage these things to create something new for the customer. Pine and Gilmore say, “The newly identified offering of experiences occurs whenever a company intentionally uses services as the stage and goods as props to engage an individual” (11). The new economic offering in an Experience Economy is a personal-feeling, memorable event which has enough initial appeal that the consumer is willing to pay the price of admission to partake.

This book remains prescient today (an astonishing 10 years after its initial publication) because the claims the authors make and the examples they use are more often than not still major points of reference whenever we think of what constitutes a “great experience.” Walt Disney World, the Rainforest Café, Harley Davidson, and venues that specialize in kids’ birthday parties are all referenced throughout the book as successful business endeavors which have capitalized on the sale of holistic experiences (In reference to Harley, for example, the authors drive the case home by noting, “How many other company logos do you find tattooed on users’ bodies?” (18).)

The book ends by projecting that the next economic shift will be from marketing memorable experiences to enabling transformations. Pine and Gilmore argue, “In the nascent Transformation Economy, the customer is the product and the transformation is an aid in changing the traits of the individual who buys it” (205).

Richard Lanham – The Economics of Attention

•September 23, 2009 • Leave a Comment


Lanham’s main thesis in this book is that we are living not in an information economy (a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ as it is often called in business circles), but rather in an attention economy. That is, the resource that is most scare in today’s society is attention, for, attention is the resource needed to sift through the mind-boggling exabytes of readily available information. Not only that, but attention is the resource needed to shape otherwise raw data into useful and usable information . For Lanham, the shift from an information economy—characterized by “stuff” or substance—to an attention economy—characterized by “fluff” or style—means that stuff and fluff have undergone a “figure/ground shift” (6). This means that style is now a more important commodity than substance. To be clear, both are necessary ingredients for communication in any media; however, it is now the case that style (read: aesthetics) is now more needed than ever in order to capture people’s attention.

Practically, the book is partially devoted to carving a space for multimodal composition in the academy. Lanham believes any theory of electronic composition will necessarily merge the two ways of living and of communicating (the rhetorical and the substantial) so that we are taught to read for style and substance—so that we look at texts and through them—so that meaning is multiplied and attention maximized. Unfortunately, the book does not provide any practical techniques that might help composition teachers realize this end. Like Greg Ulmer’s Teletheory, parts of Lanham’s book (particularly the chapter called “Barbie and the Teacher of Righteousness”) perform its own edicts, but provide no tips for how that performance might be replicated.

My Question

Richard Lanham argues that we are living in an “attention economy.” This essentially means that it is now more difficult than ever to capture people’s attention amidst the mind-boggling amount of information that is so easily accessible thanks to the Internet. Web designers can readily relate to this thesis insomuch as they are familiar with the competition for “eyeballs” that characterizes the field. In fact, Lanham’s thesis has verifiable resonance across disciplines; without a shift from information to attention as commodity to be vied for, it is perhaps true that usability alone would still be enough. Yet, the popularity and “stickiness” of movements such as Emotional Design and User-Experience Design prove that there is more to information than the utility (substance) of it. However, since there has not really been a consideration of the movement from usability to UXD, there is the potential for the implications of this shift to be taken for granted – i.e. Emotional Design might come to be seen as a “phase” rather than a common requisite for designing in the Conceptual Age.

Synthesizing across as many readings as possible, explain in detail why usability alone is no longer enough. For example, you might begin by considering the relationships between attention-getting, aesthetics (and aesthetic capital), and style.

Robert Cialdini – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

•September 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment


This book is a response to two main research questions, which the author succinctly lays out in the Introduction:

  1. “What are the factors that cause one person to say yes to another person?”
  2. “Which techniques most effectively use these factors to bring about such compliance?” (xvi)

To answer these questions, Cialdini employed a methodology of participant observation coupled with a thorough examination of empirical research from the fields of sociology and psychology. He actually immersed himself in the work of successful “compliance professionals—sales operators, fund-raisers, recruiters, advertisers”—in order to see first-hand which tactics these people used to achieve their ends (xii). When direct observation was not possible, he uses real-world examples of compliance and reverse engineers them in order to show where their power is derived from.[1] From this body of research, Cialdini concludes that the “tactics that compliance practitioners employ to produce yes…fall within six basic categories. Each of these categories is governed by a fundamental psychological principle that directs human behavior and, in so doing, gives the tactics their power” (xiii). The principles are as follows:

  • Consistency & Commitment – “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment” (37).
  • Reciprocation – “we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us” (17). This principle’s cultural roots run especially deep. Cialdini traces it to “the social pressures surrounding the gift-giving process in human culture,” which have famously been articulated by anthropologist Marcel Mauss (31).
  • Social proof – sellers “don’t have to convince us directly that the product is good, they need only say that many others think so, which seems proof enough” (117).
  • Authority – Stanley Milgram’s obedience study is the poster child for this principle: “’It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths of the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of this study” (215). “Information from a recognized authority can provide us a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation” (218).
  • Liking – we are more likely to comply with the requests of someone whom we like. Factors that influence liking include: physical attractiveness (171), similarity (173), compliments (174), contact & cooperation (176).
  • Scarcity – “Opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited” (238).

The characteristic that all of these principles hold in common is that they can be exploited as automatic responses on the part of audiences (Cialdini calls these “click, whirr” responses because they resemble a pre-recorded tape clicking into place and playing without any conscious thought given to the content or outcome (5)). The fact that they are automatic is due to their pervasiveness in our culture.[2]

My Question

Louis Althusser is famously known as a Marxist thinker. Because he coined the term ‘interpellation’ for use in the social sciences, it is thus laden with the weight of his ethos. Accordingly, some would argue that his notion of interpellation is fundamentally a passive one, one which strips individuals of power and instead ascribes all decision-making (i.e. role-assigning) authority to the potent hegemonic forces that comprise the Ideological State Apparatus. However, this view neglects the ambiguous, jarring, and even humanitarian qualities that can constitute some interpellative experiences and events.

Synthesizing across authors, make a case for interpellation as an active, conscious, and fundamentally positive happening.

[1] For example, he traces the common activity of parents returning to toy stores after Christmas to purchase a previously sold out item for their kids to the Commitment and Consistency principle: because a parent made an implicit promise to either herself or her child that the toy would be purchased, not following through with that commitment would produce feelings of dissonance. Thus, to avoid this, the parent finds herself at the toy store, even despite the fact that other toys were bought in lieu of the sold out one. From a marketing perspective, Cialdini claims that stores will often undersupply items that have been heavily publicized in order to capitalize on parents’ consistency and commitment drives and thereby ensure that sales will remain steady even after the Christmas holiday rush.

[2] Though it’s beyond the purview of the book, I’d venture to say there’s a neurological component to many of the principles Cialdini describes. For example, there could very well be a biological basis for why we tend to trust people who’re more attractive than others and who’re better dressed than average (the Authority principle).

Stephen Denning – Squirrel Inc.

•September 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment


Squirrel Inc. is a classic metanarrative: it tells a story about the importance and power of stories and storytelling in professional organizations. As such, it effectively performs the edicts it preaches about “which kind of story makes sense in which context and why” (xvi).” We follow the characters (all of whom are squirrels) through their quest to change their company’s strategic directions and manage their operating methods. All the while, we’re entertained with dialogue and conflict, but are also given helpful and practical sidebars which laconically spell out the storytelling tactics we’re supposed to be gleaning from the experience of reading them in action. Some examples of these tips as they apply to telling a “springboard story” (a story to spark change) are:

Step 1: “Be clear about what change you’re trying to make” (9).
Step 2: “Think of an incident, a story, where the change has already happened” (10).
Step 3: “Tell the story from the point of view of a single protagonist who is typical of the potential audience” (10).

“Anchor the listeners’ imagination initially in reality. And then they’ll follow that story into the future” (15).

Squirrel Inc. is an important book because of its attempt to legitimize narrative as a highly effective communication method in corporate settings. If we’re not convinced of this by the theoretical epitaphs which begin each chapter, then there’s the undeniable fact that the story of Squirrel Inc. itself is entertaining. The experiential power of the book itself thus makes a convincing case for the power of stories to capture attention, to communicate values and identities, and the need to constantly reinvent and open conceptual spaces to keep things fresh.

My Question

Daniel Pink, Heath & Heath, and Denning all explicitly invoke narrative as a key characteristic or trait of the conceptual age. Pink calls story “the essence of persuasion.” Heath & Heath maintain that stories catalyze people into action and make abstractions come alive. Denning claims that “storytelling is our very nature.”

What connections can you make between narrative and interpellation? Does interpellative design always involve narrative, or is narrative a sub-category of something more essential?

Chip Heath & Dan Heath – Made to Stick

•September 7, 2009 • Leave a Comment


Brothers Chip and Dan Heath set out to answer the question of what makes ideas “sticky”[1] (memorable + actionable) in this engaging book. Although they don’t go into any depth about their methodology, the brothers essentially did a content analysis of things they considered to be sticky (e.g. proverbs, Chicken Soup for the Soul), and extrapolated 6 traits that all seemed to share. The SUCCES “checklist” thus emerges as a tool people can use to evaluate the stickiness of ideas. In addition to being an analytic assessment tool, the SUCCES list also works as an inventional aid – when crafting messages in any media for any context, authors can turn to the list to ensure that they are, for example, using the right kind of story for their purposes, and that they are not falling victim to the two biggest sticky idea villains: “The Curse of Knowledge”[2] and “burying the lead.” Heath & Heath sum up the core of their book like this: “There are two steps in making your ideas sticky – Step 1 is to find the core, and Step 2 is to translate the core using the SUCCES checklist” (28).

Although their methodology for generating the list is severely flawed (i.e. they had no external raters to verify the traits, and the sources from which they drew “sticky” ideas were not exhaustive, nor were they necessarily valid – as they basically admitted with the CSFTS books), and the implication is that these traits are absolute (without being formulaic (15)), the book itself sticks. Why? In perhaps the most compelling example of SUCCES’s power, the brothers themselves employ each of the techniques throughout the book. Made to Stick is full of interesting stories, unexpected statements (e.g. use an “antiauthority” to establish authority (137)), communication maxims, and wit & intelligence. It’s a practical page-turner that’s brimming with concrete examples which drive the (very little) abstract content home.

Notes on the SUCCES list:

  • Simplicity – an idea stripped to its core (16).
  • Unexpectedness – “The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern (64). Schema violation.
  • Concreteness – explanations in terms of human action and sensory information (16).
  • Credibility – Allow people to test ideas for themselves (i.e. a “testable credential” (157)). Use props (i.e. create an experience) to make statistics come alive.
  • Emotions – “for people to take action, they have to care (168)
  • Stories – make ideas actionable (16). “Story’s power is twofold: It provides simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act) (206).

My Takeaways

–       Method = taxonomy; factor analysis

–       Acronym as organizing strategy (must create acronym from interpellation mechanisms)

–       Using lots of stories and examples to maintain interest and make concepts accessible

–       Using the strategies themselves as often as possible when writing

–       Striving for the “Communication Framework” as an ending:

Heath and Heath’s way (246): For an idea to stick, for it to be useful and lasting, it’s got to make the audience:

  1. Pay attention (UNEXPECTED)
  2. Understand and remember it (CONCRETE)
  3. Agree / Believe (CREDIBLE)
  4. Care (EMOTIONAL)
  5. Be able to act on it (STORY)

My translation: For an interface to be interpellative, for it to hail / persuade audiences into adopting certain subject positions, it’s got to do [x. x=technique] by being [y. y=interpellation trait ].

My Question

1. It’s Saturday morning, and you’re on your way to a college football game with your parents and friends. After an hour of driving, you stop at the Welcome Center on the state line and are pleased to run into some of your parents friends who haven’t seen you in a while. As you’re on your way to the restroom, one of them turns to you and says, with a smile on her face and a gleam of genuine interest in her eyes, “Your mom tells me you’re working on your dissertation. What are you writing about?”

What’s your “elevator speech”? Does it pass Heath and Heath’s SUCCES test for a sticky idea?

1.   “By ‘stick’ we mean that your ideas are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact – they change your audiences’ opinions and behavior” (8).

2.   Heath & Heath define the Curse of Knowledge as follows: “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it…And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind” (20).

“If a message can’t be used to make predictions or decisions, it is without value, no matter how accurate or comprehensive it is…Accuracy to the point of uselessness is a symptom of the Curse of Knowledge” (56-57).