John Kolko – Thoughts on Interaction Design


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.


~ by ahatter on October 14, 2009.

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