Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Interface Thought Styles -- how to think about and understand what an interface is and can be

With the development of sensors and conversational interactions, it is obvious that what an interface is, becomes less clear. This is something that we address in our book "Things That Keep Us Busy - the elements of interaction" (MIT Press, 2017) when we develop the concept of "faceless interaction".

However, what an interface is or can be understood, has a history. In the book, we devote a chapter to what we call "interface thought styles". (The idea of 'thought styles ' is from Ludwick Fleck and simply means a particular way of thinking about a phenomenon. A way of thinking that influences and in some ways determine what can be thought and known about the phenomena. Thomas Kuhn developed his idea about paradigms heavily influenced by Fleck's ideas.)

So, what are the different ways we can think about the interface? Well, in Chapter 2 we write:

"The notion of interface has developed over a period of several decades and has been influenced by evolving technology and application areas. We have chosen to categorize some earlier and existing ways of thinking about the interface as belonging to four different thought styles: (1) surface- of-contact thought style; (2) boundary thought style; (3) control thought style; and (4) expressive-impressive thought style.

These thought styles are not distinctly related to a particular time period, particular technology, or type of design, but they have evolved over time and can be seen as stemming from different traditions. Fleck writes, “every thought style contains vestiges of the historical, evolutionary development of various elements from another style” (Fleck 1979, 100). Today, we can see that all four thought styles continue to be present and influential in our field, sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating with each other. The different thought styles are devoted to different aspects of the interface." (page 18)

We continue to define the four thought styles:

"The four thought styles explore the interface as
1. a surface of contact between matching objects (from the tradition of industrial machine making);
2. a boundary of an independent (self-sustained) object (from biology and traditional artifact design);
3. a means for controlling (operating, checking, steering) an object (from the design of complex machines);
4. a means for expressions and impressions, a target of interpretations and affectations (from human communication, architecture, and art)."

We do add a fifth potential thought style to this list later in the book when we introduce the field thought style.

There is not room here to discuss these thought styles in any detail (so, read the book :-)

It is quite surprising though, that the notion of the interface has not received more attention from the field of HCI. Of course, the interface has always been at the very core of the field. It is that "thing" through which all interaction takes place. But for something so fundamental, it almost seems taken for granted and not in need of any more sophisticated analysis or examination. Our position when writing the book has been the opposite. The very mundane concept of interface is crucial and definitely worthy our investigative efforts. And we would welcome others to join us in this endeavor.

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