Intrafaces: a sociomaterial Take on User Interface Design Lena Hylving

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Intrafaces: A Sociomaterial Take on User Interface Design

Lena Hylving

Swedish ICT / Oslo University

Abstract. This paper introduces intrafaces as a sociomaterial take on user interfaces. Intrafaces enables actions where humans and technology are entangled in the moment and are useful when developing experiences. It invites us to add to the traditional path of user interface design and change perspective on how we comprehend the world. The essence of intrafaces helps us understand how experiences emerge, how human and technology mangles to achieve an action. To design experiences one needs to: 1. consider human and technology as one in action, not as separate entities, and 2. focus on what activity these entities, the social and the technology, together accomplish, and 3. use the notion of agential cut to identify elements and relations involved in the experience. If using intrafaces when designing, the innovation span extends from only considering technology/materiality as the owner of user interfaces to thinking materiality and the social as a collective where intrafaces enable and form the experience.

Keywords: Intrafaces, Sociomateriality, User Interfaces, Experiences, Digitization


Todays increased focus on experiences where digitized artifacts are involved motivate for a new take on user interfaces design. This paper argues that existing ways of conceptualizing and using user interfaces hamper innovation possibilities to amplify the experience. Traditionally when innovating new digital artifacts, much time is spent on how to make them usable, context sensitive and with correct affordances. This is accomplished with the mean of user interfaces of the technology. We want user interfaces to enable efficiency, adapt to current circumstances and communicate action possibilities to the user. Usability is considered a property belonging to the user interface to enable ease of use and efficiency (Shneiderman et al. 2005) and Lavie et al (2010) point out the importance of including information about user and environment in the system for a context sensitive user interface. To achieve usability much focus is put on efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction of the user. Developers follow certain guidelines to design usability and potential users of the artifact test the user interface in certain ways to test if it is implemented (Norman 2002). Context sensitivity can be accomplished by sensor technology and algorithms that calculate usage which can thereafter be implemented as a module in a user interface (Schiaffino et al. 2010). For example, different sensors in the car can inform the user of different states of the car, such as fuel consumption. As with usability is affordance also a property of the system according to Hutchby (Hutchby 2001) and should communicate action possibilities for the user (Norman 2002). For example, a physical knob can be graspable (communicates a possible action of being able to grip it) or turnable (communicates a possible action to turn the knob). Previous research emphasizes the importance of implementing usability, context awareness and affordance, in the technology; in the user interface. With this traditional view comes a distinct separation between the technology and the user. This help designers and innovators to dedicate certain qualities to the technology and others to the user. The separation of different entities, i.e. the user (the social) and the technology (the material), facilitate for an ontological view of the world where one isolates the user from the technology she interacts with.

However, this paper argues for a different view when innovating, namely a sociomaterial. In sociomateriality one draws on Niels Bohr philosophy-physics on how the social and the material are entangled and gets meaning and relevance in enactment, in action (Barad 2007). Since many of our inventions today are experiences where the physical product, the technology, only is one component of many within the experience, should the sociomaterial enactment be in focus, neither the technology/material nor the social solely. Even though the nature of what is being designed has changed, from being purely a material product as is, to sociomaterial experiences, the ontological perspective on separate entities is too established with its concepts and language usage (Kaptelinin et al. 2012). This paper argues that this has a hampering effect, limiting new innovations and designs. To overcome this hampering effect this paper suggests that a change of ontological perspective is necessary. This ontological change includes an embracement of sociomateriality where the material, the technology, and the social are equally included and dependent in the enactment, aka the experience. Without one there is no experience, the elements included are one in the experience (Schultze 2012). The objective of this paper is therefor to explain and motivate a sociomaterial complement to user interfaces. It emphasizes the importance of a sociomaterial perspective when innovating and the paper introduce the concept of intrafaces. Inspired by Barad (2007) the definition of intrafaces in this paper is; emerging quasi-objects, distinguishable temporally with the help of an agential cut within an action, enabling intra-actions. This can be contrasted to a user interface which enables interactions between the technology and the user. This contrast emphasizes the difference between intrafaces vs. interface, intra-action vs. interaction, within vs. between.

The MIT invention SixthSense is used to further illustrate the differences between user interface and intrafaces. SixthSense facilitate action with things in our surroundings, such as an airplane ticket or a map, and retrieve or exchange information about the thing. It also allows for showing information on any surface and is a “wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information” (Mistry 2010). It is possible with SixthSense to take pictures just by making a “framing” with the fingers and thereafter watch and arrange the pictures taken on any surface. It can project information onto basically any surface or physical object in the close vicinity. So, with the concept of user interface, which can be considered as a layer between the technology and the user (Marcus 2002; Nielsen et al. 1993; Shneiderman et al. 2005), it becomes difficult to identify where and when the user interface is in the SixthSense solution. It is everywhere, nowhere, momentarily and all the time depending on action. In other words, it is an emerging quasi-object distinguishable temporally. The only way to identify intrafaces included in the action is to make an agential cut (Barad 2007) in the action. When making this cut one can identify what elements and relations are involved and what intra-actions are taking place within the entanglement at that very moment. This highlights the limitations of the concept of user interface and motivate for the usage of intrafaces. Intrafaces in the SixthSense solution are emerging momentarily within the entanglement of the social and the material, the entanglement is producing it and consuming it simultaneously in action. More importantly, it is likely to have effects on how the enactment is experienced.

The SixthSense solution characterizes the digitization of the world. The digitization of the world enables actions that differ from a non-digitized world (Yoo 2010). Ways to experience by communicating, sharing, connecting and creating are constantly changing. The constant changes require a more flexible and dynamic view where the traditional way of thinking about user interfaces is limiting. The limitations origin from the traditional way of thinking about user interfaces with belonging attributes such as usability, context awareness, and affordance. It is limiting because usability is not a property of a user interface, but rather understood within each action that the human and technology performs (Riemer et al. 2010). Furthermore, context cannot be considered stable and possible to separate from the action. Context is rather relational between the elements involved and arises from activity (Dourish 2004). Also, affordance is not allowable actions specified by the environment, even if it is coupled with certain properties of the human and context. Instead, affordance can be defined as a relational process the human and the world (context, technology and other elements of the world) comes to be mirrored in the action possibilities (Bloomfield et al. 2010).

This paper draws on current HCI literature and presents difficulties with the traditional concepts of usability, context and affordance. With these difficulties identified in the HCI literature in conjunction with a presentation of the emerging literature on sociomateriality (Cecez-Kecmanovic et al. 2010; Leonardi 2011; Orlikowski et al. 2008) the concept of intrafaces is introduced. The paper discusses the importance of a new perspective in a world that is increasingly digitized and where experiences are becoming center stage. The concept is especially important for organizations with institutionalized structures, led by dominant designs in their product innovation, to enable a break from current path and think new.

An explanation of how the concept emerged is presented in the following section and is thereafter followed by a presentation of existing definitions of user interfaces based on current research. The paper continues to explain the concept of intrafaces and ends with a discussion of the concept.

Methodological Approach to Generate a New Perspective

This paper draws on a literature review based on Webster and Watson (Webster et al. 2002) to build the basis for generating the intraface perspective. However, the research origins from several years of involvement in research projects focusing on the designing and development of user interfaces. The research projects have focused on product manufacturing firms where the increase, presence and importance of software in their products have effects on how they design their product. Along with the increase of software in the product also came redefinition of product goals. For example, a traditional goal includes a limit of five second, from start to finish, interaction with a certain user interface menu to accomplish a specific task. New goals are more difficult to measure and are expressed in wordings like “the user should experience emotional attractiveness”. Engineers developing the user interfaces not only struggle with the change of material, going from, for example, physical handles to digital displays, they also have difficulties to explain and define what user interfaces are, not only to themselves but also to the rest of the organization. However, the question of “what is a user interface?” is not enough to improve the understanding and further advance the development of experiences, but rather the questions of when and where is the user interface?

A literature review of HCI research focusing on user interface design and belonging concepts was accomplished to improve the understanding of current user interface design research. The literature review was done in three phases. The first phase included a structured search for a better understanding of the concept of user interfaces. It included searching ISI Web of Knowledge focusing on definitions of “user interface” and “user interface design”. The second phase was an effect of the first structured search ending up with literature that was mentioned in the first phase. The last phase emerged out of the ongoing discussion within the IS field about sociomateriality.

The first phase of the literature review started out with three different journals chosen on three different criteria. First, the journal had to be on the top of Journal Citations Reports on ISI Web of Knowledge and second, the journals had to represent different parts of the world and lastly, they all had to have a focus, but not solely, in user interface design. With these three criteria the following journals were used; ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (IJHCS) and Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems (SJIS). 34 papers from the three journals were relevant and of specific interest to further understand what, when and where a user interface is.

The second phase of the literature review included papers referred to by the papers from the first phase as well as an open search for concepts that came up during the literature review. Three concepts standing out were Usability, Context sensitivity and Affordance and therefor further explored. In the exploration of recent publications discussing user interface design and the three belonging concepts, another ontological view derived, namely sociomateriality. Consequently, the third face focused on getting a better understanding of sociomateriality in relation to user interface design.

With this as background the next section describes the outcome of the literature review.

The Separation in User Interface Design – a Review

Depending on how the user interface works, how well the user can interact with the technology through the user interface, the effects of it can be seen all the way up to Wall Street (Shneiderman et al. 2005). Due to this, it has for long been conventional to measure the effectiveness, efficiency and ease-of-use of user interfaces (Nielsen et al. 1993). For example, emphasizing standardization and consistency within the user interface has been two mottos to follow to reach these measures (Shneiderman et al. 2005).

Standardization includes fixed ISO standards that are developed for a certain reason or specific organizational standards that complement existing ISO standards (Bevan 2001). For example, “usable products can be designed by incorporating product features and attributes known to benefit users in particular contexts of use” (Bevan 2001)( p 542). However, complex user interfaces can have an inertial effect on novice users who are overwhelmed by all the options, and it is problematic for expert users who tend to use only a fragment of the system (Findlater et al. 2010). To overcome the complexity dilemma implementation of adaptive user interfaces is done. These interfaces are said to help to improve user interaction with systems by facilitating user performance, minimizing the need for help, easing system use, and avoiding cognitive overload problem (Lavie et al. 2010).

Consistency is assumed to reduce confusion for a user, which leads to faster learning and ease of use, especially between different systems (Nielsen 1989). This has been confirmed by other researcher who argues that consistency can reduce training time up to 300% (Polson et al. 1990; Shneiderman 1987) and Shneiderman (1987) includes “the strive for consistency” as one of the main principles in user interface design. Consistency can be implemented in the user interface by always using the same menu structure or having an icon representing something specific across the system/s. Nielsen argues that “consistency improves the user's productivity by leading to higher throughput and fewer errors because the user can predict what the system will do in any given situation and because the user can rely on a few rules to govern use of the system” (Nielsen 1989) ( p. 63).

So, the user interface is often considered as an attribute to the technology; the technology has a user interface which enables users to interact with the technology. This is illustrated by the dotted line surrounding the solid box names technology in figure 1. In addition, the solid connection lines between the technology box and usability, affordance and context sensitivity shows that these properties is a part of the technology.

Fig. 1. Illustration of a traditional view of user interface belonging to the technology with certain properties.

Interactions are between the user and the technology with help of the layer surrounding the technology, the user interface.

Thus, user interfaces can be described as a structure for communication between a user and the computer (Daintith 2009). When developing a user interface, standards and guidelines are used to achieve good and usable representations of reality in the user interface. That is, development of representations of the world is used to make it easy for the user to understand what to do with the system. For example, a digital recycle bin icon on the computer desktop is used to represent the physical recycle bin standing by the desk in the office. Some argue that the closer a user interfaces is to reality, the better it is representing the reality, the better user interface (Shneiderman et al. 2005).

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