Let’s make space for a new space-making interactive design discipline

Pontus Wärnestål

The sci-fi author William Gibson said that what the coming generations will find quaint about us, is that we somehow distinguish between “the digital” and “the real”. The real-world implications of introducing digital solutions into everyday life have been neglected for too long. Whether it is about work or play, Service Design is about designing culture – the shared stories between people that interact and work with each other.

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Decades ago, the UX field – even though it was mostly known as Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) back then – incorporated graphic design as a core part of the discipline. This helped evolve new graphical 2D user interface paradigms that were a prerequisite for the web as we know it today, and remains a core skill set in UX design practice today.

In the mid 00’s, the field of Service Design picked up pace, and ever since it has been evolving into a UX design sibling – adding temporal, organizational, and spatial dimensions. Often, Service Design merges with strategic UX, rendering the two almost indistinguishable. Now, we are on the brink of the next field fusion: that of Architecture, UX Design, and Service Design. According to academic researcher Benjamin Bratton (2008), these are steps on an evolutionary journey towards a “universal interface design” that fuses space and interaction mediated by both analog and digital technologies.

No fundamental theory

Only two years before Bratton’s paper was published, 2006, researchers Kostakos et al. wrote that “we have no fundamental theory, knowledge base, principled methods, or tools for building pervasive systems as integral elements of the urban landscape”.

This lack of a well-defined and organized discipline that deals with digital interaction and space should not suggest that the Interaction Design community is ignorant of space and architecture, and their connection to digital interaction and user experience. In fact, UX specialists in both industry and academia have always considered (virtual) space as part of their design vocabulary and methods. However, most established models and theories are focused on niche details and not on holistic approaches to architecture and space. For example, Fitts’s Law is centered on the aspects of movement in physical space, but in a very specific setting (predicting the time required to rapidly move to a user interface target area as a function of the ratio between the distance to the target and the width of the target). Other approaches use (virtual) space as a metaphor for navigation in digital media, e.g. “being lost” on a website, creating “sitemaps”, or measuring the “distance” between screens in clicks or taps. But such approaches are more often than not ad hoc, and lack a holistic unified perspective.

Our first Architect

At inUse we think that the city is not merely the static environment it used to be. With digital layers, sensors, and processor power added, the city is an active entity – an entity that interacts with, and adapts to, its citizens and environment. This is where designers of interaction and space meet.

Therefore, we have employed our first Architect – Ellen Stenholmfor urban design projects in Denver, Colorado. We have established a focus area for Sustainable Design and Interactive Spaces, spearheaded by Emma Estborn and Linda Backlund. In addition to my role as Director of Service Design at inUse, I lead a research project at Halmstad University, where Swedish Architect agency Krook & Tjäder and university researchers explore how digital design methods can enhance urban planning. Questions that arise are for example: Given that the Architect's materials used when building town squares, parks or buildings, might be less suitable for rapid prototyping than digital design materials, can Interaction Design methods and insights help in designing more usable landscapes and cities that are easier to navigate? What interaction models can we employ in the design of interaction between adaptive buildings and humans? And can Service Design – when merged with Architecture – help designing better and more sustainable digital services that transcends the physical and digital spaces we live and work in?

Combining client work and academic research allows us to study, create, and use methods from both digital design and architecture so that we can build even better and more resilient digital and physical interactions and experiences for people all over the world. In short, Service Design of the digitally enhanced city is one of the most important areas for us in the years ahead.

Let’s make space!

It seems likely that all these fields will continue to strengthen their connections and overlaps. Nearly ten years have passed since Bratton suggested that UX Design and Architecture are converging. And scholars such as Wiberg (2011), Jäger et al. (2016), Harrison et al. (1996), and others have suggested new subfields such as “architectural informatics”, “adaptive architecture”, and “hybrid architecture” that integrates virtual reality, embodied artificial intelligence, digital communication, and architecture. No matter what this new subfield will be called, the trend is clear: digital interaction and service design will overlap with architecture and urban planning in the coming years.

And now, we are making it happen. Join us. Let’s make space for a new space-making interactive design discipline!

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