qualities of digital interfaces

Jeff asked

Clearly, understanding the digital interface as a “material” with “qualities” is going to be very important in our ability to design a language of interaction design. What are some of the material qualities of the digital interfaces you use?

This question got me thinking, and my initial comment to Jeff’s post somehow turned into this long post. Some qualities I perceive of digital interfaces…

fast and dynamic — a book is static, while a webpage changes over time. Video, audio, hyperlinks,…not only do they ‘move’, but we can search and navigate them. And we can do it quickly.

fluid and adaptable — Physical materials are difficult to shape, often requiring expensive and difficult tools. With pen and paper, a mistake means I have to start all over. With word processors, I can easily correct mistakes. More importantly, I can cut and paste to reorganize my thoughts. I can get my thoughts recorded faster when I type. Word processors support that old ways of writing, as well as many new ways of writing. I can even write macros, more complicated tools to aid me in writing. Some of the most important and popular digital interfaces are best thought of as tools that facilitate and encourage the creation of unique and diverse products (which signifantly includes more digital tools).

cheap and abundant — software and the internet run on energy and material hardware. Still, in a digital world, things are cheap and abundant. Unlike the physical world, in a digital world one costs the same as many; I can make perfect copies for free. And I don’t need to throw anything away. Rooms full of physical information can be stored and accessed on a single computer, or distributed throughout a network of computers. Cheap and abundant changes the way we think about and use our materials.

What qualities do the rest of you see in digital interfaces? What general qualities do they possess? What are some interesting particular qualities of particular digital interfaces?

Thinking about the qualities listed above led me to some other ideas.

What is a useful level at which to talk about materials and qualities?

We think of “burnable” as a quality of wood, not of atoms which compose it. So is “fluid” a quality of digital technology, or is it a quality of the particular software or interfaces that we’ve constructed from digital technology? Digital technology has multiple levels that we are comfortable talking about: hardware, algorithmic, software, interface, network,… This seems to be at least part of what Lowgren and Stolterman are getting at when they talk about digital technology as a “material without qualities”. Bits, like atoms, certainly seem to have this property of being fundamental building blocks of diverse and complex forms with emerging qualities that can’t be found or anticipated in the individual parts. However, the digital interface level, which Jeff suggests in his question, certainly seems like a useful level at which to talk about the qualities of a digital material.

What can’t we do with computation?

We’re making all sorts of crazy things out of bits. Computation allows us to create and use digital interfaces that are dynamic, fluid and cheap. It sometimes feels like digital can make anything is possible. But, even as computers become faster, cheaper, and more easily manipulated, it still has limitations. For one, we can’t (yet) manipulate atoms in the same ways we can manipulate bits; we can’t do things in the phsyical world that we can do in virtual worlds (and vice versa). What are some fundamental limitations of computation? What possible uses of computation haven’t we thought of yet?

What radical things do these qualities allow us to do and how do they change us?

Digital is an appropriable medium. This is probably what excites me most about it. Text and television are often used to push information onto the consumer. Network and digital technologies are used as much for pulling, filtering, sorting, mixing, creating, and producing content as they are for pushing it. The distinction between consumer and designer is often not so clear. Digital is a medium of active creation, not just passive consumption. In many ways, this results in the creation of much more richness, diversity and opportunity. Which is a good thing? And what are the negative effects of ubiquitous creation over consumption?

Another radical aspect of a digital world is that materials and copies are free. Consequently, time, attention, and creativity can appear to be the only resources that are scarce. Is this the direction that digital worlds are headed? What is life like inside (and outside) this type of world? Will our physical world approach this scenario of material abundance, as we learn to control atoms in ways similar to how we now are controlling bits?

Digital also question our conceptions of reality. We are drawn to software because it is powerful (it’s dynamic, fluid, and abundant). We have certain powers and experiences in “simulated worlds” that we don’t have in the “real world”. What implications does this have? What happens when we start to prefer virtual experiences over physical experiences?


  1. Tyler Pace

    I would recategorize “cheap and abundant” as “infinitely reproduceable.”

    We can not infinitely reproduce a coffee table. Every copy will be a little different and eventually we run out of the precise materials needed for exact replication. However, with digital media we can infinitely reproduce, but not necessarily cheaply or abundantly.

    Love or hate, we live in an era of copyright and intellectual property. Some carpenters can’t use protected forests and we can’t use bits. This alone can cause cheap to become expensive.

    Abundantly is a little harder to breakdown. For many things, abundance of infinite copies is not an issue. However, large copies of bioinformatics datasets (terabytes) are probably not infinitely reproduceable or abundant.

  2. houssian

    You have some great observations and questions Jimmy.
    We have certain powers and experiences in “simulated worlds” that we don’t have in the “real world”. What implications does this have?
    This reminds me of the book that Ted Castranova is writing, his premise is, we get used to certain things in games and virtual worlds, what does that mean if those same expectations are carried over into the real world. Guided by my reading of Prensky and others my intuition is that the rising generation who have only known computers and cell phones, these so called “digital natives,” actually think, learn, and work in different ways, e.g. ability to multi-task, ease of use with many forms of technology etc.

    As for computing, or the web being “cheap” I think Tyler has addressed this somewhat, but I’ll chime in and say that professionally designed, dynamic site that are maintained and upgraded regularly aren’t cheap. Although I think one could make the business case that dollars spent on an engaging, useful site will save big money in other places.

  3. jimmypierce

    You both bring up good points. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that cheapness and abundance are inevitably how we will use digital material (intellectual property is certainly still an issue). Rather, I wanted to point out what I felt was a fundamental property of digital material, namely that it is digitally *possible* to store huge amounts of information(so that we don’t need to throw things away), that bits seem to be abundant and that we can infinitely reproduce digital artifacts.

    Things are potentially very different in a digital world where it is possible (although not necessarily legal or acceptable) to have an abundance of digital trees that can be perfectly copied cheaply.

    With digital materials, major costs often seem to lie in creating originals, not in storing or reproducing them. Though Houssian’s point is a also a valid one: digital materials exist within our physical world; what appears to be free in a digital world will have costs in the physical world. Houssian’s observation about upkeep is an interesting one, and something I had not fully considered. For example, we know that it is in theory possible to maintain perfect digital copies indefinitely, however, hardware and software is constantly changing, hence the long-term preservations of digital material is questionable. How does the cost of upkeep compare to the cost of the creation of content? I’m hardly knowledgeable about these types of issues surrounding the economics of info technology, but would love to here what others think or some recommended readings…


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