Choice: A Material of Interaction Design?

Inspired by Erik Stolterman’s guest lecture, many bloggers this week have discussed that interaction design concerns itself with the “material without qualities.” As mentioned in lecture, all designers work with materials and the qualities of those materials have a profound effect on the product. Many have commented on the growing struggle within the field to identify the materials of interaction design.

Yen-ning’s post summarizing the thoughts of McLuhan and Aarseth on the effects of the medium on the message poses the idea that the products of interaction culture require users to highly engage with our designs and generate their own meaning. Users have more power over the medium than ever before and this inherently changes how they interact with it. You might say that user’s engage with interactive media through a series of choices. However, these choices are largely capable as a result of a designer’s intentions. This leads me to believe that choice may be a “material” of interaction design. The level and complexity of choice offered are the “tools” of the designer and the product is the series of actual choices made by the consumer.

Choice might explain some of the previous concepts we’ve discussed regarding interaction culture. Distinctions between early adopting hobbyists and late adopting consumers correlate to their choices within the product and medium. Hobbyists make more detailed choices, perhaps based on a richer set of experiences with the medium, while consumers make simpler choices based on their more limited experiences. Perhaps consumers increase their experiences through increasingly complex choices which lead to a forward movement along the diffusion curve to hobbyists? (or a move to the next cycle as prosumers).

My previous post on reflective learning in interaction culture identifies interactive products (primarily video games) as major contributors to reflective practice. Interactive products promote reflection because of their ability to support and promote choices by the consumer. As you might expect, video games offer more choice than most prior mediums. A great discussion has recently broken out regarding choice as the key design factor in the most successful and memorable games.

So, can choice be a quality of the material of interaction design?


  1. thismarty

    I agree, Tyler. In fact, I’m not sure how interactivity could happen without choices. As for games, it’s generally accepted that one of the most important characteristics of all good games is that they consistently and continually allow the player make “meaningful choices”.

    I’m not sure where this whole conversation about “materials” and “qualities” is going to end up, so I’ll sidestep that, but clearly choices are an important element of interactive design and rich choices are an essential element of games.

  2. Tyler Pace

    It is a bit redundant to highlight choice in interactive media, but at the same choice is what makes the media different. The amount and type of choices a user has with a television show or novel are very different from the types of choices available on the web, video games, etc. Perhaps structuring choices in interactive media is a tool in the same vein as the theory of plot is a tool for writers?

  3. Dave Roedl

    I really like where you are going with this, Tyler. I think choice (and appropriation/reconfiguration) is involved to a degree in any meduim, though interactive technologies certainly bring this aspect to the forefront. What’s really interesting though is your formation of choice as a material–that designers should very intently consider the choices that they are providing. And even more interesting, that designers should consider the degree to which they cause the user to reflect on those choices. I haven’t read your previous post in full, but I would guess thats the important notion involved in learning applications.

    This idea connects to something I’ve heard Will Odom rant on a lot: the idea of designing artifacts which prompt the user to reflect on their values,etc or in other words, empower the user to engage in designerly ways of thinking and acting. I’m not sure though that choice necessarily promotes reflection. Simply because users are making choices when interacting with a design, doesn’t mean that they’re being reflective.

    If choice is a material, then maybe reflective choice is a particular outcome of shaping it. What do you think it is exactly, in the way choices are presented, that invites reflection?

  4. Tyler Pace

    Schon notes that reflection-in-action is possible because of surprise outcomes. You do A and B happens, therefore you reflect and form a new strategy C. Designers of interactive products can purposefully compose a series of surprise choices or outcomes that subtlety or overtly force reflection.

  5. thismarty

    Tyler’s post reminds me of the use of critical thinking philosophies in educational software development. That’s been a very popular approach in instructional software design since the 80’s, for both cognitive and practical reasons.


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