Present-at-Hand & Ready-to-Hand in Interaction Design

Recently, Heidegger’s concepts of present-at-hand and ready-at-hand have been mentioned in readings for both Jeff’s class and Erik’s class.  I find the implications of these concepts interesting for interaction designers and want to examine them further.  A fundamental question for an interaction designer being introduced to these concepts is:

Should products be designed to be ready-to-hand, or to be present-at-hand? 

Most software tools should be ready-at-hand so that the person using them concentrates on the content or task and not on the tool.  Ready-at-hand is the state of most tools, until they break down, and I think that most of us don’t want to be designing tools that are constantly breaking down.  I also see some relation between Heidegger’s concept of ready-at-hand and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.  I think a tool being ready-at-hand is a prerequisite for someone to get in to a flow state, although just because a tool is ready-to-hand, does not guarantee a flow state. 

On the other hand (ha ha), when something is present-at-hand, and breaks down, it allows the person to look at something as it is.  This break down encourages critical reflection on the relationship with the tool.  Example:  “When my television broke I realized how much time I spent watching it and how much more productive I could be.”  Another reason a tool might want to be present-at-hand is so that a person becomes attached to the product and thus less likely to replace it.  Friedel argues that when a tool is always ready-at-hand the person cannot become attached to it because they only think of the function the tool allows them to do, and not the tool itself.   Because of this, products that are present-at-hand are more valued and less replaceable.

So, this brings me back to my original questions: Should products be designed to be ready-to-hand, or to be present-at-hand?  The answer is: it depends.   But I don’t think that this ambiguity is a bad thing. Interaction designers can use the opposition between present-at-hand and ready-at-hand as a way to understand experience and as an aid for design.


The Breakdown Balance

If these concepts are going to be used by practitioners, I think one important issue that must be examined is the balance in creating breakdowns.  Breakdowns are important to encourage reflection and attachment, but they hinder usability, flow, and enjoyment (at least temporarily).  I think for interaction designers to successfully use these concepts in practice the key is to understand how to balance a breakdown so that the user can reflect or become attached without losing patience or getting annoyed.


Creating A Design

In next week’s blog post I will come up with a design concept that utilizes breakdown to either encourage reflection or create attachment.   (Unless if I have something more interesting to blog about)


  1. laurabrunetti

    Right, so these differences between ready-at-hand and present-at-hand are assets in different situations. I was trying to come up with an example of something you’d want to be present-at-hand, meaning the whole experience of the thing is based on your awareness of the relationship and interaction with it. Would a rubix cube fit the example of something present-at-hand that you’d want to be present-at-hand? That the whole experience is based upon this object being present-at-hand?

  2. mingxian

    What I am thinking about is that why do we need to replace a good tool we have? Sometimes we have a very useful and ready-at-hand tool. maybe we forget the existing of the tool and focus on our tasks when we use it. But after the job done, have you ever boast the tools at hand as a wonderful helper? Sometimes after long-time using of a ready-at-hand tool, it could do nothing more for us, but we treasure it as a good friend and keep it for longer time instead of throw it away. Its value comes from the work it does when it ready-at-hand.

    Another thing I am thinking is that the meaning of ready-at-hand is changing over time due to the developments of technology, users’ critique and tasks.

  3. davidroyer

    @ Mingxian
    Yeah, Mingxian, I see what you mean. I think if all tools had breakdowns (present-at-hand) it would be a big headache. I think their are some tools that I would rather not reflect on or get attached to. Also, I don’t even know how all of this applies to digital tools.

    I don’t have the Friedel article with me, but I think he would disagree when you say the following about a tool that was only ready-at-hand: “we treasure it as a good friend and keep it for longer time instead of throw it away.” I think he would say that you would have never thought of it in this way unless if it was present-in-hand. You would have just seen it as a means to an end.

    Either way, it is a confusing/interesting way to look at products.

  4. chmbrigg

    David, i did an accidental experiment in breakdown (though i hadn’t made the connection until just now) earlier this year on the basketball court that might be interesting to consider:

    I think it may also be helpful to take a look, from the perspective of breakdown, at people who are temporarily disabled and then learn a new skill as a result. i.e., Larry Bird broke his shooting hand in high school and learned to shoot left-handed. In a sense, shooting became present-at-hand, and forced him to adapt it.

  5. thismarty

    I can think of one instance where a good software tool would designed to be both “ready-” and “present at hand” – depending on the user.

    For a new user, such software would be “present” since that user could stand to benefit from an awareness of the tool itself and even the larger workflows hat it embodies, as they learn its ropes. Later though, after the user has become more facile, that same software could make itself more “ready at hand” since the more initiated user wouldn’t need the sort of channeling and guidance that an in-your-face interface would provide.

    One example of such an approach that comes to mind would be Discreet’s (previsouly Alias’) Maya 3D software (a 3D modeling and animation application). For new users, it’s got all sorts of menus, pop-ups, tooltips and so on that never let you forget that you are using Maya and lving in the world of its approaches to 3D. But then later, when you have become an experienced Maya user, facile in 3D modeling and animation and savvy in Maya and its workflows, you can turn off all traces of the GUI, using only mouse gestures to invoke options and tools.

    Indeed, I know several 3D designers who use Maya in this “expert mode”, all of whom started using it in the more traditional mode and then moved up later.


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