You Design What Now?
You Design What Now?

A Language of Interaction

“It is natural for people to embody a new domain of knowledge in a language that expresses ideas in that domain… The language gives you a way to see—a framework for interpreting the things you observe and a structure of understanding you can elaborate as you learn more.”

Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt in Contextual Design

Contextual Design is considered a classic in the HCI field. It’s with good reason, too. Similar to recent literature on the convergence of business marketing and service design that I’ve noted previously, I can imagine how this book and others like it started to indicate the emerging links between software development and interaction design when it was published in 1998.

Most references I’ve encountered focus on contextual inquiry, the user research portion of the process proposed by the authors. Contextual inquiry provides a set of principles for user engagement that still hold up (which makes sense since they were so formative of design research as we know it). They are: context (go where the work happens), partnership (the master/apprentice model), interpretation (share interpretations with users to reveal the why), and focus (set a project focus to guide, but also allow individual focuses to provide different perspectives).

The other concept in the book that I felt drawn to is work models. Here, the authors are interested in developing a language of interaction. They suggest five different graphical models: flow models (used to understand roles in an interaction and who takes them on), cultural models (used to understand organizational influences), physical models (used to see how work is reflected in the real world), sequence models (used to reveal intents), and artifact models (used to reveal presentation and structure of work).

This is a nice taxonomy of conceptual models. You can start to see many design methods and models under these categories. Architectural patterns echo the idea of the physical model. The “Five Whys” technique could be seen as a version of sequence modeling. Stakeholder maps take on qualities of both flow and cultural models. A language of interaction can help to develop ways of framing our design that we may not have considered otherwise.


Design Process


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