Embodied interaction and improvised information displays

Recent­ly a good friend of mine became a dad. It made me feel real­ly old, but it also lead to an encounter with an impro­vised infor­ma­tion dis­play, which I’d like to tell you about, because it illus­trates some of the things I have learnt from read­ing Paul Dourish’s Where the Action Is.

My friend’s son was born a bit too ear­ly, so we went to see him (the son) at the neona­tol­ogy ward of the local hos­pi­tal. It was there that I saw this white­board with stick­ers, writ­ing and the famil­iar mag­nets on it:

Tracing of a photo of an improvised information display in a hospital neonatology ward consisting of a whiteboard, magnets, stickers and writing

(I decid­ed to trace the pho­to I took of it and replace the names with fic­tion­al ones.)

Now, at first I only noticed parts of what was there. I saw the patient names on the left-hand side, and recog­nised the name of my friend’s son. I also noticed that on the right-hand side, the names of all the nurs­es on duty were there. I did not think much more of it.

Before leav­ing, my friend walked up to the white­board and said some­thing along the lines of “yes, this is cor­rect,” and touched one of the green mag­nets that was in the mid­dle of the board as if to con­firm this. It was then that my curios­i­ty was piqued, and I asked my friend to explain what the board meant.

It turns out it was a won­der­ful thing, some­thing I’ll call an impro­vised infor­ma­tion dis­play, for lack of a bet­ter word. What I had not seen the first time around, but were point­ed out by my friend:

  1. There is a time axis along the top of the board. By plac­ing a green mag­net at the height of a child’s name some­where along this axis, par­ents can let the staff know when they intend to vis­it. This is impor­tant for many rea­sons. One being that it helps the nurs­es time the moment a child will be fed so that the par­ents can be present. So in the exam­ple, the par­ents of ‘Fara­mond’ will be vis­it­ing around 21:00 hours.
  2. There are dif­fer­ent colour mag­nets behind the children’s names, and behind the nurs­es’ names. This shows which nurse is respon­si­ble for which child. For instance, ‘Char­lotte’ is in charge of ‘Once’s’ care.

Dourish’s book has influ­enced the way I look at things like this. It has made me more aware of their unique val­ue. Where­as before I would think that some­thing like this could be done bet­ter by a prop­er design­er, with dig­i­tal means, I now think the grasp-able aspect of such a dis­play is vital. I also now believe that the promi­nent role of users in shap­ing the dis­play is vital. Dour­ish writes:1

What embod­ied inter­ac­tion adds to exist­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al prac­tice is the under­stand­ing that rep­re­sen­ta­tions are also them­selves arte­facts. Not only do they allow users to “reach through” and act upon the enti­ty being rep­re­sent­ed, but they can also them­selves be act­ed upon—picked up, exam­ined, manip­u­lat­ed and rearranged.”

Par­ents and nurs­es reach through the dis­play I saw in the neona­tol­ogy ward to act upon the infor­ma­tion about vis­it­ing times and respon­si­bil­i­ty of care. But they also act on the com­po­nents of the dis­play itself to manip­u­late the mean­ing they have.

In fact, this is how the dis­play was con­struct­ed in the first place! The role of the design­er in this dis­play was lim­it­ed to the com­po­nents them­selves. Design­ers were respon­si­ble for the affor­dances of the white­board, the mag­nets, the erasable mark­ers and stick­ers, which enabled users to pro­duce the infor­ma­tion dis­play they need­ed. In the words of Dour­ish:2

Prin­ci­ple: Users, not design­ers, cre­ate and com­mu­ni­cate mean­ing.”

Prin­ci­ple: Users, not design­ers, man­age cou­pling.”

It is the nurs­es and the par­ents and the social prac­tice they togeth­er con­sti­tute that gives rise to the mean­ing of the dis­play. What the board means is obvi­ous to them, because they have ‘work’ that needs to be done togeth­er. It was not obvi­ous to me, because I am not part of that group. It was not a design­er that decid­ed what the mean­ing of the dif­fer­ent colours of the mag­nets were. It was a group of users who cou­pled mean­ing to the com­po­nents they had avail­able to them.

It might be a rad­i­cal exam­ple, but I think this does demon­strate what peo­ple can do if the right com­po­nents are made avail­able to them, and they are allowed to make their own mean­ing with them. I think it is impor­tant for design­ers to realise this, and allow for this kind of manip­u­la­tion of the prod­ucts and ser­vices they shape. Clear­ly, Dourish’s notion of embod­ied inter­ac­tion is a key to design­ing for adap­ta­tion and hack­ing. When it comes to this, today’s white­boards, mag­nets and mark­ers seem to do a bet­ter job than many of our cur­rent dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies.

  1. Page 169 []
  2. Page 170 []

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

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