Jens Pedersen: Action or Interaction? A Phenomenological Approach to Design of Agency

Welcome to a seminar with Jens Pedersen, senior lecturer in Interaction Design at K3. The name of his talk is:

Action or Interaction? A Phenomenological Approach to Design of Agency.

It will be held on Wednesday, March 21 at 10.15-12.00 in room NIC 0541 (K3 Open Studio).

Here is an abstract for the talk:

In my talk I will question the notion of ‘interaction’ in interaction design and propose that it at least for certain purposes may be more fitting and valuable to speak about ‘design of agency’ or ‘action design’. Interaction means ‘reciprocal action or influence between two separate entities’, but to the extent that interaction design is concerned with the design of tools it is not quite right to describe use as reciprocal interaction, because tool and tool user are not two separate entities in use. We don’t interact with hammers or keyboards; we use them — or are being used by them — in hammering or writing. If it would be appropriate to say we interact with tools it would be because we ‘misuse’ the tool or it is ‘malfunctioning’. Thus when we can be said to interact with — are over-and-against — a tool it can be argued with Heidegger that it is a symptom of a breakdown in the functioning whole of our activity, an inability to take proper care of our dealings, and hence, it could be argued, a failure on behalf of the tool designers. In this particular interpretation designing for interaction means in fact impeding the agency of the users of the tool. 

In practice, and in most cases, IT designers do quite rightly not strive for the kind of reciprocal interaction described above, but rather for a seamless and transparent use of artefacts. Thus it is a bit of misnomer to call what they do for ‘interaction design’. At the same time, though, there is not a clear understanding in interaction design what ‘design of agency’ means beyond particular design guidelines and practical heuristics.

To create a better correspondence between design practice and how it is conceptualised (agency rather than interaction) I propose (tentatively) a framework for design of agency, which indicate what needs to be in place, what the practical conditions of possibility are, for the ‘ability-to-act’. The framework is inspired by Heidegger’s analysis of our everyday careful dealings and handlings of tools (Zeug). I propose that the condition for the possibility of action is ‘availability’ and that availability is dependent on ‘familiarity’ and ‘access’; and that familiarity is further dependent on skill and understanding, while access is further dependent on provisioning and arranging.

For example, for a text document to be available for writing, we have to be familiar with text editors and their hardware, which is dependent on bodily skills; the text document also has to be accessible (present) which is dependent on it having already been provisioned and arranged. Thus, in this manner we can begin as designers to articulate important dimensions in what needs to be designed for for tools (Werkzeug) and workspace (Werkstatt) to be available for the work (Werk) we are doing and thereby gifting the worker (Handwerker) with agency.    

The best candidate for an alternative articulation of ‘design of agency’ is Gibson’s notion of ‘affordances’, which I will briefly discuss at the end of the talk.  

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