Thesis proposal draft as a letter to Katie

The title says it all. I thought this would help me get my thoughts and ideas out more simply and in a way that was more focused on clarity, since I would be explaining it to a non-designer.


Dear Katie,

As you may or may not know, the field of interaction design is exploding. Or, at least companies are considering a designer in general and essential part of any team. We can see that companies’ attentions have turn towards the field of design. For example, this year IBM was making a big push to hire 2,000 designers and General Electric launched their first ever User Experience Division of their Software Leadership Program this year. My opinion, which is not really backed up by anything but my own experience is that, since we’re spending so much of our time online and in front of screens now, there is a real need to make those experiences as unique and branded as physical products since there is nothing else a customer will see. Companies are driven to make these interactions meaningful. For example, companies like Oxo go about refining products like kitchen utensils to make them easier to use when the functioned fine before. Or consider the craft a graphic designer might put into printing a poster: picking the right paper, matching colors, and making sure the proportions came out the way they wanted—all after they’ve already spent hours making sure the visual design itself is correct. These designers are making a distinction between simply performing the task and in creating a preferred method of completing a task. Digital products have been creating more meaningful experiences in the same way by increasing the quality of the design and the way that information is delivered to people—the way an interface interacts with viewers matters and goes into consideration as the evaluate the entire product. By that, I mean the micro-interactions: everything from how the screens load, the transition between pages, and even how a button is clicked.

Today, designers are definitely creating an incredible variety of interactions for users. For instance, Skype’s loading indicator is a playful circle of circles that moves as if affected by physics. Interaction designers are definitely exploring these types of micro-interactions and talking about why they are important. For example, Adrain Zumbrunnen (2013) wrote an article called “Smart transitions in user experience design” where he details the importance of improving web transitions in order to create better experiences for viewers. For example, he argues that transitions from page-to-page should scroll instead of blink to the next page (the default) in order to show the information in context to each other. Another example is showing the expansions or flow of form fields on a website. He says that elements on a page should have defined states with a transition between because “nothing feels more unnatural than a sudden change, because sudden changes don’t exist in the real world.” These transitions and interactions help orient people on page that doesn’t have dimensions otherwise. As Johannes Tonollo describes on his website,, meaningful transitions “illustrate the process of the interaction and the structure of the user interface. They focus on specific events, or clarify the user’s interaction by animation.” In other words, these are special interaction that are more meaningful than default HTML interactions because they help the user understand what is happening. This is in large part because they are referencing what happens in the real world, what we are more familiar with. I believe this is important as we strive towards creating screens that afford natural interactions that any use could understand and use.

The work of scholars like Robin Kinross (1985) has argued that no information is truly neutral and devoid of rhetoric. We have the ability to read and react to anything we encounter because, no matter what, the information has been curated by an author of some kind and dictates how we work through the information. In his paper, “The Rheotric of Neutrality,” he explains how even the time table for a train is influences us and points out how changing variety of elements would impact us. We think of data as being subjective, but what data you choose and what context you put around it makes all the difference in our understanding. For example, the table could be difficult to read and make people confused or, the instead of saying the arrival time (13:00) they could just list the departure time and trip duration (3 hours 26 minutes). How would that change the way people used that timetable?

Looking beyond the visual design of the screen-based experiences—the colors, images, and content arrangement—and thinking about the actual movements of a user goes through on a page, I would argue that those aren’t neutral either. Even though something is common doesn’t mean it’s neutral because what’s common can change. I suspect many interaction designers feel the same way since hundreds of articles like Zumbrunnen’s & Tonollo’s exist around the world and whole websites are created to discuss interactions. Not to say that these interactions haven’t been happening for some time now, they have, but I wonder how we can disseminate the interaction design techniques already present and create new, natural interaction in order improve users experiences and create shared knowledge among designers.

So that’s the set up to what to the space I’m interested working in. The other component of my interests is in language theory and the relationship between it and interaction design. One philosopher that has sparked my interests is the work of Jacque Derrida, who claimed that our thoughts and perceptions are governed by language.  He believed that it would be difficult (if not impossible) to make certain distinctions if we don’t already have a world for it or couldn’t describe it. Much like a variety of words for one general concept, let’s say a verb, allows us to think about that action in more distinct ways. For instance, instead of saying ‘walking slowly’ with might say ‘dawdling’ or ‘creeping.’ Those words conjured different actions in most people’s heads.  Klaus Krippendorf (2005) describes the power of language another way using language theory:

“Language is a cultural artifact that enables humans to coordinate their conceptions, engage in joint action, and construct and reconstruct the realities they see. In the use of language, languaging, acting, and perceiving are inseparably tied to constructive understanding” (pp. 20).

Again, describing that language has to power to create realities. I was stuck here for a while because after solidifying the idea that language influences all aspects of our life, it kind of, you know, made it feel like such a big topic to tackle. I wrestled with how knowledge of language theory in particular would be significant to interaction design. It was pointed out to me that much of rhetorical studies and language studies deal with interpreting texts, not interacting with it.

Digital interaction design, compared to other forms of media is special in its ability to continually react to the person engaging with it, compared to a designed object, which a person might reacted to once, but which cannot direct the behavior of a person in quite the same way. Latour (1992) argued for the sociology of inanimate objects, but while these artifacts can direct and impose in certain action on people, I feel it has more to do with the situation the person brings to the object. For example, a heavy door might go unnoticed by a person during their routine until the one day she is carry a box into the building and is really annoyed by the difficult door and will have to concede to the door by putting the box down first or entering the door a different way (we’ve all been in the situation where we’ve tried to open a door with our foot). However, digital interfaces seem to be better set up for instantaneous, personalized reactions that could have a much better dialogue with the user than it does. Is there a way for these micro-actions to have non-verbal conversations with us using the language of their movement? It seems worth investigating how devices can perform natural-feeling conversations since products like GoogleNow are attempting to assert themselves into people’s lives like a helpful servant, giving you context-specific advice (ex: uses your location to estimate travel to your next appointment).

GoogleNow is able to use a massive infrastructure not available to every designer or company, but I believe it’s worth investigating how the interactions (defined as movements, animations, or feedback) in themselves can lend themselves to conversations. Interaction design, like language is a social activity. It involves a speaker and a listener and these roles with switch in the course of a conversation. This dialogue is reflected in interaction design and shares many of the same attributes. With this is mind, we look at something like how the movements of elements on a screen mights function like speech acts in order to see how we can create better ‘conversations’ of digital experiences.



  • Kinross, Robin. “The Rhetoric of Neutrality.” Design Issues 2.2 (1985): 18. Print.
  • Krippendorff, Klaus. Semantic Turn: New Foundations for Design. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2004. Print.
  • Latour, Bruno. “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a few mundane artifacts.” 1992.
  • Tonollo, Johannes. “Meaningful Transitions // Home.” Meaningful Transitions. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <>.
  • Winnograd, Terry & Flores, Fernando. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. 1987
  • Zumbrunnen, A. (2013). Smart Transitions In User Experience Design. Smashing Magazine. Retrieved from:
Thoughts? Discussion? I'd love to hear 'em!

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