Chris McLay.

Interaction designer and user experience consultant.


The old computing is about what computers could do;
the new computing is about what users can do.

– Ben Shneiderman, Leonardo’s Laptop (2)

Our reliance on the artefacts we use in everyday life has increased dramatically over the last few hundred years. They have become essential for getting around, staying in touch, working with others, being entertained, winding down and generally getting things done. With increases in electronic and digital technology we have sandwiched more and more functionality into more and smaller artefacts.

The design of these increasingly complex artefacts, and in particular our interactions with them, has fascinated me for many years – in fact for most of my design career. As a designer, I have designed interfaces for several pieces of software, some web applications, and a lot of web sites, but my primary experience is as a visual designer. Despite this experience, trying to make a serious move towards interaction design has been frustrating. Both formal and independent study in the field of human-computer interaction has developed my general understanding of the domain and provided me with a range of knowledge: one or two design methodologies; lots of guidelines, recommendations and laws; a good understanding of usability, human cognition and ergonomics; a range of well documented interaction styles; and a variety of evaluation techniques. I could use this knowledge and come up with a reasonable design. However, I didn’t feel that I had the whole picture – something was missing that made me less than confident in my ability to make use of this knowledge to successfully design a good artefact.

Initially I thought I would find confidence in new and different methodologies and approaches to interaction design – perhaps what I had found so far simply didn’t suit me. During my further research I did find several good approaches and methodologies which I felt confident with, but I also started to find something else. The more I worked, the more I read, the more I came to realise that what seemed to be missing wasn’t a methodology or approach, but the act of design and a role for designers in the broader human-computer interaction universe. The design of artefacts and their interfaces is often discussed, but design is rarely explored in its own right. Design seems to be something that just “happens” during of the development process, and a lot of effort seems to have gone into trying to avoid the act of design through the use of laws, rules and guidelines to be applied by analysts and engineers as they develop artefacts.

A significant part of my research and exploration has been done through the process of designing of a digital artefact, the Time Notepad. This artefact is for the recording of personal time use, or filling in time sheets, something that is an ongoing frustration to me and many other workers. Workers record their time use for many reasons. Some use the information to bill clients for freelance or consulting work; some use it for tracking the progress and budget of a project; some employers use it as part of performance management and evaluation of their staff; some individuals use it to reflect on their work practices and to look for ways to improve their time management. Additionally, during my research, the Australian Government introduced the new Workplace Relations Act requiring all employers to keep records of hours worked for all of their employees (Commonwealth of Australia).

Designing a digital artefact for recording time use provided a good platform to look at the processes, methodologies and approaches to interaction design for a number of reasons. While it is a relatively simple task and is done by a lot of people everyday, it appears to be done poorly by many systems. As such, improving the recording of time use could have a very positive impact on the many people who hate having to do it – including myself.

In this thesis I have tackled some of these issues. The first chapter, Approaching interaction design, looks at what design and interaction design are. It goes on to look at traditional approaches to improving interaction such as usability and human-centred design, and then contrasts these with newer approaches that have a broader focus. The chapter finishes with an examination of design methodologies and outlines the two main methodologies used for the design of the Time Notepad artefact.

The second chapter, Designing a better way to record personal time use, works through the design of the Time Notepad artefact. This chapter outlines some of the more specific approaches and methods used, details key points from the user research and design processes, and ends with a quick review of the research with some areas for further exploration.

A note on terminology

I would like to clarify some of the terminology I have used throughout this thesis. Rather than talk about software, computers, devices, objects, appliances, tools etc., I am using the term artefact to represent all of these things. Typically an artefact is any object made by a human being, and this is very useful in this discussion, as many of the boundaries between our other descriptors have been blurred or are irrelevant to the concept of interaction design.

Another term I have used frequently is user. This use of this term has come under some heavy criticism (Norman “Human-centred”), and user even been called a four-letter-word in some discussions. The problem with this is that no other term exists to properly replace it, and much of the criticism relates to negative meanings that have been applied to, or associated with the term. I would prefer to focus on properly defining and reclaiming the term, rather then trying to invent a new word or confusing the issues by using terminology that is inappropriate or too broad.

This thesis has been referenced using the MLA style (Gibaldi).

Now read Chapter One. Approaching interaction design…