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  • Writer's pictureShamika Klassen

My Reflections on "Speculative Design in HCI"

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

Name: Speculative Design in HCI: From Corporate Imaginations to Critical Orientations

Citation: Wong R.Y., Khovanskaya V. (2018) Speculative Design in HCI: From Corporate Imaginations to Critical Orientations. In: Filimowicz M., Tzankova V. (eds) New Directions in Third Wave Human-Computer Interaction: Volume 2 - Methodologies. Human–Computer Interaction Series. Springer, Cham.

Authors: Richmond Y. Wong and Vera Khovanskaya

Terms: Speculative Design, Corporate Concept Videos, Scenario Planning

In this chapter from the book New Directions in Third Wave Human-Computer Interactions: Volume 2 - Methodologies, Wong and Khovanskaya position speculative design methods as a means to move the agendas of third-wave HCI forward. They contrast the often cited history of speculative design from the mid-2000s with a history of speculative design introduced to HCI through corporate design research. The authors use forms of corporate speculation such as concept videos and scenario planning to show that third-wave HCI and “critically oriented, speculative design” work together.

Speculative design is defined as “critically oriented research practices that create artifacts, representations, or depictions of possible and often alternate futures, removed from immediate practical concerns of implementation and commercial viability...ranging from design proposals to built artifacts, which are used to imagine alternate socio-technical configurations of the world as a way to interrogate questions about values and politics through design” (p. 2). This reading connects to the book Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in how it defines and explores speculative design. Dunne and Raby will be mentioned later in the chapter as well.

Third-wave HCI is described here as a “critical turn” whereas in “Feminist HCI” by Shaowen Bardzell, this epoch in HCI is referred to as a “cultural turn”. Regardless, Wong and Khovanskaya see the “critical turn” as a shift “ toward matters of concern beyond the conventional workplace, explicitly engaging with the values and politics entangled in situated activities” (p. 2). Generally, “[t]hird wave HCI, as articulated by Harrison, Tatar, and Sengers, is distinguished by reframing “interaction”: from seeing the human mind and computer as symmetric coupled information processors to be optimized; to viewing interactions as situated, meaning being constructed in the moment, and foregrounding values and politics (beyond those of efficiency). This was also coupled with the spread of computing beyond the workplace into home, leisure, and other spheres of life, and beyond the desktop into mobile, physical, and other devices.” (p. 2).

In the late 1990s, Dunne and Raby coin the term “critical design” wherein “‘critical’ means a type of dialectic that uses the practice of design to lead to reflective discussion and debate on dominant cultural values; Dunne and Raby contrast critical design with ‘affirmative design’, which supports the status quo or dominant worldviews” (p. 3). Malpass builds on critical design to introduce “post-optimal” design (“a move away from using design for efficiency and optimization”) and “para-functionality” (“where design artifacts make use of design conventions to seemingly be able to function or be utilized as a ‘normal’ product, while simultaneously seeming out of place, unusual, or unfamiliar, allowing ‘what was invisible and lost in the familiarity of the everyday’ to be ‘made visible’”) (p. 3).

However, Dunne and Raby eventually shifted the term from “critical” to “speculative design” which they saw as “a practice that uses design artifacts to open up and explore alternate possible and plausible futures as a way of generating discussion about what a preferable future might look like. They also discuss speculative design as a practice outside of commercial design processes” (p. 4). There are various forms of speculative design such as “built artifacts, media experiences and artifacts, design proposals, and written design fictions, used to imagine alternate socio-technical configurations of the world.” (p. 4). Some may ask, what is speculative design if not predicting the future? The authors insist that “[s]peculative design, while often future-oriented, is not about predicting the future. Instead, speculative design serves to ask questions about the politics and values in sociotechnical configurations that we currently experience (or might want to experience in the future) by creating an imagined world configured differently than ours” (p. 4).

HCI researchers trace speculative design through a number of avenues and research trends. One that I particularly resonated with was the Japanese art of “chindogu” or “creating humorous and nonsensical practical tools and everyday gadgets as a predecessor to Speculative Design” (p. 5). One example is the selfie stick which actually took off as an internationally popular product. Such designs make me think of SkyMaul or SkyMaul 2 (which I formerly owned a copy of). Think of the airplane magazine Sky Mall full of pricey products meant to improve one’s life, but taken to comedic extremes like the eternal diaper. Like far-out products, critical design research has connections to science fiction as well. Here, “linking practices of science fiction with practices of critical reasoning. Wakkary et al. write that “the practices of science fiction bring to design research the reasoning on multiple futures that challenge assumptions and the sociological, cultural, and political tendencies that underlies our representations and considerations of design and technology” (Wakkary et al. 2015)” (p. 6).

Another way to think about third-wave HCI is that it involves “recognizing knowledge as situated and socially constructed; foregrounding and contesting values and politics embedded in and associated with design; and embracing the use of interpretive research methods” (p. 6). Speculative design is a third wave approach because “the practice of imagining alternate sociotechnical futures removed from commercial constraints, seeing the future as multiple and uncertain, and not immediately focusing user needs” (p. 6). Speaking of the future, Xerox’s research group PARC’s axiom is “[t]he best way to predict the future is to invent it” (p. 9). This kind of forward-thinking allowed anthropologist Genevieve Bell to help Intel move into mobile technologies.

The two corporate forms of speculation discussed in this chapter are concept/vision videos and scenario planning. Both “[c]oncept videos and vision videos are speculative practices (i.e. future-oriented, imaginative, and looking beyond immediate concerns; not necessarily critically oriented) in which videos are used to depict short stories or scenarios about possible technical futures. They have historically been used in both commercial product development processes and in HCI research contexts'' (p. 11). While “[c]oncept videos are videos depicting a near-future technology being used in a variety of environments, often created by companies in advance of the release or manufacturing of a product” (p. 11), “[v]ision videos similarly provide a form of corporate speculation, helping to articulate a company’s research vision by representing a future world (often one that is amenable to products and services relevant to that company). These videos imagine a broader world (rather than a specific product), such as the “future of productivity,” bringing a vision of a possible future into the present” (p. 12).

When the authors discuss these videos as “critical analyses of the future visions presented in philanthropic IT advertisements through this lens suggest that these visions represent “impossible futures” of competing promises and moral imperatives that philanthropic organizations should pursue and adopt in order to be seen as ‘good’” (p. 15), I am reminded of the film Sleep Dealer directed by Alex Rivera that Ruha Benjamin features in some of her talks that exemplifies how some people’s fantasies are some people’s nightmare. As an aside, in Rivera’s talk, he mentions the PBS TV series Future States and the website reminds me of the website for The Nether.

The other corporate form of speculative design explored by the authors is “scenario planning”. “While concept videos tend to focus on how specific products or objects might take place in an imagined world, scenario planning (or “strategic planning” or “scenario thinking”) provides a process for thinking about, planning for, or decision making in a future with risk or uncertainties, often used as a part of futures studies...Scenario planning seeks to bring attention to the future’s openness, contingency, and irreducible uncertainty, as well as expand people’s conceptions of what may be possible or plausible – not just probable” (p. 17). This notion of futures possible, plausible and probable reminded me of the cone of plausibility which I first heard about in Speculative Everything.

Photo credit: Students at the Center Hub

In contrast to scenario planning are HCI scenarios. The key difference is that “HCI scenarios tend to focus on a user’s interactions with a particular system rather than describing the world at large” (p. 18). There are four types of HCI scenarios: “scenarios to illustrate what it’s like to use a system; scenarios to specify tasks for usability tests and other evaluations; scenarios as a tool to help design a system; and scenarios to help translate theories into practices” (p. 18). Though the authors outline distinctions between corporate manifestations of speculative design and those in HCI research, the overall sentiment is that the histories are more closely intertwined than they may initially seem.

I have read several of Wong’s publications and was even reminded of his use of uncertainty in “Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks” when this chapter mentions ambiguity: “maintaining ambiguity and provisionally in conceptual and speculative designs allows them to take on lives of their own apart from their designers, open to multiple interpretations” (p. 20). Overall, the chapter was informative and provided a litany of engaging examples as histories from both HCI research and corporations were explored.

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