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CHI 2012: Richard Shusterman

CHI 2012 featured an invited talk by philosopher Richard Shusterman on the topic of somaesthetics, an approach to design that focuses on improving not only performance but—perhaps more importantly—a positive sensory experience for the entire body. A few examples: the use of glass over plastic that leads to positive reaction about its feel, automatic calibration of a touchscreen based on the user’s touch pressure and style, and interactive wearable art that can change based on perceived mood. Somaesthetics was described with respect to five qualities—knowledge, self knowledge, virtue, happiness, and justice—with obvious connection to the representational (the way a thing looks and feels), but also to the experiential (e.g., yoga, Feldenkrais) and performative (e.g., sports, dance).

Since the talk was given at a human-computer interaction conference, much of it focused on how somaesthetics connects with design of technology. A lot of the focus was on creative design techniques (e.g., sketching) and expert evaluation (e.g., pitched perception). But only briefly mentioned were user experience (UX) and usability engineering (UE)—and then only in the creation of norms that UX/UE practitioners could apply. Building on that, one could certainly envision large case study libraries of positive and negative experiences, or domain-specific patterns and claims, or even simply some tips and tricks to be followed, that could be available to those looking for inspiration.

But another approach is to move from inspirational norms to quantitative metrics, toward creating a measurable experience that could be used as design targets and for comparison purposes. There are lots of body measurement devices and metrics—EEGs, ECGs, eye trackers, blood pressure monitors, and more—that provide information about the way the body is performing. And a practitioner can always observe (or ask!) users to learn about and rate their somaesthetic experiences. However, it’s unclear whether this quantitative approach is in keeping with Shusterman’s conceptualization of somaesthetics—perhaps there’s an element of the mind-body connection that is violated when one tries to capture it quantitatively. Is it valuable to state that a piece of built technology gets a 7/10 for “good taste” or “enhancing enlightenment”? Or can such concepts only be captured through thick descriptions?

This post delves into a few things that jumped out at me about Shusterman’s talk—for a more complete overview of somaesthetics a good starting point is Shusterman’s chapter in the interaction design and the series of commentaries that accompanies it. In particular, one of the great elements of both the talk and the Interaction Design chapter was a pair of rebuttals by Jeffrey Bardell and Thecla Schilporst (Jeff posted his slides and some related commentary for all to enjoy). Others whose work is influenced by somaesthetics include Kia Höök, Thecla Schiphorst, Stolterman (interaction gestalt), and Titti Kallio.

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  1. August 25, 2012 at 8:30 am

    Interesting! The words and the metrics do seem like blunt instruments when entering this realm. You allude to that when you wrote “perhaps there’s an element of the mind-body connection that is violated when one tries to capture it quantitatively.” Although that may be the realm that yields tremendous fruit if we shine to light of science on it.

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