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Thinking visually, engaging deeply

January 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Imagery provides opportunities to encourage thinking by enabling people to identify key aspects of an image and relate their own expertise to it. A well-chosen image can inspire new ideas, spark memories of prior experiences, highlight potential issues and drawbacks, and provide a point for conversation and debate. Eli Blevis has an interactions article, CHI workshop, and regular course at Indiana University that explores the impacts of digital imagery in HCI and design. In his article, he describes digital imagery as a form of visual thinking, where visual forms are used to create content and make sense of the world.

We turned to imagery as a way to inspire groups of designers to think broadly and engage meaningfully with each other during the design process. We looked for ways that images could serve as a starting point for group design activities, and as a gateway to other design knowledge. Specifically, we are interested in how imagery can be used to enhance claims during early-stage design. Claims, conceptualized by the classic Toulmin (1958) book and introduced to HCI by Carroll and Kellogg (1989), present a design artifact together with observed or hypothesized upsides (+) and downsides (-); e.g., a public display of information (+) can notify large groups of people about things of shared concern, BUT (-) often become unattractive, densely-packed discordances of data. Claims are accessible when compared to much denser knowledge capture mechanisms like papers, patterns, and cases. But it is still a daunting task for designers to look through long lists of textual claims toward finding the right ideas.

Our approach to mitigate this problem is to use imagery as a bridge to each claim. We chose to represent each claim with an image, selected not just because it captured a key aspect of the claim but also because it allowed designers who viewed it to include their own interpretation of the technology and the context.

Information exhibit

Information exhibit image used in design sessions

We have used a set of around 30 image-claim cards in design activities (e.g., brainstorming, storyboarding), using the image cards both in printed and digital form. The benefits of the images-first approach were numerous. It allowed designers to process large numbers of claims quickly, connecting the ideas to their own experiences and expertise toward solving a design problem. It supported collaboration among designers through the shared understanding centered around the images. It encouraged broad speculation down paths not captured by the claims, sometimes resulting in new and different directions. A set of papers led by Wahid at Interact, DIS, and CHI capture the lessons and tradeoffs.

All of this is in keeping with the nature of a claim, whose original intent was as a falsifiable hypothesis (Toulmin, 1958; Carroll & Kellogg, 1989). However, a purely textual claim risks narrowing the associations of the reader to the words in the claim, and thus limiting the design considerations and even alienating designers unfamiliar with the text of a claim. It is through imagery, and specifically through images as the initial shared view in a design session, that designers can make sense of a problem and create meaningful and informed content.