The Critique of Poetic Interaction


This article seeks to corroborate Jon Kolko's argument on poetic interaction, as a desirable higher-level goal of interaction design.

Chapter 1: The Critique of Poetic Interaction

Interaction Design Ought to Be More than Usable

In his insightful book Thoughts on Interaction Design, Jon Kolko sets the tone for this discipline. He leaps forward "beyond style" (as Don Norman praises the book), grasps the substance of interaction design, and through a high-level overview of the way interaction designers work, distinguishes them from artists, graphical designers, industrial designers, interactive designers, GUI designers, information architects, UX managers and marketers. With better self-awareness, interaction designers should find their rightful place in the industry, and their voice should be properly heard.

Kolko states more than that. Good interaction designers should be more than dutiful, and good interaction design is more than making things usable. In the second half of the book, higher responsibility is put on designers' shoulders. On the social side, designers should imbue their works with judgment, and use their influential power to shape people's behavior; and beyond that, designers ought to aim at those large-scale social or cultural wicked problems, employ a whole new set of design methods with the participation of citizens themselves, in order to wake up their sense of social responsibility.

On the aesthetic side, Kolko insists that designers are far beyond stylists of transient and cheap feelings. Instead, they are responsible for the authenticity of overall experiences; they are poets of interactions. In the fifth chapter, Poetry, Spirit, and Soul, the concept of poetic interaction is proposed as designers' goal.

Ends and Means of the Poetic Pursuit

Poetic interaction is defined by its poetic effect (the terms poetic effect and poetic elements are actually named by myself, but their descriptions are given by Jon Kolko):

  • resonates immediately

  • continues to inform later

In order to achieve this effect, the poetic elements of interaction are claimed to be:

  • honesty

  • mindfulness

  • vivid and refined attention to sensory detail

The poetic pursuit has rich connotations. It stresses on immediate engagement, yet is at the same time foresighted. One the surface it quests for feeling, yet it is endowed with an analytical body. The formulation of poetic effect grasps the sequential manifestation of emotion and reason. A design with this poetic manner is calm, yet without loss of humanity.

However, the ends and means of poetic interaction are not in perfect coherence.

First, the three poetic elements are not subordinate to the same agent. As the means to attain the poetic effect on the user's side, it behooves these elements to be applicable on the designer's. While honesty and attention to sensory detail can be seen as qualities of a design, the second element, mindfulness, is an effect on the user–itself being an end to pursuit. I actually like this symmetry of agents, and it will be better revealed in a refined definition of poetic interaction later on.

Second, the poetic elements don't share an equal position.

In his diction, Kolko seems to treat honesty (and its synonyms) as an all-encompassing concept. To him, honesty implies integrity, and virtually consists of integrity to the business vision, integrity to the consumer, and integrity to materials. This resembles the concept of authenticity he has introduced in the book's previous chapter, Experience and Authenticity. Authenticity is said to depend entirely on designers' "craftsmanship and their intent and ability to evoke emotion," and in my opinion, is to a large extent interchangeable with honesty.

Vivid and refined attention to sensory detail, however, is dwarfed by the concepts above, and well falls into their region. Isn't this attention a kind of integrity–integrity to sensory detail? There is a need to sort out all these concepts. They are all aesthetic characteristics of a design, and can only be achieved by a wholehearted designer.

Third, probably due to the brevity of the book chapter, how the means support the ends are not fully reasoned out. Via reading one vaguely feels that aesthetic meticulousness may contribute to user's immediate resonance in usage, and a state of mindfulness may help better reflection afterwards. But these are not explicitly discussed. The chapter did discuss the approach to mindfulness. Influenced by the concept of mental state known as flow, Kolko claims that in order to encourage a mindful state, the interaction need to be "appropriately complicated." This is as insincere as the term planned obsolescence which he had attacked. And this is evil–the complexity of an activity is determined by the activity itself, and should not be artificially convoluted by its form.

In spite of the imperfections mentioned above, the book chapter is still marvelous and thought-provoking. The definition of poetic effect shows an excellent taste of interaction design, and precisely points out a worthwhile goal for designers to achieve. The discussion on poetic elements is a nice start point to form a framework of methodology. The idea of poetic interaction deserves study, corroboration, being fully understood, and better spread.

Chapter 2: Use Drama Theory to Guide Interaction Design

Why Theater is More (Or No More) Suitable Than Other Humanities

It is spontaneous, yet it is rehearsed. 
It is participatory, yet it is presented. 
It is real, yet it is simulated. 
It is understandable, yet it is obscure. 
It is unique to the moment, yet it is repeatable. 
The actors are themselves, yet they are characters. 
The audience believes, yet it does not believe.
The audience is involved, yet it remains apart.

— Robert Cohen, Theatre

Tracing the source of the word "poetic", we find Aristotle's Poetics. Surprisingly or not, under this title is actually the world's earliest treatise on drama theory. Indeed, in the majority of times in history, most of the plays were written in verse, and their writers were called poets. Theater originated from festive ceremonies and performances of the bards. The theoretical framework of this discipline has been beautifully set up by one of the greatest philosophers of humankind more than two thousand years ago, and has been practiced and enriched generation after generation. Confident enough about using drama theory to guide our reflection on poetic interaction?

Wait, why not other humanities?

One reason is drama's resemblance to human-computer interaction. As stressed by Kolko, interaction designers differ from other designers in that they work with the fourth dimension (time) in mind. Humanities like painting and sculpture lack this property. Among other disciplines, literature, music and movie are basically non-interactive, leaving theater as the only one that has direct interaction between performers and audience. Though theater audience cannot direct a play like a user manipulates his computer, it is indeed one salient feature of theater that during the play, the performers and the audience both have influence on each other. Given these similarities, we may be hopeful that interaction designers can learn something from dramatists.

Yet the real surprise comes from Poetics itself–it talks about poetic effect(Chapter 26)! The poetic effect, as Aristotle writes it, consists of "not any or every pleasure, but the very special kind." This proper pleasure is the goal of tragedy, and its named catharsis.

Catharsis is achieved by arousing and purgation of certain emotions:

  • pity, occasioned by undeserved misfortune

  • fear, occasioned by undeserved misfortune of one like ourselves

Can we say that there exists perfect match between Aristotle's catharsis and Kolko's poetic effect? Pity resonates immediately, and fear is aroused by reflection. Theater and interaction design, we can say, seek the same ends! The pursuit of poetic interaction is now well-grounded and worthwhile. Theater, especially that of ancient Greek, as claimed by Nietzsche, is the greatest production by the combination of Dionysian emotion and Apollonian reason. So why not learn the methodology from Aristotle and other masters after him?

Very promising. Just do it with caution. Theater and interaction design are different disciplines, anyway. Like any other literary and artistic works, a drama is always a finished, self-contained one with content in itself. In other words, drama is representation of its content. But interaction design is largely about form. The content of an interaction is essentially produced by the user. An interaction design is never finished before the interaction. In this sense, as Kolko states, interaction designers have much less control of their works. Interaction designers and dramatist work in different ways, and have different emphases.

So much roundabout. Let's get on with the meat of Poetics.

Tragic Elements: A Comparison with Poetic Interaction

In the early 1990s, Brenda Laurel wrote a seminal book, Computers as Theatre, to apply her dramatic expertise to the field of human-computer interaction. Her stress is on the representative essence of theater, and the book has a focus on the field of interactive fantasy, the automated production of plots. Nonetheless, when she introduces dramatic theories, the juxtaposition between theater and human-computer interaction is illuminating. I suggest a reading of this book for interaction designers with even a minor interest on theater. It will be informative on both topics.

The Aristotelian drama theory is built upon a structure of the six elements of drama. There is a precedence among these elements. Laurel believes that the same elements are applicable to the analysis of human-computer interaction, which I consider is a little far- fetched. But her explanation of their hierarchical structure is instructive for us to examine the poetic elements of interaction.

The tragic elements are listed below, in a descending order of significance:

  • plot

  • character

  • thought

  • diction

  • melody

  • spectacle

Laurel explains that, each element is the formal cause of all those below it, and the material cause of all those above it. Or we can says that these elements are ends and means of each other. The lower elements serve to enhance the upper ones, function as materials in the building of the latter. And ultimately, all these tragic elements serve one goal: to achieve catharsis in the audience.

Of the six tragic elements, the lower four are less significant. They are more of technical means than substance. Plot and character form the core of tragedy. Plot is the whole action represented in the performance. Each character is a set of traits, forming an agent of the action. There exist different voices on priorities of the two. Many dramaturges maintain that character is what a play seeks to represent and depict. They insist that character is the carrier of emotions, and character depth is what gives a play its vitality. This argument is chiefly against the so-called well-made play, in which the mechanical perfectionism of plot stifles the naturalness and freshness of a play. Aristotle insists, on the other side, that performers do not act in order to portray the characters, instead, they impersonate characters for the sake of plot.

The debate can go on forever. From it we can have a feel for the complementary relationship between tragic plot and character. The plot is human plot; and the characters are created in order to present the story. And it is natural for us to make an analogy between these two tragic elements with our poetic elements. Mindfulness is reached when the user is totally immersed in the current action. And if we merge attention to sensory detail into honesty, it will be clear that the combined concept represents the characteristics of a design. Since the subject of mindfulness is the user rather than the designer, it is fair to say that mindfulness is one step closer than honesty to the poetic effect, whose subject is also the user. That is to say, mindfulness is the formal cause of honesty, and honesty is the material cause of mindfulness. Like plot and character, only when mindfulness and honesty are perfectly achieved on each side of a design, poetic effect, the catharsis of interaction, can be accomplished.

We are ready to give a refined definition of poetic interaction with the support of drama theory.

A Refined Definition of Poetic Interaction

poetic interaction is one that has poetic effect:

  • resonates immediately

  • continues to inform later

In order to achieve this effect, the poetic elements of interaction are:

  • mindfulness, of the user

  • honesty, of the design(er)

The poetic element honesty, then, can be analyzed in detail. It includes, but should not be limited to:

  • integrity to the business vision

  • integrity to the consumer

  • integrity to materials

  • integrity to sensory detail

Here we have finished the definition of poetic interaction. It has only been slightly modified. But we are now more confident of it. We know that the poetic effect of interaction design is well-reasoned, worthwhile, and shares the same spiritual pursuit of other forms of human culture. The poetic elements are well-structured, and although the description is concise, we have a sea of theories and methodologies to explore from this start point.

Don't stop here. Don't let this discussion on definition misguide you, to consider that we have already know enough about poetic interaction. What interaction design can learn from theater is way beyond definition of terms. Just as Laurel asked, who better understands human interaction than the dramatists? They are the experts on how to keep people's attention engaged, how to reveal information on the perfect spot, what is the best scope of one interaction in order to form a holistic experience, how to exploit multisensory representation to make an authentic feel, and many, many more. The poetic effect is a goal of both interaction designers and dramatists. We feel lucky that we have them as companies.

Title Image Credit: "Greek theater of Syracuse," (AlexanderVanLoon, 2012)