Studying Defamiliarization in Embodied & Tangible Interactions
[My position paper accepted at CHI 2012 for Defamiliarization in Innovation and Usability workshop]
Tangible and embodied interactions are becoming more and more prevalent in our day-to-day experiences with technology. Take for instance the smartphone revolution, which has put touch screens in the hands of millions of end users . A common goal amongst those who design tangible and embodied interactions is a desire to craft physical interactions with technology that fit with our innate abilities, such that they feel natural and intuitive to use at first ‘touch.’
One way to distinguish between well- and poorly-designed technologies is by noting the extent to which they require a person’s immediate attention during use (as opposed to attention upon the task, experience, or work product). In contrast to a keyboard/command line interaction, a user in a direct manipulation experience, such as a touch interaction, may achieve such a sense of integration with the experience that the technology may become almost invisible in use. Philosopher Andy Clark refers to these technologies as transparent, and contrasts them with those that are opaque – “requir[ing] skills and capacities that do not come naturally to the biological organism .” Clark notes that technologies often require a period of training before they become transparent in use, the trajectory dependent upon how well such technologies summon our innate abilities and understanding of the physical world. However, others require little training, and immediately feel so natural and intuitive that even babies  and non-humans  experience this transparency.
As tangible and embodied interactions become more and more pervasive in our daily dealings with technology, instances of defamiliarization may be even more jarring. Designed based on principles and behaviors of everyday objects, these technologies are often feel deceptively familiar, until they’re not. What prevents some moments from being a turn-off, and rather a motivating breakdown – essentially a “teachable moment” - is an interesting avenue understand more deeply – and parameterize – especially by those practitioners tasked with developing innovative ways of interacting with technology.
Learning to Use the Tools at Hand
What is the process by which a technology becomes transparent in use? What is the role of defamiliarization in this process? How can we a) study this process so to anticipate how a novel interaction may be adopted and used, and b) intentionally design for supporting it?
Heidegger’s conception of different modes of tool use may be an interesting avenue to explore in the context of embodied interactions with technology . He posited that in one mode, ready-to-hand, a person uses a tool as though it were an extension of themselves. In another mode, present-at-hand, a tool is treated as a separate entity and a person is aware and cognizant of its physical properties. A third mode, located in between ready-to-hand and present-at-hand, which he calls “un-ready-to-hand,” can result from instances of disturbance – indeed defamiliarization - of a previously ready-to-hand state. This moment of breakdown can result in automatic, real-time adaptive behavior, or in conscious and reflective phenomenal experiences. When do such moments produce a user experience that is rewarding? Why do other such experiences present usability problems, disorientation, and/or lead to abandonment of the technology? Through exploring and understanding such moments, we can begin to identify patterns and develop a framework for conceptualizing defamiliarization, and ultimately anticipate how better to intentionally design for adoption.
Methods for Studying Defamiliarization Episodes
I have a history of using micro-ethnographic methods for studying technology adoption and change within real-world domains of practice. My dissertation work involved studying professional training environments to document the practices by which novices begin to develop a professional perception in the context of tool use . For instance, we reported on several action-scaffolding practices that instructors use with novices within intentionally designed contexts of tool-based action (such as guidance, see Figure 1).
Figure 1. An instance of “guidance” in professional training. The speaker on the right is an instructor, and she has both her hands directly on the novice’s, who is holding a dental instrument over a simulated mouth model
These practices facilitate the perceptual development of novices as they use the “tools of the trade” by emphasizing certain features and movements. Some are made salient, whereas others fade into the background. Such practices organize the perceptual field and prime the motor system of a novice. Understanding these practices are important because technologies and tools are not adopted and learned in a vacuum – rather, they are often learned in a rich social context – ranging from a structured apprenticeship-type environment, to a loosely structured discovery environment. This is essential to note because the process of defamiliarization may be dependent upon the embedded social environment.
I have also participated in research investigating a “smart cruise control” system for Nissan , studying instances of embodiment in car-driver interactions. The smart cruise control system behaves differently than a typical one in that it attempts to maintain a constant distance between the driver’s vehicle and the vehicle in front. We had drivers take a car out on the road equipped with this system and drive a familiar route, capturing the entire session on an extensive set of recording devices. Content analysis of spoken interactions when drivers were reporting on instances of expectation violation indicated that they often switched from an ego-centric reference frame (the vehicle is an extension of themselves, e.g. "I'm moving into the right lane,"), to using a third-person framing when describing the vehicle, disparate from the self (e.g. "Uh, now it's speeding up!"). Micro-ethnographic methods, like content analysis of speech and gesture, show promise for elucidating moments of defamiliarization – such as alternate person-framing – and giving researchers evidence of the nature of such transitional states.
In my current work, I am challenged with developing methods to understand new and sometimes unfamiliar haptics interactions with hardware devices. Studying adoption trajectories can reveal interesting moments of defamiliarization. For instance, we have received reports that early in the adoption curve, haptic feedback must be “loud” in order for novices to make sense of it. Over time, this can become irritating, as users begin to attune their haptic sense to subtle changes in the vibrotactile output. However, understanding the boundaries of tolerance and usefulness is not easy in the absence of a) realistic contexts of use, and b) time and a number of interaction instances. Developing a set of methods for studying the process by which interactions with technology become transparent, and understanding why they don’t, is of great importance for developing useful and usable innovations.
Amaya Becvar Weddle is a Senior UX Research Analyst at Immersion Corporation, where she is developing new methods for researching haptics interactions. Amaya has done ethnographic research on gesture and tool-based learning in vocational training environments through the course of her professional career. She holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from UC San Diego and loves studying interactions with technology “in the wild .” Amaya also greatly enjoys experimenting with and advancing the field of methods for studying how people and technology interact.
 Global Mobile Statistics 2012. http://mobithinking.com/mobile-marketing-tools/latest-mobile-stats
 Clark, A. Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, technologies, and the future of human intelligence. Oxford University Press, 2003, 37.
 UserExperiencesWorks “A Magazine is an iPad That Does Not Work.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXV-yaFmQNk
 Rautiocination “Iggy Investigates iPad.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NP-AeKX40
 Heidegger, M. Being and Time. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1996.
 Becvar Weddle, A. and James D. Hollan. “Scaffolding Embodied Practices in Professional Education.” Mind, Culture, and Activity: An International Journal, 17, (2010), 119-148.
 McCall, J.C.; Achler, O.; Trivedi, M.M.; Haue, J.-B.; Fastrez, P.; Forster, D.; Hollan, J.D.; Boer, E.; "A collaborative approach for human-centered driver assistance systems," Intelligent Transportation Systems, 2004. Proceedings. The 7th International IEEE Conference. (2003), 663- 667.
 Hutchins, E. Cognition in the Wild. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1995.