Tinkering with Interactive Materials Studies, Concepts and Prototypes

Tinkering with Interactive Materials Studies, Concepts and Prototypes

Table of Contents


The concept of tinkering is a central practice within research in the field of Human-Computer Interaction, dealing with new interactive forms and technologies. In this thesis, tinkering is discussed not only as a practice for interaction design in general but as an attitude that calls for a deeper reflection over research practices, knowledge generation, and the recent movements in the direction of materials and materiality within the field. The presented research exemplifies practices and studies in relation to interactive technology through a number of projects, all revolving around the design and interaction with physical interactive artifacts. In particular, nearly all projects are focused around robotic artifacts for consumer settings. Three main contributions are presented in terms of studies, prototypes, and concepts, together with a conceptual discussion around tinkering framed as an attitude within interaction design. The results from this research revolve around how grounding is achieved, partly through studies of existing interaction and partly through how tinkering-oriented activities generate knowledge in relation to design concepts, built prototypes, and real-world interaction.


The concept of tinkering is nowadays used rather vernacularly, or in other words commonly without any more specific meaning. According to the Oxford English online dictionary, Merriam Webster dictionary and Wikipedia, tinkering appears to originate from around the 14th century where the “professional” tinkerer was a traveling mender of e.g. household utensils. The technical and metallurgical practice of using tin and tools to fix and mend utensils correlates beautifully with how for instance electronic components are soldered manually onto prototyping perfboard’s or PCB’s (printed circuit boards). Bending and sticking thin metallic legs into narrow holes, applying flux, while simultaneously applying molten tin, can be quite tricky, not to mention doing the reverse process that requires tools for heating, de-solder braids, suction and lifting the component – often all at once. A feeling for temperature is important as too warm may damage components and too cold may cause so-called “cold solder” joints that make circuits misbehave. Moreover, the heat from the soldering iron causes flux, solder, and components to have a scent, a useful and underrated resource when considered from a corporeal and practical perspective.

Relating to how the earliest personal computers’ (e.g. Apple I), pointing devices, mobile phones, etc. were invented, researched and put together, it is clear that these manual practices of instrumental tool use and fiddling with components is nearly identical to how it is done today when new interactive artifacts are to be invented and designed. The major difference, of course, lies in scale and there are exponentially more components and tools and they have better quality, steadily gets faster, become cheaper and have increased precision. In fact, innovations in miniaturization and automation in the early 90’s resulted in multi-layered circuit boards and surface mounted components so flat and small that monocular glasses and surgically steady hands were needed to tamper with it. This development has over the past five years been broadened to also incorporate electronics printed onto and into both thin and flexible materials which is one of the main reasons why we today have super flat and light laptops, mobile phones, e-book readers and tablets, and that emerging consumer product demonstrators are flexible and yet credit-card thin.

Academic research on the other hand is commonly understood as the trade of producing knowledge by advancing that which is already known. Donald A. Schön argued that this view is not enough and pointed out that skills and attitudes are other important factors that relate to this practice of knowledge production [Schön 1984]. More importantly, he suggested that reflection-in-action and knowing-in-action are closer to reality for how professionals turn over knowledge. Extending that argument, in this thesis, I will reason about the concept of tinkering, and attempt to position it as an essential attitude for interaction design research. In 2008, Mizuko Ito et al introduced the idea of tinkering as being central to knowledge production when conducting and analysing ethnographic studies of school children in the US and Japan [Ito et al. 2009]. Notably, later that year John Seely Brown further re-popularized the term through his online published talk entitled “Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital Age”. Within the research field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) we are interested in the broader notion of human activity and more specifically its relation to computation. In other words, we will often talk about interfaces, communication, interaction, users, experience, and context when we try to describe what we do. The question is: how do we as researchers reflect upon our own practices with respect to what might be central for our own knowledge production? Fortunately, writing a thesis is one of those processes suitable for addressing such questions.

Traces of the tinkering concept in HCI specifically can be tied to metaphorical discussions regarding the practice of bricolage where a person would explore and put together e.g. an outfit or software program [Papert 1993; Blackwell 2006; Resnick and Silverman 2005], or pottering where a person casually and without any particular plan keeps things tidy [Taylor et al. 2008]. In this case, we will use tinkering in terms of a more pragmatic attitude to explore what it could offer researchers within HCI and more specifically Interaction Design (IxD) research – a subfield focused around the shaping of digital artifacts from a user- and experience-centered perspective. Furthermore, because of its technical connotation, we argue that tinkering is a suitable candidate for contrasting the perspectives of crafting related to design and engineering, something that today falls under the notion of prototyping [Koskinen et al. 2011]. Although tinkering may be thought of as a constructive process, it is at the same time as much of a tearing down approach as a way of gaining knowledge or reverting to a previous state. As such we will argue that it shares similar if not the very same fundamental attitude with practices such as e.g. hacking and reverse engineering [Erickson 2008; Rosner and Bean 2009; Kadavy 2011].

In this thesis, we will take a closer look at what tinkering would mean conceptually in terms of a more corporeal practice-oriented activity in an overall design process. In order to illustrate this perspective, we will use both studies and designs of robotic artifacts as a sort of lens through which we can build up an understanding of what tinkering conceptually can offer in terms of an interaction design research process. Throughout the thesis, I will present a number of research contributions such as results from studies, design concepts, sketches, demonstrators, and developed methods. More specifically the work has covered studies of people’s relationships with unusual pets, studies regarding a robotic toy dinosaur, the use of clothes and accessories as a way of programming robots and smartphones, crafting and presenting research demonstrators e.g. a swarm of blinking and communicating robots, and finally critical reflections about what the ‘wild’ actually means when the study objects concern robotic artifacts or prototypes. These activities have contributed to both the understanding and contrasting of tinkering and how it relates to more established concepts within interaction design such as e.g. prototyping and sketching in hardware. By focusing on robotic artifacts I will discuss how a broader view of embodied interaction may resonate with the tinkering process.

In the latter part of the discussion chapter, I will attempt to outline and position tinkering as an essential attitude that is part of an overall design process in interaction design research. The more critical agenda is to push for terms for consolidation under the interaction design research umbrella where design processes often appear to cause friction when incorporating engineering-oriented practices. In essence, we will argue that tinkering together with sketching and inquiry are three complementary attitudes that produce well-articulated research. The primary target audiences for this thesis are students, researchers, and academics in the fields of HCI, HRI (Human-Robot Interaction), and interaction design.

My research motivations are based on the assumption that robotic artifacts may highlight many of the difficult issues and problems that have emerged in HCI and Interaction Design over recent years. Robots are notoriously embodied, move about, highly situated, technologically complex, and can be quite messy in terms of interaction. Not the least, they are designed and thus crafted with an agenda that depends on relationships towards stakeholders and intended audiences. This thesis will touch upon this point over and over and also attempt to tie it back to fundamental concepts from philosophy regarding how articulations are formed. By viewing physical artifacts or objects as articulations I will then reconnect it to an overall design process with tinkering being one of the central components.

Before pressing on with the research questions, let’s have a look at what such an agenda could look like from a research perspective. There are a number of reasons why I find this crafting oriented agenda to be an important topic for investigation, e.g. crafting as a way of exploring a research question, designing probes with the intent to elicit data, as art or objects to think with, as a manifestation of a concept or knowledge carrier, as an intended product designed towards consumers and finally as an incremental contribution for improving upon an existing artifact. These rationales are not by any means exclusive and may be used in any combination as well as on their own. This thesis aims to cover a number of the points stated above, but in particular focusing on the ones related to tinkering, design, and inquiry as attitudes in the HCI-research practice. The attitude in this case means a collection of activities that directs and emphasizes our work in terms of processes and practice. In particular, this thesis argues that tinkering as a corporeal research practice provides articulations of emerging interaction design aspects related to the materiality and envisioning of interactive artifacts within HCI. Envisioning, in this case, has to do with how interactive artifacts are crafted, designed, experienced, used and reflected upon as part of an explorative research attitude that literally involves hands-on work. The notion of the corporeal attempts to emphasize that interactive artifacts consisting of interactive materials are both crafted and experienced by means of profound entanglement with respect to the human body.


In this thesis, I have reviewed and reflected upon my own research in order to build up an argument for how to conduct research in today’s HCI landscape by making and using research prototypes in an explorative agenda. The procedure has been to flesh out what a tinkering attitude could offer and more importantly what it means in terms of interaction design. I have shown that tinkering is about exploring possibilities given by materials and affordances in a playful way. To make this argument, the thesis brings up different aspects of what constitutes knowledge. By doing a review of some related work, mainly within the HCI-field and interaction design, I have shown a few emerging areas where research is not settled and where a tinkering attitude may play a role. By then looking at the related work I came to realize that tacit knowledge is captured in the body and that tinkering with materials as an attitude, an intentional collective set of activities, sets this knowledge in motion – in a way that could be seen as akin to thinking with materials.

To back up this endeavor I have presented parts of my own research within interaction design by looking at design processes, methods, research contributions, and practical work. In particular, I draw from the parts of my work that are connected to studying, designing, and building everyday robotic artifacts. In the introduction I posed the following three governing research questions:

1. How does tinkering manifest itself as a practice when conducting research on interactive technology?

2. How can studies of real-world interaction with robotic artifacts inform tinkering practices with interactive materials?

3. How does the tinkering attitude relate to studies and design in HCI and interaction design research?

What I have done at a glance is to review a few existing processes and methods in HCI and interaction design in order to find out where the more hands-on work involving interactive materials takes place. Furthermore, the second chapter brings up a few directions where the research questions may play a role. Secondly, I have given several examples to back up this reasoning from my own research through studies, interventions, designs, and crafted artifacts. The first research question is answered by looking at and discussing mainly my own process of engaging and fighting with interactive materials. The second research question is answered by looking at how the studies have informed this design process. Thirdly, I have outlined the theoretical reasoning behind introducing tinkering as an attitude and positioned it within HCI and interaction design side by side with studies and design. This is also the answer to the third research question. The governing philosophical rationale for this work is to more fully be able to make articulations and facilitate the knowledge-induced strengthening of an attitude or research question, as part of the knowledge production process with respect to research. With that said, tinkering will neither replace design or on its own motivate the need for conducting prior studies. It is implied that we as researchers carefully challenge and critically reflect upon our attitudes as a way of moving forward. It might even be that our obsession with artifacts and technology is severely skewed in the first place and that several contrasting studies must be made in order to account for such issues.

What then is a long-lasting research implication of all this? In my view research is about articulation and looking at my work presented here in this thesis, the work that has the strongest sense of conceptual clarity is ActDresses. Secondly, if research is about articulation as a knowledge induced strengthening of an attitude or research question then such articulations should be manifested, at least partly, as the presentation or demonstration of an interactive artifact. From this perspective, interaction design appears to shift towards more grounded attitudes in terms of tinkering and a kind of re-evaluation of what it means to craft interactive artifacts and technology demonstrators in research. Interestingly, in my case, this insight comes from looking at robotic artifacts such as the Glowbots, which are in a sense embodied, situated, and move about in addition to being interactive. That is why I argue for being open towards this diversity of attitudes in HCI and interaction design research and at the same time why fields related to robotics and human-robot interaction desperately need our perspective and insights.

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Tinkering with Interactive Materials Studies, Concepts and Prototypes




Mattias Jacobsson




Tinkering with Interactive Materials Studies, Concepts and Prototypes

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Doctoral Thesis, Royal Institute of Technology (KTH): KTH School of Computer Science and Communication (CSC), 2013, 6. , p. 107

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Nasim Gazerani was born in 1983 in Arak. She holds a Master's degree in Software Engineering from UM University of Malaysia.

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Professor Siavosh Kaviani was born in 1961 in Tehran. He had a professorship. He holds a Ph.D. in Software Engineering from the QL University of Software Development Methodology and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Chelsea.

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Somayeh Nosrati was born in 1982 in Tehran. She holds a Master's degree in artificial intelligence from Khatam University of Tehran.