Notes for (ThingProvisation: Creating Value Through Design Beyond Scripts and Plans)

Presenter(s):  Kristian Kloeckl

Date-Time:  August 15, 2019 @ 1:00 PM

Key Takeaways

Embracing improvisation is key to changing our understanding of design. It is important to view unpredictability and initiative as essential for creating dynamic structures that respond to their environments.


Kristian Kloeckl begins the talk by showing a short clip of a training scene from The Matrix (1999). Kloeckl is a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, and teaches the graduate program in Experience Design. Here he practices a holistic and integrative design approach, viewing the user as a person, where technology solutions are agnostic, the connective tissue between events is studied, and design as orchestration is an important concept.

Kloeckl provides a definition for improvisation. From the latin proviso, a condition attached to an agreement, where improvisation is that which has not been agreed upon or planned and presents itself as unforeseen and unexpected. Improvisation is design for interactions, where people can experience design beyond just UX but in the physical, virtual, and other worlds. Kloeckl focuses here on the concept of responsive hybrid environments. Objects and environments can be capable of sensing, computing, and acting in real time where their behavior is changed in response to context, unforeseen situations in feedback loops, and in a continuous give and take. Script is not as important here. This is a dynamic appropriation of space and a behavior that resembles that of an improvisational performance. For example playing music in the moment and composing in the flow is characterized by a simultaneity of both conception and presentation. During the act of execution the situation at hand continues to feed into what is being played. For repetition and novelty, improvisation is an iterative and recursive operating process where dynamic structures emerge from the processing and reprocessing of elements. For the purpose of this talk, improvisation recasts unpredictability, traditionally seen as a negative in product design, instead as critical mobility.

Design models are always there to help people understand interactions. Models of human-machine interaction move from interface, or human-product interactions before the era of computerization when configurations were fixed in a physical space, to conversation and common ground where meaning is negotiated and co-created between human and computer. Then these move from theatre, or a performance of intentional activity in which both human and computer have a role which represents actions that involve multiple agents, to improvisation which shows the simultaneity of both conception and action. Kloeckl provides four principles for an improvisation based model of experience design. One, design for initiative ensures openness. One must pay attention to notions of agency where the process of interaction has already begun and will continue beyond a specific instance of interaction. Two, awareness of time ensures the relevance of actions. Timing is key as planning and action collapse into a single moment where one realizes they have a choice to make. Three, forms of action are understood in the making of them. Focusing on how performers pass cues back and forth while attributing meaning to the form of those cues, we can see that misunderstandings and errors are constructive parts in this process, as they are the noise that lets new structures emerge. Four, interactions themselves are other than expected. Improvisation deals with the unexpected and uncontrollable, i.e. the Other. One must move beyond wanting to control the Other and allowing it to flourish instead, as improvisation based design means embracing the Other in the way we shape and create our environment. Kloeckl cites a German philosopher, stating that humans will initiate something against all odds and without any chance of success. Initiative is very important for improvisation.

Kloeckl uses the example of open lines, like the Ikea arrows, but ones that react and respond to their environment. He created a project with students called “The Urban Improvise”. In this project, viewpoints are very important as projectors, handrests, and computers pick up on people’s movements and react on a stage. Projected lines on the floor were conditional according to the movements of people interacting in the space. Another project, this time created at Stanford, was a mechanical ottoman that responded to how people sat where the furniture could move and adapt itself. Other examples of experimenting with improvising environments include Arch-OS Slothbot by Mike Phillips at i-DAT, Warde by HQ Architects in Jerusalem, and Cloud Seeding by Modu as the Design Museum Holon.

Kloeckl concludes the session with a quote from Siegfried Kracauer, a noted sociologist: “The worth of cities is determined by the number of places in them made over to improvisation.”

The talk concluded with a short Q&A, some are listed here.

A question about openness in design. Platforms can be very controlled, what response do you have?

Platforms can be a controlled environment but some of the most interesting and important concepts have come out of improvisation by the users, not from the script of the site. For example hashtags came from users not out of purposeful design and control. Script must exist but you must have to design it to be open. Systems can be open to actions they can’t foresee.

A question about onboarding experiences, interactions change as you enter and continue in the service or platform.

Some companies have shifted, for example Starbucks has changed from scripting because it inevitably breaks down once you change from preparation and development. Instead of controlling and planning, they moved to development where the onboarder co creates the onboarding experience.