On Serendipity in the Digital Medium: Towards a Framework for Valuable Unpredictability in Interaction Design

Ricardo Melo’s PhD thesis, On Serendipity in the Digital Medium: Towards a Framework for Valuable Unpredictability in Interaction Design, which I had the pleasure of supervising, is now available online at the repository of the University of Porto.

This research proposes the creation of a methodological framework for the design of interactive systems that allow and encourage valuable and unpredictable—viz serendipitous—encounters in the digital medium, expanding on its ability for the discovery of novel information, for enabling unfamiliar experiences, and supporting creative practices.

The current trajectory of the design of interactive systems aims for increased optimisation and personalisation of digital experiences which, while situationally apropos, when universally adopted hamper the scope and potential of the digital medium, limiting its reach to the systems’ constructed persona of the interactor. Considering the role digital media plays in contemporary life, we believe that by designing towards serendipity, we permit not just optimum interactions in the digital medium but also the wide breadth of human experience. To that end we establish a theoretically-grounded understanding of serendipity, identifying its fundamental concepts and domains. Grounding serendipity in both information discovery and interaction design, we propose a pattern for the serendipitous experience consisting of four stages: Prepared Mind, Trigger, Epiphany, and Value. Furthermore, observing the feasibility of designing for serendipity through an analysis of its accidental nature, we propose a distinction between serendipity that occurs naturally and that which may be designed. Following an exploration of the serendipitous approach of existing interactive systems, we proceed to the proposal of a framework composed by three identified vectors: Human Factors, Human Activities, and Heuristics which, through their articulation and interplay, define both a model for the development of serendipitous systems, as well as the analysis of existing ones.

Through the established understanding of serendipity and the developed framework, we not only aim for enabling the design of serendipitous systems, but also to alert for the necessity and significance of serendipity itself, to both designers and interactors of the digital medium.

Keywords: Serendipity, Digital Medium, Interaction Design, Serendipitous Pattern, Human Factors, Human Activities, Heuristics.