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.

The Serendipitous Pattern in Interaction Design

A paper with Ricardo Melo at ISEA 2018.

Serendipity is increasingly becoming a concern in the design of interactive systems as an alternative to the echo chamber effects being felt in the medium. However, the concept of serendipity is one shrouded in ambiguity, which limits our abilities to regard it as an The achievable Serendipitous goal in interaction Pattern. Based in literature review, as well as empirical research, we propose a Serendipitous Pattern that identifies the core moments of serendipity, as well as the role of the human agent. Through this pattern, we are able to lay the groundwork for establishing a framework that enables the design of serendipitous systems.

Patterns for Serendipity in Interaction Design

At xCoAx 2017, a paper by Ricardo Melo and myself, “Patterns for Serendipity in Interaction Design”:

With today’s filtering and personalisation of digital content, there is a growing need for systems that actively promote novel interactions and that allow the user to discover new, unsought information. As such, this paper starts by addressing the need for these serendipitous systems and how one can design for serendipity considering its unpredictable nature. We then propose a series of user patterns that define the mental model that is more conducive to serendipitous experiences, derived from our revision of the literature as well as our observations. Finally, and through an analysis of the state of the art, we propose a tentative series of design patterns at both the implementation and interaction level, which constitute a framework for the design of interactive systems that afford the experience of serendipity.

Valuably Unsought: Systems for Digital Serendipity

At the ISEA2017 proceedings, a paper by Ricardo Melo and myself:

Contemporary interaction with media is mediated through a plethora of digital systems, conditioning said interaction to the experiences that these systems anticipate and limiting the potential of the medium for surprise and serendipity. Through a literature-review and system analysis, we assert the value of serendipity in our digital interactions, arguing the necessity of a distinction between Natural and Artificial Serendipity, while establishing key areas of action of serendipitous systems: Information Encountering, Experience, Collaboration, Creativity and X. We identify specific systems within each of these key areas, as well as their methods and mechanics for achieving Artificial Serendipity in the Digital Medium.

Regarding Value in Digital Serendipitous Interactions

The Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts vol. 8, number 2, has just been published. This issue includes a paper by Ricardo Melo and myself, “Regarding Value in Digital Serendipitous Interactions”.

Digital technologies have become our privileged method of interacting with information. With their ubiquity, and focus on personalisation, optimisation and functionality, chance and accidental interactions in the Digital Medium are being replaced with filtered, predictable and known ones, limiting the scope of possible user experiences.

In order to promote the design of richer experiences that go beyond the functionally-driven paradigm, we propose that digital systems be designed in order to favour serendipity. Through a literature-based analysis of serendipity, we explore the distinct meanings of value that are possible with serendipitous systems, offering examples of the current state of the art, observing the methods used to do so, and proposing a possible typology, while highlighting unexplored fields, experiences and interactions.

Defamiliarisation towards Divergency

The xCoAx 2016 proceedings have just been published, including a paper by Ricardo Melo and myself.

Digital interactive systems have systematically been designed in order to cater to the user’s desires, through user-friendly and user-centred design methodologies, privileging pleasurable and effective experiences. While this may be necessary and a worthy pursuit in many cases, it led to the rise of convergent systems focusing mainly on efficiency, productivity, and optimisation not only in those areas of our lives that require this mindset but to all areas regardless, relegating the interactor to the role a client experiencing a product, while limiting the creative and exploratory potential of the digital medium. In order to introduce divergency, we propose the concept of defamiliarisation as a method to reduce the predictability of interactions with digital technology, and suggest possible methods to accomplish it in interactive systems.