Slow Interaction Design: Advances in Research and Practice

August 05, 2020

By Clare Slipiec

Much of today’s technology is centred around efficiency and increasing productivity in our homes, in the workplace, and in our everyday lives. While this efficiency can be positive, the research can’t stop there according to SIAT professor Dr. William Odom

“We need approaches that help us design technology that supports the richness of human experience—devices that can open opportunities for moments of pause, reflection, contemplation, and interpretation,” says Odom.

Odom, who has recently been awarded a five-year SSHRC Insight Research Grant to investigate the theoretical and practical development of slow interaction design, conducts design-oriented research projects that inquire into how longer-lasting relations can be formed among people and the technologies that inhabit everyday environments and practices.

The research and design philosophy behind this type of technology is referred to as ‘slow technology.’

What is slow technology?

Originating as a design philosophy in Scandinavia, slow technology presents an alternative way of conceptualizing how we design technology and the relations that we might form with it.

Rather than focusing primarily on efficiency and optimization, slow technology aims to explore how technology can become integrated into our everyday environments in ways that last, develop over time, and co-evolve with people while creating space for reflection and interpretation.

“As the design industry has expanded beyond the workplace, new approaches are needed to support and design for the richness and diversity of experiences that unfold in the intimate contexts of our everyday lives,” says Odom.

When Olly selects a song to play, an internal disc like that pictured above begins to rotate.

Slow technology in research and in practice

Odom has contributed to advances in research and practice around slow interaction design through a series of past and ongoing projects based in the Everyday Design Studio—an interdisciplinary studio co-directed by Odom and Dr. Ron Wakkary that is interested in the changing nature of interaction design practice.

One artifact produced by Odom and his colleagues at the design studio is the Olly.

This networked music player is linked to a user’s Spotify account which draws in a user’s personal music history archive. Olly occasionally selects songs that had previously been listened to by the user but does not immediately begin playing the song. Instead, an internal disc begins rotating and the speed of the rotation is relevant to how deep in the past the user had listened to that song—the slower the rotation, the deeper into the past it had been originally listened to. If the user decides they want to play the song, they can simply rotate the disc and the song will begin playing. Depending on the speed of the rotation, the user has between 4-10 minutes to decide to play the song. If it is not played, the song is abandoned, and another will eventually be resurfaced in the near future. This process continues indefinitely.

Olly allows the user to engage with technology in a way that does not occur if a user is simply choosing songs through Spotify. Having a song from a user’s past listening history available to be played at seemingly random times allows the user to experience thoughts, memories, and feelings of enjoyment at moments when they least expect to.

In creating the Olly music player, the goal was to design a piece of technology that better supports people in interacting with their large amounts of personal data in contemplative and curious ways that change over time. Odom and his colleagues developed Olly into a research product and created a small batch of 3 identical players. These Ollys were installed in three respective households for a 15-month period to understand people’s long-term experiences with this kind of slow technology. The results were highly positive. Odom and his colleagues captured the findings in a paper published at the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) 2019 conference in Glasgow, Scotland where it received the best paper award.

The Olly Music Player, a networked music player developed by Odom and his colleagues into a research project investigating the long-term impacts of slow technology.

Why slow interaction design matters today

Slow technology is relevant to research today because it offers a critical lens through which designers and researchers can approach creating technology and reflect on what has been learned throughout the design process, from its theoretical conceptualization to its outcome.

While creating technologies that help people complete tasks more efficiently in the workplace can be worthwhile, these technologies also come with consequences and can be counterproductive. Contemporary technologies and devices generally provide us with little opportunity for reflection, contemplation, and mental rest. Long-term interactions with technology and slow interaction design offer practical alternatives to the mainstream norms and values that are driving these consequences.

“Technology is so often designed to make our lives more efficient and optimized,” says Odom. “Slow technology offers a longer-term framing for considering how we might create more enduring technologies in people’s lives.”

Moving forward

Odom’s research is both theoretical and practical and has the potential to advance ideas of time and technology as well as produce artifacts and systems that positively shape the human condition.

Going forward, Odom will be using his research grant to produce an advanced and refined theory of slow interaction for design through the making and study of new things. “The theory will help expand the design space and be directly translatable to the practices of designers,” says Odom.

Learn more about Odom’s research and projects here.

The Olo Radio, a similar networked music player where Odom and his colleagues incorporated a timeframe knob and slider.