Negotiating Material Description Through Technology


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Virginia Tech


Designers and non-designers alike often describe fabric in ways that are markedly different or unclear. For example, two designers might attribute qualities such as ``heavy'' to a material, but actually mean completely different things, despite using the same words. This ambiguity in description becomes more prominent when the designer has to make sense of the fabric remotely, such as shopping online.

This ambiguity in description presets an opportunity to study user interface design that supports, rather than diminishes, the role of ambiguity, which is often a resource in design domains. Our most important research question was: How can we design interfaces with standard interface toolkits to help designers explore and understand material remotely?

For our approach, we studied how people described distinct fabrics, from experts, novices, to everyday people and the crowdsourcing community on how they interpret fabrics. We applied that information to designs that communicated materiality and ambiguity in various ways, and studied how interfaces affected a user's process of exploring materials and negotiating the meaning of materiality.

The most important findings are user interface guidelines that apply to designing technology any domain focused on description and ambiguity, such as design domains. Such design guidelines include: (1) the importance to communicate distinctions between description and category, (2) The role of ambiguity in design, while well-supported in the literature, is a value not shared among all practitioners, and (3) a better understanding of the different ways users negotiate with description and make sense of material remotely.



human-computer interaction, Design, materiality, ambiguity, negotiation, user interfaces, fabric