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Book Review: Inventing the Medium

Book | Author | Review

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – October 4, 2012

This review takes a personal look at Janet H. Murray's book Inventing the Medium – Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice.



Cover of Inventing the Medium


Janet H. Murray

Inventing the Medium – Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice

The MIT Press, 2012

ISBN-10: 0-262-01614-1, ISBN-13: 978-0-262-01614-8




Janet H. Murray Janet H. Murray is Ivan Allen College Dean's Recognition Professor of Digital Media and Director of the Experimental Television Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology. She is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (MIT Press, 1998). In 2010, Prospect Magazine designated her "one of the top ten brains of the digital future."
(From cover of Inventing the Medium)




When I read the acknowledgements in Janet Murray's new book Inventing the Medium – Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice, I felt as if I had entered a "parallel world" of design that I had not been aware of before. The names were largely unfamiliar to me, apart from a few like Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala, whose book, Windows and Mirrors, I had once reviewed. I felt a bit like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass and was curious to learn what design looked like in this parallel world. An initial inkling of why this parallel world exists emerged from the names of the "toy shops" – as Murray calls them – where she has worked during her career: the MIT and Georgia Tech. Her students study computer science and digital media, although at Georgia Tech, there are also some HCI students. Thus, there seems not only to be a divide between interaction and UI designers (as I have learned at several conferences), but also between the digital media and the UI design fields. Long ago, I experienced this divide at first hand, when I characterized computers as "media" or "information machines" and received only a raised-eyebrow reaction from my colleagues. (Just recently, I emphasized this view once again in a UI Design Blink about my iPad use.)

About the Book and Its Target Audience

Having entered the "parallel world" by delving into Murray's book, I wanted to find out what its goal and its perspective are and what it is about. I soon realized, however, that this world speaks a somewhat different language from my own. I had to start by translating at least some of the terms into my own language. In the following, I present my efforts for all those readers who are also unfamiliar with this language. In Murray's own words, her book is "about HCI (human-computer interaction) or interaction design" – so far, so good – is "written from a humanistic rather than a social science or industrial design perspective", and offers a new framework for design, which she even calls "innovative" and which she believes "can help to speed the process of useful and lasting design innovation." I will return to the question of how her framework is meant to help and to her humanistic design perspective below.

Murray devotes her book and the framework within to "anyone whose work involves shaping new digital artifacts (artifacts are man-made objects) and the systems of behavior in which they are embedded, not just those with designer in their job title." It aims to "complement expertise in related fields such as graphic design, industrial psychology, or programming by providing lead designers and other team members with a set of common principles and a common design vocabulary (that is, with her new framework for design) to aid in the collective design process". And this is how Murray believes that her book can help speed this process: by focusing on the collective cultural task of inventing the underlying medium. Confronted with this unfamiliar-sounding explanation, I felt obliged to clarify what Murray means by the following two terms: (1) digital artifacts, and (2) the collective cultural task/collective design process.

Digital Artifacts, the Digital Medium

I started by addressing the easier part, digital artifacts. According to Murray, we can think of these "as part of a common medium, rather than a diffuse collection of multiple 'new media'." She explains that "all things made with electronic bits and computer code belong to a single new medium, the digital medium." For Murray, the computer is the archetype of the new digital medium. Its "ability to represent and execute conditional behavior" sets it apart from traditional media like print or movies, culminating in its "ability to represent any symbolic representation". Think of, for example, complex simulations. "Digital" implies that, unlike in traditional media, the processing power of computers plays a fundamental role in the design and use of artifacts. Digital media such as digital photos and videos are unthinkable without it.

However, digital artifacts present designers with new challenges. Murray points out that digital designers are "more often inventing something for which there is no standard model." She lists "three problems associated with this situation that differentiate digital design from other design practices":

  1. "We are dealing with an immature medium, which is much more diffuse and has much cruder building blocks at its disposal than a mature medium like print."
  2. "Digital designers inherit too many building blocks that are quite familiar and practical, but suited to legacy formats, and in conflict with one another. ... Design processes are often stalled by ... unproductive attempts to apply legacy conventions to new digital frameworks."
  3. "Though we have a well-developed design protocol for user need analysis and user testing of industrial products, users cannot tell us how to resolve problems that require new design strategies. ... How do we know what is worth making that has not been made before?"

This list helped me understand what Murray means by "inventing the medium": Since the digital medium is still in its infancy and immature, designers are in the midst of advancing or "inventing" it. Thus, the digital medium is like a construction site: Its evolution is in progress and designers are driving it through their innovative work – albeit without much guidance (because, when designers need to explore new terrain, users are of little help).

The Humanistic Design Perspective: The (Collective) Design Process as a Collective Cultural Practice That is Focused on Core Human Needs

Secondly, I had to find out what Murray means by the "collective design process" and by the "collective cultural task/practice." This led me to the above-mentioned humanistic design perspective of her book, in which she states that "from a humanities perspective, the design of digital objects is a cultural practice like writing a book or making a film. ... To see any artifact ... as part of culture is to understand how it becomes meaningful through the social activities, thoughts, and actions of people who engage with it." Thus, Murray sees designers confronted with the overall "cultural task of inventing the digital medium", whereas cultural practice comprises the design of individual digital artifacts, that is, the daily practice of designers, which she, on the other hand, regards as a collective effort: "Designing any single artifact within this new medium is part of the broader collective effort of making meaning through the invention and refinement of digital media conventions."

Murray points out that "when we expand the meaning-making conventions that make up human culture, we expand our ability to understand the world and to connect with one another." Thus, designing digital media is part of a joint effort of designers not only to invent new media and media conventions, but also to give meaning to and increase our understanding of the world. Murray emphasizes that all this should not happen just for novelty's sake. She cautions designers about the dangers of seduction by mere novelty and calls on them to act in the service of specific or, as she states elsewhere, core human needs.

From Murray's humanistic design perspective there are two goals (or responsibilities) designers have when they approach design as a cultural practice. I found these in several phrasings in the book:

  • "To create the artifact that best serves the needs of people who will interact with it, and to advance the digital medium as a whole."
  • "Good design is aimed simultaneously at perfecting the objects and at improving the overall practice of the field."
  • "In approaching interaction design as a cultural practice our aim is always to make an object that is satisfying in itself and that advances the digital medium ... ."

Note that, for Murray, "advancing the digital medium" and "advancing the design practice" go hand in hand.

Finally, for Murray, humanistic inquiry "accommodates multiple frameworks of interpretation," because the design process "never has a single straight answer". She illustrates this point with the digital telephone, which can be understood as a neutral piece of business equipment, a stylish status symbol, an intrusive disruptor of family rituals, or a lifeline between an isolated individual and a distant community". She therefore introduces the term "interactor" and prefers it to the commonly used term "user", which, in her view, reflects "a model of the computer as a tool that we put to use." The tool model is just one facet of how we can view the computer.

A New Framework for Design

Gaining an understanding of Murray's subject and perspective allowed me to return to the book and its goals. She writes: "This book is an effort to support the creation of an expanded range of meaningful cultural (I would add "digital" here) artifacts by clarifying the task and providing a unifying framework for many disparate but related efforts." The designers' task has now more or less been clarified in this review. The next logical step would therefore be to take a closer look at Murray's new framework for design. She points out that it is meant to "focus designers' work on useful and lasting innovation" – which we can equate with a focus on core human needs. This enables me to answer the question posed at the beginning: Murray's framework helps speed the process of innovation just because of this focus.

Presenting Murray's framework for design would, however, far exceed the scope of this review. For those readers who are interested, I have devoted a separate article to this topic, entitled, A Humanistic Framework for Design. Here, I provide a brief summary of the framework, an overview of the four affordances of the digital medium, and a list of related disciplines.

Summary of the Framework, the Four Affordances of the Digital Medium

The framework that Murray offers to designers and that creates the fundamental structure of her book consists of the four affordances of the digital medium – its procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial properties; see Table 1 below for the definitions of the affordances. The common design vocabulary and conventions are provided by the contributing disciplines (or fields of study) – computer science, visual design (or better, visualization), information science, and human-computer interaction – which have been assigned to the respective affordances in Table 1.

Affordance Definition Most important discipline
Procedural The ability to represent and execute conditional behavior (computer vs. earlier media) /   the processing power of the computer that allows us to specify conditional, executable instructions. Computer science
Participatory The digital medium is participatory in allowing an interactor to manipulate, contribute to, and have an effect on digital content and computer processing. Human-computer interaction (HCI)
Encyclopedic The digital medium is encyclopedic in three ways: its capacity, its extensive range of legacy and computational media formats and genres, its ability to represent any symbolic representation (including simulations of highly complex systems). Information science
Spatial Digital environments can represent space using all the strategies of traditional media, such as maps, images, video tracking, and three-dimensional models. Unlike older media, digital media artifacts can be navigated. Visual design (information visualization)

Table 1: The four affordances of the digital medium, their definitions (from the glossary), and the most important disciplines to use concepts and convention from

Note: In my accompanying article A Humanistic Framework for Design, I admit that I am unfamiliar with Murray's use of the term "affordance" and that I am more familiar with Don Norman's more general use of the term (however, please note that Norman currently prefers the term "signifier" to "affordance"). I therefore decided to translate the term "affordance" internally to "design dimension," which I think is closer to Murray's alternative use of the term "property."

Finally, arranging the affordances in a grid provides a method for "exploiting and maximizing the affordances of digital artifacts" (Murray also talks of "a framework for innovative thinking based on examining individual projects within a grid of possibilities"). Single artifacts can be entered into the grid to visualize the extent to which they exploit the different affordances; or examples of standard formats or genres can be arranged around the grid to visualize which affordance they primarily exploit (see Table 1 in the appendix for a grid of affordances with examples of standard formats and genres that exploit each of them). Murray proposes using the grid of affordances as an aid in designing and analyzing digital artifacts and presents two ways of applying it to design questions: affordance mapping and brainstorming (see my article for details). Figure 1 below shows two examples of affordance mapping: the early Google search site focusing on the procedural and encyclopedic affordances, and the flickr photo-sharing site focusing on the participatory affordance.

Affordance grid for Google      Affordance grid for flickr

Figure 1: Two examples of affordance mapping using the grid of affordances (after Murray)

This concludes my discussion of the concepts presented in the book. See also my article A Humanistic Framework for Design for more details on the design framework.

Overview of the Book

In the following, I would like to provide a brief overview of the book. Potential readers should be prepared for a long journey when they approach it.

In her introduction, Murray presents her cultural or humanistic perspective on interaction design, "clears the air" by looking at some common misconceptions ("how (not) to talk about interaction design"), explains her view of the digital medium and the designers' role in designing for it, and finally provides an overview of her book.

Part I of the book describes the basic components of the design process as Murray sees them: (1) The framing and reframing of design questions in terms of the core human needs served by new artifacts, (2) a walkthrough of existing media conventions, (3) and the search for ways to better serve the core (human) needs within and beyond existing conventions.

Parts II-V deal in detail with each of the four affordances that characterize the digital medium. Each part explores "foundational models that provide useful conventions and strategies for the design of digital artifacts." As an exercise, I took the chapter titles as a basis and arranged the content of parts II-V in the grid of affordances, as shown in Figure 2 below:

Content of book parts II-V using the grid of affordances

Figure 2: Content of parts II-V, using the grid of affordances and based on chapter titles

A more extended text version based on the chapter titles can be found in the appendix. Read also the overview that Murray herself provides in her introduction to the book.

A comprehensive glossary explains the terms that Murray uses throughout her book and that I interpret as the common design vocabulary that the book provides. I also found the glossary useful for finding definitions of terms that are not given – or not given clearly enough – in the text.

At the end of each chapter, there are extensive exercises for students and thought experiments for practitioners. The exercises clearly demonstrate that this book is targeted at design students, though HCI students would probably look for chapter-specific references here (such as those provided by, for example, Shneiderman in his UI design textbook). I also doubt that design practitioners will find the necessary time to engage in these certainly useful thought experiments, but I may be completely wrong. I have to admit that I skipped the exercises and thought experiments when preparing this review because of a lack of time.

Finally, having gained an idea of the framework offered in the book (see also my article A Humanistic Framework for Design) and been provided with an overview of it, potential readers can now embark on the epic (more than 400-page) journey that I have already referred to. For me, it was an enlightening – albeit often laborious – journey through a "parallel world" of design. Others may experience the book differently. See you again in the discussion!


And – whoops! – here I am back in my own world, the world of UI design and the design of business software. What did I experience in the parallel design world and how did it feel? I will try to keep my "trip report" brief and only pass on some observations and impressions. Thus, this will be a very subjective discussion based on my own position within the world of design (or should that be "worlds" of design?) In my discussion, I will from time to time compare Murray's book with Shneiderman's seminal textbook Designing the User Interface, which can be regarded as the "standard" in the – for me – familiar field of UI design. I will do so not to judge any of the two books, but to point to differences in perspective and presentation. This difference in perspective also set my own expectations when I started reading Murray's book.

Affordances – the Fundament of the Book

As I outlined above, Murray structures her book along the four specific properties of the digital medium (which we can imagine as a computer or as an artifacts with the processing power of a computer); namely, the procedural, spatial, encyclopedic, and participatory affordances, as she calls them. These are the building blocks of her framework for design, and therefore, in my opinion, the book's most distinct contribution to the design community. The "coupling" of the affordances with "primary fields of study" further informs the book: They definitely leave their mark in the respective parts in terms of subjects, methods, and terminology.

By the way, I did also ask myself whether four is the right number of affordances or properties and whether those proposed by Murray are exactly the right ones. I therefore played around a little with them and tried to combine them as Murray does with the procedural and participatory affordance – you can find my suggestions for combinations in my article A Humanistic Framework for Design. In the end, however, I decided not to engage with this question any further, because I could see that Murray had clearly put a lot of thought, time, and effort into defining her framework. We should also bear in mind that she does not propose a taxonomy of design; her properties define a practice, or a space for design, as she writes. If these properties are useful in the designers' daily practice, and only experience can answer this, then Murray is right.

Consequences of the Affordance Perspective: New Contexts, Unexpected and New Encounters, Some "Gaps"

The affordance perspective results in certain subjects appearing in contexts where I would not have expected them up-front. For example, information visualization appears in the context of spatial strategies (spatial affordance) and, once again, in the context of visualizing large databases (encyclopedic affordance), rather than in a dedicated chapter on information visualization (as, for example, in Shneiderman's textbook). Similarly, information search, also a separate chapter there, is embedded in the discussion of the structured document model (hypertext). These observations indicate that an author's perspective has a major impact on how content is selected and presented.

The affordance perspective also leads Murray to include subjects in her book that are unexpected and new to readers of typical UI design textbooks, while other "expected" topics are missing or only briefly covered. This is particularly true for the parts that deal with the procedural, spatial, and encyclopedic affordances. For example, in books about interaction design, you will rarely find chapters on programming concepts – including object-oriented programming – about libraries and information organization, about data structures such as lists, tables, and databases, and about more technical details of structured (hypertext) documents. Considering that Murray's students are mostly students of computer science, this should not come as a surprise, however. For other readers, though, some new encounters may be surprising, but they can also be enlightening. To name just another "new encounter," Murray devotes considerable space to game design in her book. Note that the term "game" does not even exist in the index of Shneiderman's textbook. But this will very probably change in the near future. Just recently, the term "gamification" has become a buzzword in the world of business software. Murray's book might therefore provide useful insights for UI designers who want to learn more about game design. However, be prepared to find this topic distributed all over the book, with its "center of gravity" at the end of the book, where Murray deals with the game model of the computer.

UI designers will realize that this is not a book that teaches designers user research or UCD methods – these terms aren't even listed in the index ("methods" in the index leads to object-oriented programming). Unlike Shneiderman's textbook, this one does not cover the development process, guidelines and style guides, human cognitive and perceptual abilities, or user groups (disabled, elderly, and so on). But again, this is just an observation, not a criticism. Moreover, I found that the HCI sections – the only sections where I really felt "at home" – are showing their age somewhat... I can only speculate about the other fields of study. Nonetheless, we should remind ourselves that a textbook's goal is to give a coherent account of the field, not to represent the latest state of scientific research.

How the Book Feels...

At the beginning of my discussion, I asked how the book "feels." This is my personal and highly subjective impression. Overall, the book feels to me as if it were written from a computer science perspective. This is in line with Murray's statement that the procedural affordance (or the computer's processing power) is the hallmark of the digital medium – stated most profoundly in Part III, Designing Expressive Procedures. As I have already mentioned, Murray includes computer science topics in her book that do not usually appear in UI design textbooks. But, as we all know, a basic knowledge of programming concepts and a certain ability to code is helpful in our daily work as UI designers (even interaction designers now highlight the importance of being able to code, as I learned at the Interaction 2012 conference): It really helps with being accepted by developers and it also allows us to create working prototypes that can be demonstrated to colleagues and stakeholders.

Secondly, I perceive the book as having been written from a general interaction design perspective. This perspective shows through in many ways such as the exercises provided at the end of each chapter. For example, Murray often addresses designers directly and describes what they should do and what they should and should not be concerned with. She also repeats certain basic "mantras" of her humanistic approach to design throughout the book, a practice that I have seen in many books by and for designers, but not so much in books for UI designers, which are typically written in a more factual style.

So, what about the book's HCI feel? I'd maybe mention this third, but it was not very prominent for me...

Models of the Computer

Part V of the book deals with the participatory affordance. Here, Murray investigates several models of the computer: the computer as a tool, as a machine, as a companion, and – finally – as a platform for games. UI designers currently adhere primarily to the tool and machine models, but as I have already mentioned, the game model may become more relevant for them in the near future.

One might say that Murray's book deals with UI design in two chapters, namely the chapters on the tool and the machine model. This is definitely an overstatement, but it is perhaps not a bad idea for UI designers to read these two chapters first when they proceed to the "body" of the book (Parts II-V).

One question I asked myself was, "What is the difference between the computer as a tool and as a machine?" For Murray, a tool is a simple device whose effects are immediately visible to us, whereas a machine is a complex device "designed to perform scripted (programmed) actions in exactly the same way." In the end, the point at which the transition from tool to machine happens may be a matter of personal point of view. In her chapter on tools, designers will find aspects of interaction techniques (comparable with Shneiderman's interaction styles) and further aspects of user interfaces like efficiency, learnability, transparency (feedback), and virtuosity (support for experts), while in the machine model chapter, Murray covers questions like the visibility of the machine's operations (which is not so far from transparency) and how interactors can be put in control. All of these aspects are highly relevant for UI designers.

I also thought about other models of the computer – such as the computer as a "mediator" between people, or a "connector" of people – in which the design goal is to connect people and to place the tool in the background. But one might also subsume this aspect, for example, under the tool model or, probably better, under the companion model.

Suggestion for Improvement

At the end of my discussion, I would like to make one suggestion to the author. At the end of each chapter, there are extensive exercises for students and thought experiments for practitioners, but no chapter-specific references. I have already remarked that there seems to be a difference between designers and research-oriented HCI people (and UI designers) – the first prefer doing exercises, the latter prefer reading. But for the benefit of the latter, I would like to propose that the author also adds chapter-specific references to the end of each chapter. This would make searching for references a lot easier (though, regrettably, the book would be about fifty pages thicker...).

Final Word

I started my review and my discussion with the notion of a "parallel world" of design that I entered when I read Murray's book Inventing the Medium. In the discussion above, I also contrast her book with Ben Shneiderman's Designing the User Interface, which can be regarded as an archetypical account of what UI design comprises. If I were to draw a Venn diagram of both books' content, I would see clearly that these two worlds are not "parallel" but that there is considerable overlap between them. However, it is not the topics alone that make the two books feel different: It is also their perspective and style of presentation that create the impression of "parallel worlds" for me. In other words, when two people do the same, it is not necessarily the same thing.

So, is this a book for UI designers and designers of business software? If so, how can they profit from it? For me, the journey through Murray's book – and through the "parallel world" of design that it outlines – was an interesting one; often enlightening, but sometimes also laborious. Was it worth the effort? Definitely, because learning new perspectives always broadens your horizons and opens up new fields that may become relevant much sooner than we imagine. I have already mentioned the topic of games and the upcoming trend of gamification in business software. Therefore, I definitely recommend the book to UI designers and designers of business software. However, I would also recommend that this should not be the first book on UI design that they read – they'd be better starting with books like Designing the User Interface. But as soon as they have an understanding of the UI design field, it is important that they broaden their design perspective, leave the "tools" world, and enter "parallel worlds" of design that offer new and surprising insights.




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