Designing for conversations: the critical importance of turn taking

Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro had a great post on Interactions magazine about designing for conversations. They propose to use how a conversation actually works to make interactions better. They rely heavily on Claude Shannon’s conversation model to help guide the conceptual model of interaction designs.

In Shannon’s model an information source selects a message from a known set of possible messages, for example, a dot or a dash, a letter of the alphabet, or a word or phrase from a list. Human communication often relies on context to limit the expected set of messages.

I applaud Dubberly and Pangaro’s attempts to use rigourous theory to support interaction design. But I’d have to agree with Peter Jones as he wrote in the comment section, that other philosophically informed communication theories are more robust when it comes to designing for conversation. Peter specifically mentions Winograd and Flores’s “conversation for action model” which relies on Habermas’s contention that you are acting when you communicate.

I’ll add to Peter’s critique. Garfinkel’s ethnomethodological approach gave way to “conversation analysis,” which posits that speakers use “indexical expressions” (or phrases that are fraught with meaning but are meaningful to the participants through unspoken means). Where in Dubberly and Pangaro’s article is the discussion of such expressions?

Where also is the notion of turn taking? Turn taking is a very significant component of a conversation. Try to have a trans-atlantic mobile phone conversation and you’ll see how important smooth turn taking is to meaningful conversation.

I would exhort interaction designers to continue to read and integrate theory into their mental models. But I would also discourage them from taking the short route; theories are debated for a reason. Interaction design ought to be a robust digital representation of those debates, and include all aspects.


2 responses to “Designing for conversations: the critical importance of turn taking

  1. thanks for posting your comment there and cross posting here about the article on conversation. a correction: we use Shannon’s model as a _contrast_ to conversation, and we draw our model of conversation not from Shannon but from Pask, which is not generally known. (Shannon’s does not apply to conversation, as he well knew, despite attempts by Weaver to claim that extrapolation. we agree with you that Shannon’s model is insufficient.) Pask’s approach is rigorous and deep and broad, and our purpose was to bring it to the attention of the interaction/design community. limits of length and scope prevented us from providing a general survey of approaches to conversation, hence our intentional, narrow focus.

    • Hi Paul,

      I did not realize that you were contrasting Pask with Shannon — that wasn’t clear to me. I guess this begs the question, why not embed the theoretical debate in your conceptual model? In other words, is there a way we could create an integrated conceptual model in your discussion of interaction design? I do hope that we can continue collectively to include theory in design itself.

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