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The detail of everyday interaction

A kettle

Understanding what people really do when they carry out some ‘simple’ task, as opposed to what designers assume they do, is important. Even something as mundane as boiling a kettle to make a cup of tea or coffee is fraught with variability, slips, mistaken assumptions and so on, and can be studied in some depth to see what’s really going on, or could be going on (e.g. this analysis from 1998 by my co-supervisor, Neville Stanton and Chris Baber). Everyday tasks can be complex.

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

So I was fascinated and very impressed with Telescopic Text from Joe Davis (found via Kate Andrews‘ eclectically excellent Anamorphosis)

This is very clever stuff – well worth exploring.

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

As Joe’s meta description for the page says, this is “an exploration of scale and levels of detail. How much or little is contained within the tiniest, most ordinary of moments.” What scripts are embedded here for the user in this system of kettle, mist, mug, stale biscuits?

The dominating level of detail reminds me a bit of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a novel almost entirely about interaction between people and environments. Or perhaps some of Atrocity Exhibition/Crash-era Ballard, where interactions between people, objects and spaces are broken down endlessly, obsessively.

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

Back to kettles for a moment: they’re going to feature more heavily on the blog over the next year, in various forms and on many levels. More than almost any other energy-using household product, they’re ripe for the ‘Design for Sustainable Behaviour‘ wand to be waved over them, since almost all the wasted energy (and water) is due to user behaviour rather than technical inefficiency. It’ll be more interesting than it sounds!


  1. With less information the reader can assume harmony with their own experience and thus enjoy a sense of empathy or obtain identification with the character making tea. With too much information, the inevitable discrepancies become jarring and break the harmony.


    (is my thought even if I then rescrutinise the text and deduce the character may be wasting a mug to serve as a milk jug – to then pour milk into the cup after the tea had brewed – which then conflicts with the objective to save time)

  2. This reminds me of a project I was once set by a rather strange (but obviously inciteful) lecturer… it was called ‘bees can’t fly’, based on the premise that against all odds a bumble bee can fly but if it stopped and thought about it for a second realisation would surely paralise it, just as when you actually stop and think about how you run or breath something equally strange happens. Anyway during this project we had to examine an everyday activity of our own in minute detail… I chose making a cup of tea. There are also parallels here with Zen buddhism in that being truly ‘present’ to something you’re doing gives you a new awareness and appreciation of it, it’s details, complexities, fragility etc… even the humble brew.

  3. andrew

    The other classic in this genre is Nicholsan Baker’s “The Mezzanine”, which takes about 120 pages to tell the story of a man buying a replacement shoelace on his lunch break, with countless digressions into analyses of mundane everyday tasks and objects.

  4. These are the issues that software programming faces constantly. You can program all the logical steps involved in a process fairly quickly and easily (assuming you are a competent programmer). That’s 20% of the job. The other 80% is imagining and fixing all the things that users will do to derail what you naively believed was the simple logical way to do it.
    Interesting about Japanese tea ceremony, it’s a rare example of the ritualised correct performance of a really mundane activity raised to a cult of life long study.

  5. PS You may be aware of it already, but you should look at “extreme programming”, an interesting technique for reducing these complications during the software design process. It’s oddly named because rather than extreme it’s conservative and pragmatic, but I suppose “extremely conservative programming” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  6. Kaleberg

    Don’t get me started about tea kettles. I can’t believe how poorly designed they are. I once bought one that could not even be opened properly so I could fill it from the tap! Also, it is impossible to figure out how much water is in the kettle, so I tend to fill it for a slow count of eight, which always gets me enough water for four cups of coffee. (I use tea water to make coffee. This is less strange than it sounds. I’m a yank, so ….) The whistle, at least, tends to work properly, but I imagine that some design engineer somewhere, possibly in China, is working on a way around this.

  7. My Morphy Richards kettle is marked up with a water level scale that’s measured in cups rather than millilitres. I don’t trust it, in part because the cup icons depicted look like small teacups rather than mugs. Unintended consequences?

    I’ve measured it out and here’s what you get:

    1 cup: 410 ml
    2 cups: 620 ml
    3 cups: 850 ml
    4 cups: 1125 ml
    5 cups: 1390 ml
    6 cups: 1725 ml

    An “average” mug holds around 260 ml. That’d be less for tea if you have milk.

    Allowing around 280 ml per cup cold water in to get around 260 ml boiled water seems fair enough after evaporation.

    If you were really parsimonious you could use your cup as a measure to fill the kettle.

  8. Dan

    Liz Losh has a more detailed background to the telescopic text idea, which kind-of introduces the idea of assembly language for human-artefact interaction and compares the detailed procedural interaction breakdown to Ian Bogost‘s procedural rhetoric – slightly embarrassing perhaps because I’ve been looking at Ian Bogost’s book on the shelf for months without reading it properly, and he even referred obliquely to my Persuasive 2008 paper in his keynote paper. Sounds like I need to prioritise certain aspects of the literature review.

    Many thanks everyone for some really insightful comments – there’s a lot here to consider and investigate. Watch this space (i.e.the blog) for more detailed consideration of the kettle.

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