Understanding the Past, Present, and Future of Design Fictions
CHI 2020 Proposed Workshop
Call for Participation
Despite its increasing prevalence and importance in HCI, the term “design fiction” is used in a number of different ways for different goals. With design fiction reaching a critical mass in the CHI community, this is an opportune moment for reflection and agenda-setting.
This workshop will address major questions for design fictions:
- What can we learn from those who have created speculative and critical fictions before us? How can we understand the “who” politics of design fictions – i.e., how can we create more inclusive authorship of design fictions? We hope to construct an inclusive taxonomy of design fictions.
- While the method of creating design fictions seems simple – “just write a fiction!” – there are now multiple approaches to the creation of design fictions, with roots in humanities, politics, collaboration, and design. We hope to provide a taxonomy of diverse methods for design fictions.
- Design fictions have entered the SIGCHI literature as archival contributions. How are reviewers evaluating design fiction submissions? There may be no unitary “right way” to review these diverse genres. We hope to develop a set of pluralistic review guidelines for these emerging genres.
We invite your submissions as extended abstracts (max. 4 pages). We are open to diverse submission formats – please contact us to discuss if needed. Submissions should be emailed to DesignFictionWorkshop2020@gmail.com , and will be peer-reviewed by the organizers based on originality, relevance, and clarity. Submission acceptance requires that at least one author registers for and attend the workshop. Please email us at DesignFictionWorkshop2020@gmail.com to discuss your ideas.
Michael Muller, IBM Research, email@example.com
Jeffrey Bardzell, Indiana University
EunJeong Cheon, Indiana University
Norman Makoto Su, Indiana University
Eric P.S. Baumer, Lehigh University
Casey Lynn Fiesler, University of Colorado
Ann Light, University of Sussex
Mark Blythe, Northumbia University
Design fictions are increasingly important and prevalent within HCI, though they are created through diverse practices and approaches and take many diverse forms. The goal of this workshop is both to create an overview of this diversity and to move towards a shared vision of design fiction within the CHI community. With this goal in mind, we invite reports, analyses, and examples of design fictions. An outcome will be development of a summary of the current state-of-the-art seeded by a diversity of perspectives within CHI, a descriptive orientation to this important domain of practices and outcomes, and a proposed set of evaluation guidelines for reviewers of design fiction submissions.
Design fictions are increasingly important and prevalent within the CHI community and HCI more broadly. Design fictions can communicate ideas within teams or across organizations. They can be used for specific purposes within a design project or a development program.
They can also stand on their own, as first-class artifacts that communicate to diverse audiences. They can make functional, aesthetic, pragmatic, and political statements. And they can invite diverse partners to join into design activity and future visions.
However, the term “design fiction” is used in a number of different ways even within the CHI community. With increasing interest in this topic and method, we are at a perfect point for both reflection and agenda-setting. Our intention is not to develop a collective definition, but to surface the diversity of approaches and to think about the role of design fiction within the field of HCI moving forward.
Table 1. Categories of Design Fictions
Others (from participants)
In reviewing the history of design fiction across a variety of contexts, we identify a number of open and unresolved questions. One goal of this workshop is to interrogate these topics and work towards collective descriptions or answers.
History and Development of the Concept(s)
Much about design fiction remains “up for grabs” . There have been many contradictory accounts of the origins and developments of design and/or speculative fictions. For design fictions as fictions, many scholars look for origins among Dunne and Raby [17, 18], Bleeker , and Sterling . However, participatory design in the 1980s included play-acting with futuristic artifacts, in order to critique technology, work design, and social constraints and assumptions [11, 12, 19], and stories about the future have been part of PD for two decades (e.g., [4, 23]. The themes of the discipline of Future Studies have large overlaps with design fictions as explored in HCI . Design has been understood in HCI as a form of story-telling since the 1990s [5, 20, 30], and also as a form of collaborative story-telling .
There are famous examples of speculative fiction with aspects or implications for both technology and broader social systems, such as Swift's Gulliver's Travels , Shelley's Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus , and in some ways the multi-authored 1001 Arabian Nights . Which of these prior genres should properly be included in an account of design fictions?
Politically-inspired, user-shaped dramas formed a major part of Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed , and have entered HCI in focus groups  and participatory theatrical practices [11, 24, 25]. HCI methods such as scenarios and personas have been used for over a decade [1, 13, 14], with distinct sub-genres appearing in future studies . Probes have been used in HCI [10, 22], and for a much longer duration in certain focus groups  - and yet, a well-regarded paper claimed to "introduce design fiction probes" as recently as four years ago . How do we distinguish – or decline to distinguish – between predecessor methods and design fiction methods? How much is overlap, and how much is novel and specific to design fictions?
This is a good moment to ask integrative questions. There is currently no single definition of design fictions, and perhaps there should never be a unitary (and hence, exclusionary) definition. However, we would benefit from some conceptual organization of the past, present, and future of design fictions. How have design fictions grown out of the rich traditions of scenarios, personas, probes, and workshops?
In considering the diversity of different definitions and types of design fiction, Table 1 provides a simple list of common genres of design fictions. One goal of the workshop is to develop a more principled catalog of these works, including both HCI and selected non-HCI design fictions.
Outcomes and Applications
What are the intended outcomes of work with design fictions? What (kinds of) work are design fictions “doing” for us?
- Some papers report the fiction itself as the outcome of intense collaborative thought (e.g., [3, 7, 8, 26, 27, 31, 35. 41]).
- Other papers present one or more design fiction probes or artifacts (sometimes as videos  or dramas ), and the reactions of stakeholders to those probes (e.g., [16, 25, 36, 43]).
- Yet other papers describe one or more methods through which stakeholder-informants become authors or co-authors of specific forms of design fictions [24, 25] – sometimes with an emphasis on participants’ values (e.g., [15, 28, 29]; see also  for a different values-exploration based on design fictions as probes).
Who Designs Design Fictions?
These broad-brush summaries are often based in researchers'/authors' underlying commitments (or perhaps unexamined assumptions) regarding who can or should create design fictions, and who can or should interpret them (however, see Tanenbaum et al.  for the use of design fictions to experiment with commitments and values). In some cases, these commitments are, in turn, based on political or epistemic positions. Informed by feminist and post-colonial discourses, we can ask, "who gets to be a designer?" and "who gets to be an author of a design fiction?" and crucially, "who makes those typically-invisible decisions?" Similarly to work in participatory design, the fertile diversity of methods appears to be based in part on very different ways of thinking. It would be useful to clarify the relationships of principles to commitments to methods.
How should Design Fictions be Evaluated?
As design fictions become more common, we see them both as methods and as artifacts on their own that sometimes need to be evaluated in some way—for example, when submitted to a conference. However, in part because of the questions we raise here, it is difficult to know how to evaluate these as contributions. Another outcome of this workshop will be ideas and possible criteria for contribution and evaluation.
The Workshop – and After
We will publish the workshop Call through email distribution lists and social media. We will solicit submissions of various forms (see Table 2).
Table 2. Possible Submission Categories
Development or use of design fiction(s)
Materials for design fiction(s)
A design fiction
Reflective account of creation of design fiction
Essay on historical aspects or categories of design fictions
Your own excellent ideas
Our tentative workshop agenda appears below. We will begin with a plenary “inspirational panel,” consisting of selected authors from the workshop participants. After the mid-morning break, we move to breakout sessions to discuss different types or histories or futures of design fictions. Following lunch, we reconvene for a plenary discussion of guidelines for reviewers of design fictions. We then split into shorter breakout groups to consider whom we write DFs for, and what we hope to accomplish with those audiences. Finally, we re-gather for a plenary review and discussion of next steps. After we have selected promising submissions, we may adjust the structure of the workshop as needed.
Table 3. Tentative Agenda
Welcome + Introductions
Panel: Novel uses of Design Fictions
Breakouts: The nature of Design Fictions
- Report back
Review Criteria for Design Fictions
Breakouts: Audiences and Impacts
- Report back
We will request participants to read one anothers’ contributions in advance, and we will plan discussions that go beyond what was submitted. We may conduct one or two brief hands-on methods-illustration sessions, if this kind of concrete experience would help to develop further understanding.
Publication and Guidelines
As we have outlined above, we hope to advance our collective understandings of design fictions, and we hope to share those understandings. This will take the form of a workshop report blog post, or possibly a more formal article in a venue such as Interactions. We also hope to develop guidelines for new reviewers of design fictions, so as to strengthen these genres for future conferences.
Call for Participation
We invite diverse genres of contributions. We would prefer to receive these in the form of ACM extended abstracts (URL), limited to four pages of text, figures, tables, etc. (references may take up additional pages). We realize that some contributions may require a different format, such as a video or a demo. We are open to diverse submission formats, but please contact us before the submission deadline to discuss such formats.
Example submission genres may be as follows:
- Report of a development or use or methodology regarding one or more design fictions.
- Description of materials used to create a design fiction.
- A design fiction (including, please, the authors' motivation or rationale for that fiction, preferably grounded in research and/or other literature)
- Reflective account of authors’ experiences “behind the scenes” of a design fiction
- An essay on historical aspects of design fictions
- Categorization/classification of design fictions, and/or of their methods (including, please, some basis in research and/or other literature)
- Your own excellent ideas
Table 4. Important Dates (if Workshop is accepted)
Website + Call online: 12/11/19
Submission deadline: 2/11/20
Notification date: 2/28/20
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2. Anonymous (n.d.). 1001 Arabian nights. See http://www.wollamshram.ca/1001/index.htm for multiple online translations.
3. Eric P.S. Baumer and 27 co-authors/contributors (2014). CHI 2039: Speculative research visions. CHI EA 2014, 761-770.
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7. Mark Blythe and Elizabeth Buie (2014). Chatbots of the Gods: Imaginary abstracts for techno-spirituality research. Proc. NordiCHI 2014, 227-236.
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9. Augusto Boal (1974/1992). Games for actors and non-actors (A. Jackson, Trans.). London: Routledge.
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28. Michael Muller and Q. Vera Liao (2017). Using participatory design fictions to explore ethics and values for robots and agents. Presentation at HCIC 2017. https://www.slideshare.net/traincroft/hcic-muller-and-liao-participatory-design-fictions-77345391
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35. Michael Skirpan and Casey Fiesler (2018). Ad empathy: A design fiction. Proc. GROUP 2018, 267-273.
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37. Bruce Sterling (2009). Design fiction. Interactions 16(3), 20-24.
38. Jonathan Swift (1726). Gulliver's travels, or Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships. Benjamin Motte.
39. Joshua Tanenbaum (2014). Design fictional interactions. Interactions 21(5), 22-23.
40. Joshua Tanenbaum, Marcel Pufal, and Karen Tanenbaum (2016). The limits of our imagination: Design fiction as a strategy for engaging with dystopian futures. Proc. LIMITS 2016.
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Michael Muller has explored participatory methods for design fictions. He has worked in participatory design, organizational social media, grounded theory, and allyship for social justice. As program co-chair, he brought design fictions into the GROUP conference as archival contributions. He has co-led numerous workshops at CHI, CSCW, ECSCW, and GROUP conferences. ACM recognizes him as an ACM Distinguished Scientist; member, CHI Academy.
Jeffrey Bardzell is Professor Informatics and Director of HCI/Design in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University - Bloomington. His research foci include research through design, user experience and aesthetics, and creativity and innovation, with particular emphases on critical design and design criticism. He is the co-author of Humanistic HCI (Morgan Claypool, 2015) and co-editor of Critical Theory and Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018).
EunJeong Cheon is a Ph.D. candidate in HCI/ Design at Indiana University Bloomington. In terms of design fiction, she is interested in expanding roles of design fiction as a constructive, collaborative, and value-centered design research tool. She developed an empirical version of design fiction called futuristic autobiographies (FABs) and has used it as a value elicitation technique in various settings (e.g., interview study, collaborative design workshops).
Norman Makoto Su is an Assistant Professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University Bloomington. His research interests lie in HCI and CSCW. Integrating humanistic and empirical methods, his Authentic User Experience lab characterizes the relationship of technology with subcultures and designs systems to support their notion of authenticity. He has organized workshops at CHI 2019, GROUP 2018, and CSCW 2018.
Eric P. S. Baumer is Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Lehigh University. His research focuses on interactions with AI and machine learning algorithms in the context of social computing systems. He has authored multiple papers on design fiction, served twice as the co-chair for the Design Fiction track at the ACM GROUP conference, and has co-organized four workshops at ACM conferences, one of which resulted in a related special issue of the journal First Monday.
Casey Fiesler is an assistant professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. Much of her research focuses on technology governance, e.g., research ethics and ethics education, including the connection between ethics and creative speculation. She holds a PhD in Human Centered Computing from Georgia Tech and a JD from Vanderbilt Law School.
Ann Light is Professor of Design and Creative Technology, University of Sussex, UK, and Professor of Interaction Design, Social Change and Sustainability, Malmo University, Sweden, with a particular interest in creative practice for transformations to sustainability and many years using arts methodologies to engage publics in speculating about technology and futures.
Mark Blythe is Professor of Interdisciplinary Design at Northumbria University. He was abducted by aliens in 2015 and taken on a tour of their home world where he learned that the digital technologies we now enjoy were reverse engineered from the Roswell crash in 1947. The aliens told him that they were planning on suing the human race for copyright infringement and that we should expect to hear from their lawyers shortly.