Expressing Temporality In GUI

In this design research, I examined various temporal processes of the living world (frosting, blooming, wearing and tearing, etc), and how they may be manifested in the design of GUI to convey traces of time. This design research suggests that it paves way for a relationship to be nurtured, another meaning beyond that of today’s functional GUI. Traces of time, or continuous time, in GUI conveys meaning in the sense of what was, what is, and what is about to, and is a step closer to articulate the designing of temporal interaction

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Research Gap

Today, in light of designing GUI, interaction researchers and designers are concerned with the relationship between people and GUI. They usually describe this relationship as a series of ”momentary interactions”. Somewhere between when GUI came to be and today, aesthetically pleasing experiences rose to complement these ”momentary interactions” that are imbued with functionality. Designers turned to the living world for inspiration. Whilst some realistic features counteracted the functional purpose of GUI, some proved beneficial. Animations, mirroring the motion of objects of the living world by physical laws, served as feedback and/or feed-forward. It was simply a way to leverage what we already understand and are familiar with.

Upon designing these ”momentary interactions” derived from a user-centred design approach, the potential richness of wholesome experiences seemed forgotten. The GUI simply appeared ’shiny and new’ upon interaction. Whilst you and I, and our interactions change over time, the GUI simply does not. Not until recently have attention shifted towards ’prolonged experiences’ and how these may intertwine with our everyday lived experience. Whilst realistic features have successfully been implemented into these ”momentary interactions”, how to design for ’prolonged experiences’ is undoubtedly complex. Various researchers and designers in the field of Interaction Design have raised the awareness of how other meanings may rise in prolonged experiences.

In reality, changes are made under continual conditions, whereas our interaction with a medium influences it as it influences us. This probes the concept of continuity in Human-Computer Interaction, and ”thinking of interaction over time rather than at momentary points”. This transcends to cultural implications, of how several people may be involved in the usage of GUI at the same time.

Design Opportunity

What separates these ”momentary interactions” from ’prolonged experiences’ is time. There are many things that may express the passage of time in reality. But I turned to nature for answers. The withering of a tree, a sunset, the growth of an ivy plant-encroaching on a building. Just as how animations mirror the motion of objects in the living world, what if GUI was to mirror the time of the living world? In that sense, GUI would not simply be depicted as unaffected by time but adopted to our change—Just as how a physical object adapts to changes over time—conveying our traces over time.

The temporal metaphors in this design research were frosting, wearing and tearing, and blooming. As I was concerned with ”materials of experiences”, I started from the lived experience of these materials. Through their significance and meaning, I articulated sets of material qualities. This was the beginning of a journey through an experience-oriented approach rather than user-centred.

How are traces of time manifested in the design of temporal metaphors in Graphical User Interface?

Design Process

Through imagery and videos, I articulated the ’living essence’ of each temporal process. In this sense, I materialized each temporal process into material qualities in consideration of its significance and meaning in the living world, my lived experience. In doing so, these material qualities now described a temporal process metaphorically, a temporal metaphor. I turned to the question of how it might look and feel in the context of GUI, and made sketches using those material qualities. As I moved from sketching to prototyping experiences I needed to form an experience over time, and sketching was a necessary step as the textual description were not adequate to inspire the design of experiences over time. The outcome of the sketches rather inspired me into three directions: contexts, evolvements, and meanings. From prototyping different experiences and problematizing each artefact to the next, I concluded with findings that I will share.





Concept Sketching


Due to the innovative character of the design process, I found sanctuary in research in and through design. I approached research through design to address the research question. The design served as a means for generating insights and knowledge for use in my design research. It was particularly related to my work as my design research was characterized as iterative and explorative, together with designerly reflection and practice as a strategy. However, as something similar had not been done before, I extended the approach to research in design as well. Whilst addressing the research question I also explored what happened in the design process through my engagement in the design experiments. In this sense, the creative process and the practice and methods were in focus.

As Research in and through design meant to employ my involvement in design experiments as a key catalyst for knowledge generation, I complimented the approach with Interaction criticism. On a practical level, one of the reasons for involving myself was to gain access to insights from the design process and establish closeness to the design works, yielding even more rich insights. My participation was a fundamental component of the design process, a practice of engaging with the materials. As my value was as valuable as anybody else’s, I used that relationship to critique each of my design choices. To critique interaction as a form of experience meant to critique back-and-forth between details in the materials and the interpreted whole. This, led me down the argument that the aesthetic or experiential nature of a GUI, for example, may not be fully understood from a user-centred design approach, but analyzed from the lenses of materiality.

User-centred design approaches have its strength in discovering problems, achieving efficiency and ease of use for people, however, limiting in exploring design potential of meanings of interactive artefacts. Materiality or material thinking is more about the relationship between people and the material in terms of how it is used out in the living world. In close relation to how a material or process is formed, material thinking provides useful perspectives to investigate the aesthetic and sensuous qualities of digital mediums. The notion of material thinking is similar to the approach in my design research—to start from the premise of the meaning of the material in human life. This again relates back to first person-critique as ones’ subjective interpretation form such meaning.


The design of temporal metaphors in GUI expressed continuity, this aligned with existing notions of living world phenomena or temporal processes exposing continual change. In the context of GUI, this meant that interactions influence GUI as it influences one. As GUI expresses time as continuous, it paves way for a relationship to be nurtured, another meaning beyond that of its mere functions.

Also, the rich experience of, for example, wearing and tearing in GUI suggests that the GUI is finite and not eternal or unaffected by time. Instead, the felt experience of the relationship is unique and momentary. This again, paves way for a different meaning in the experience of GUI. GUI may express a sense of history and memory, whereas one lives through GUI. To my belief, this design research has the most significant value in its approach. I have proposed one possibility in how to articulate these temporal forms in the living world, and implementing such temporal forms practically. For interaction designers, the insights of this design research show how another meaning may be implemented in today's functional GUI’s by thinking of interaction over time. Continuous time in GUI conveys meaning in the sense of what was, what is, and what is about to. For researchers, my work is a step closer to understanding long-term interaction processes and contexts, and an invitation for further discussions on temporality in interaction and what it means for tomorrow's GUI.


To criticize ones’ work may be argued for and against, and in this design research, I have argued for it. During the experimentation, I found the critiquing to be challenging as it was difficult to shift from designer to critic. This led me down the path of inviting second perspectives on the design works. But, proved at the end to lead down a dead-end because of how it was hard for the participants to describe their experience. It was not until I elaborated their answers into questions using analogies of the real world that they seem to go in depth with their initial answers. However, I decided to revise the auto-critique by carefully converting my subjective experience into objective findings, and not include the material of the second perspectives into this work.

Last, due to the nature of allowing the design works to guide the design process, many of them reached a dead-end. It was highly likely because of how a sketch and artefacts intention was only clear once it was experienced.

The time of today’s functional GUI is decoupled from living time.
Points of interaction throughout our lived experience is concerned by this ‘looping’ of time of today’s GUI
which conveys this ‘ideal scenario’, ‘shiny and new’ on every interaction

GUI time looping while time in the living world is continuous