Touching Technology
taking the physical world seriously in digital design

Alan Dix
Lancaster University

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Full reference:
A. Dix (2009). Touching Technology: taking the physical world seriously in digital design. Unpublished notes of talks given Jan-Mar 2009.
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Notes of talk given, in slightly different variants at:
Winter School for "Interactive Technologies for the End-User", Bangalore, 2nd–3rd February 2009,
Greek SIGCHI Workshop “Human-Computer Interaction: Theory and Practice of design of usable and accessible technologies”, Athens, 5th March 2009,
Seminar at Department of Computer Science and Technology, University of Peloponnese, Tripolis, 9th March 2009,
Also in longer form at:
Swiss Universities’ Winter School on "Usability Engineering", Anzere, 26th_30th January 2009,


Although we live in an increasingly digital world, our bodies and minds are designed to interact with the physical. When designing purely physical artefacts we do not need to understand how their physicality makes them work - they simply have it. However, as we design hybrid physical/digital products, we must now understand what we lose or confuse by the added digitality. With two and half millennia of philosophical ponderings since Plato and Aristotle, several hundred years of modern science, and perhaps one hundred and fifty years of near modern engineering - surely we know sufficient about the physical for ordinary product design? While this may be true of the physical properties themselves, it is not the fact for the way people interact with and rely on those properties. It is only when the nature of physicality is perturbed by the unusual and, in particular the digital, that it becomes clear what is and is not central to our understanding of the world. This talk discusses some of the obvious and not so obvious properties that make physical objects different from digital ones. We see how we can model the physical aspects of devices and how these interact with digital functionality.


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Alan Dix 28/3/2009