Jelle van Dijk - University of Twente (The Netherlands)

Jelle is a design-researcher at the University of Twente (“High Tech - Human Touch”) and a research fellow at the Design Lab Twente, Netherlands. He has a background in Cognitive Science and a Phd in Industrial Design on the design of Tangible and Embodied Interaction. His current research focuses on designing for Embodied Empowerment. Using Embodied theory he investigates how to design new forms of mixed physical-digital interaction may empower people with cognitive- and/or social disabilities in organizing and taking control over their own everyday lives. He takes a participatory design approach and conduct research-through-design.


Veronica Pensosi has interviewed Jelle van Dijk for ITASD:

Q: Hello Jelle, you describe yourself as researcher, teacher, writer, speaker and you draw comics, very different personalities, could you explain better your different interest?

I guess I just have a very broad interest in many things - and I am bad at choosing one over the other ;-) The research and teaching and speaking all hang together - in a way it is all the same. By teaching I learn and by researching I learn and both are very much integrated activities for me. Even the drawing is part of it although that is really something I do mostly in my spare time, posting cartoons on Twitter. But coming into the design field from cognitive science I discovered that ‘traditional’ science does not take visual forms of communication very seriously: I was brought up in text and mathematical models. Drawing however is an altogether independent means of inquiry and communication of insights: some things can only be drawn, and some things can only be found out drawing. We have a nice workshop on the role of sketching in Human Computer Interaction at the conference Designing Interactive Systems, also in June this year in Edinburgh. I wish there would be much more tolerance in science for alternative means of doing research, with alternative means of presenting that research, for example visually.

Q: You have a technological background in Cognitive Science and a Phd in Industrial Design on the design of Tangible and Embodied Interaction, could you tell us how did you ended working on technology based treatment for autism?

Well, I first found out that I could research some of the most fundamental questions in cognitive science, in particular those pertaining to the ‘mind body problem’ and all of the recent theoretical debates on embodied cognition, distributed cognition, and the extended mind, through design. Especially recent advances in industrial design are very interesting because they basically form a merger of information processing technology (computers) and physical products and spaces. This means that, one might say, technologically there is no longer a split between ‘mind’ (the information processing in a computer) and ‘body’ (physical products and spaces). In practice however these new kinds of mixed interfaces and products still retain much of the old psychological distinctions that come from cognitive science. My aim is to design things that truly are ‘in between’ mind and body, which would mean to take the idea of ‘embodiment’ as explained by for example the philosopher Merleau-Ponty very seriously.

Well, this is the first part of the story. I did my phd on designing interactive objects and spaces for the ‘creative brainstorm process’ of design teams. In other words I was designing (together with my students by the way because they did a lot of the actual design work) technological artifacts for designers! I finished that, but then I thought I wanted to design for a more meaningful context, because I think that in the end designers can pretty much take care of themselves very well, they don’t need me to design their interactive creative spaces for them. I have always had a strong fascination for autism from back when I was studying neuropsychology along with cognitive science. Much attention back then was on the brain: what is happening in the brain, what is wrong with the brain of someone with autism? But now I finally had the terminology and context to work on the interaction between a person and his environment. Because I think all behavior is ultimately the result of a tight interplay between brain, body, and the structure present in the environment. And designers can change this environment, intervening in the loop, perhaps changing things in a positive direction.

Q: Could you describe in simple words your research on the embodiment of human cognition in relation to the design of interactive technology?

So to summarize it very briefly: There’s a lot of theory out there that says that our thinking and our actions do not originate purely in our brains, but that they are emergent properties out of the interaction between brain, body and environment. My research is about what this shift in thinking means for design. My current understanding of it says that designers need to pay more attention to the way a device (tool, artifact, object, space) influences a person’s bodily skills and routines, his social interactions, how it helps in ‘reflection on action’ and how products help to shape a person’s ‘lifeworld’. For computer artifacts, those are very different topics than computer scientists are used to (e.g. typical things computers do are to store, process and represent information, to provide good models of something, to measure things, to search and retrieve things in databases, and so on). I want to use interactive technology to directly support our ‘embodied being-in-the-world’ instead.

Q: How do you think that using new forms of mixed physical-digital interaction may empower people with cognitive- and/or social disabilities?

In short I think that starting from an embodied perspective holds the promise of creating tools that are in some sense ‘incorporated’ by a person, they become ‘part of that person’ such that whenever the tool assists the person with a task or activity, you could always still say that it is the person doing it, and not the tool. So you could say: I am doing this (with this tool that is so much part of me that I do not even notice it anymore), which would be very different from saying: I cannot do this, because I have an impairment, and therefore there is this tool that does it for me. In the latter case, the person would still be dependent, and ‘impaired’, even if he is no longer relying on an actual person but on a technology instead. But in the former, the tool would truly be empowering - at least this is how I came to see empowerment when using the embodied perspective to frame it.

Q: What do you expect from the ITASD Conference?

I expect to meet a lot of people that know a lot about autism, because I am still relatively new to the field, and so I hope to learn a lot!