Date of Award


Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Richard Buchanan

Second Advisor

John Zimmerman

Third Advisor

Lorrie Faith Cranor

Fourth Advisor

Shelly Farnham


People experience transitions throughout their everyday and lifelong encounters, whether it is in the roles they enact or environments they interact with. In transitions, people encounter the paradox of adapting to the changing and the new, while sustaining the unchanging and old situations. Dealing with this paradox, a person faces three possible paths: continuity, progression, or decline in their wellbeing. People oftentimes fall into the decline path, as revealed through chronic stress, emotional turmoil, and loss of order. Not all transitions may be resolved without stress or turmoil – and in some transitions, say, the death of a loved one, being fired from a job – stress and turmoil may be somehow necessary for the person to deal with the changes. But out of any transition situation, the ideal is that a person can emerge with a sense of well-being, and do not experience a lasting decline.

Products play an important role in these transitions, and their outcomes. Think of a teddy bear for a toddler, a mobile phone for a metro-commuter, and a red convertible for a man in midlife crisis. Products provide a tangible grip for people to hold on to as their situations and environments change around them. Products can increase people’s agency, and if they are interactive products, they can build character into the situation, carrying the agency even further. Interactive products hold strong potential for people in transition, with their capability to respond to transitional situations by guiding the user, interacting with her, and engaging her in participation – leading towards greater user awareness and agency, in turn leading towards wellbeing. This inquiry takes off with this premise, that interactive design for transitions can provide the user with a dynamic agency defined in the situation.

I follow a practice-based design research, by framing the problem space with theory; exploring it with design of concept products; and reflecting on the interaction between theory and practice for emergent qualities. Based on three research projects on people’s transitions, a practical design framework emerged, providing the tools for designers to understand, develop, and assess interactive products for transitions. Modes of Transitions (MOT) help designers to grasp transitions holistically – with lens to assess what is changing or unchanging in the transition situation, and then modes – routines, performance, narrative and ritual – as frames with which to generate scenarios, examine current and possible resolutions, and assess the outcome of the design. Modes give paths for the designer, user, and product to form agencies in the situation. It does this by scenari-based design, since it gives the designer to analyze, project, and design possible futures out of the turmoil of changing unknown situations.

The inquiry makes the following contributions: MOT offers a values-driven approach to behavioral and social change issues, whether it be in a lifestage or lifestyle transition. MOT gives a strategic tool for designers to form human-centered and scenario-based design methods, to better reach at creative leaps and innovation. Finally, MOT provides a useful tool to grasp the immaterial materiality and social interaction models while designing new genres of products, providing ways to iterate upon and assess the design. Though there have been successful transition products before – like the teddy bear or the sports car – the field of ‘Design for Transitions’ has immense potential that is yet untapped. This thesis presents a thoughtful and useful framework with which future designers can approach transitional situations, to work with users to produce designs that will inspire, empower, and accompany a user through a transition – hopefully into a new state of well-being.