Designing for innovation, with the aim of eventual user adoption, requires that standards be broken and user habits be challenged. In this context, designers need to ask themselves how they can offer a non-disruptive, and indeed enjoyable, user experience while they are at the same time not meeting users' expectations. A concept whose employment can assist here is defamiliarization. Defamiliarisation has been coined by Viktor Shklovsky to account for an artistic technique that describes common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to bring vividness to audiences' perception of the familiar. In interface design, defamiliarization causes users' perceptions to slow down and their attention to be averted from the task before them to the process or system through which they are attempting the task. Such a 'distancing' can, and often does, facilitate a discovery process that yields the take-up of innovative features, and is rewarding.

In addition to assisting with user adoption, defamiliarization can also be employed to determine where a design can support a new user experience, and where, in contrast, the design is simply creating a usability problem by causing confusion or disorientation in users.


Charline Poirier

Charline Poirier has a PhD in anthropology from University of Pennsylvania. She has over 15 years of experience conducting user research for a wide variety of industries. She has worked with users and designers using a diversity of approaches: ethnography, usability, codesign and other qualitative methodologies.

Over the last 10 years she has been teaching at the University of Geneva a course on user-centered design in the creation of distance learning software.

She has joined Canonical in the last 2 years where she is currently the acting Head of Design. The Canonical design team is responsible for the design and strategy of Ubuntu. Her responsibilities include bringing innovation to research and design of open source software.

Calum Pringle

Calum Pringle has a degree in Interactive Media Design from the University of Dundee in Scotland. He has worked in film and mobile industries before joining Canonical as an Interaction Designer. He has designed a variety of interfaces and products ranging from augmentative and alternative communication aids to mobile platform applications for social interaction and key content experiences.

He has a passion for alternative approaches towards communication in all forms, with particular focus on how human interaction develops through the use of distributed and networked devices.

His responsibilities at Canonical include design of the user experience of Ubuntu for tablet form factor.


What we aim to achieve

Clarify ways defamiliarization can be successfully applied to interface design to create compelling experiences; 

Determine the reach and usefulness of defamiliarization for innovation;

Explore techniques that enhance the role defamiliarization can play in ease of use -- bridging, cues, etc;

Define user testing approaches to assess the success of defamiliarization efforts.


The end product

A classification of types of defamiliarization;

Shared practical applications of defamiliarization;

Identification of key behaviors that could model usability protocols to assess the ease of use of defamiliarized features.


A workshop of four parts

Exercise 1:  Practical examples of defamiliarization

Each participant will present his/her own work using defamiliarization.  The presentations will provide practical examples based on which we will document a variety of approaches to and applications of defamiliarization techniques.

Exercise 2:  Categorizing defamiliarization design

Working with these examples, we will identify patterns, as well as dissimilarities, between types of defamiliarization, with an aim of developing a categorization based on different elements of design and user experience -- e.g., defamiliarization arising out of visual design; defamiliarization in interaction.

Exercise 3:  Mapping our defamiliarization categories to kinds of user experience

Next, we will explore how each type of defamiliarization identified in the previous exercises affords particular kinds of user experiences and how designers can manage these experiences to enhance user journeys.  Along the way, we will examine the role of experience support techniques such as scaffolding, cues, etc. as means for supporting defamliarization.

Exercise 4: Creating assessment tools to avoid usability fallout and to measure the success of defamiliarization designs

At this point in the workshop, we will have developed a clear conception of defamiliarization design and of its various forms.  There is, however, one critical question that will remain:  when is an innovative design a defamiliarization in the sense we have been exploring, and when, on the other hand, does it simply cause a usability problem for users?   We have assumed that a process of defamiliarization challenges users' expectations and habits in a way that results in delighting them; and this is of course in sharp contrast to where a putative design simply confuses users and blocks their adoption.  This final workshop reflection will focus on how we can approach defamiliarization strategies in user testing and get reliable feedback on its success.

Beyond CHI

We hope that this reflection will be shared with other researchers and practitioners who are involved in innovation, and that workshop participants will constitute a core of a wider community of practice built around employing defamiliarization to assist in innovation, and around usability testing for defamiliarization.  Follow-up papers and classes in future CHI meetings are likely to result from this first exploration.

In addition, some publishers have shown interest in the topic of defamiliarization design, for a special issue of a journal or for an edited book.

Taking part


We at Canonical/Ubuntu have been involved in several projects where we use defamiliarization as a tool to facilitate innovation. We have many questions about defamiliarization in design, however, and, in particular, we have started to explore how to create user testing protocols to gain insights into the usability of defamiliarized interfaces.

We are eager to share our knowledge and to hear how others engage with these issues. Accordingly, we invite participation in our CHI 2012 workshop, "Defamiliarization in Innovation and Usability".

We invite designers, visual designers, researchers, usability specialists, anthropologists, product designers, and strategists from all industries to participate and present their work for discussion.


Participants should prepare examples from their own experience in line with these themes to facilitate group discussion. Projects, and designs or research, small or large, need not be complete.

Submissions and questions should be directed to Charline Poirier by February 6, 2012. We plan for a workshop group of 10-15 participants.

Please provide up to 4 pages in CHI Extended Abstract format, describing your experience engaging in designing, testing, or evaluating defamiliarization.

Your proposal should include:

  • Name, affiliation, title
  • A short bio of yourself (100-150 words)
  • A summary of your project(s)
  • Your interest in defamiliarization
  • Your motivation for participating