David Prytherch

Senior Research Fellow in Haptics and Computer Interface Design


David Prytherch is Senior Research Fellow in Haptics and Computer Interface Design. Originally trained as a teacher of Art and Design, he has 30 years' professional experience as a freelance glass engraver/sculptor and is a Fellow of the Guild of Glass Engravers.

Following a disabling road accident in 1986, and a dawning realisation that physical activity was always to be problematic, he began a PhD examining the role of haptic perception in skilled creative making, the intrinsic haptic reward that tactual engagement contributes to motivation and skill development, contextualised in theoretical design principles for interfaces to multisensory systems. He completed his PhD in 2003.

David describes himself as a Research Artist and applies pragmatic principles of art and design thinking and synthesis practised over many years to his research and specialises in multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to the generation of interesting and fundamental research questions.

David is an Honorary Researcher for Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust - Research and Innovation Neurodegenerative Diseases Stream and Principal Investigator. He supervises a small research team investigating certain non-pharmacological interventions for people with dementia based on perceptual theories of 'Intrinsic Haptic Reward' and neuro-cognitive calming, a meditative approach to tactual activity.

Current Activity
Research interests and expertise

Research interests include haptic (tacit, enactive) learning and teaching, the role of haptics in tactual skill development, particularly in the arts, haptic implications in activity satisfaction and intrinsic motivation, and issues surrounding tool use and material embodiment, both with regard to general and creative human activities and computer interface systems.

A particular interest lies in the design of inclusive technological systems that may facilitate transparent access to creative processes for people with disabilities.

Specific interests relate to:

  • Haptic perceptual factors (intrinsic reward etc.) and their contribution to well-being and quality of life, particularly with regard to people with dementia and the elderly.
  • Perception of heritage and art objects, museum artefacts etc., via virtual online collections and inexpensive commercially available haptic interfaces.
  • Qualitative research methodologies for surfacing subtleties and rich detail of user experience and their analysis.
  • Design principles relating to multi-sensory transparent interfaces to technologies.

Supervising research in:

  • Perception and our relationships with the environment
  • Haptics and well-being
  • Touch and technology
  • Physical engagement and creative making
Teaching specialisms
  • Qualitative methodologies for user experience studies
  • Haptics and object appreciation
  • Haptic perception and design
  • 2010 Current Honorary Research Fellow, Birmingham & Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust - Research & Innovation Neurodegenerative Diseases Stream
  • 2011 Current Specialist User- experience Advisor to NHS Sandwell and West Birmingham Health and Social Care Economy, Telehealthcare Steering Group.
  • 2010 Member of Art Selection Jury, SIGRAPH, 2010, Los Angeles. Theme 'Haptics'
  • 2006 Chair of Selection Jury, UK Glass Biennale 2006, Stourbridge.
  • Fellow of the Higher Education Academy
  • List Owner JISC Mail UKVRSIG (UK Virtual Reality Special Interest Group)
  • Member IEEE Haptics Technical Committee and Task Force (HTC/HTF)
  • Member International Society for Haptics
  • Member of British Computer Society HCI Group
  • Member of Museums Computer Group (MCG)
  • Honorary Fellow of the Guild of Glass Engravers
  • Medici Fellow
Intrinsic haptic reward as a basis for therapeutic intervention to foster day-to-day well-being in people with dementia

Carried out with Dr Peter Bentham, Analisa Smythe, Nicola Wheeler, Neurodegenerative Diseases and Cognitive Impairment Research Stream, Research and Innovation Department, Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust.


  • Dementia is an important and increasingly common problem.
  • Dementia is often complicated by disturbed behaviour.
  • Behavioural disturbance in dementia is difficult and risky to treat.
  • Preserved sensory function in dementia.


An alternative view of agitation

Drug interventions for agitation are based on the assumption that some form of neurotransmitter imbalance is responsible for a symptom of dementia but little is known about the underlying mechanisms, which is a major obstacle to rational drug development. We propose that agitation should be re-conceptualised as a normal response in a person with a deteriorating brain. This needs a rewarding redirection, rather than pharmacological suppression.

We are evolved to physically engage with the world and are rewarded by the experience

Most of us will have had direct experience of the calming and positive effects of engaging in simple physical activities. These can provide an Intrinsic Haptic Reward (IHR) that is touch based, does not require high levels of manual dexterity and is not dependent on cognitive activity or the physical outcome. We might have experienced IHR knitting a scarf, painting a fence, planting potatoes, weeding our gardens, going for a walk, stroking a pet or making bread.

These experiences may be related to activity based systems of meditation, such as Zen Walking Meditation (Kinhin). IHR extends established theories of 'flow' [1] and 'competence' [2] and is derived from studies of haptic perception and motivation in the development of dextrous skills in designer/makers [3].

IHR as a therapeutic approach

In order to introduce IHR to people with dementia, we are developing a therapy based on making bread by hand. Making bread seems appropriate since the materials used are safe and non-toxic, so will cause no problems if eaten. There are no sharp or dangerous
tools involved. However, it's important to remember that the bread itself is not the focus. It is simply using the tactual experience of flour and dough to foster feelings of well-being for people whose perception of the world and engagement with it is likely to be frustrating, confusing and limited.


Having secured NHS ethical approval, we are conducting a series of single case studies to investigate the effects of IHR for people with moderate to severe dementia and intend seeking funding to develop the project into a larger study.


[1] Csikszentmihalyi M (1975) 'Play and intrinsic rewards' Journal of Humanistic Psychology 15 (3) 41—63.
[2] White, R. W., (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66(5), 297-333.
[3] Prytherch D (2003) Haptic Feedback in Art Making Processes with Particular Reference to Computer Interface Design, PhD Thesis, University of Central England.

Hidden Connections, Shared Environments and Environmental Flows - how local walking interventions induce community positivity in urban locations

Carried out with Professor Richard Coles, Dr Zoe Millman and Guiding Stars, funded by AHRC Connected Communities Programme.

Introduction and associated high level questions

This study is based upon the analysis of a research methodology involving 'self-narrated walking' which is to be explored, in the form of a short pilot, as a potential community intervention capable of revealing the hidden cultural, personal and associated health connections that diverse communities construct through their everyday environmental encounters.

Here the action of undertaking a 'self-narrated walk' appears to act as a strong catalyst moving the walker from a relatively passive state to one where individual identity comes to the fore and is explored in relation to the environmental encounters/cues. The resultant 'flow' (or connection) that occurs, in the right circumstances, is capable of inducing and supporting great positivity.

Testing this concept in collaboration with a local community group is the focus of this project, the results of which will be used to ground the development of a wider study, where the following high level questions form a strong context to the work:

  • Can shared walking experiences involving self-narrated walks function as a method of developing and cementing communities?
  • How are individual backgrounds and roots layered upon the local, shared environment and how can these layers be evidenced?
  • Once evidenced what are the implications in connecting and reinforcing complex communities?
  • How might this help us understand the nature of environmental flows in relation to the Connected Communities Programme and the specific needs of local communities?

Critically, the connections between individuals, communities and their environment (ie the deep meaning) are not necessarily obvious to professionals targeted with designing or managing the environment and can be quite unexpected, reflecting the diversity of the community, nor are they always obvious to the individual. However, they can be revealed by exploring spoken or visual narratives, and made more significant through shared understanding.

The basis of this pilot project is to explore the impact of an intervention upon the community, drawing on the experience of the research team, to bring together the necessary expertise to address these questions, further facilitated by a partnership with a community association and a professional landscape practice, thus to:

  • Analyse the cultural and personal connections that are made as a consequence of self-narrated walking through the local environment, on the basis that the environment is a shared resource accessed every day by all local citizens.
  • Consider the implications for displaying and integrating community diversity especially in respect of reinforcing a positive outlook.

Walking Narratives

Walking is not merely a form of exercise, but conveys an intrinsic reward, a feel-good factor engendered by a gentle controlled physical activity, which is perceptual in nature and haptic in origin. It emerges via the interaction of brain and body and is essentially calming in its effects. It links ideas of health and well-being, emotion, perception and physicality.

Here, via sets/sequences of environmental encounters and sensorial engagements experienced while walking, one may find expressive visual and emotional responses, memory expectations as well as indicators of mental restoration. Such are brought to the fore when, for example, sharing this information with a friend or a stranger ie through narrating the experience.

Experiencing and narrating provide an opportunity to study users' sensorial engagement and interaction with the environment and to obtain complex personal descriptions, meanings and understandings of how the environment is experienced and how this echoes in their lives.

Virtual Touch. Towards an Interdisciplinary Research Agenda for the Arts and Humanities

Carried out with Dr Anna Bentkowska-Kafel, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London and Dr Christos Giachritsis, BMT Group.

Virtual Artefacts. A different approach

The virtual artefact has firmly established itself as a research tool within several disciplines of the Arts and Humanities. Many art and material culture historians and professionals rely on digital records and visualisations of artefacts in their research, teaching and practice. We have witnessed, from the 1990s onwards, how the virtual artefact has increasingly become photo-realistic and interactive, and how it continues to evolve.

The virtual artefact can now be part of a complex, collaborative research environment. With the enhanced technical specifications comes the interest in exploring the research potential of virtual artefacts further. We are here concerned with enhanced simulation of the real experience of physical objects through the application of haptic interfaces, or virtual touch technologies. We believe that the addition of virtual touch would also contribute to greater usability of the existing, often neglected electronic resources and libraries of 3D artefacts.

The term 'haptics' encompasses two areas of study: human and machine haptics. The first relates to the study of the perception of the world through the sense of touch. It includes proprioception (one's awareness of one's own body position in space) as well as cutaneous information (one's awareness of skin deformations).

Machine haptics relates to the design and development of devices that simulate the haptic properties of physical objects. In principle, they are incorporated in virtual environments and allow users to experience tactile properties of virtual objects such as size, shape, weight, compliance and texture.

Research into the use of haptic interfaces–that is devices engaging the sense of touch in virtual environments–in the Arts and Humanities is in its infancy. Although virtual simulation of physical touch has resulted in important advances in other disciplines–such as medicine, neuro-science, telemanipulation control systems and product design–the potential of such applications to humanities scholarship has not yet been explored.

Very few researchers in the Arts and Humanities have had an opportunity to experience haptic devices first hand and to develop a critical understanding of such systems and the perceptual processes involved. There have been some important and promising developments in the area of heritage science, such as the Haptic Museum in the US, being the work of Margaret McLaughlin et al. (2000) at the University of Southern California, Annenberg and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History; the Museum of Pure Form (Bergamasco et al., 2005) and 'Touching the Untouchable: Increasing Access to Archaeological Artefacts by Virtual Handling' in the UK, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

We are investigating certain fundamental questions:

  • Is virtual touch likely to enhance the ways in which we carry out and communicate research in those areas of the Arts and Humanities that employ 3D visualisations of material culture?
  • How much do we learn about artefacts by touching them?
  • Would simulating this experience through a haptic interface enhance virtual fieldwork?
  • Who can possibly benefit from this experience and how?
  • If 'seeing with vision that feels, feeling with fingers that see' (Goethe, 1788) is possible, to what extent can this experience be mediated by a haptic system?
Pick a Pebble: The Tacit Judgement of Object Quality


When we pick up an object, we rapidly begin to make a series of tacit and internal decisions about its nature and quality. These decisions prove to be remarkably accurate, robust and durable. Our study seeks to understand this evaluative response by surfacing people's subjective experiences during the initial encounter with a found object.

Our initial working definition of Tacit Judgement is "a person's view of the quality of their engagement with an object or activity."

In this study, our understanding of 'quality' encompasses both the material properties of the object, and the subjective feelings arising during contact with it. We are particularly interested in the concomitant value judgements that tell us that certain objects are 'better' than others.

In a more general sense, the notion of 'quality', when applied to the objects and artefacts with which we surround ourselves, is so ubiquitous that we rarely consciously question what the concept really means or which sensory modalities are significant for its perception. But how do we derive a notion of 'quality' from this raw sensory data? People may talk about the quality of objects when what they are really describing is the quality of their engagement with the object. Our emotional connections with inanimate matter are hardly rational, yet few would deny their existence.

The Study

Our first problem is the design of a study of a tacit and ubiquitous perception that is fundamentally experiential, qualitative, very difficult to capture and evaluate, yet is highly significant to the design of artefact user experiences. We plan to build our methodology from a particular combination of Q-Methodology (which is relatively new to us) and Repertory Grid Technique (in which we are experienced).

Our primary research question is: How do we perceive that an object evokes notions of 'quality'?

Beginning to explore this subtle yet powerful process, we first encounter the problem of the objects we will use for testing user responses. Manufactured objects were rejected as possessing too many 'cultural overlays', such as preconceptions about object function, branding and the simple fact that they are designed with specific objectives in mind. We decided that an appropriate vehicle for the experiment might be seaside pebbles, since they are not designed, they are ubiquitous and they provide an abstract aesthetic, uncontaminated by human intention of function or form.

We propose to use Q Methodology as a precursor to a Repertory Grid session with each experimental participant, in order to be able to triangulate the quantitative and qualitative data generated so that we can benefit from a combination of the statistical power of Q Methodology, and the deep, rich insights surfaced by Repertory Grid Technique.

Evaluation of the Moodle User Experience


The Moodle Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is used in higher education, further education and schools in the UK and throughout the world. At the time of writing, it has 46,398 registered institutional sites, serving 32,803,897 users through 3,208,560 courses. It combines a constructivist view of learning and teaching with 'the power of the web' to deliver two very useful 'places' to its user community.

For tutors, it is a place where they can create engaging and powerful learning experiences. For students, it is a place where they can go 24/7/365 to get at the 'stuff' concerning their learning. For most, it's an online extension of the classroom experience, and for some, it's a substitute. It is a mission critical element in many universities' Learning and Teaching portfolios.

Moodle is Open Source and free to use, so is adaptable to particular needs, and a 'plug-in' architecture facilitates extension. However distributed authorship creates both advantages and disadvantages. Maintained by a 'hive mind' and benefiting from the attentions of a large and varied set of programmers, like many open source applications, there is little input from user experience design specialists, and it shows. Accordingly, it's big, popular, powerful, useful but hard to use. The user interface (UI), and therefore the user experience (UE) leave a lot to be desired.

Very little literature could be found evaluating the Moodle user experience. Anecdotally, when discussing Moodle with users, it quickly emerges that although Moodle is seen as being very useful, it is also hard to learn, and frustrating to use. Two distinct user communities exist: staff and students – staff users are often infrequent users, or 'serial newbies', who find the user interface very inconsistent and hard to use, leading to dissatisfaction and wasted time.

Student users, including those with special needs, find that the interface is hard to use, making things difficult to find. This leads to frustration and the generation of a negative user experience, impacting on their motivation to use the system which may in turn lead to a more generalised dissatisfaction regarding the learning experience of their course.

Research methods

The study examines the UE offered by Moodle to its two user communities: staff (who mostly create the learning and teaching assets) and students (who mostly consume the learning and teaching assets).

We employ a two stage investigation comprising an initial scoping study followed by a deeper user experience study whose direction and design will be informed by findings from the scoping study. The approach permits the use of a large number of participants in stage 1, generating valuable UE statistics, and then the generation of deep, value-laden data drawn from a relatively small number of participants via industry-standard usability lab tests in stage 2. This work was repeated with each user community, as their needs and requirements from the software were thought to be very different each from the other.

The Scoping study was largely quantitative, using questionnaires administered to participants to generate data that may be used inferentially. The questionnaire items were partially informed by prior focus group work, which were used to surface key issues affecting day to day use.

The UE study was largely qualitative, conducted in a usability lab setting, focusing on eliciting context-rich data on particular user experiences when performing common tasks in the software.

Since Moodle is used in many types of educational institution ranging from primary schools to universities in many parts of the world, there is a potentially enormous impact both on the ways it is used and on the adoption rates, should interface design issues be shown to be common and an impediment to a satisfying user experience.

Qualitative User Experience Survey Tool (QUEST)

This agenda centres around the notion that many of the designed artefacts that we use today create a highly negative impression in the minds of their users, producing frustration and resentment when they do not work as expected. Over time, this leads ultimately to an angry rejection of the artefact by the user. We call this a Functionally Unacceptable (FU) response. Some designed artefacts however create the opposite effect – a highly positive impression as the artefact repeatedly delights the user.

Over time, this leads ultimately to a warm acceptance of the artefact by the user. We call this a Functionally Marvellous (FM) response. These FM artefacts then become integral parts of our daily lives and are used with an exceptionally high degree of satisfaction for the user and result in steadily increasing sales for the manufacturer. We seek to increase our knowledge of design models and evaluative methodologies for the production and detection of FM responses in artefact users.

Accordingly, work is now in progress on the development of a Qualitative User Experience Survey Tool (QUEST) which will be deeply rooted in our stated philosophy of 'ask the user'.


Saxon A, Walker S and Prytherch D (2011) Measuring the Unmeasurable? Eliciting hard to measure information about the user experience, In Ghazi I. Alkhatib (ed.) Web engineered applications for evolving organizations : emerging knowledge. Information Science Reference, IGI Global, Pennsylvania. pp. 256 — 277.

Saxon A, Walker S and Prytherch D (2011) What do I mean? A novel application of repertory grid at the user interface, In Georgios Christou, Panayiotis Zaphiris & Effie Lai-Chong Law (eds.) Proceedings of the 1st European Workshop on HCI Design and Evaluation. Limassol, Cyprus. April 8, 2011 pp 68—78. Toulouse, France. IRIT Press.ISBN :978-2-917490-13-6    EAN : 9782917490136

Saxon A, Walker S and Prytherch D (2010) Whose questionnaire is it, anyway?, In T. Spiliotopoulos, T. Papadopoulou, P. Martakos, D. & Kouroupetroglou, G. (eds.) Integrating Usability Engineering for Designing the Web Experience: Methodologies and Principles, IGI Global, Pennsylvania.

Walker S & Prytherch D (2008) How is it for you? A case for recognising user motivation in the design process. In Peter, C., Beale, R. (Eds.), Affect and Emotion in Human-Computer Interaction: From Theory to Applications (Vol. LNCS 4868, Hot Topics): Springer, Heidelberg.

Journal papers

Walker, Shane and Prytherch, David and Whitehead, Charlotte (2013) The AGA Archive: An innovative application of a business archive as an inspirational resource for designers. In: Innovation Through Knowledge Transfer 2013. Future Technology Press. ISBN 978 0 9561516 2 9

Giachritsis C, I’Anson S and Prytherch D (2011) Haptic discrimination of different types of pencils during writingErgonomics, 54:8, pp. 684—689.

Selected conference papers and talks

Walker, Shane and Prytherch, David and Turner, Jerome (2013) The pivotal role of staff user experiences in Moodle and the potential impact on student learning. In: 2013 2nd International Conference on e-learning and e-technologies in Education (ICEEE), 23 - 25 September 2013, Lodz

Bentkowska-Kafel A, Giachritsis C and Prytherch D (2011) Virtual Touch. Towards an interdisciplinary research agenda for the arts and humanitiesDigital Humanities 2011: Conference Abstracts. Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA. June 19 – 22, 2011. pp. 273—277.

Prytherch D, Saxon A and Walker S (2011) Pick a pebble: A study to develop understanding of the tacit judgement of object quality. The International Society for the Scientific Study of Subjectivity 27th annual Q Conference 2011, University of Birmingham.

Prytherch D, Bentham P, Smythe A, Wheeler N, Oyebode J & Khubchandani D (2011) Intrinsic haptic reward as a basis for therapeutic intervention to foster day-to-day well-being in people with dementia. Wellbeing 2011, Birmingham City University.

2009 Cultural encounters and explorations. *A research cluster of the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme, Workshop 1.

Group exhibitions

2011 A Passion for Glass, The National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh.

Links and Social Media