Interaction 11: who are we, and how can we be better? 

Interaction 11: who are we, and how can we be better? 

This was my second year attending Interaction, the conference of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). I’m not an “IxD” myself, but my work is so inextricably linked with what interaction designers do that attending these conferences has been extremely valuable for me, if only to immerse myself in the current thinking of a highly specialized practice.

This year’s conference was held on the University of Colorado campus in icily beautiful and frigid Boulder, with the snowcapped mountains as a backdrop. Because the Savannah College of Art and Design hosted last year’s conference on their “campus” of small buildings scattered throughout downtown Savannah, the sessions last year consisted much more of small breakouts, whereas this year the day began with everybody in one ballroom and broke into two tracks in the afternoons.

So with everyone in one place, the conference this year took on a different tone, with an undercurrent of self-examination about the practice of IxD. It makes sense, really, given our times. The role of interaction designer has been elevated considerably in recent years, perhaps no more than over the last year, which saw the introduction of the iPad and the iPhone4, as well as Windows Phone and other sophisticated mobile devices. Even in the ballroom itself there was evidence of what we face: probably two-thirds of the audience (myself included) had their faces glued to some kind of screen, whether laptop, phone or tablet. Even as the presenters talked, audience members tweeted out pleas that echoed “hang up and drive” from a decade ago: “Get your face out of your phone and pay attention.”

And so the conference’s underlying themes were relevant. Now that we’re here and established, what do we do with our power? How do we keep it, use it more intelligently and skillfully, and (perhaps most importantly) use it responsibly? Following are summaries of a few talks that strove to answer the big questions.

Working it out with a soft pencil
The morning’s keynote was by Bill Verplank, a pioneering human-factors engineer with a resume that includes Xerox and IDEO, and who is now a visiting scholar at Stanford. Verplank is known for sketching as he talks, a treat for a room full of hard-core designers.

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Verplank gave a thoughtful talk that moved all over the place, but was largely made up of one theme: the interaction designer’s relationship with the machine, and the push and pull of control as they manipulate how that product works to help people interpret and experience the world. As he sketched around the transparency with his favorite soft pencil, a map of his elaborate mind appeared before the audience’s eyes. (“How do you understand what people are thinking? You have them draw you a map,” he intoned at one point.) A few of Verplank’s observations:

  • Interaction designers’ role is to put things between people and the world. As part of that role, we exercise control: what’s the goal we want to achieve, how do we get there, and what control do we have over the variables to getting there?
  • Designers must answer three questions: how do you do what you do; how do you feel (thinking about all the ways we sense the world); and how do you know (what do people think, and should they think)?
  • Feedback is essential to good interaction design. “Why do we put arrows in diagrams? I’m always leery when I see them,” he said. “We think one thing happens and it leads to this. But we need some feedback about what the final state is … Systems rely on feedback.”
  • We process information in different ways through the different phases of our lives — by grabbing and sucking as newborns, then iconically to understand relationships visually as we grow older, and finally symbolically as adults, with the ability to manipulate symbols to communicate complex ideas. And we often suppress one way of processing in order to move into another. But we also each fit into a certain “mentality” that dictates how we largely think and create. Einstein, for example, said that he thought kinetically — that a lot of his imagination was in his muscles.
  • In the immortal words of Marshall McLuhan (not the last shout-out to MM during the conference): the medium is the message. As interaction designers we often think of users of our products, but in fact we are often dealing with consumers of our message. “Media is moving into fashion,” Verplank said.
  • The process of standards-setting and developing protocol is the “hidden side of development.” We evolve because people in every industry come together to reach agreements how to standardize technologies and processes — whether it’s using Ethernet, or unicode for managing fonts, or loading containers onto ships. “Get to know somebody who lives in this world,” Verplank advised.

Empathy for our materials
Michael Meyer next covered a theme that pervaded much of the rest of the conference. He talked about the ancient Romans’ ability to develop incredibly detailed and exquisite glassworks. “They had no machines, no instruments, but they developed empathy for their materials,” he said. In another example (illustrated when he showed a clip from The Right Stuff) he astronauts were instrumental in designing the first spacecraft because they understood what was important — that the craft needed a window, for example. “This is our design imperative,” Meyer said. “We need to design a core and be really specific about what materials we use to design. We don’t give it over to technicians who are experts in some other space.”

Talking about ourselves
When people ask what we do, what do we tell them? Carl Alviani, a design writer who helps interaction designers tell their story, struck a chord with the audience by urging them to speak more clearly about their profession and what they’re accomplishing, in order to further the role of interaction design. “We hate being defined by deliverables and tools, but it’s necessary for people to understand what we do,” he said. “It was two years before somebody said ‘wireframe’ to me.” He pointed out that many times, we try to speak externally about what we do the same way we talk internally — and that’s where people get lost. Tell stories and use examples when explaining interaction design to the world, to communicate its value and promote adoption. “The right story turns skeptics into evangelists,” he said. “When an example and an abstraction have a fight, the example always wins.”

Design for life
There was a talk later in the conference that was explicitly about design and ethics, but Peter Knocke was the first presenter of the conference to bring awareness to what exactly we are doing as interaction designers. After sharing the statistic that 42% of people now take their iPhones to the bathroom, he talked about designing a user persona for a man who checks his email first thing in the morning, who is constantly in front of a screen, who is always connected. He began to track what he himself does all day long. “My activities fall into three categories: creation, consumption, and curation,” he said. “And most of my day is being eaten up by activities that are consumption.” The problem of course is that we see this as acceptable — and that we are wasting precious time and creative energy. “No one has ever won an Emmy for watching all the episodes of “Lost” or reading the Best of Craigslist,” he said.

He proposed that we always design with three goals in mind: action, balance, and creation. “This is what I value, and it’s time for my designs to reflect that,” he said, and then ended his talk with a revision to the user persona: for a man who, upon checking in with his online must-haves, can quickly get out of the house and into the world to interact with friends face to face.

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