Introduction to Interaction Design: An Interview with Dave Malouf

By Will Evans.

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This February is the second annual Interaction Design Association (IxDA) Interaction 09 conference which is being held in Vancouver, British Columbia in conjunction with Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology. Dave Malouf, one of the founder’s of the IxDA, was kind enough to allow me to interview him recently about a workshop he will be giving, his take on the field of interaction design, and some thoughts about where the field is going.

[Will Evans] How did you get your start in Interaction/Information Design?
[Dave Malouf ] Well, I started in the web world. Back then doing HTML 1.0 meant you were a designer. I bounced from technologist to producer/project manager for a few years until I found User Experience and fell in love. The last 10 years has been a personal journey of discovering from the outside what “D”esign really means, how it is really meant to be practiced, and now how it is to be taught. Then I connect that to my passion for technology and human beings which combine to me into  Interaction Design.

it is important for future (if not current) interaction designers to be educated in design foundation in order to connect more and be taken more seriously

[WE] Who/Where do you look to for inspiration?
[DM ] What a great question. My greatest inspirations come from the Cooper Hewitt Triennial. Companies like Antenna Design where two people do amazing work spanning so many disciplines of design. Other designers who span multiple planes of design particularly architecture. I’ve also been trying to look deeper into game design theory and practice and I’m really excited that my new position at SCAD will put me in closer contact with some of the best educators of game design anywhere.

[WE] I’ve said to many people that a lot of us have not come by our current roles honestly. That is, many–like you and I, weren’t formally trained as interaction designers – coming from a formal design program (like SCAD or CM). Do you have an opinion on where the interaction designer of tomorrow will evolve from?
interaction design is about deciding the flows and conversation, the narrative that these interface points make up–the notes that are played by the musician.

[DM] Despite my own lack of pedigree, I really feel strongly that for the sustainability of the discipline of interaction design, that most people will need to go through a formal design school education to become contributing parts of the interaction design practice community (community of practice?). But it is also important for future (if not current) interaction designers to be educated in design foundation in order to connect more and be taken more seriously by the rest of the design community including industrial, architectural, communications, and interactive media.

[WE] I have heard you talk quite a bit about drawing from fields like Industrial Design – do you think people equate interaction design with web design? Do you think that limits how we as a profession are seen and how do you think we can grow out of that perception?
[DM] I don’t think that people equate interaction design with “web design”. I think they falsely equate it with “software design” at least inside the United States. And even then that doesn’t speak to what is the more exciting practice of IxD in the US which is most directly connected to the Industrial Design world, which–ironically enough, doesn’t really get interaction design as a community.

But I draw upon Industrial Design as I think it is the older, more established design discipline that most speaks to interaction design. Having worked in an industrial design studio for a bit, I really learned how far ahead they are in understanding and executing the basics of design foundation practices and having an established communication protocol amongst their peers. This lesson more than any other drives me towards education and towards my work around communicating a foundation of interaction design. Something I feel is sorely missing and needing.

[WE] Following up on your your previous answer – People are sometimes confuse or conflate interaction design with interface design? How do you see these as different?
[DM] Part of my gut tells me that they are the same thing. I’ve heard people define both terms in such a way that they are so similar that they might as well be the same thing. But where I usually take interaction design out of interface design is that interface design requires visual interfaces and not all interaction design has visual points of interaction. But even then, there are VUI designers (voice interface designers), so that blows my initial assertion out of the water that UI is only graphical. 

If I dig deeper, though, and if I hold to my own guns, I believe that UI is about presentation of interfacing points, but interaction design is about deciding the flows and conversation, the narrative that these interface points make up — the notes that are played by the musician.

[WE] I know you were very politically active this past year during the election and I think a lot of digital ink was spent discussing the role of social media/internet in this recent election of Obama as president – do you think the effectiveness of the Obama website including the My.BarackObama website brought more focus to the interaction design community and to the importance of good IxD in general? Tell me what you think about how Obama’s call for greater government transparency will impact the IxD community.
[DM] I’m not sure it called attention to the IxD community because it is unclear what role the IxD community played in the creation of all these tools. But it is clear that the tools themselves did make a big difference, at least for me. I think that gave me an outlet to express myself and to turn thoughts into actions both online and offline.

On the issue of transparency, I have been using the work I’ve been a part of in this campaign as a source of inspiration in thinking about IxDA. So it isn’t so much about effecting interaction design as it is effecting the interaction design community and possibly even more so the Open Source community.

[WE] One issue that at least I haven’t seen addressed in the IxD community is ethics – could you reflect a bit on the issue of ethics and the role of the interaction designer in an enterprise? Will you be incorporating anything into the curriculum SCAD?
[DM] I am lucky in my career in that many ethical issues haven’t really come up. I’m actually sure — there is something about “forcing users” down paths that I felt were unnecessary, or schlocking wears that only contribute to the downfall of the world on so many levels. 

The more serious answer to your question is that there are so many levels of ethics and concerns, but a point I want to make clear is that interaction design has as much application to pornography and gambling as it does to changing behavior towards sustainability and raising money to end poverty in Africa. 

But personally, I do lean to the left more than the right (understatement) and the design community as a whole is so intent on applying its methods and processes towards “transforming” those elements of society that seem to be in imminent collapse.

Interaction Design… can be applied equally to gambling and pornography as it can in creating a service used to advocate for or change the behavior around positive change for the world.

A point I’d like to make about ethics is that as a discipline Interaction Design is not bound by ethics. This is true because the discipline of IxD is about the methods and rules of designing behavior. It is like a hammer. What you do with that hammer can be used for good or bad. It can be applied equally to gambling and pornography or to creating a service used to advocate for or change the behavior around positive change for the world.

[WE] Along those same lines – your new role as professor of interaction design at SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design), how hard has it been developing a curriculum? What are some of the key disciplines you will be focusing on this year?
[DM] SCAD is a design school. Everything in the industrial design program is project and studio oriented from as far as I can tell and my courses are no exception. I’m inheriting so far the curriculum of Jon Kolko. It is a minor program to the Industrial Design major for undergraduates. The crux of it is very sound: HCI, Interactive Product Design, Information Architecture, Contextual Research and a senior studio. But as I’m teaching the courses, I’m hungry for more theoretical depth. I’m lucky that it is a minor in industrial deign because  I know these students all went through foundation and get to really hone the crafts of ID (3D, graphics, etc.) 

On the flip side, I’ll be putting together a Masters degree curriculum soon for Interaction. I can’t go into too many details here but I’m very excited with looking at what US programs like CMU and SVA are doing and comparing that to what Ivrea, RCA, Domus, Delft, Umea and Malmo are up to. I think bridging the European-North  American divide is key for future education programs.

[WE] Many top tier universities like Standford and MIT are opening up all their classes including lectures, notes, syllabus to the public – do you think you and SCAD will be following suit?
[DM] Not sure about that, yet. I  think it is a false hope, thinking that interaction design can be learned from watching video’s on the web, even accompanied by course materials and syllabi. The key for most design practitioners is studio work. You can’t fake it. You either have to find an environment where you live it, or you have to go back to school to gain access to it. Almost no software environments run as studios.

 I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot though and I think we need to be inventive about continuing education. Events like AP‘s and UIE‘s week long multi-workshop experiences are interesting, but in their attempt for breadth they miss depth. Cooper‘s practicum is also too wide. What we need are week long courses that are deep and intense and that bring together different levels of practitioners into the same studio space. I’m working on some programs with SCAD but until I can get them off the ground, I can’t really talk about them yet.

[WE] Finally, What should the audience take away from your workshop at Interaction ’09?
[DM] The main purpose of the course  is not to teach students everything they need to know to be an interaction designer, but rather teach them everything they need to know to build a framework for plotting their career path and their own self-education. My biggest lessons have always been ones that inspired me to hunt for more knowledge as opposed to false attempts to impart knowledge itself. 

The workshop is going to present a framework of what interaction design is, how it is practiced and what leads to success. It is also going to be lessons on critique and non-linear thinking tools. Finally, it is going to be a chance for participants to think about their career, their current practice and what type of practice they want to be doing in 5 years. Visualizing that goal will allow them to choose a path. 

The most important thing I tell my students is that the path’s are like design itself. The flow of ideas head towards a horizon point, but there are many opportunities for disruption along the way. At any given point on the path, the direction of the horizon can and should change, influenced by the past, but put in motion by the present.

[WE] Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview.
[DM] You’re welcome.

About Dave’s Workshop
This half-day seminar will provide a solid background in Interaction Design (IxD) for those who are coming to the practice of IxD from other areas, such as information architecture, software engineering, business analysis, project or product management, technical writing, architecture, industrial design, visual design, and interactive design.

For more information about Dave’s workshop at Interaction 09, go here.

About Dave Malouf
David Malouf is currently a Professor of Interaction Design in the Industrial Design Department of the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). Before taking this position, David was a Sr. Interaction Design for Motorola Enterprise Mobility where he designed software, webware, and hardware interactions and interfaces. Motorola was the last in a 15 year journey of practicing interaction design, information architecture, ui design, project management and other roles and positions working almost exclusively with think client technologies.

David is also one of the primary founders and first Vice President of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). David’s passion for evangelizing and teaching interaction design, came to a climax in 2008 when he co-chaired the first Interactions conference, Interaction 08 | Savannah.

Will Evans

Will Evans is Director, User Experience Practice Lead for Twin Technologies with 14 years industry experience in presentation layer and user experience design. His experiences includes directing UX for AIR Worldwide, UX Architect for social media site, and UX Architect responsible for the interaction design of He worked at Lotus/IBM where he was the senior information architect, and for Curl - a DARPA-funded MIT project when he was at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Will holds masters degrees in business administration, human-computer interaction and cognitive psychology. His interests have focused on design, information architecture, human factors and information visualization. He earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics and philosophy.

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