Live at Interaction’09: day 2

Interaction Conference

Founded in 2008, the Interaction Design Association Conference brings together practitioners interested in all things around interaction design. Interaction 12 took place in Dublin, Ireland on 1–4 2012. Interactions 13 is set to take place in February 2013 in Toronto.

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On this second day at Interaction’09 the hardcore interaction designers (us) attended the last workshops. After this the actual conference started. The opening keynote was done by John Thackara, after which Jared Spool made his six friends discuss several topics. And hardcore as we are, here is the report… (and I’m off to bed).

Workshop: Drawing Ideas (report by Patrick Sanwikarja)
Today Mark Baskinger and Willam Bardel gave a workshop about drawing as part of the design process. It was a very hands-on workshop, which consisted mostly of sketching exercises, with Mark and William telling their story in between.

Their main argument was that sketching is a very powerful way to communicate your ideas, much better than images created on a computer. This is because people (unconsciously) react differently to sketches than they do to computer generated drawings, even rough designs. Computer output is always precisely rough, while hand sketches are roughly rough. People naturally pick up on the imperfections of sketches and will understand that it is far from a finished design.

Mark Baskinger is convinced that every designer, whether you are a graphic, industrial or interaction designer, should learn how to sketch, at least on a basic level. And so the first part of the workshop was a crash course in basic sketching techniques. It started with drawing straight lines, moving up to squares, cubes, circles and ellipses and on to drawing arrows, hands and people figures (according to Mark Baskinger, if you draw stick figures, you are not a real designer). Doing these basic exercises is a good way to ‘warm up’, even for experienced drawers.

Computer output is always precisely rough, while hand sketches are roughly rough.

In the second half of the workshop we did a number of exercises in which we applied the basic techniques to tackle interaction design issues. Laundry was taken as a case, for which we had to draw all the different parts of the process and communicate the user’s problems. One way interaction designers can use hand drawings is by sketching key moments in a process. Designers often tend to focus on just the middle of the story, forgetting about the beginning and the end. Sequences, scenes and scenarios are good ways to communicate the entire user’s story.
A well-drawn scene captures a bunch of elements. Subtle things like the posture of a person or the surrounding objects tell a lot about the context of use. If you have basic skills, drawing good scenes can be done very quickly.

More than anything, this workshop was a lot of fun. I know I love sketching, but I forgot just how much. This workshop has definitely sparked my inner twelve year old to get away from my monitor much more often and pick up a piece of paper and a pencil. Even though I consider myself I fairly good sketcher, I found I have gotten a bit sloppy. Warming up and keep practicing the basics are good ways to keep up. I would have liked to have done more exercises for interaction designers and perhaps less basics, but seeing how few of the participants use sketching in their day to day work, the workshop was very well set up. It was great to see how people who didn’t think they could properly sketch were actually doing a great job. This summer, the workshop presenters will publish a book about Drawing Ideas and I look forward to learn more sketching techniques for interaction designers from that.

Workshop: Building and using a pattern library for web interfaces (report by Pieter Jongerius)
The goal of this workshop was to get an idea of why patterns are useful, how to create them, how to create a library and how to implement it in your organisation. It turned out to be a slow paced workshop with a lot of discussion that at times circled around semantics and a frustrating struggle between pragmatism and philosophy. All in all, for participants who wanted to start their own library, this was a good one.

Using a good pattern library can save you lots of money. Folks at Autodesk discovered that for many interface problems, dozens of different solutions were designed over and over again. That had to stop, and patterns are the answer. The actual term ‘patterns’ was coined as early as 1977 by Christopher Alexander, in his book ‘A pattern language’. In recent years, people such as Martijn van Welie and Jenifer Tidwell continued on this work and brought it into the realm of 21st century interaction design.

Patterns generally consist of four parts:

  • Problem. What does the user want?
  • Solution. How to meet the users needs
  • Context. When to use it
  • Examples. Where you can see it happening.

A lot of effort went into discussing detailed pattern properties. A more detailed list of pattern content can be found at a Boxes and Arrows article Yahoo! did.

Creating patterns can be great fun, as we soon found out in this workshop. However, in order to have a successful pattern library implementation in your organization, it was advised to team up with other disciplines such as development and visual design, so that pattern thinking is deeply integrated into your way of working. Each pattern may be accompanied by wireframing stencils (such as the magnificent Konigi (konigi.com/tools/overview) sets) and ready-to-use blocks of code. A couple of great code libraries that have patterns were mentioned: YUIjQuery, SproutCore.

So… Am I going to set up my own library? Not for now. The challenges that come from setting it up and doing it right are tremendous. For smaller organizations such as ours, the open libraries such as the ones from Yahoo! and Welie are great places to start right off. Sorry to see that there’s no gestural patterns there yet. Place your ads here.

Keynote: Experiencing Sustainability – John Thackara (report by Louise Roose)
The first keynote on Interaction’09 was by John Thackara (Doors of Perception) with the promising title ‘experiencing sustainability’. He started off with a rather depressing series of peaks that occur this very moment in the world. Peaks in water-usage, oil-usage, transportation of goods, climate changes etc. Never before in the history of the world have we used so much water or natural resources, produced so much waste or moved so many goods around. But, Thackara says, this will all come to a sudden stop. And things will never be the same again.

Business as usual will be business as unusual

At the beginning of his presentation he focused on energy consumption. Thackara stated that green cars and alternative energy won’t save us. He explains that a small mobile phone has an environmental impact of 500 kg. Which also means that if tomorrow all cars were magically replaced by green cars, that still wouldn’t save our asses. So the question is: what can we do?

He then goes on to talk a bit about men in suits, which frankly was a bit boring and I don’t seem to recall the exact message. (Jeroen van Geel agrees) Something about a huge global debt, thanks to our bankers and this is very bad…

Anyway, let’s focus on what we can do. We have to realize that a crisis provides great new design opportunities. This is the optimistic message Thackara wants to bring across. There are all sorts of tools to measure the effect things have on the environment. These tools are mostly pieces of software, and need lots of improvement. And isn’t that exactly the spot where we, the designer, come in?

And then there are other areas that need to be addressed. Like food. We need to change the way we think about it. Thackara shows us examples of urban agriculture, or better yet, a guy he knows in France that has a food garden in a suburb (or several) and makes then look pretty. Another example is ‘landsharing’, an initiative by some English people who wanted to grow stuff but didn’t have land combined with people who had the land but didn’t have use for it. They hooked up through a website.

These people weren’t thinking about saving the planet, they just wanted to do something…. And did it. The same goes for finding local, off grid, energy sources. Combined efforts make it happen. Or how about feral trade, where people who travel import or export stuff for others.

All these initiatives are already out there. Whatever you can think of, somebody is doing it. But they need help! And that’s where, again, we come in. This is the golden opportunity for interaction and other designers to actually make a difference. At the end of the keynote I wanted to scream: “Yes we can.” and “Just do it!” (I know, I’m cheesy)

Jared Spool & friends (report by me)
During a one hour session Jared Spool moderated a panel discussion. It was situated around an imaginary situation, in which there would be a sudden need for over 10.000 interaction designers. Where are they coming from? What do we expect from them?

One of the first discussions was about the methods companies use when trying to find and hire a good interaction designer. Matthew Holloway (SAP) and Andrei Herasimcuck (Involution Studios) didn’t agree on the method. In a job interview Holloway tends to focus on the behavior of a interaction designer, trying to see whether he would fit in a team… how he would think and respond in a certain situation, etc. This behavioral based interview is totally the opposite of Herasimcuck approach, which is knowledge based. He is far more interested in the qualities of the portfolio and design skills. The difference in this approach is quite interesting. How do you check if somebody is good? How do you know that he actually designed this? Personally I would prefer the behavioral based interview, focussing on the responsiveness of the person. You could easily check how abstract and fast somebody can think… But even then you’d want to know what somebody would come up with. Josh Seiden (Liquidnet) commented that he would give people home excercises, in order to check this.

Another part of the discussion focused on the type of characteristics and skills interaction designers need. According to Seiden passion for and the absolute urge to solving problems are an absolute must. But the exact skills needed are still difficult to define. The reason is that we can’t exactly define who we are and what we focus on. Are we user experience or interaction designers? Does it matter which one we are? What are the differences? During the discussion nobody could answer this question. Holloway claimed that it shouldn’t matter, as long as the customers know what we can do for them. While I tend to agree with him it’s still frustrating to see that we can’t define where our field starts and ends. This was the biggest insight I had during this discussion; we must start defining what we do and what skills are needed for this. Maybe it isn’t a clear line and actually something modular, but we must start somewhere.

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

3 comments on this article

  1. D on

    Thanks for the summary. When I left J. Spool and Friends I was a bit peeved. Kolko, I think his name is, and Andrei spoke in overtones of elitism within the ID field that I’ve sensed for some time. That is, ‘designers’ are the only real people of value within the field of ID. At one point, Kolko said UE people are ID people who can’t design.

    This is plain bullshit and smacks of arrogance and self consciousness. It said to me that many designers are trying to clear the space for themselves, not acknowledging the contribution of developers, IAs, generalists while also saying, “we designers are given a god given gift that cannot be filled by the unwashed masses.” To me, many IDs with a design background are like architects–given some focus and hard skills for their talent their heads grow to nauseating size, otherwise their just another graphic designer.

    I’m so tired of elitism within our field. Let’s dispense with the caste system people are trying to create and get on with the business of professionalizing our field.

    Kolko: I thought with your clearly antisocial dress/behavior I’d hear more balanced, egalitarian, uncharged words from you. Maybe your earrings and tattoos are tribal influenced, your words were clearly divisive.

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  3. Jon Kolko on

    Looks like maybe I hit a nerve :)