Live at Interaction’09: day 4

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And so it ends… after four days the Interaction’09 conference is over. At the moment we’re enjoying a drink at a bar and just finished up this last report. We’re pretty tired, but also extremely satisfied and inspired. It has been a great experience, which was openly shared with 456 other interaction designers. We’re off to bed, and you are going to read our pretty report.

Again special thanks to my fellow Johnnies, who helped out writing this report: Louise Roose, Patrick Sanwikarja and Pieter Jongerius.

Keynote: How to change the world complicated stuff – Marc Rettig

Today’s opening keynote was given by Marc Rettig, co-founder of Fit Associates. A company that has the intention to lead, nurture, connect and equip conscious organizations for the greatest impact for the common good.

Rettig starts off with stating that times will inevitably change. It is up to interaction designers to make the transition as smooth as possible. He is optimistic about the fact that interaction designers will play a relevant part at this.

The times of change he talks about he calls ‘the great turning’.  In this time we need to change the way we produce and consume our food, the way we use our energy, think about transport and the way we live. Basically we need to shift just about everything that is defined. Rettig also sees a shift in attitude.  A shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’, and from ‘more stuff’ to ‘quality of life’. And as these shifts are mostly of a social nature, we need to connect with the people we design for (yes, the user!).

Design is intimate, even when the product isn’t.

As we have already seen in the last couple of days, sustainability is a behavioral problem. Sustainability is also a distant and cold word, while design is not. Design is personal, intimate and sensitive. It effects the lives of people in ways that we can’t always foresee. Example: a simple remote control can completely shift the hierarchy in a household. Design is intimate, even when the product isn’t. So it seems that we’re already changing behavior. Maybe we should be focusing on how to do a better job…

Rettig made the effort himself by starting a firm.  His company is not about design or about engineering, but about ‘making a difference’. This difference must lead to a different way of looking at problems and solutions. Rettig states that the world of change is a social one and we should aim for the ripple effect (small change, big effect). He also states this ripple effect will last longer if we think in ‘programs of change’ instead of just one project.

Finally, can we initiate change ourselves? Once change has become your goal, just launching a product will no longer satisfy you. Change requires that you create a set of conditions that are also sustainable. (Stay on, even when you have left the building.

Foundations of Interaction Design: bringing design critique to interaction design – Dave Malouf

During the entire conference there was a lot of talk related to whether or not we should try to (over)define who we are or what we do. Dave Malouf is one of the people who believe that a good foundation and knowledge level is needed for us to be able to improve ourselves. During his talk he tried to show us the importance of creating a foundation for interaction design; a base on which you can build further.

To press his point he introduced us to the world of industrial design, where so-called elements of design are introduced as a foundation. These are line, plane, volume, value, texture and color. He then showed how these were used in order to create iconical products.

Then he went on and showed us his current view on the foundation for interaction design and admitted this was still subject for discussion. His list of elements consisted of:

  • time
  • abstraction: this is related to the level of directness in an interaction. Google Maps has a low abstraction level, since it gives direct feedback when you zoom in/out. A command line has a high level of abstraction.
  • metaphor
  • negativity: what are we not about, what does this not touch
  • motion (recently added)

Malouf believes that we need a foundation in order to have a common language we can share.  Especially in the education of new interaction designers this will be a valuable asset. At the moment courses are still searching what’s the correct path. They miss a solid base, which causes students to miss a consistent view.

Designing for Teams, Designing for Touch – Joe Fletcher

This short presentation was split up in two parts. In the first one Fletcher talked about designing in a team. He said that as a team manager it is okay to be dumb, as long as you manage to create a team around you which is smart. The importance is to motivate the team to come up with creative ideas. In order to do this Fletcher shortly gave us two brainstorming methods:

  • Improv brainstorming: Introduce a single idea. Shoot down any other ideas and build upon that single idea until it’s great.
  • Round Robin: Introduce a direction and let all the team members design solutions on their own for 5 minutes. After this they present them and the entire teams votes on the core ideas.

It’s all about facilitating. The team does the rest.

After this he went on about designing for touch. He stated that ‘tap is not the new click’, which was a direct attack on Dan Saffer’s statement ‘tap is the new click’. Fletcher says that by implying that it is the same you are not thinking about the implications. A touch interface is totally different in it’s use and handiness then a mouse.

Fletcher tries to make us realize that touch isn’t the solution to everything. We are enjoying this new technology, but also hype it… especially walls. Besides that we have to realize that it is difficult to design for touch, since there still isn’t any consent. The maximum number of touch point differs per touch screen technology, ranging from one (Wacom) to 52 (Microsoft Surface). Another example he gave were about gesture consent, or the lack of it. On Firefox dragging to the left means going back, while in Coverflow it means going forward.

Understanding contexts of use – Milford Rochford (Nokia Design)

Miles Rochford from Nokia Design gave a very clear presentation about looking beyond the user and designing for contexts of use. He started with a nice example of how, after studying how people live in rural China and India, Nokia came up with a low-end phone that has a built-in torch. Because the power grid there is not reliable and you always have a mobile phone with you, this is a very welcome addition in emerging markets. One could argue that you don’t need extensive ethnographic research to come up with that idea, but Miles’ point was clear.

the one tool you need as a designer is not sketching, but empathy

The presentation consisted of three parts: What is context of use, why is it relevant and how can we apply it? First of all, Miles’ definition of context is a simple one: the right thing, at the right time, in the right place for the right person. That may sound obvious, but if you break issues up into these four aspects, it is very useful to look at things this way. Secondly, contexts are relevant because designers should not only solve problems, they should create interactions that go beyond people’s needs. At Nokia, inspiration comes from people. Their strategy is to observe, then design.
Finally, Miles provided the audience with three steps to apply contexts of use:

  • Define: Establish the laws of physics for your project. Know what the constraints are that follow from the context.
  • Document: How do these laws impact the interactions? It’s impossible to tackle every issue, so the designer has to prioritize and perhaps compromise.
  • Deliver: Finally, the designer has to create great interactions for different contexts. Designers should not try to design one interaction to rule them all.

Miles encouraged the audience to try out his method, repeat it and learn from it. His closing remark was that designers should be really good at listening. Because the one tool you need as a designer is not sketching, but empathy.

Because of the simplicity of Miles’ story, his points were very clear. Unfortunately, there was no time for Miles to go into the subject in more detail. It would have been nice to see more cases of how Nokia’s designs follow from studying contexts, but I guess we have to go out and apply it on our own, as Miles suggested.

Mobile UX design patterns: a work in progress – Jenifer Tidwell (Google)

Jenifer Tidwell’s presentation was basically a very straightforward overview of the most important design patterns for mobile devices.

In her introduction, she gave a number of interesting statistics, such as the fact that tens of millions of weekly searches on Google comes from mobile devices, of which 80 % comes from outside the USA. In some countries, the number of mobile searches already surpass that from PCs. A nice eyeopener is that 98 % of the world’s mobile phones are keypad phones. That is a good thing to keep in mind, with us interaction designer often being more focused on high end touchscreen smartphones. A pattern needs to improve the user’s life and not be a technical solution. Otherwise it’s not really a pattern at all. In order to design for mobile devices effectively, the field should first be narrowed, as there are simply too many kinds these days. Jenifer’s focus was on mobile phones. She briefly discussed 15 design patterns, most of which most designer are probably already familiar with. I won’t write about all of them. Instead, the most interesting patterns are listed here:

Persistent toolbar. Always keep in mind the scarce screen real estate. This sounds like an obvious thing, but it is often overlooked. Beware of the layer cake effect (the stacking of lots of different headers). Instead, take one persistent toolbar of minimal height.

Infinite list. Because loading times should always be kept to a minimum, it’s a good idea to put a button at the bottom of lists that loads more items, instead of showing the long list right away.

Aggressive auto completion. Typing gets in the way of fast task completion, so auto completion should be used as much as possible. However, designers ought to be careful with free text input. In that case, bad auto completion can be very frustrating. The key here is: test, test, test.

Rich interconnections. These are direct links from one application to another, with data from the user’s context prefilled. This is a good idea because switching between apps is often difficult on mobile devices. Mobile users like things fast, so any work you can take out of their hands is welcome.

I had hoped Jenifer’s story would have been more compelling and inspiring. Her constantly apologizing about the fact that her presentation was missing fonts and pictures didn’t help her deliver a powerful presentation, either. It put too much emphasis on the ‘work in progress’ part, and drew attention away from the actual subject. I would have liked to have seen her address issues such as differences between devices and what challenges that brings, or a vision on how mobile devices and with it, patterns will evolve. Most of Jenifer’s examples were screenshots from the iPhone, which was a pity, considering 98 percent of phones have keypads, as she pointed out herself. Despite of the superficiality of the session, it was relevant to designers, because as Jenifer said: we are all going to be mobile designers soon enough.

Play and embodiment – Kars Alfrink (Leapfrog)

In this very compelling session, Kars talked about tangible and social interactions, or as he calls them, embodied interactions. Kars is a game designer and argued that game design and interaction design are not overlapping disciplines as they have long been considered, but rather game design is a specialized part of interaction design. Looking at play can be very inspiring when designing interactions.

Kars’ story was quite theoretical, such as his explanation of pragmatic action versus epistemic action. Pragmatic actions are about directly performing a task, whereas epistemic actions are about getting a better understanding of the task. An example of this is the fact that Tetris players who do superfluous action (move the brick around a lot before placing it) are better at tetris because they do that. They move part of the thinking in their head to the real world. In other words, there is no thinking without doing. So, as lots of the other sessions have also stressed, sketching and prototyping must be part of the design process.

The core of Lars’ story was this: play is free movement within a more rigid structure. Ultimately, it’s the player that defines the real rules, not the designer – he just sets the structure. Kars gave a beautiful example of users defining their own ‘rules’ within an existing system. At a neonatalogy ward Kars once visited nurses used a whiteboard for planning. They came up with their own system of assigning different tasks to nurses caring for babies, using the whiteboard, magnets, written text and colors. The whiteboard became an improvised information display. Obviously, the designer of the whiteboard and the magnets and the markers never thought about nurses using it that way. The nurses made their own rules. Once people start using products, the products are never the same again, or ‘function reforms form perpetually’. Therefore designers should build a ‘loose fit’ into their designs. We should embrace uncertainty and don’t try to control the complete user experience.

Keynote: Each One, Teach One – Kim Goodwin

This conference has seen some serious muscle keynoting. Kim did a great job of turning this last speech of the conference into a worthy closing piece. It actually gave us some goose bumps.

We are improving in our practice, it’s a fact. We’re not running in a treadmill going nowhere. Ten years back, the industry suffered from many usability and design issues. Today, people demand good design because of the growing number of good design they experience. This is a major accomplishment. The classic example is of course the much discussed iPhone. To many, it really is revelation of the power of design. Designers, developers, CEO’s and MBA’s alike, the iPhone allows them to grasp the value of good design, at a gut level. This is a major step forward from interaction designers being important primarily to fix usability problems.

We deserve to celebrate, but we shouldn’t claim victory too early. We are not there yet, and as other keynote speakers have pointed out, some major challenges lie ahead. For one, we have to design for sustainability. Kim took an alternative approach to this important issue. She argues that sustainability inevitably means that we as a discipline have to be around for a long time to come!

There’s a challenge in that. Our recent successes give us a window of opportunity, but it might close all too soon. We have to deliver. Until now we made a lot of promises, which we didn’t always fulfill. We are being looked at in a critical way, we have to deliver soon. But at the same time there are significant hurdles, like our yet to be defined identity.

At this point, Kim started building at the main point of her talk. There are three major challenges facing us:

  • First, there’s no magic pill to creating good design. Design is much more work than many managers believe. At the same time, there are not enough interaction designers to go around. So recruiting managers will get the next best thing, get disappointed, and our window of opportunity might close.
  • Second, we need a much greater diversity of experience and color in our profession. It is appalling to see that most interaction designers come from a small segment of society. Our group clearly doesn’t reflect the demographics of the communities we aim to serve.
  • Thirdly, you simply cannot design effectively by yourself. Designing by yourself is like singing in the shower. We need to team up.

In order to overcome these, Kim did a dramatic and sincere appeal.

We need start teaching each other, one on one. Every one of you. Start now.

We have to require seniors to start mentoring juniors.
We have to learn to be better mentors. Listen. Observe. Imagine.
Mentoring is a two way thing. You learn your craft by teaching.

Each one, teach one. Only in this way we may grow a sustainable profession.

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.

4 comments on this article

  1. Thanks so much for posting this whole round-up of the conference. I really wish I could have been there and so this has been the next best thing.

  2. @Andy: thanks for the compliment. Next year you should come, as should all IxD or UX designers. It’s a very inspiring, energizing and social event. It was great to be there and report it. But more is coming, since we still have a few video interviews we have to edit.

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