Foundations of Interaction Design: Interaction ’09 reprise

What are the foundations?

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The delay of this article in no way should be construed as a lack of passion on the topic of Foundations for Interaction Design. I’m very proud of the presentation I gave at Interaction 09 just a month ago and the delay in writing this invited follow up to my talk is more to do with life events and well needing time to reflect than anything else. The depth of the conversations I’ve had during Interaction 09 and since definitely required more time than a quick follow up would allow.

Where’s the “clay”?

As a reminder to what this is all about use the following references:


At Interaction 09, the conversation about my piece often consisted of the question, “What is the clay that interaction designers mold?” I juxtaposed this question next to industrial design and also visual design. Their clay is very well understood and in the case of industrial design codified beautifully in the education practice developed by Rowena Reed Kostellow at the Pratt Institute. For details you can read “Elements of Design” by Grace Hannah. I recommend that any interaction designer who is truly interested in the design side of interaction design (as opposed to the science side) take a look at this book as guidance on understanding design education, design thinking (not the IDEO type), and the goals of design beyond mere utility.

But back to our question … What is the clay that interaction designers mold? I put forth for now three elements of our clay: Time, Abstraction (or physicality) and Metaphor. The three work in tandem building off of each other like color, value, volume and texture do for 3D form.

An assumption that I make that others may not is that interaction design is ostensibly formless. That the conversation and engagement that takes place within an interaction can have a fluid or formless embodiment. Wherever there are embodiments while influenced by the interaction design they exist within the realm of other design disciplines. Thus, the success of any design is in how the partnership of behavior and form come together. The goal of the form-giver is to clarify and communicate the behavior (what is possible & system feedback) along with other non-behavioral needs of the system.

I’m not being rigid for lack of flexibility. Rather, by holding out there a rigid absolute truth I hope to create a crucible that allow us to test the limits and definitions of IxD. In this way I hope to create the conditions where a true foundations and a better education system can develop. My goal is to create a true design discipline with as much foundational grounding as our partners in form design (architecture, graphic design & industrial design).

“There is no [clay]” — Neo

Ok, so there is nothing new there since February. So what’s new?

There was one person whom I felt challenged my foundations in a way that made huge sense to me. Robert Fabricant, an executive creative director at frog design, told me point blank, “Maybe, interaction design doesn’t have clay.” I’m still holding onto my class as I move forward with my own teaching, but also trying to understand what a “clayless” design discipline might be.

Design in my mind is about making. But if there is no clay, it seems to me that you are only left with thinking and that doesn’t feel like design to me. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but I don’t like it, so I’m going to move on from it until someone proves otherwise. Keep trying, Robert.

Robert did say more. He talked about how interaction design is about mapping for example which fits the conversation fundamental that Uday talks about in his recent piece. In this case I am assuming that mapping is about mental models to task flows. But again, for some reason this just doesn’t fit for me the thoughts of what a foundation is and what it means to be a designer. Further in my conversations with Robert (a veteran educator of Interaction Design) he discussed exercises he would give his students about using context and choreography that definitely feel MORE like what I’m thinking of in terms of interaction design and go way beyond mapping towards exploring frames. These frames are constructed in both time and physicality in order to evoke different behaviors.

But I do agree that in terms of process we create maps of mental models (implicitly or explicitly) and use them to create guide the framing (creation of system language) that expresses the components of my foundations.

Why no context?

To move on from Robert, another constant theme I hear when I present these ideas is “context”. “Where is context?” I always address this one quite simply by saying that context is not what you design, but what you design for. You don’t design personas, but doesn’t FOR the personas (if you use that tool). I don’t want to come across as dismissing the importance of context though. It is in the constraint of “context of use” that interaction designers work best. Our tools for research and framing are about defining context, bringing understanding to it, and dissecting it. So while we do a lot of work with context, it is not the final clay of our behavior, but rather, is the kiln. We have to build a custom kiln every time we have a new project to work on and that kiln exists of context and many other parts that come together to define the canvas or collection of constraints we design against and within.

I must say that I’m quite convinced that Time, Abstraction and Metaphor are still core elements of foundation in thinking about deconstructing interaction designs separate from the embodiments they are contained within. Through this, we can begin to create a language system of design criticism. It is also a basis for us to think about how to educate thinking of interaction design outside of the usual HCI oriented semantics that drive data driven designs.

Well, where are you with all this?

David Malouf

Professor of Interaction Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design

6 comments on this article

  1. Bruce Esrig on

    To get started thinking about “abstraction”, it might help to add a word … “input abstraction” is more concrete, although not comprehensive enough. Perhaps “behavior abstraction”. It’s hard to understand how to design an abstraction because designing an abstraction runs in one direction (how to make things happen), while using it runs in the opposite direction (behaviors make things happen).

    Incorporating an abstraction into a design means having a systematic means of associating a gesture or behavior with an interpretation that will be made in the interaction. A metaphor is then a layer on top of the abstraction that makes it easier to experiment with the behavior and then understand and adopt the interpretation.

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  3. Sounds like a thesis topic to me…

  4. I was approached to turn this into a book, but the publisher disappeared on me in mid negotiation. But I’d love the excuse to go deeper into this given the right opportunity and compensation. ;-)

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