About Challenges and Authentic Experiences: An Interview with Bill DeRouchey

By Jeroen van Geel

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Recently I did an interview with Bill DeRouchey about his view on the field of interaction design, the challenges we as designers face and about authentic experiences. Check out what he has to say in the interview. And if you like what he says, come with us and listen to him live at From Business to Buttons in Sweden (June 11-12).

Jeroen van Geel: For those who don’t know you yet. Could you shortly introduce yourself?

Bill DeRouchey: Hello there! I’m Bill DeRouchey and I live in Portland, Oregon, US. I’m currently directing the Interaction Design group at Ziba Design, where I get to help design the experiences for a wide variety of challenges, from handheld devices to appliances to medical products to websites to retail spaces. It’s an amazing variety. I am also on the board of directors of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) where we strive to connect, inspire and support interaction designers worldwide. On top of all that, I’m co-chairing Interaction 10 in Savannah Georgia next year, and when I can, research and blog about the history of the button.

Bill doing The Billy, a bad version of The Johnny

Bill doing The Billy, a bad version of The Johnny

JVG: There is a constant discussion about the definition of interaction design. What is yours? What does it touch? And what does it not touch?

BD: Oh boy, the definition question. A lot of definitions have been put out there about interaction design and I believe that’s healthy and even unavoidable. We’re a relatively new field in a rapidly changing technology environment, so everybody is trying to figure it out. But this point is important to me: Define to understand, not to divide. Defining should be an exercise to test your powers of understanding and brevity. But can we ever really define it? Like Andrew Hinton once said, how do you define “sports”? You know it when you see it, but how do you clearly describe borders around it?

We can all probably agree that interaction design is somewhere in the murky intersection of people and technology, or really any artifact or system, as long as that thing engages back in some way. Interaction is a two-way street, it’s a conversation. Yes, as Robert Fabricant spoke about at Interaction 09 Vancouver, interaction design is about designing behavior. But for me a key component of designing behavior, and the one key question that interaction design asks that other disciplines don’t explicitly ask, is “what do I do next?” It’s sequence and flow. So one of the elements of interaction design that fulfills “I know it when I see it” to me is addressing the flow in engaging a product/service/system. At minimum, smooth and effective. Ideally with elegance, enjoyment and beneficial.

JVG: Traditionally our discipline was part of digital media, but with the rise of mobility and ubicomp we are also moving outside of our box. Because of this we are coming in contact with other disciplines, like architects and industrial designers. How does this affect the role of an interaction designer?

BD: I view it as interaction design is the result of different mediums merging. When engaging in this necessary/futile exercise of defining and understanding, it’s crucial to view it in the context of time. In the mid 1990s, we had software and eventually the Web. Most of our digital experiences happened with a computer screen, keyboard and mouse. The boundaries were more or less contained, the challenges were a bit simpler. A “webmaster” did all the programming, the architecture, and the visual design. But now, with larger scale projects, no one person can do everything so skill sets have to specialize. The information architecture grew out of this specialization. Then as web technology grew, and interaction increasingly happened within a page instead of between pages, the lines blurred again. Who’s the person responsible for motion or behavior? Need to specialize some more…

Elsewhere, other people were designing for devices. Watches, microwaves, medical, industrial, etc. “Interaction design” fit here because “interaction” frankly feels like a word with a physical component. But now that the lines blur between devices, computers and systems, so do the job skills and tools necessary to create Things.

Now consider 10-15 years from now. Materials science has evolved so that surfaces can be dynamically shaped, can display information, and can accept input. Fabrics, flexible plastics, or other materials become input, output and form. Disposable physical interfaces. We’ll potentially have new specialties like Kinetic Design for specializing in the movement of objects, Shape Engineering for specializing in the programming of dynamic surfaces, or Gestural Design for specializing in human movement as system input. The possibilities of interacting with technology will increasingly become more complex, yet there will still need to be a role that stitches together human cognition and behavior with system architecture and behavior. Can this still be called interaction design? I don’t see why not.

JVG: The number of tangible devices that have a digital interface is growing. Here product and interaction designers meet. What is the challenge we face here and how should we deal with it?

BD: It’s true. The roles of product/industrial designer and interaction designer have come to overlap much more in recent years as physical products increasingly have digital interfaces. In my five years at Ziba, I’ve seen this in a bunch of projects. So how do we deal with it? Easy. Design it together in collaboration while recognizing each other’s specialties. The overlap of roles is clearly the physical interface. How many buttons? What do they do? How are they positioned? Both the product designer and interaction designer should have equal say in this discussion because the elegance and effectiveness will be found by working through it together over iterations. Once the basic configuration of the physical interface is agreed upon, each side can then focus on its specialty. The interaction designer is responsible for what happens onscreen and what the buttons do. The product designer is responsible for form and feel. Yet both sides should be free to give input to the other. The biggest challenge is simply getting them in the same room, or even the same building.

JVG: In June you will give a talk at From Business to Buttons in Malmo, Sweden. What will the talk be about?

BD: At Business to Buttons I will be talking about “Designing Humanity into Products.” It asks the question, how can companies better connect to its customers? The answer is simple: Speak like people, not like machines. It’s about the need to remove the corporate faces from the products and services we create and instead let personality shine through. More and more, people are craving authentic experiences from the world around them, and that means a simple human-to-human connection. In our “user experience” world, this means when people use a website, software, product, etc., people should somehow experience the people that created it. Connection. So I’ll highlight examples of companies that have successfully done this and provide a framework within which to understand it.

JVG: In product design designers have been looking at a company and their products as a whole for years… How come that digital designers are so much behind?

BD: First of all, product design as a discipline is decades older than digital design. That’s a big headstart. Simply, product designers make actual tangible things that you can hold. It’s a much more personal exercise than creating something that exists only onscreen. Digital designers also face the challenge of creating something whose borders are completely amorphous. Websites are never really complete. Data is pulled from somewhere else. People are contributing content. There is never a final “this is done” moment. But when products are manufactured and come off the assembly line, they’re done. It’s a well-defined thing. I believe it’s core in our human nature to ascribe more personality to a physical thing than software. We’ve been interacting with things for millions of years. Software, thirty years max for most of us.

JVG: What are your ideas on the role of culture and cultural changes on enabling this authentic experience?

BD: There’s a large cultural trend around transparency right now, for companies to reveal who they are, for people to reveal who they are. It’s all about removing the masks that separate ourselves from one another, and simply be ourselves. Transparency leads to authenticity. This has interesting implications for design because typically the artifact produced becomes its own entity, separate from its designers. But if we apply the transparency and authenticity filters here, users may want to see and connect with the designers themselves, and not just the artifacts.

JVG: Where do you personally really miss an authentic experience? Where would it really be an added value?

BD: Fascinating question. Banking is a really interesting example. I have strong memories of being a little kid and bringing my money to the corner bank to deposit as savings. You got to meet the people that were taking care of your money. Now, money is incredibly abstracted. I almost never enter banks due to ATMs, online banking, etc. Convenience and automation have replaced connection. The recent economic crash has shown us what can happen when money becomes too abstracted, when you lose connection where that “dollar’ is actually going. This can explain the success of microlending sites like Prosper or Kiva, where people can lend their money to actual people and see the results of their help. As another example, a few years ago, Ziba partnered with Umpqua Bank, a bank local to the west coast of the US. Ziba proposed the concept of slow banking, where your goal is to not rush in and rush out, but to instead slow down, connect with your neighbor bank, maybe do some other errands while you’re there. It’s been a great success.

JVG: Do you have any simple advice for UX designers in improving the authenticity? What can WE do?

BD: The best advice I can offer here is to focus on the writing. I think authenticity shines mostly through voice. Do the words sound like an actual person wrote them? Or do they sound stale and corporate? The problem that most companies have is their writing sounds too formal, even formulaic. The fear from sounding unbusinesslike has created a culture where companies are afraid to say anything real or with personality, resulting in a formal tone, yet formality is designed to create barriers or distance between people. It’s a power game. On the flipside, informality is where connections truly occur. When you let down your guard with someone, that’s when the authentic you shows up. That’s when you connect. So write as if you’re talking to someone, not writing to them. And as you’re writing, actually say the words out loud. This is the simplest method of all to spot the clunky constructions and weed out the odd phrases. It boils down to “Write as you speak, and speak as you write.”

JVG: Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. We’re looking forward to your talk at From Business to Buttons in June.

BD: Thank you Jeroen. I look forward to seeing everybody there!

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.

2 comments on this article

  1. Great commentary! Go Bill!

    - Steve

  2. Pingback: Brad’s Ramblings » Links for 5/11 - 5/22