From whole to hole: a recipe for a holistic design process

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Great interaction design is a delicious soup. You boil a variety of different ingredients and spices in the right proportion,  and voila – pure bliss! Unlike other branches of design, however,  it’s extremely hard to write a recipe for interaction design. By its very nature, the interaction design process needs to be fluid and dynamic.

Interaction design tingles the complete experience over time. It tastes most satisfying in conditions when multifaceted flavors and ingredients are brought together. The bigger the challenges are —the more diverse and mixed the ingredients need to be. This beautiful paradox sits at the heart of the interaction design menu, very differently from other design cuisines.

During my time as a Master’s degree student in Interaction Design at Umeå (Sweden), I often found our group repeatedly doing the following:

  • Obsessing with finding the ‘perfect’ solution to a problem.
  • Frequently questioning the value of having mixed, diverse groups of professionals studying Interaction Design together. Were frustrating debates stemming from disparate backgrounds and differences of opinion really the most efficient way to designing interactions?

I haven’t found ’the perfect solution’ yet, but I do believe the process is a lot more interesting. Having experienced the inherent value of a multifaceted approach professionally, I believe that mastery in the interaction design process lies in perfecting those moments when the room is packed with people who won’t share your views and probably don’t have your skills.

Mastering the science of ‘We, not I’.

The quest for perfection and the myth of genius are timeless aspirations that meet with sporadic and rare success. Genius chefs (like genius designers) never seem to be able to cook the same dish twice.  Some modern authors, such as Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success, debunk the notion of genius altogether. According to Gladwell, even geniuses like Mozart, The Beatles and Bill Gates had more than 10,000 hours of practice at doing what they did—iteratively—constantly improving their craft while focused on process. I believe that a mastery of interaction design process does not rest in divine inspiration and confined sketching (read: genius!). The key probably rests in learning to churn together – a pool of motley professions, backgrounds, skills and interests. Interaction design is a team-sport at its most intense, meaningful climax, and we need to change the way we train for this sport. We need to rearrange our kitchen in order to cook this soup – and we need to do it often, depending on what we’re cooking.

The big hurdle – we’re conditioned to think and act as individuals, not as groups. Could this be the un-learning needed in order to be able to synthesize truly well-rounded experiences?

As a former architect, the process of design was inevitably intensely personal. My colleagues in architecture were all inspired by the singular genius of Corbusier, van der Rohe and Gehry. Moments of solitary and inspired sketching were thought to be the catalysts for the ‘eureka’ moment. Graphic and product design Masters of that era worked in much the same way. Processes in interaction design, on the other hand, seemed to work in quite stark opposites. After migrating to interaction design, students from very different backgrounds were thrown amidst multifaceted peer groups—something many struggled to cope with. A group of motley backgrounds, each with their own stubborn opinions, conflicting ideas, dissimilar skills oft resulted in frustrated groups and heated differences of opinion during projects. Many were left questioning the value and efficiency of such a process. Product and transportation design classmates seldom faced this problem. They were still relatively blissful in the peaceful confines of their work-spaces, diligently pursuing that perfect sketch.

Wouldn’t too many cooks in the interaction design kitchen spoil the broth?

Craters and pinholes in the design of experiences

Our worlds of experience are riddled with commonplace examples of things that we buy and use, only to discover how miserably they perform and disappoint. Products alone seldom bring us delight by existing in isolation—we want them to link well with all other touch-points that a service/experience provide - offer us the complete experience! This is especially true of experiences that marry the behavior of people with physical and digital worlds a.k.a interaction design. In recent times, even architects and urban planners have acknowledged a need to collaborate with policy makers and service providers to create harmonious experiences at architectural, interior and urban scales.

While designing interactive experiences for tomorrow, we are all keen to create usable and desirable experiences that cause viral social innovation. Once perfect solutions are understood as mere aspiration, our goals as designers become the discovery and reiteration of newer methods that reduce ‘craters into pinholes’. I use ‘craters and pinholes’ as metaphors for the relative measure of how well knit the fabric of a designed experience can or should be. My hunch is that craters get reduced to pinholes when you’re working closely and constantly within diverse, multi-faceted teams. By encouraging creative friction – rather than avoiding it, focus is made to shift alternately between the bigger picture and the smallest details.

The interaction design community today is entrusted with creating seamless experiences that focus not just on a product or user interface, but the entire system and its surroundings. This need for holistic experience is rapidly shifting the way teams are being built. A closer look at the diverse compositions of teams at the Nokias, Microsofts and even smaller global design teams across the world and  would confirm this shift in paradigm. No one product, digital experience or pretty user-interface seems to satisfy. We seem to need and delight in experiences that are complete, well-rounded.

A holistic approach to the design of experiences

A holistic approach to design is definitely not alien to us. It involves a simultaneous attention to the bigger picture and the smallest details. Any successful user experience we use today would invariably embrace this practice. Throughout history, master-builders were often architects, painters and craftsmen alike. Post 1950’s, architects and designers like Charles Eames, Mies van der Rohe and Alvar Alto designed cities and chairs with the same design philosophy infused in both. Now more than ever in increasingly complex, transient times, the need for holistic experiences is vital.

Interaction designers sculpt time and data as critical materials (to quote Matt Jones), revolving primarily around understanding the needs of users/cohabitants, technology and business. To approach such design as a ‘whole’ – we need to understand the varying concepts of time and data through the perspectives of cohabitants, technology and business interests alike. We need to become sensitive to the different tastes involved, by bringing the right ‘spices’ closer into our kitchen. A holistic solution begins when we acknowledge that all parts of the triangle have something equally valuable to add to the process. We must constantly re-think our process to become melting pots of ideas, perspectives and skills that not only drill deep, but also wide.

We must constantly re-think our process to become melting pots of ideas, perspectives and skills that not only drill deep, but also wide.

Perfecting the craft of thinking and doing as a whole.

The team I now work with (at Ergonomidesign) has solved problems through design for over 40 years in a vast number of areas. Having solved design problems of various shapes, sizes and complexity, recent clients have frequently entrusted us with transcending realms of problem solving and instead design ‘cultural innovation’. “Think about the bigger picture” is a common task that comes our way. We are increasingly thinking about systems, experiences and objects that might co-habit our World tomorrow.

As the profession of interaction has grown and evolved, so too have our own methods. Our recent projects involved the design of holistic experiences mostly focused around medical systems. However, the lessons learnt from them have been beneficial to us in all our projects. For the projects being discussed our process relied heavily on the Agile method, which necessitates iteration and constant ’design by doing’. We often found ourselves playing a game of calculated ‘musical chairs’ when it came to design discussions. Our team comprised design—strategists, product and interaction designers, cognitive scientists, communications, medical experts, programmers and a host of other professionals—an approach that proved highly fruitful in ensuring the craters were reduced to pinholes.

Here are some experiences that I’d like to share:

  • Remove hierarchy, acknowledge specialization – Building multi-faceted, diverse teams bringing different skills and perspective to a project, inevitably led to more comprehensive, well-rounded solutions. This is especially valid when working on service-design or complex systems. While working on design of ‘the bigger picture’ for our medical portfolio, our team ensured that we had enough representation from cohabitants (users), designers, medical experts, technical experts etc. The constant participation of these interest groups was maintained throughout the design process—for creative input and feedback. This caused several disagreements and debates – but the outcome would always nudge us closer to the goal of holistic design. This way we methodically reduced metaphorical gaps and craters.
  • Zoom in and out between the bigger picture and the smallest details- Visualize, visualize, visualize! Don’t just talk about an idea—build, test and iterate them! Once we had a motley group of professionals working together, we combined our knowledge and skill to iterate and evolve our concepts. While developing a recent natural user interface (NUI), ideation began with 1:1 scale paper prototypes on A1 sketching blocks. We used transparent papers for UI-components. Once things made sense to everyone, our UX and programming team coded blocks out so that we could test it for real. Tests were shown to specialists within the team for feedback. Our final solution was a hi-fidelity prototype meant for commercial use as well as detailed, well-rounded scenario that showed our clients the bigger picture they so desperately craved. Working with the Agile method made iteration inevitable even when the end goal was not clear (something which is common during the design process, right?) The method also ensured that we were constantly made to zoom into details of a system’s behavior.
  • Alternate between individual and collective ideation sessions; create transparent channels for cross-referencing and feedback - During the project, plan enough short sessions of iteration, constantly bringing in other eyes to review and discuss parts of the idea. As a interaction designer, it is almost futile and counter-productive to spend days alone and finally showing it to someone (we tend to do this as designers sometimes).
  • Bring in the perspective of inclusive design thinking (critical users) to reduce massive craters – True to our roots as Scandinavian design group, we swear by a participatory, inclusive design approach. Design groups must plan meticulously to include the creative and critical involvement of user groups throughout the process. Even though the term user research and user-tests are now commonplace, it takes great skill for interaction designers to know how and when to collaborate with users. It takes even more insight for a design manager to facilitate their ideas and feedback into the design process.

Open-source culture (among other socio-technical developments) has given the World a successful honest, democratic model where the role of the individual is invariably participatory. Accountability and transparency are the foundations in open-source systems. It is inevitable that while designing for such a World, the essence of open-source is imbibed in the design process. The multifaceted, holistic roller-coaster ride to Interaction Design is definitely an intense challenge, often catching the most experienced professionals off-guard. It requires great planning, understanding and flexibility. Like collaborative efforts in theatre and the performance arts, it involves a close feeling of synergy with those involved. It requires the individual to shed ego and become flexible role-players in diverse, dynamic groups.

In conclusion, while the perfect outcome and solution must always be an aspiration—it is a mastery of this holistic approach to interaction design that helps create the well-woven fabric of an experience. Despite initial frustration, the process inevitably enriches everyone and leads to a superior design and a more enjoyable design process.

Rahul Sen

When not immersed in comics or pondering future Worlds, Rahul is an Senior Interaction Designer at R/GA in New York City. His cross-disciplinary work involves the design of compelling user experiences for a variety of projects. He has worked for the past ten years in theatre, architecture and interaction design. Having worked and wandered in Sweden, India, USA, France and Germany, he's still eager to learn more! Rahul is tweeting @rahulsen79.

10 comments on this article

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  7. Geetika on

    Rahul! Fantastic article. Very well written.

  8. I totally agree with your views that Interaction design does tingle the complete experience over time.

    Although over time, we do tend to have a lot of experiences.

  9. I like your idea the the holistic approach to design is not alien to us. Many a time I have found you have to pay close attention to the little details, in order to bring out the biger picture.

  10. Pingback: From whole to hole: a recipe for a holistic design process | Interactive Design