The first day of Interaction 10, hosted by SCAD in the wonderful city of Savannah, Georgia, kicked off without a hitch. Though eventually everyone was plagued by spotty, windy rain storms, the general pulse of the conference was positive and uplifting. Attendees were still talking about some of the great workshops from the day before, and they carried that energy over into today’s sessions. If one thing had to describe the overall theme of the first day it would be the importance of providing meaning in the work that we do. Below are recaps of the opening and closing keynotes, as well as some of the sessions from the day.
Nathan Shedroff – Morning Keynote
The opening keynote came with a message of why it’s important for us as designers to innovate. Drawing from his books Making Meaning and Design is the Problem, Nathan Shedroff approached the topic from the businesses point of view and provided insight on how our skills can help them. The goal of any business is to grow, but the only type of growth that leads to continued success is organic growth. Sure, you can rebrand easy few years, but after a while people catch on to what you’re doing. The key to ensuring lasting, organic growth is providing meaning to the people that use the products or services companies provide. Innovation is the means to providing this meaning.
Meaning comes in the shape and form of the experiences we are exposed to. Luckily for us, there are a finite number of core values that describe meaning, which Nathan describes as the following:
What makes something meaningful to one person over another is how people prioritize these core values. In order to understand how a particular group of people rank these values, it’s necessary to do a lot of qualitative research. By understanding this ranking, we are able to trigger meaning in the things we design and bring meaning to the work that we do.
The keynote wrapped up with Nathan describing how strategic design is looking for the overlap of meaning between a company, team, and customer base. If there is little to no overlap, than something is off: the wrong customers are being served or the wrong team is trying to do the job. All of these lead to the statement of “Consumerism isn’t dead, but it should be. It hasn’t served us well. But, we don’t know what to replace it with yet.” Interaction designers are poised to be the ones that come up with this new solution, as we have the models and research methods that serve us well.
Consumerism isn’t dead, but it should be. It hasn’t served us well. But, we don’t know what to replace it with yet. – Nathan Shedroff
Dave Gray – Knowledge Games
Any presentation that starts off with a detailed history of the AK-47 is sure to be challenging. Dave’s overview of Knowledge Games and their role in the design didn’t disappoint. The design philosophy that drove the creation of the AK-47 is the same one he is using to develop his framework around knowledge games: keep it simple, make it rugged, ensure that it is reliable, and that it is lightweight. His goal with creating knowledge games is to provide the tools that anyone can use to design better things, regardless of whether that person is a designer or not.
Don’t over think things. – Dave Gray
How do knowledge games help in the world of design? It gives us a framework for getting from point A to point B. It allows us to open up a problem, explore the problem space, and come to a closing point where we have a defined outcome. Here are some key points that we took away from this session:
- Never open something you can’t close;
- Ask questions that get people fired up, that gets them talking and brainstorming some ideas;
- Create a meaningful space in order to do work in. A space that inspires us to create, think, and collaborate;
- Sketch, everyone can draw. If you can draw basic shapes, you can draw just about anything;
- Choose what you will finally create well. Be critical and kill a lot of babies. (This came up a lot for some reason over the course of the presentation.)
Dave ended with perhaps the best message possible. “Don’t overthink things.” This is something that plagues us all sometimes, and it’s good advice to follow no matter what you happen to be doing.
Nate Bolt – Remote User Research
The popularity of performing remote user research is growing. Nate did a great job giving an overview of the value remote user research brings to the design process and highlighted some of the best tools that are available today. He is passionate about this subject, which is best highlighted by a book he is co-authoring and being published by Rosenfeld Media.
He started off by clarifying that the research user experience really cares about revolves around the behavior of people. While the majority of all user research being done today is still in-person, remote research is gaining popularity. This is firstly because it’s easier to get someone to show up to a remote web meeting than it is to an unfamiliar office or conference room. Another advantage is that it’s easier to pause a study to iterate a design if the research is being done remotely.
If you can put it on the web, it can be studied and tested. – Nate Bolt
One of the most valued aspects of performing remote user research is mashing it up with traditional methods. Since the cost of some of these tools are so low, it’s easy to do a good mix of qualitative and quantitative research. All of the tools he covered are showcased here at RemoteUsability.com
Matt Cottam – Wooden Logic: In Search of Heirloom Electronics
Matt Cottam’s talk explored how natural materials and craft traditions can be brought to the center of interactive digital design to give modern products greater longevity and meaning. This was a very inspiring talk on how to work with electronics prototyping combined with classic wood carpenter craftsmanship.
The initial reason why Matt founded his company, Tellart, was the current disconnect we as designers have from the technology we design for. Matt compared the crafts industry in the mid to early 20th century when design was often closely related also to the technical side of the craft like the loom industry where textile designers and the loom technicians were educated in the same school. This closeness created a good setting for creating these products with longevity and meaning. Compared to today, there is a gap between interaction designers, programmers and electronics designers. What Matt is trying to do through his work is to close that gap, or at least make it smaller.
Part of his work has also been about experimenting with the patina process of objects and how to actually control it. As an example he showed models of toy boats that were put in a bag with ground coffee and then put in a river for several months, which was a very successful way of faking patina. Several of the student projects revolved around the challenge of doing user interface prototyping without computers, often with a very limited time and space, putting lots of emphasis on the presentation of the results.
Drawing examples from numerous student projects Matt has done over the last year with students at CIID, UID and his team he showed very interesting results on how to combine traditional material with modern electronics such as sensors and switches to create new unexpected combinations.
Tellart has created a client server application for iPhone that makes it extremely quick to do simple iPhone apps that communicate with hardware in literally a couple of days. The application is open source and you can read more about it at the Google code site.
All in all, the presentation showed very promising examples, if maybe not the final answers of what he wanted to achieve. You get the feeling that Matt is on to something that could potentially be big in the coming years, certainly in connection to the conference’s overall theme on creating meaning to the things we design.
Activity: Design Jam
The leaders of the Portland IxDA group gave a large group of people a run down on a common activity they perform at their meet ups. Jeanne Turner and Barbara Holmes created the activity of Design Jams in order avoid designers from getting burned out and over worked. The technique is borrowed from jam sessions that musicians do in order to avoid the very same things. During the jam session it isn’t about making something real, but rather about play and having fun. During the design jams, designer discuss, sketch, explore, and listen to each others ideas about how to solve a defined problem. By doing so, they learn new methods for solving the same problem and more importantly learn from each other.
The Design Jam has some simple rules that people must follow.
- Solve real, concrete design problems
- No limits to what can be discussed or designed
- No stakeholders allowed. Everyone is a designer
- Random groups each time
- At the end everyone has to present their designs and what the contributed to the solution
With this the actual design jam started with the crowd being given one of two problems to solve: redesign luggage carrier to avoid clothes getting wrinkled while travelling, or a means to transport cupcakes without damaging the cupcakes. My group choose the cupcakes problem. After much discussion and exploration some of the top solutions came out to be using hard sugar in the icing, create scalable containers, use an edible container, generate magnetic cupcakes, and use tooth picks with gummies stuck to the top to provide additional support. The great thing about this activity was that it was simple, very interactive, and something that any group would be able to easily host for one of their meet ups.
Kendra Shimmell – Environments: The Future of Interaction Design
I was told this talk was actually a bit of a wild card in the program and I can attest to that it as it was very inspiring and entertaining to see. To quote Kendra herself from the day before: “Sometimes you joke about how during a work meeting you should stand up and do improv dancing, and here I am going up on stage doing just that at an interaction design conference”.
We all need, and try, to do other things than our normal work to get perspective on things. Kendra being a trained dancer since the age of four wanted to give us a glimpse into her world of how she uses dance as an alternate way of approaching her design challenges. Kendra started up with talking about the similarities in choreography and interaction design, and how they are connected in staging activities over time in order to convey meaning. Of course in dance there are a whole lot more choreography.
For the second half of the talk, Kendra had in collaboration with Robert Wechsler from palindrome set up a motion tracking system that was hooked up to an application that that detects movements in three dimensional space. By connecting defined volumes in this space to virtual triggers and scales, loops of sounds, talk, and noise Kendra created new music completely based on the movements from her improv dance. The whole experience is very hard to reproduce in text. All talks were recorded and will be put on the IxDA website with in the coming weeks and if you decide to watch any of them this is definitely one of the ones you should not miss.
Nicolas Nova – Observing Failures to Provoking Them
Failure is cool. Not only was this the statement on the opening slide, but it sums up the overall session as well. Using personal experiences, Nicolas showed a packed house how vital failure is in the art of design and how much we can learn from it when we try to make it happen. The main focus of the presentation was on the failure of products, specifically automated products such as doors and light switches. What makes these products so interesting is how easy it is to observe the failures in action, showcased by a sensor used on Swedish trains for automatically opening the doors between cars.
Some of the more interesting behaviors he has witnessed involved talking to motion based sensors, and stomping on the ground when the sensors where located near the floor. These behaviors arise due to the invisible nature around automatic products, and a person’s inability to discern how they work. The failures themselves are unique since in the past they may not have ever existed, and thanks to advancements in technology we are able to view them for the first time. There are some common reasons why automatic devices fail though:
- Distinguishing the automatic from the non-automatic
- Invisible or illegible “locus of control”
- Too quick or too slow to activate
- Weather dependent calibration
- Different ‘door’ conventions (e.g. swing vs retracting doors)
A common problem that arises when these automatic devices fail is “Individual-Blame Bias.” People start to get blamed or end up blaming themselves for the failure of technology. After a while, people get fed up and will lash out in frustration at these devices. A great example he used was a robot that helps in the care of people in a hospital. This poor robot would get kicked by patients when it came around to do its duties, for simply coming in at the wrong time.
The session wrapped up by exploring a technique called the “Anti-Probe”, which is meant to provoke a failure. One of the cases he went over where he had used this technique was with regards to the use of the Wii remote. His team modified the remote calibration to make small movements to generate huge reactions while playing a game. Surprisingly, the participants actually really enjoyed this behavior since it took a little effort in order to cause such a huge reaction. These provoked failure lead to the insight of how important it is to see how people react, what new solutions they create, and how annoyed they might get when something does go wrong. This allows the team to use failure as a design tactic and to use failure as an inspiration rather than a hindrance.
Jon Kolko – Closing Keynote
Jon Kolko started by offering four pillars which our profession resides upon: experience, behavior, meaning, and culture.
According to Jon, the word ‘experience’ is special and should be used with reserve. This is because we all have one, and no matter what that experience is unique to each person involved in the experience. Factors that help shape the experience are the complexity of ourselves that we bring to it, design artefacts, natural events, and the other people surrounding the experience. This is why though designers may be given the same input and use the same process, the end solutions will be drastically different. Therefore, the key to getting people involved in experiences is through engagement: this, rather than repeatability, is key to good experiences. It’s up to designers to be less prescriptive, focus on the space between, and strive for real engagement.
An echo from his article Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience, Jon again proposed why designers have the power to change culture, and that we have the ability to affect massive and acute change in society. To showcase this point, he talked about a project one of his students did where she went in search for the answer to the question “What’s the deal with deal with kids, beer, and sex?” After collecting some amazing quotes from college students, her solution to this problem was presented. In order to raise awareness of the dangers of unprotected sex, she attached condoms and important information to bottles of beer. The result was an increase in college students practising safe sex. She was able to accomplish this by empathizing with the people she was studying, and designing something that was aligned to how they actually behave.
The final point of his keynote revolved around the quote “Good design is a privilege rather than a right in today’s world.” He states that in some cases, it’s not money that is preventing people from using new technology but perceived complexity. To illustrate this point, he told the story of teachers who refused to use PC’s in their classroom due to the poor performance. The solution to this poor performance was regular maintenance of re-imaging the machines, something a standard school teach just doesn’t have the time to do. His team at frog design helped with this problem helping HP provide a machine that would re-image itself at the end of each computer session. Teachers were then able to use all the advanced tools available to them without having to deal with all the overhead of maintaining the computers. This lead to his closing message of “Designing for real cultural change starts by understanding how people currently behave”.
Designing for real cultural change starts by understanding how people currently behave. – Jon Kolko
The first day of the conference ended on a high note, poor weather notwithstanding. Day 2 has some big shoes to fill based on the sessions of today, but the promise of the session for tomorrow lead us to believe that tomorrow will be just as informative and inspiring as today was.
All images by Brad Nunnally and Niklas Wolkert