Interaction 11 report: day 1 – inside-out design innovations and design meets branding

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After a morning of familiar discussions on classic IxD topics, the afternoon sessions broadened the discourse to include a new range of audiences and contexts from further afield. These fell into one of two tracks: design from the inside out, and design and branding.

Stream — Inside Out Design

Design for the Developing World (Susan Wyche), Growbot Garden (Carl diSalvo) and Tacky
Proud: Brazil’s Tecnobrega Audiences (Ana Domb)

Chloe Gottlieb (R/GA)

The four speakers explored the impact of design within environments where it works as a disruptive force for change; from a new innovation lab in Kenya to techno dancehalls in Brazil.

While all speakers touched on examples of crowd-sourced innovation, the environments they are working in have varying degrees of access to the technology, tools, and materials that most of the designers in the room probably take for granted.
Susan Wyche, Computing Innovation Fellow at Virginia Tech’s Center for HCI, used her research on white collar workers in Nairobi to remind us of the dangers of imposing existing design values on different cultures, . She encouraged moving beyond assumptions to ‘Intentional Interactions’ which do not assume ‘access, anywhere, and anytime’ is always possible or culturally appropriate.

do not assume ‘access, anywhere, and anytime’ is always possible or culturally appropriate. – Susan Wyche

Carl Disalvo showcased growBot Garden (also see our earlier Johnny article), a series of workshops that bring together designers, researchers, artists, farmers, and gardeners to collaboratively explore how robotics and sensors can be used to support small-scale agriculture. In the role of Assistant Professor of Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carl’s R+D team has five years of funding to explore this emerging space. He discussed the challenges of co-creating with non-designers and how important it is to use materials that are native to the environment, as in the case of constructing a pesticide-detecting robot with a farmer who did not want to use pesticides on his land. He also highlighted the nature of “cultural imaginings” — the unspoken values that we use to frame how things such as technology should look — and like Wyche, emphasised the need to research specific situations rather than use blanket assumptions.

In contrast to earlier talks in the day about usability driven-design, Erik Hersman set the stage for the necessity-driven innovation emerging in Africa. What happens when invention comes directly out of need? Rather than having five years to conduct research, the Ushahidi team of mostly-African programmers may have no more than a few hours to roll out an open-source platform for crowdsourcing information. Ushahidi is a web application originally created to map incidents of violence happening during the post-election crisis in Kenya, but has been adapted for crises in Haiti and Chile.  In many respects, the technology constraints have given African countries the opportunity to leapfrog developing countries, especially in the mobile sector. Africa is the fastest growing continent for mobile subscriptions and as seen in the cases below, for mobile innovation (with such companies as iYam, MXit, medicine quality app Pedigree and M-Pesa).

Finally, From the city of Belem, Brazil comes an example of social innovation in the form of Tecnobrega (translation: ‘cheesy techno’). Local DJ’s and musicians were willing to forgo copyrights in favor of an open-source system which allows fans to customize music and participate in its distribution and profit-sharing.  As opposed to business driving design, in this case, the business model responded to the community. Ana Domb’s MIT master’s thesis was an ethnographic exploration into the symbolic currencies and the value of audience participation in this Tecnobrega movement. It’s an interesting example of the creativity that emerges when design and technology are built from the bottom-up as opposed to designing from above.

Stream — Design and Branding

While the design for the Inside Out stream looked at different societies, the branding strand looked at the wider corporate reach of interaction design, from Flash to iPad apps.

Keynote Lisa Strausfeld

Pieter Jongerius (Fabrique)

Lisa StrausfeldLisa Strausfeld, partner in Pentagram’s New York office and long time “interactive information designer” presented a highly personal talk, showing much of her work from as early as mid-nineties until today. It gave an inspiring insight in the motivations and emotions of Lisa as a designer.

Some of the work she presented was truly inspiring in terms of simplicity and effectiveness, such as the virtual 18th century dining table  in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Other highlights included work for Time magazine, such as a visualization of terrorist activity, such as Open Source Spying.Lisa went on to present a number of Flash-designed sites that clearly dated back a while, ending with the recent and refreshing GE Power Consumption Data Visualization.

Lisa tried different ways of categorizing for the work she presented, such as the powerful acronym LATCH, which gathers 5 ways of organizing information: location, alphabetical, time, category, and hierarchy. Ironically, the clear and normalized structure of her data visualization work stood in stark contrast to her rather fuzzy selection of design properties and messages, as well as her hasty explanations of the underlying concepts to her work . Because of this, the audience might have just been left with a very strong portfolio presentation and the question: now what?

The Visual Interface is Now Your Brand – Nick Myers

Patrick Sanwikarja (Fabrique)

Nick MyersAmidst all the talks about interaction design there was a refreshing presentation that focused more on visual design of interfaces and its importance to brands. Because design has become more strategic, this will be a bigger challenge for us as designers.

Nick started by defining what a company’s brand is: it is the primary source of its competitive advantage and a valuable strategic advantage. This means that often heard characteristics such as ‘intuitive’ and ‘simple’ are not going to be enough anymore. Companies and designers can influence their brand, but in the end the customers define what a brand is. Considering that for many brands, most contact moments are now digital, Nick concludes that the visual interface is in fact the brand.

With software, it’s more difficult to apply branding, compared to with traditional media. This is because software is not fashion. The development of software can take a long time and the software itself should last long too, so software needs to feel timeless. Therefore, the identity of a brand is in the details. The visual identity cannot be judged on its own, but should always be explored in context.

To me, the most important learning of Nick’s presentation is that strong brands should have ‘signature interactions’: interactions that can differentiate and add delight. This means we should not use design patterns; they are not memorable. Nick showed a nice overview of examples of signature interactions that included Apple Cover Flow, Google Street View, XBox Kinect and the Playstation XrossMediaBar. The interaction doesn’t necessarily have to be very advanced or special. As long as the visual design is of high quality, the interface can be memorable and distinctive (such as with Playstation).

Nick ended with a quote from Apple’s Jonathan Ive: “Its easy to be different, but it’s difficult to be better”, which nicely illustrates the challenge for interaction and visual designers. Is it possible for all brands to develop their own special signature interaction? It would be nice, but I doubt it. And even if they could, I can imagine that with many different ways of interacting, this wouldn’t benefit overall usability. On the other hand, this can be an argument for not just focusing on the interaction itself, but just as much on the visual quality. Nick has made clear that visual interface designers need to be involved earlier and more often in the strategic phase, if a company wants to make a difference. The examples of signature interactions that Nick showed were by big, resourceful companies. Can they develop signature interactions because they’re big, or are they big because they have signature interactions?

Leaning Back With NPR: How We Created A Relaxing Experience For The iPad – Scott Stroud

Patrick Sanwikarja (Fabrique)

Scott Stroud from NPR (National Public Radio) talked about the challenge of designing and developing an iPad app in less than four weeks. When research showed that 5% of NPR customers were planning to buy the (then unreleased) iPad, the company made a (near) last minute decision to make an app.

The extreme pressure of  the time frame (as half of the four weeks was needed for development, the design phase was limited to two weeks) meant that he had to use counterpressure i.e. committing fast to core assumptions. Next was deciding the method. NPR had already been applying Agile methods, which works very well for ‘tactical design’. For conceptual design however, Agile does not work well. But Scott couldn’t afford to start from scratch, either. So they relied on Apple’s human interface guidelines for the iPad to design a good usable interface, such as: physicality/realism, stunning graphics, handle orientation changes, support gestures appropriately and restrain hierarchy.

Their first concepts were indeed usable, but mundane: it looked like a massive iPhone app. So other than not meeting the deadline, he uncovered a less obvious risk: being too conventional. They therefore decided to focus on a “leanback experience”: a relaxing iPad app, with enough “NPR-ness”. They had a nice way of expressing this: they wanted the app to be like Michelle Norris’s (a radio host for NPR) relaxing voice. He went on talking about more things that were critical in making the app, effectively and efficiently:

  • Don’t have secret handshakes: make sure it is obvious to the user how to use the interface.
  • Reuse what you have. Because of the limited time, they ported some (less important) functionality from their existing iPhone app.
  • Negotiate to deliver. The developer wanted to use the initial design, but showing that iPhone code could be reused helped.
  • Consider future cross-platform use (e.g. using cards)
  • Do user tests, despite the timeline. They managed to do quick user test (e.g. paper prototyping) and improve the final design from the insights.
  • Trust reactions from smart people. Videos for the NPR iPad app featuring users’ initial response showed how it has maintained the brand: serendipitous, deep, curious.

I admire Scott’s ability to not cave under the pressure. Instead of just getting a functional app on the iPad he stayed true to what the NPR is to its customers: a way of relaxation. To me, the end result still feels a bit conventional to me (I haven’t used it myself), but judging from the video testimonials, I’m sure it worked well for them.

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Top image from Growbot on Flickr

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.

Pieter Jongerius

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