Interaction 11 report: day 2

Interaction Conference

Founded in 2008, the Interaction Design Association Conference brings together practitioners interested in all things around interaction design. Interaction 12 took place in Dublin, Ireland on 1–4 2012. Interactions 13 is set to take place in February 2013 in Toronto.

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Interactions '11 Day 2After a day of talks and a night (or even two, depending on when you got in) of parties, day 2 of Interactions 11 eased up the pace a bit. After a morning of presentations, attendees were let loose in Boulder with afternoon activities ranging from designing with junk to tea tasting.

This daily report wouldn’t have been possible without the writing skills (and energy) of Pieter Jongerius, Anna Offermans, and Patrick Sanwikarja .

Opening Keynote — Richard Buchanan

Richard Buchanan stripped it back — no slides, no holds barred, even a riff on clothes and not wearing them (more on that later) — in a pointed talk on interaction design that deftly interweaved his ideas with those from earlier talks .

First up, he addressed a recurring theme of being concerned about design not having a subject. According to him, this is a good thing. “Design has no subject matter – that’s what make this a powerful discipline. We MAKE our subject matter.” There had also been talk of the definition of interaction design, and in this light he gave his:

Interaction is how people relate to other people through the mediating influence of products — with products being either physical or digital.

Starting with “the triangle of doom” of product attributes (Lisa Strauss’s “useful, usable, desirable”, or what he calls “Logos, ethos, pathos”), he reminded us that if we can’t identify with  a product, it’ll not come into our lives, and therefore as a designer we need to balance all these attributes (e.g. it’s more important for a fireman’s suit to be usable, but for a ball gown to be desirable).

Buchanan’s core tenet is that there are four orders of design.

  1. Mass communication
  2. Mass industrialisation
  3. Actions (the realm of interaction — or inter-action — design)
  4. Environments (participation, the natural counterpart of actions)

Mass communication and industrialisation (the 1st and 2nd order of design) are natural counterparts, and have been around for nearly a century. However, the 3rd order of design is action (e.g. a chair as a site of activity). To understand action is to take into account greater needs such as content strategy and business goals (the Mayo Clinic is a great example).

But this isn’t enough. We need to consider action’s natural counterpart and the 4th order of design: environments (such fellow speaker Erik Hershman’s Ushahidi project).

So, what type of designer do you want to be: thing-thing, person-person, person-environment, participatory designer?

Taking up on the previous day’s discussion on material and principles, Buchanan suggests that “the material of interaction design is the purposes and values of people we serve, which come to us as clay.” Furthermore, “the principle behind interaction design — no, all design — is human dignity”. We should aim for justice.

If one action came out of Buchanan’s talk, it was to know your history: Erving Goffman and his ‘inception-development-fulfilment’ cycle; John Dewey’s principles of inauguration, interaction, leave-taking, everything about George Nelson (his most brutal comment of the audience “You don’t know much about the history of design or philosophy, do you?”). He pointed out that design industry is usually 25-30 years behind academia (e.g. Dewey’s work was conducted in the 1930s but only taken up by the New Bauhaus in the 1960s). While his references may have been nothing new to his former CMU students, to those not familiar with their works (apparently the majority of the audience) it was a valuable lesson. As someone tweeted: Vintage UX Bookclub, anyone?

Macro vs. Micro — Kalani Kordus & Karl Adam

Kalani and KarlKalani and Karl gave a duo presentation about the power of small teams. Before starting their current company Smudgeproof, both worked at Yahoo on the Messenger app for iPhone. Now, they design and develop mobile apps (including the Interaction 11 official conference app). In their talk, they compared designing and developing within a large organisation and as a small startup. At Yahoo, there were lots of people and many departments involved: Design, Engineering, Quality Assurance, Product managers, Marketing managers. Now at Smudgeproof, it’s just the two of them: a designer and a developer, doing everything from research to testing and marketing.

Traditional processes (many sequential design and development phases) don’t work. At the milestones, or ‘traffic lights’ as they called it, the team often has to go back to previous phases, because stakeholders can’t agree on signoffs. In other words: lots of red lights. It is much better to have ‘roundabouts’, so they can take an exit at any moment: they can jump from any part of the process to another, in any particular order. For example, from an idea to trying it out in code, or from applying research insights directly into marketing. Design and engineering are like yin and yang. One can’t do without the other, because if it never gets built, it’s just an idea.

So now, at Smudgeproof, they have a completely different, trimmed down process, which basically consists of getting all ideas and sketches on a whiteboard (never on paper) for all to see, making very little documentation, and creating full fidelity visual mockups, that are then build. How they work is based on three principles:

  • Wear more hats. They are able to stay small because each plays many roles. Not only interaction, but also visual design. Not only development but also testing.
  • Fewer formalities. No red lights. Get to know the people you’re working with and trust them.
  • Be like water. It can be very powerful and if something is in the way, water can go around it. Keep flowing.

The bottom line: two people can do the same as many large departments, or at least much faster. At Yahoo, a very simple bug would take days before it got fixed, due to many stakeholders and formalities. At Smudgeproof, it gets fixed in a minute, because it’s only one line of code. To me, this sounds a lot like Agile. This is easy to organize when you are your own company, but how can this approach be implemented in large organizations, such as Yahoo? Should product managers be eliminated altogether? Should design departments be cut in half? Unfortunately Kalani and Karl didn’t really touch on this.

Design for Evil: Ethical Design — Kaleem Khan

Kaleem KhanOne of the most sobering, yet relevant talks of the day was given by Kaleem Khan. During his lightning talk he addressed the importance of ethics in our field. According to Kaleem we as designers don’t think enough about the impact of design. He states that we should be conscious about the artefacts we design, the clients we work for and the way we design, because design isn’t something that just stands on its own, it affects everything, including the future. Basically, if we are aware that a client (or their products) hurt people in any way, we should think twice before doing work for them.

Kaleem took a very direct and holistic approach to ethics.  However, by showing only high impact examples  — the fifteen people that committed suicide at Foxconn (the Chinese company manufacturing the iPhone), how working for a gambling agency is bad —I believe he lost some of the power of the point he was trying to make. The real issue around ethics is that they are very personal and never black and white: where one person might  get angry and step away from a client, another may find reasons for staying involved. In order to really understand ethics and how we should deal with it we must start at a different level, one that Buchanan hit on the head: human dignity.

Introducing IA, ID and UX into New Media Pedagogy, Journalism and Content Publishing — Stephen Johnson

Stephen JohnsonThe publishing industry is changing. According to Steven Johnson, graduating journalists have to be able to write, edit, shoot, design, code, publish, edit, do social media, and in doing so, become a new online-savvy type of journalist. Steven teaches his students at CSU the principles of IA, ID and UX, so that they will have a better understanding of the new media and efficiently create content for those media.

He recommends the classic UX readings, tells about the tools we use and makes his students create wireframes of existing webpages, in order to get a great understanding of concepts and processes that most new media professionals now take for granted. The fact that he made his students create wireframes with lorem ipsum instead of using real content was questioned by some people in the audience. As content is becoming more and more important in UX design, it felt strange that a content creating company would not use content in its designs. Steven answered that in some cases it is important to be more abstract, in order not to distract the attention from the things which are important at that moment.

In an attempt to prove that the power of content sometimes pushes towards solutions that meet scepticism with interaction designers, Steven went on to show some nice examples of very long home pages of news sites: the Norwegian VG Nett had no less than a 12,500 pixel deep homepage; The Huffington Post, 10,000 pixels; The New York Times ‘only’ 3,700. Yet all of these sites are very successful and attract large crowds.
Back in 1999, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times used print fonts in the headers of their articles to try to keep fidelity with the printed version and the Los Angeles Times still tries to keep up with the traditional newspaper by only using rollover colors for links instead of blue underline text.

To conclude, Steven refers to the story of the blind men and an elephant where a group of blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. The interaction designer should be the one to see it is an elephant.

Human-Centered-Design and the Intersection of the Physical and Digital Worlds — Lindsay Moore & Austin Brown

Lindsay and AustinMoore and Austen illustrated how industrial design and interaction design need to come together and consolidate their respective practices so that they can be combined in the grey area of physical-digital products. Lindsay and Austin demonstrated this by suggesting a number of principles, and two very concrete design cases.

First, they argued that there are currently three major principles to User Centered Design (that industrial designers have been dealing with for a long time):

1.  Align with users’ mental models, for instance by using affordances. As once proposed by Don Norman: the compatibility of interface elements with the human properties, such as the size of hands and those of handles.
2. Provide appropriate feedback. All products should make clear what state it is in, so the user knows what are the possible interactions in that state.
3.  Eliminate the opportunity for error. Use constraints. For instance, because of a number of safety guards, a kid cannot accidentally start a car and drive away.

However, interaction designers similarly have more practice at working with behaviour and information, and thus can bring these principles to the table:

4.  Use adaptive displays: Learn & adapt the interface to user behavior
5.  Motivate users: with game and social mechanics
6.  Use information visualization: Let information spark understanding & delight

Powered with these six paradigms, they switched from “the design of everyday things”, to “the redesign of everyday things” (alluding to the work of Donald Norman, who fought for improved usability of our designs by using some of the above-mentioned principles).

Lindsay and Austin attempted this by suggesting two redesigns: a dish washer, and a home thermostat.
The dish washer case primarily focused on adaptive display and information visualisation, attempting to restore the user understanding of the underlying principles of the dish washer. This enabled him to make educated operating choices to accommodate specific needs such as saving time or energy.
The home thermostat case aimed at improving user friendliness by offering an easier and more advanced way of entering weekly schedules and overrides, conceptualized through a wifi-powered iPad.

Evidently, a lot of positive energy went into preparing this talk and the presented designs. Still the talk fell short in inspiring us to really go at it. Maybe this was in part due to the absence of great current examples from the industry (students tittered in the audience that the thermostat is an introductory assigned design project). Maybe the somewhat obvious design principles lacked an innovative edge. However, at the end of the day, the introduction of specialized interaction designers in the realm of what until now has been the exclusive field of industrial design engineers is something to applaud, as there’s much to be gained in combining the strengths of these great disciplines.

Out and About in Boulder

In the afternoon, conference attendees got the chance to try out one of a range of experiences — sound engineering, perfume making, hiking, even mixology. We’ll be putting in photos from the activities as they become available.

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.

Vicky Teinaki

An England-based Kiwi, Vicky is doing a PhD at Northumbria University into how designers can better talk about touch and products. When not researching or keeping Johnny Holland running, she does the odd bit of web development, pretends her TV licence money goes only to Steven Moffatt shows, and tweets prolifically about all of the above as @vickytnz.

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