Interaction 12: Day Three

There was magic in the air on the final day of Interactions 12. No, not just because of the promise of a party at the Guinness Storehouse: a number of speakers drew the connections between magic and design, whether it be electric faeries, having childhood dreams of being a magician, or actually being one in a past professional life.

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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Hack to the Future:
Fabian Hemmert

The charming Fabian Hemmert  (not only a TEDxter, but a Johnny as well) wanted to be either a magician or an explorer when he was a kid. If he’d known what a designer was back then, he might have chosen that, as he believes that the discipline brings the two together.

“we make the impossible a reality & we explore the future”

After an enviable job history working at Nintento and Marvel, he moved to Deutsche Telecom “it was just as fun, because it’s the real world” and then began the PhD studies on embodiment. He’s investigating the topic with ‘research through design’ which he calls a very designer-friendly research approach.

Topics he’s interested in include:

  • How do we embody physical aspects into the digital on phones? Results for this include using vibration, shape changing, weight change. It might even have personality.
  • How can we make telecommunications more emotional? Letting callers feel the hand or breath of the callee digitally is on the border of what people can take, sensing moisture (using sponges and material) well and truly invasive.
  • How can we take interaction design to the streets? The Streetlab project spent four weeks with teenagers investigating the future of mobile. The results included that status is importance (expected), privacy (unexpected: when you share a room with your brothers, it’s the only thing that’s yours), showing off (conflict, also about creativity.)
  • How can we make mobile phone calls more polite? Tactful Calling allows calls to be filtered by importance—though Hammert acknowledged that what a caller considers important might be very different from a callee.

Hammert finished by urging the crowd ”to hack for the future … establish design as knowledge producing discipline.”  As a child who adored Peter Pan, he insists that designers, just like that boy “must never grow up”.

Ethnographic animation: using 3D animation as a UX tool for business and education
Kate Ertmann

Kate Ertmann’s sparky stage presence was explained in her introduction, where she described her parents’ work in American network television that led to her own initial career as a child actor. Immersed in the world of television the young Kate quickly learned about broadcast technology and the important role of the client – lessons she now brings into play in her work as owner of ADi 3D animation studios.

Reviewing the history and growing impact of animation as an artform, Kate highlighted how Steamboat Willie is now legendary while the movie it premiered alongside is forgotten (‘Gang War’ trivia fans) and named ADi’s lead animator ‘The Don’ as the big gamechanger in animation today as he, and all the millennial Generation Y-ers like him, no longer differentiate between forms of media – you don’t go and see an ‘animated movie’ any more, it’s just a movie.

Citing the wealth of research that has evidenced animation’s ability to boost conceptual understanding, comprehension and learning, Kate moved on to describe the potential of its application as an ethnographic and research tool. Pitching video against animation, she countered each of the former’s strengths with the potentially greater benefits of animation: Video connects with real people in real situations, but with animation you can use a representative human form to neutralize any identification (or lack of) that might colour your view of what you’re seeing, leaving you free to make connections you might have missed and develop a clearer understanding of presented experiences. Video can of course let you show off your shiny new product in a glossy commercial, but with animation you can do the same with a product that doesn’t exist yet – and continue to tweak it so that it remains looking fresh years later Questions from the audience suggested that the perceived timescales involved in producing such animation are still deterring agencies from using it as a development or ethnographic tool rather than a presentational one, but with assurances from Kate that quickfire work is possible (and can always be used as a starting point and enhanced further down the line) maybe there’s aspace in the UX toolbox that could be filled by 3D animation in the future?

Biomimicry Data
Peter Denman

While many a designers will get out into nature to get inspired, Peter Denman of Intel talked about his experiment to take it one step further and use nature as a way to structure interfaces.

Copying nature — in other words, biomimicry — has led to a number of innovations in materials technology, be it flow without friction (from the trunks of elephants), cleaning without cleaners (how water rolls off leaves), or antibacterial skins (based on the germ free skin of sharks). But how could it be used in interaction design?

Denman saw that it could be of use in infographics (or information dashboards). While infographics can help communicate information, they also run the inherent risk of only reflecting the designer’s viewpoint, and are one off. He believed that nature might help show complexity without losing clarity.

His case example of using fractals to give an overview of diabetes patients’ health over time initially didn’t have much of a reaction with nurses. However, he found that those higher up the medical care chain—those who need to identify problems rather than treat them—found it useful in comparing patients not only over time but against each other.

Denman sees his project moving in next few years towards moving using “beautiful mathematics” fractal forms: be it the Golden ratio, Vogel’s model, or the Fibonacci spiral.

Denman also made a (now common across the conference) point about designers and coding: he had done “some bad coding” in Actionscript 3 to make the prototypes, and had become a strong supporter of prototyping in code.

Critical Design: Restoring a sense of wonder to Interaction Design: Dr. Michael Smyth & Ingi Helgason

What was the last product that made you go wow? Smyth and Halgason, working on design research at the boundaries—”where the interesting things happen”—of art/design/technology shared a number of projects they’ve worked on through Napier College.

He notes that there’s a tension between the problem-solution culture of design and the meaning focus of ethnography: while the latter is interesting for designers—”is ethnography the new black?”—and uncovers meanings, it doesn’t provide problems or solutions.

Instead, like Anthony Dunne the day before, they see critical design as a way of exploring the problem space.

Some of the projects they talked about include:

  • This Pervasive Day Edinburgh 2010: in an installation commenting on privacy and sharing: people walking past a screen had their picture imposed onto fake Facebook data and presented to them as a profile. Responses to it ranged from the serious to the playful, “which is fine”.
  • Exploring a city’s issues related to time: in a project with a Croatian school, the students made outdoor projections throughout the city that juxtaposed present day concerns (“should I go to the gym?”) as speech bubbles from classical era statues.
  • Prekham Morst: How much can happen crossing a bridge? Everyday people crossing a bridge in Slovenia were presented with a digital camera and asked to take photos over the time it took them to cross. Pictures ranged from capturing others in the project (creating a sense of kinship), or commenting on society through small details (snapping a flower basket holder that was empty thanks to municipal cuts in spending).

Aristotle’s Storytelling Framework for the Web
Jeroen van Geel

Building on his 2011 article of the same name, our very own Jeroen van Geel presented his translation of Aristotle’s classical rules of story and drama into a framework for the creation of compelling online user experiences.

A really special story is one that you don’t even realize you’re reading, and really special writers may be blessed with talent but need to follow a process in order to get the best results. The cautionary example here was George Lucas: clearly talented, but guilty of screwing things up (you can guess where) by getting wrapped up in creating spectacle and comedy and neglecting the real process of crafting a story.Aristotle dissected the art of storytelling into six key elements, all of which can be applied with minimal adaptation to the world of the web: plot, character, thought (or theme), fiction, song (or rhythm) and spectacle, all of which are listed in order of importance (take note Mr Lucas).

The central layer of the framework is Plot, which for a website can be defined as product goal + user need.

The second layer is made up of Characters and Theme. Characters can be divided into primary and secondary, both of whom are necessary to any story. Using the example of James Cameron’s Titanic Jeroen identified Kate and Leo as the primary characters whose action defined the story – but pointed out that without the evil Billy Zane for Kate to escape from, there would have been nothing bringing the lovebirds together in the first place. Theme is what’s possible (or not) in the place where your story is happening. If your story is Brokeback Mountain, it’s Wyoming in the 60s and men are expected to be masculine and defiantly straight – which clearly affects what can happen to the characters. If your website is a transport site like in a world branded ‘Just do it’ or ‘Think different’, those brands will influence what can happen in your online experience.

The third layer of the framework, which Jeroen described as the ‘most boring’ and also the most overemphasized in
design education, encompasses diction, rhythm and spectacle. Diction is the language your site uses, rhythm the patterns it adopts and how they spread across all its platforms of communication, and spectacle lies in making things look beautiful.

In summary Jeroen explained that the central layer of the framework (plot) involves strategic decisions, the second layer (characters and theme) tactical decisions and the third (diction, rhythm, spectacle) operational decisions – and that choosing the right layer on which to focus, and the right seniority-level of staff to work on them, was the crucial thing.

While Jeroen may not have got the hugs he was angling for in his talk, he clearly ignited the thinking of a great number of designers in the near-capacity audience and gave this designer/writer a fresh perspective on how the techniques of narrative can be utilized in interaction design. (And his Brokeback Mountain translation-fail was an absolute classic :)

How to lie with design thinking
Dan Saffer

First up in the main hall lightning talks session was Dan Saffer. Having never witnessed his presentations before I was informed that it would be a must-see, and (the alleged) Dr Saffer didn’t disappoint. Making a superhero entrance sprinting down theaisle and high-fiving, Dan announced his delight at being here amongst his own people: the passive-aggressive alcoholics (that’s IxDers, not the Irish).

Thanking the organization and conference he founded for giving him a whole ten minutes out of their three-day schedule, Dan proceeded to unleash a gleeful slaughtering of the industry’s holy cows in the form of an interaction design cheat’s manual. First of all, give up the hard work of design and start selling design thinking – it’s the fun part where all the easy money is! (Dan gave credit where it’s due for this one: prostitutes worked it out a long time ago). Next give up the wireframing, after all nobody reads them (not even you) and nothing else says ‘we’re working hard’ like a wall full of (illegible) post-it notes or a whiteboard full of (incomprehensible) conceptual models. Now do some ‘research’ to help you invent your invisible friends (Dan’s name for personas) and if you absolutely must present anything make sure it’s nothing more than a cute whimsical little movie. If you want to build stuff it’s time to move to China.

Naming each of Interaction 12’s sponsors as the perfect suckers to try this snake oil out on, Dan exited to thunderous applause as the group seated next to me confidently informed each other that ‘Dan Saffer’ was in fact a fictional persona created purely for the purposes of writing books and whipping up controversy. After all, a real speaker couldn’t possibly have said all that stuff! Right? Or could he? I watched them hitting Google with bated breath…

Ritual in Interaction Design
Matt Nish-Lapidus

IxDA board member Matt gave us a whistle-stop tour of ritual and the part it has to play in the work of interaction designers. Defining ritual as ‘a set of intentional actions with symbolic rather than logical meanings’, he presented its fiery roots in religion before moving on to the rituals that now make up our daily lives: from the breakfast rituals that get us into the right mindset for the day, to cultural rituals like weddings whose trappings communicate so much more than just the act of getting marries, to the community-creating rituals of sport that give value to something essentially meaningless.

Ritual can also be found in our interactions with consumer products. iTunes isn’t ritualistic, but dusting off the vinyl and turntable certainly is and there’s a whole subculture of those who stick stubbornly to traditional rituals like straight-razor shaving and the use of manual-wind watches. By undertaking these rituals we’re making would could be simple tasks much more complicated to achieve, but with added effort comes added significance.

Matt signed off by asking us to consider how we might create more meaningful and significant products and services by engaging the ritualistic instincts and behaviours of our users.

The craft of UX
Leanna Gringas

Leanna compares the practice of UX to guilds for bakers and metalsmiths, and that we can use theapprenticeship model to develop and grow junior UX designers. Guilds are serious about growing talent, and it can take 6-8 years for apprentice bakers to reach the rank of a master, where half of that journey solely focused on learning the foundation and core skills. Apprentices benefit from a high standard of training and good opportunities to tap into valuable networks. Practice is where the bulk of learning happens, where exposure helps uncover unique ways of problem solving. There are clear expectations set by the masters, who act as mentors throughout an apprentice’s tenure. These expectations also extend to the hiring process, where guilds seek candidates with passion, curiousity and humility before bringing them on.

IA heuristics
Abby Covert

In this lightning talk, Abby the IA took a stab at updating a list of heuristics (best practice, rules of thumb, common sense, intuitive judgments) as an attempt to facilitate design critiques more effectively with non-designers. The creative directors she used to work with used to say about UX work, “does it have legs?”, which was a way of saying “is this stable, effective and stand on its own?”. She argues heuristics need to be teachable, business friendly, consider cross-channel, and be easy to implement. Many of the common UX heuristics (Nielsen & Molich, Morville, Rosenfeld, ISO9241, Resmini & Rosati) lack some of these elements and are in need of an update. Abby proposes an updated model of 10 principles, based on 50 existing heuristics from the four aforementioned ones:

  1. Findable
  2. Accessible
  3. Clear
  4. Communicative
  5. Useful (includes usable, which isn’t enough anymore)
  6. Credible
  7. Controllable (error tolerant. not the same as personalization)
  8. Valuable
  9. Learnable (predictable, consistent)
  10. Delightful

In addition to that, we need to apply three rules when using these principles, which is to put our user shoes (don’t get hung up on our job) and goggles (the user’s context) on, and not to assume we “are” our users. Finally, while heuristics can be powerful tools to facilitate design critiques, they should never be used as a substitute for good user research.

Bananas,technology and magic: breaking the clichés of user-centred design
Adrian Westaway

Presenting the IxDA Award-winning project ‘Outside of the Box’ to a crowded room eager to find out more, Adrian spoke to the importance of creativity in research as well as in the implementation of final design solutions. Describing a childhood letter to magician Paul Daniels asking for help in making his teacher disappear, which directed him first to the library and from there to a career in engineering design for magic, Adrian comes across as something of a real-life Jonathan Creek – explaining his perfect understanding of the importance of surprise and delight.

Given a commission by Samsung and the Helen Hamlyn Centre to design a new mobile phone for older people, Adrian’s studio
Vitamins took the innovative step of focusing on their users’ capabilities rather than disabilities, and nervously approached their corporate overlords to ask if it would be alright if they didn’t actually design a phone at all? After giving older people money to buy their own phones they’d discovered that the point where frustration with their new product emerged was when they took it home and opened the box. While younger users tend to trust implicitly that a product will work, tossing the manual and starting to play straight away, older people have come from a different tradition of learning. Wanting to make sure they used their phones properly, they would turn straight to the manual – finding them singularly unhelpful, which ultimately lead to a lack of engagement with the product.

Having convinced Samsung that older people didn’t want another ‘special phone’ with scary red SOS buttons reminding them
they could die at any moment, Vitamins set out to discover how their users learn. At workshops in the UK, Norway and Italy they gave older people bananas to customize any way they wanted in order to represent their ideal phone, and then asked them how they would teach another person to use their banana-phone. The most inspirational example came from a professional novelist, who wrote his instructions as an adventure storybook. Realising that a phone manual has nowhere to live, Vitamins final (and award-winning) design solution was phone packaging in book-form, with layered cut-out pages that introduce each feature of your new phone in stages – neatly avoiding information overload and giving you permission to store your manual neatly on the shelf and refer back to it whenever you need.

It was fantastic to hear that Adrian is free to describe this project in detail because the Helen Hamlyn Centre is dedicated to the creation, and more importantly the sharing, of new design methodologies – a rare thing to hear at a conference where the usual statement seems to be ‘I’m sorry but I can’t talk about that’.

Why we share: motivations at the heart of sharing
Angel Anderson

Angel sought to illuminate the human motivations behind the like/post/favourite viral sharing behaviours we exhibit online, in an age where ‘volume of sharing fostered’ has become a key indicator of design success.

She identified three distinct motivations of bragging, complaining and reaching out, and from these distilled a range of
social design characteristics that designers should explore when seeking to provoke sharing behaviour:

  • Landscape: in a sea of social media platforms, people tend to create a ‘social layer cake’ by using different platforms to share in different ways, like Facebook for friends and LinkedIn for business. Where are you choosing to share your information? And if you’re making new platforms, where will they fit in?
  • Frameworks: people who don’t fit in your social layer cake (not close enough for Facebook, not business enough for LinkedIn) are actually falling outside of your self-imposed frameworks – into what Angel called ‘friend purgatory’
  • Social objects: social media platforms are giving us new forms of social capital, turning details like your current location into share/tradeable information
  • Social privacy: with the Facebook privacy statement now longer than the US constitution, it’s crucial to give your users value in exchange for the privacy they may be surrendering through sharing
  • Friction: without which, sharing loses meaning. If sharing is automated, an involuntary act that sends out our information without requiring our thought or input, it becomes devalued – what are ‘happy birthday’ messages on Facebook really worth? And if sharing becomes autosharing then the real task for the designer becomes curation.

Angel closed by reminding us all that in this ‘age of UX enlightenment’ our industry is still in its infancy and it’s critical that we share because the next generation of users is already out there and interacting with us online.

Designers as Change Agents
Jonathan Kahn

In an ambitious, deeply referenced,  and somewhat controversial talk, Jonathan Khan urged interaction designers to become linchpins and be prepared to design change rather than interactions. For tips to do this, he looked to five different disciplines:

  1. Service Design: has the concept of front and back door, we need to understand both elements.
  2. Cross Channel UX: we’re moving beyond the mouse and screen to a range of platforms
  3. Content Strategy: considering the role of content on a site and its lifecycle. Criminally ignored by interaction designers until 2009, but now has at least three must-read books on the topic.
  4. Data Governance: not perhaps known so much in interaction design circles, data governance takes the opposite approach to content strategy, asking “what happened to the organisation to get it to this point”
  5. Agile
  6. Lean UX: telling us to “ignore the startup part” in Eric Reis’s Lean Startup book, Kahn pointed out Reis’s five principles of lean startup (Entrepreneurs are Everywhere,  Entrepreneurship is Management, Validated Learning, Innovation Accounting, and Build-Measure-Learn ).

One of the stunning factoids was that organisational structures (summed up at its worst in the infamous Microsoft organisational chart) were designed to limit information flow rather than encourage it: they were devised in the age of trains as “a means of minimising embarrassment”, and are effectively one way. ‘This is bad because it means the system can’t take feedback and learn.” (In comparison, the Toyota-founded Lean UX was all about sharing, though I’d argue that could equally come from its basis in Japan). This was a prelude to Genevieve Bell’s comment about technology always being related to morality.

Rage against the machine? Designing our futures with computing
Dr Genevieve Bell

After the announcement of Interaction 13 in Toronto next year, Intel’s director of user interaction and experience Dr Genevieve Bell brought Interaction 12 to a close with a talk that she described as a ‘provocation’, and one so freshly-distilled that it could well have a lingering odour of new-car-smell.

As one of the first social scientists at Intel, Genevieve’s somewhat daunting remit was to help the company understand two things: women and ROW (as in Rest of World, or everywhere but America). With just these few billion people to focus on (!) Genevieve set out to investigate what she described as an emerging thread of anti-technology discourse’, with the aim of understanding our changing engagement with machines. One woman she spoke called her technology a ‘backpack full of baby birds with open mouths screaming feed me’, symbolizing the high-maintenance relationships we have with our devices (relationships we’re probably only in for the internet).

Documenting the historical rise and fall of our love affair with technology from the 18th century fascination with ‘uncanny mechanicals’ (tea-serving Japanese dolls and defecating French roboducks) to the Industrial Revolution of manual labourers destroying the machinery that was attempting to replace them, Genevieve highlighted how the romantic notion of outlaw revolutionaries pricked the imagination of the emerging Romantic poets, who took up the cause of championing the human over the mechanical in their work. This sentiment has continued into contemporary writing and drama, and there still exists today a persistent belief that machines are either ‘subservient to us or will kill us’ (see all variations of Terminator, past and present).

Genevieve posited that, rather than designing technology with the intent to deceive or fake, we do better when we begin with the notion of grace and wonder. When electricity was first introduced to consumers, it was a hard sell to get them to rip up their homes for wiring when they could already get warmth and light from candles and oil lamps. What finally persuaded them to get on board was the Electric Fairies: by running a charge through women clutching lightbulbs and having them skate around a high society party, electricity suddenly became fun, safe and desirable.

Today it’s hard to imagine our lives without our digital devices – indeed, in Japan paper replicas of iPads are burned ceremonially to ensure that the ancestors don’t have to go without in the afterlife (with new upgrades being sent up in smoke every year). We increasingly want our devices to stop making demands upon us and instead to maintain themselves while providing us with nurture and care. Genevieve’s closing call to arms came in the form of a question: what will it take for us to imagine relationships rather than interactions?

Closing Party

Interaction designers took over the Guinness Storehouse, and stunned band of the evening Ham Sandwich by demanding an encore. Whether all the movement on the dancefloor (both to music and the Kinnect) were as terrible or not is up for argument, but  as one audience member told the band “this is what happens when nerds go out”.


Louise Taylor

Louise is an avid baker, playwright, and interactive designer at the Centre for Design Research (CfDR) at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. She can be found online as @sugaredeggs.

Boon Chew

Boon is a Malaysian UX designer and former developer who currently works at SapientNitro London. He's an active member of the London UX community and organises the annual UXCampLondon unconference. You can reach out to him on twitter at @boonych.

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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