David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Sun 1 Oct 06 22:59
It gives us great pleasure to welcome Dan Saffer to the Inkwell. Dan Saffer is an interaction designer and the author of Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices. For the past decade, he's been involved in the design and development of applications, websites, and devices for a wide range of clients, from Fortune 50 companies to start-ups. He has a Masters degree in interaction design from Carnegie Mellon and currently works for the design firm Adaptive Path. He also plays the cello (badly). Leading the conversation with Dan is our own James Leftwich. James Leftwich, IDSA is principal and founder of Orbit Interaction, (www.orbitnet.com), in Palo Alto, California. He has over twenty-three years of broad consulting and leadership experience in Human Interface development for products, devices, systems, and software, ranging from desktop software, mobile devices, consumer electronics, wearable computers, palmtops, gestural slates, webpads, and gyroscope-based remote controls in the fields of consumer, industrial, military, and medical devices and systems. His work has won the Medical Design Excellence Award and an Industrial Design Excellence Award. He holds ten utility patents and has a BFA in Design from the Kansas City Art Institute.
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Mon 2 Oct 06 14:24
Hello Dan! It's a distinct pleasure to have the opportunity to participate in an interview and discussion with you here on The WELL. I've followed your posts and participation on various design forums and mailing lists over the years and have had the pleasure of meeting some of your brilliant colleagues at Adaptive Path in San Francisco. I've enjoyed reading your new book, "Designing For Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices." It's a great introduction and comprehensive overview of the field, and should be a valuable resource for everyone in the field of software and product development, as well as business people, students, and laypeople. With computing power continuing to increase and network infrastructures continuing to advance, it's an exciting time to be involved in the development of products, systems, and services. And yet the fundamental challenges we've always faced with products and services remain - the challenge of designing and developing them to meet the real needs of people and to make them simple, efficient, and valuable. One of the first questions I'm always interested in, when speaking with fellow interaction designers, regards the path by which they've arrived in the discipline. Some, like myself, have come by way of product and industrial design, while others have come from the fields of traditional building architecture, technical writing, cognitive science, programming, graphic design, new media, and filmmaking. This reflects, I believe, the integrative nature inherent in developing interactive products and systems and the many aspects involved in designing and implementing successful user experiences. It also reflects the wide and growing field of things in which interaction design is playing an increasingly crucial role. Can you begin by telling us a bit about your background and how and why you became an interaction designer?
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Tue 3 Oct 06 01:04
Thanks for your kind words, Jim. This should be an excellent conversation! Like many people, I became an interaction designer almost by accident. About seven years ago, in 1999, I'd been working in "new media" for four years, as everything from project manager to copywriter to developer. I'd done everything from setting up servers to visual design. But none of the roles I'd had felt quite right. I wasn't a very good coder or visual designer and my temperament is ill-suited for project management. But while I was working for one company, Organic in New York, I was exposed to people doing some very interesting stuff: the information architects, including such brilliant people as Robert Fabricant, Lawrence Lipkin, and Ben Cerveny. I did several projects with them, and was impressed with what they did and how they did it. I wanted to do what they were doing (although I didn't exactly know what it was called): interaction design. A bit later, I found myself doing just that at the online brokerage Datek (which was later bought by Ameritrade). I cut my teeth there doing some really interesting design work on their applications. But I always knew that I was pretty poorly trained to be doing that work. I was a good interaction designer, but knew I'd never be a really good one without learning more about the "design" part of interaction design. I knew I had to go back to school. So I went to the best program I could find--Carnegie Mellon--which turned out to be an excellent place for me. I had some tremendous teachers and mentors there: Shelley Evenson, Dick Buchanan, Dan Boyarski, Jodi Forlizzi, Marc Rettig, Golan Levin, Karen Moyer, and a host of others. What they gave me was a framework for the work I was doing. They taught me tools and methods to do interaction design, but more importantly about Big D Design, which has vastly improved my work and also how I think about the work. After I left school, I went to work at the design firm Adaptive Path, where I design websites, applications, services, and devices. This pretty much takes us up to the present. Of course, all of this is preceded by the stuff I did as a teenager, setting up and running a dial-up game back in the mid-1980s on my Apple IIe. My first interaction design work was indeed done in my parents' basement. My, how geeky that sounds. Of course, I think there's a lot interaction designers can learn from games like MUDs and MUSHes and World of Warcraft and even things like Second Life, that aren't exactly games, but have retained the structure of games with different content. That all, of course, is the how. The why is trickier to say. Perhaps because I'm good at it. Or because it's interesting work. Or because I think I can change the world by doing it. I'm not entirely sure. It's probably all of the above.
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Tue 3 Oct 06 09:59
A great path you followed, with many luminaries along the way! I like to think of the discipline of interaction design as a newly forming star. The past few decades have seen people from a variety of fields and endeavors slowly drawing together, overlapping, catalyzing each others' skills and experiences, and now beginning to shine. One thing I immediately notice about the winding path that lead you to interaction design, was the influence of other experienced practitioners and teachers. For me, my early college career bounced between engineering/science and fine art/humanities until I found a Bauhaus-like program in design that integrated those two poles. And then, just as I was coming out of school in December 1983, with the great pioneering European modernists as my heroes, the Macintosh was introduced and it was my epiphany. I knew that this product represented far more than just good industrial design and software engineering, both of which I'd studied separately. It integrated them, and carried the whole user experience forward in a way that was transformative. It was a fundamental leap forward. From that point on I wanted to pursue *that type of design,* and *that level of design integration,* whatever that type and level of design was! Though I'd started doing user interface design on products in Dallas, Texas the mid-1980s, I was greatly influenced by two designers that had worked at Xerox PARC in the 1970s. I co-consulted with Tom Noonan, who was an industrial designer and had designed the mouse for the Xerox Star workstation, and later worked with Norm Cox, who was a graphic designer that had done all of Xerox' original icons and graphical elements. In 1988 I worked with Norm and Alan Mandler on the development of Sun Microsystem's Open Look GUI, and during that time I also met your professor Dan Boyarski and another leading information designer, Edward Tufte. Shortly after that project I moved my consultancy to Palo Alto, California and my career in the field expanded from there. These designers greatly informed my knowledge of the field's history, which helped me to decide the direction I wanted to take my own work and career. I'll never forget the first time I heard the term, "interaction design." It was 1988 and I was sharing a studio in Plano, Texas with Tom Noonan and Doug Laube when one day Tom said, "Jim, you need to read this piece by Bill Moggridge, from the design studio IDTwo. He's describing all the design activities you're doing as 'interaction design'." And so when I moved to the Bay Area in 1989, IDTwo's studio in North Beach was one of my first stops, and I met both Moggridge and Bill Verplank. It was also in the late 1980s that "multimedia," which at the time was mostly HyperCard stacks and interactive CD-ROM media, really began to take off. This was an adjacent field from the more product interface and desktop software design I was pursuing, but formed the large pool of designers that immediately seized on the early web and began shaping it into what it is today. In many ways, multimedia design, or what we now call new media design, went on to dominate interface and interaction design. Dan, one thing you said about the many reasons *why* you became an interaction designer was because "you're good at it." I take that in large part to mean that you've got a knack for tackling large, hairy, ill-defined problems - what you reference in your book as 1960s design theorist H. J. Rittel's term, "wicked problems." I like to say, "Making things easy is hard work." Can you expound a bit on the things that make the pursuit of successful interaction design such a uniquely complex endeavor?
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Tue 3 Oct 06 10:48
So you heard the term "interaction Design" more than a decade before I did. Funny. My professor Dick Buchanan once said that design is like California: few people are born there. Almost everyone comes from someplace else. Just quickly to define "wicked problems," Rittel was talking about problems that have many stakeholders, no clear boundaries, and no obvious solution. And sure, most interaction designers deal with these sorts of problems all the time, especially if you are a consultant or work within a large organization. Half the challenge is creating a solution, the other half is getting that solution built. It amazes me how difficult both things can be. Coming up with a solution is this odd combination of conceptual and analytical thinking. You have to come up with something that is fresh and new and yet usually can't be too fresh and new or else users aren't going to understand it. You have to think broadly, but work within the constraints you have: time, technology, business goals, and resources. Then once you've done all that, you need to communicate your design to those who will build it and pay for it. They need to understand what you are trying to accomplish with your design so that the vision makes it through the (often challenging) development and manufacturing process. A good portion of a designer's time is simply selling the solution, at least in my experience. Has it been yours, Jim?
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Tue 3 Oct 06 12:17
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Tue 3 Oct 06 14:24
This is a pretty big question we could spend a lot of time on. Certainly, we face the same challenges most designers face, although since we're in the public eye a lot, our failures and missteps are seen more. And the thing with being a pioneering firm is that, as the term implies, you often find yourself in uncharted lands with no clear path in or out. You have to hack your own way through the underbrush. This is how, for example, the name Ajax came about. Jesse needed a machete. We're also always looking for the disruptive product or service to work on. Which is why we work usually for either start-ups or large corporations: because those are generally the two places disruptive products come from that change the world. And with large organizations, disruptive things are, well, disruptive, and that can be a challenge for them and for us. Them because they might have to change their organization to make the design work, us because sometimes that doesn't happen, at least not initially. Sometimes our designs have dribbled out of an organization over the course of years. We're also curious people in an ever-changing field, so that has its own challenges of staying knowledgeable and finding projects that let us continue to stretch and grow. Unlike some firms, if we've done a similar project before, we're considerably less interested in doing it again, no matter how successful the initial project was. Projects are only interesting if everyone learns something while doing it. One of my favorite designers Tibor Kalman rightly said that "Everything is an experiment." That's how you gain experience and remain challenged.
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Tue 3 Oct 06 14:50
Your comment, "if we've done a similar project before, we're considerably less interested in doing it again, no matter how successful the initial project was," resonates with a lot of creative people. Or perhaps I should say a certain category of creative people. I think about artists that continue to push their own boundaries and reinvent themselves. And musicians as well. Some creative people just relish new unique challenges and have less interest in refining solutions in a particular area. But also, in the discipline of interaction design, there's so much untrodden ground that I suspect groups like yours want to gain experience in as many areas and types of challenges as possible. This is in large part what fuels and informs your ability to bring successful design and solutions to a greater range of clients, isn't it? Can you speak to the issue of how large the need for successful design thinking is versus the relatively small number of people that are experienced in practicing it today? There's a lot of talk in our field of best practices and some of it is slowly making a positive impact in the business world, but there's still so much need and so little expertise to go around. What are your thoughts on the present state of interaction design and the future? My own thoughts are that we need a variety of approaches, from rapid, agressive methods in certain situations (especially those which find themselves in great need, but without a lot of resources or time), and more formal approaches where refinement and long-term quality and continued innovation are possible.
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Tue 3 Oct 06 21:31
The term "design thinking" always makes me a bit uncomfortable, as though thinking could be removed from design itself. To me, designing is thinking: thinking given form. But I certainly agree that the world is in need of designers, of all stripes. We're surrounded by the ugly, the ungainly, the poorly-conceived, and more designers would hopefully change that for the better. Especially since, in the near future, we're faced with so many technical advances bearing down upon us--technologies like ubiquitous computing, intelligent agents, robots, and RFID-enabled objects. These technologies--and I devote a whole chapter talking about them--will have significant effects upon our society and world. Our privacy and liberties could be seriously and irreparably harmed if these technologies aren't implemented in a human--and humane--way that protects human dignity. As to the approaches interaction designers use, I do outline four of them in the book: from the now-ubiquitous user-centered design, to activity-centered design, systems design, and what I call "genius design." These four approaches can be used in a variety of situations, sometimes within the same project, depending on what needs to be designed and how. Interaction designers should become familiar with them all, so they can hop between them as necessary, depending on the project and their personal style.
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Tue 3 Oct 06 23:10
Now that you point it out, I see that the term "design thinking" was a rather poor choice of words, when I really should've said design effort, or the whole range of activities associated with design. Words and terminology and phrases have continued to be contentious in the field of interaction design and user experience. There's the annual "what do we call ourselves" thrash that I always enjoy. Sort of like the return of the Autumn football season! Ha! You've spent some time separating the various activities that comprise the greater user experience field, and I think that's very valuable. You also bring up a number of concerns of growing importance in an ever more connected world. Most technologies are double-edged swords, and the information technologies are no different. For example, communication and GPS technologies bring us many new handy and powerful capabilities. Just a couple of weeks ago when I was returning a rental car to Boston's Logan Airport, I realized that I'd forgotten to fill up the gas tank. I left the airport and went searching for a gas station. By the time I found one, I was also hopelessly lost. But luckily, the GPS system guided me on a circuitous path back to the airport. But the very same technologies could be used to track our whereabouts. The same goes for our use of mobile communication technologies. These issues are already present in many other systems we're using today, including transaction services and how site navigation and usage is tracked. Such information is crucial to tailoring and individualizing user experiences to useful ends, but there's always that potential problematic aspect looming in the background. As you point out in your chapter on the future of interaction design, this will only grow in complexity. How do you believe interaction designers can most effectively contribute to preserving the humane qualities in the products and systems they design?
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Wed 4 Oct 06 07:53
The first thing is that interaction designers should adopt physicians' first principle: First Do No Harm. Users trust us with personal information like passwords, their money, their personal data, and in some cases their lives. We need to respect that. One method I've adopted is measuring against this ethical baseline: is the interaction a pleasant one for both the initiator of the interaction and the receivers of that interaction? When I send you an email, it should be a good experience for me to send you the email, but also for you to receive it. Of course this brings up the issue of What is a "good" experience...
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Wed 4 Oct 06 09:40
For many people, a "good" experience might simply be one that's as transparent as possible. In other words an experience where the actions and interactions required to invoke, progress toward, or facilitate the goal don't feel unwieldy, tedious, or arbitrarily complex. People have so many interactive systems, devices, and interactions demanding their attention these days, the less interaction any one of these things requires to achieve its intended function or facilitation, the more appreciative users are likely to be. In other words, a designer can greatly aid people simply by not adding to the complication and demands steadily accumulating in their lives. This seems to fit nicely with the "Do No Harm" principle you've pointed out. As you point out, products and services are becoming increasingly interconnected. You also highlight the difference between the relatively static form of physical products versus the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of services associated with products, such as interactive television products and mobile devices. Can you speak to some of the issues both shared and unique between interaction design for sites and software versus products and environmental systems?
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Wed 4 Oct 06 13:54
We're moving away from a time when any one product stands alone. Nearly everything is being designed (or should be designed) as part of a system of use these days. Your mobile phone, for instance, has a physical form, a digital interface, a service plan, and probably several websites tied to it. As technology creeps into the service sector, we're starting to see more designers get involved in crafting services for retail, medical, and entertainment services, especially. Some of the techniques interaction designers use for designing products translate pretty easily to services, but there's a bunch of new methods--including a little theater--that interaction designers are going to have to learn and practice. Many services are created in real time between two people: the service provider and the customer. The only way to "prototype" such a thing is to act it out. Which can be really odd.
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Wed 4 Oct 06 15:19
Yes, the acting out of human interactions in such a design process is very much correlated to the making of all the foam models to get the feel of a handheld product right. It's very much a discovery process to find the right shape. In services, there's also a "shape" of sorts, to the sequence and flow of interaction. It's indeed odd, but I've also found it amazing how little it takes in the ways of props and structure to put a group of people into a realistic and effective modeling process in order to explore and test options. Some of my most interesting observational sessions have been in operating rooms, as part of projects to design interfaces for medical equipment. There are so many overlapping issues to be mindful of in medical-related design efforts, from the simplicity and efficiency of operation of equipmentt, to paying close attention to how the surgeon and the attending staff communicate and cooperate during the procedure, to the issues that go toward the comfort and reassurance of the patient. And beyond this are the enormous amounts of data, from patient records to bedside charts and the complex choreography of nursing and doctors' shifts. I expect that we'll eventually have more and more interaction designers specializing just in medically-related areas. There's so much to observe and analyze in order to get a picture that's encompassing enough. You've got a great section in your chapter on research, involving different observational methods - Fly on the wall, Shadowing, Contextual inquiry, and being an undercover agent. What have been some of your more interesting observational experiences? Are there things that have really surprised you or completely changed your preconceived notions? Tell us a story, Dan!
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 4 Oct 06 16:46
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Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Wed 4 Oct 06 17:21
Every time I do research, I'm surprised by something. Either I am wrong about an assumption I've made or else I'm grossly wrong about an assumption I've made going into it. My first research experience was probably the most enlightening. About six years ago, I was on a project for a handheld device and accompanying website and software for maintenance workers. That is, in less politically-correct terminology, janitors. My team and I did a number of visits with them, in basements, workshops, even the maintenance office of the United Nations building. Simply observing what these men--and they were all men--did during the day and what they had to deal with--constantly putting out fires when something breaks--gave me an entirely new viewpoint on how people maintain buildings and what these people were like. I instantly gained an insight into their world and how they worked that has lasted with me strongly to this day. I sometimes enjoy doing "undercover agent" work: posing as a customer or a user and going into the situation "undercover." I've done this a few times, recently as mobile phone customer in several stores. I also simply like observing in foreign--or even not so foreign--situations. Simply going to the local mall and observing how people interaction and how they shop can reveal so much. I like going to different work environments and seeing the processes there. Simply walking down the street can be design research: observing colors and patterns and architecture.
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Wed 4 Oct 06 18:33
Well, speaking of (unintended) undercover observation, I'm just back from an experience and freshly annoyed! I just experienced the frustrating hell that is The Home Depot's "self checkout" process. They've replaced all but one of the traditional human-based checkout lines for these wretched touchscreen checkout stations. It's the most annoying, tedious, and frustrating thing ever! I had over twenty small cabinet handles, and each of them had to be unfolded and waved over the scanner window (which didn't work so well, by the way). Then you're scolded repeatedly by this machine voice to "PLACE THE ITEMS IN THE CHECKOUT AREA!", which I do. At some point, I'm moving bulkier items into this ill-defined area when something went awry. "ITEM HAS BEEN REMOVED FROM THE CHECKOUT AREA!! PLEASE BLAH BLAH BLAH..." and it continues to scold me as I'm sitting there moving things around and trying to comply with it. I look around and the people in the line are just shaking their heads. They know this just plain wrong. This is a perfect example of bad interaction design being foisted on either a system that shouldn't be there at all (my opinion), or should simply wait until RFID tags can do this without any interaction on the part of customers whatsoever. Honestly, I was about ready to walk over to the tool aisle, grab a shiny new sledgehammer, and smash the whole devilish folly to bits. Dan, isn't this representative of a whole class of things problematic and growing moreso in the world today? I know that good interaction designers and their methods could greatly improve these wretched do-it-yourself systems, but where do we draw the line and advocate not going down some of these paths to begin with? I know that what I, as a customer really want is for somebody who's an expert at checking out items to do this for me. I don't *WANT* to become a checker. Are we facing an ever-more dystopian world of this kind of thing?
Cupido, Ergo Denego (robertflink) Wed 4 Oct 06 19:35
>The first thing is that interaction designers should adopt physicians'first principle: First Do No Harm.< The "do no harm" principle brings to mind the "Precautionary Principle" that came to my attention in the EU late in my career in international medical device standards. The wikipedia gives a reasonable discussion of the idea and its uses. Some wag (a lawyer, if I remember right) from Harvard turned the principle on itself by offering that the "precautionary principle" should be shoulder the burden of proof before it is implemented. I seem to remember examples of damage due to delaying implementation of new ideas that have some severe side effects. Since we don't understand in any detailed way much of the world and even less of the interaction of humans and human systems, introduction of additional interactions by virtue of new designs strikes me as a challenge. Perhaps we could add to the "do no harm" principle, a corollary: "do not aggravate existing sources of harm". Identity theft comes to mind.
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Thu 5 Oct 06 08:43
It's definitely a challenge. Brings to mind one of my favorite Lord of the Rings quotes: "Even the wise cannot see all ends." That's an excellent corollary, though, with lots of direct application.
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Thu 5 Oct 06 10:07
Gah, those self-checkout things are a nightmare at almost every store you see them in. Yes, they allow you to check yourself out, but at significant cost to the users (in added time and aggravation) while allowing the store to have less checkers. The benefits are inequitable. I hope that designers are able to affect products in a strategic way, now and in the future. We should be able to say, "This is a bad idea. You shouldn't do this" rather than simply being brought in to make things after the strategic decisions have all been made. This is, of course, what designers have been lobbying for for years. And I think, from my perspective, this is happening more and more. You see Design on the cover of BusinessWeek. Businesses are looking at Apple's stock price post-iPod. Companies like Procter & Gamble are serious about including design into their product creation cycles. The flip side is, of course, that there are large corporations, government agencies and indeed whole industries and governments (including the US Government) that don't give much of a damn about design at all. And those organizations affect us every single day in profound ways. My guess is that smaller-scale products and services will be better designed in the near future, while larger scale will continue to not be. I'm not sure how to change that prediction.
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Thu 5 Oct 06 10:42
Your comment about the inequity of benefits is spot on. Good design really needs to be win-win, or a win for all the stakeholders. You also allude to one of the challenges facing designers wishing to have that kind of bigger picture impact, which requires being able to affect the product, service, or system at higher levels. It's true that design has made some very significant progress in the corporate world. I've watched my own professional organization, IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) work hard over the past twenty- five years to raise awareness of the value of design to business. Through the efforts of influential business journalists like Bruce Nussbaum, and magazines like Business Week, more and more people are exposed to good design and more companies are giving design a more strategic positioning. Still, I hasten to point out that even in these venues, it's mostly industrial and physical form design, and often mostly about aesthetic and ergonomic styling, that's being held up. I wouldn't downplay the importance of styling and emotion in products of course, as these are extremely important aspects for multiple reasons. The famous pioneering industrial designers, Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss broke a lot of this ground many decades ago. But I've always been frustrated that the leading design organizations and magazines still separate product and industrial design from interaction design, which is usually assumed just to be the separate category of "interactive media." Whole product interaction design, particularly in the more complex networked products, is still not well recognized, though it's the source of much of what people associate with user frustration. As I'd pointed out in an earlier post, product design and product interfaces are still seen as separate efforts in many development efforts. Ironically, even in some organizations where design is ostensibly championed. Interaction design, unlike cool and ergonomic physical forms, can't be instantly recognized in photographs or by simply picking something up. It has to be discovered through usage over time, and then, ironically, when it's done best, it's the lack of frustration rather than the presence of something more tangible, where the value resides. This makes what interaction designers do both extremely important, yet difficult to understand in a simple way. It's a very challenging dilemma for our field! How do you think interaction designers can best follow the product designers and move to the higher levels of more corporations, when what we do is so difficult to photograph or turn into soundbites?
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Thu 5 Oct 06 12:51
I'm a member of IDSA as well (and AIGA and IxDA) and its great to see them getting play in non-design magazines. But I absolutely agree, design is still being covered as form, not functionality. Like you say, Jim, it's hard to take a picture of how something works or feels. Now that I think about it, this is an issue especially for mobile phones. Motorola, for instance, has beautiful forms--the Razor and the Pebble phones for instance--but pretty poor interaction design. But how would you know that in the store? The phone isn't turned on and you have no service. You get maybe an image of a static screen if you're lucky. There's no easy way to demonstrate value there, although you can see companies like Nokia and Apple pushing hard in that direction. perhaps the answer is to have more web-based simulations/prototypes that can be demonstrated and played with? Why couldn't mobile phones be loaded up with a demo version made in Flash Lite or Java in stores? Why can't BusinessWeek online link to online prototypes? I wonder if ubiquitous computing will be the killer app that really shows off interaction designers? Remove the interface, have the form dissolve into everyday objects, and the functionality will be front and center. I think interaction designers being involved in strategy is already happening, just unevenly. Industrial designers have had decades of pushing and groundwork to get where they are now. Interaction design as a formal discipline hasn't been around nearly as long.
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Thu 5 Oct 06 13:23
Great points there Dan, particularly about the value of having interactive demos readily available to run on products in stores and online. I'm thinking that if the companies that were most successful at creating good interfaces and embodying excellent interaction into their products and services began doing that more, it could very well create pressure on other companies to demonstrate similarly great user experiences. A virtuous circle, if you will. As it is today, as you note, too often a product will look brilliant, but have terrible usability once a person gets it home and begins using it. One thing it will take to bring about more and better interaction design will be more and better interaction designers. This brings up the issues surrounding education and real-world experienced-based mentoring of new interaction designers. You went through Carnegie Mellon's excellent program, and I've been heartened to see more and more schools beginning to teach interaction design. In my work I've also had the opportunity to work with some really good interaction designers across Europe, and more recently in India and China. I think this bodes well for interaction design growing in importance globally. What are your thoughts, observations, and insights into educational issues surrounding the discipline of interaction design? And to those joining us here, please feel free to jump into the discussion with Dan with your questions, gripes, favorite user experiences, and anything else related to interaction design.
Dan Saffer (dansaffer) Thu 5 Oct 06 17:10
The main tension in interaction design education is one that can be seen in my book: how much grounding/theory should be taught vs. how much craft/making skills should be taught. Theory is harder, less initially useful, and seemingly doesn't affect the work at all. But if you ignore it, students' work will suffer because they won't have a framework for evaluating and understanding design work. Craft is easier to teach, although the mediums for interaction design work (the web, mobile devices, software) change very rapidly. But craft can be pretty shallow as well. You can teach standard methods of course, and some things like design research probably aren't going to go out of style any time soon. I try to focus on that stuff in the book and in the workshops I teach. The main problem with interaction design education is that there's not enough of it. There's only a handful of programs that I know of that teach interaction design as a design discipline. CMU, the Royal College of Art, Malmo University, SCAD...The number of universities with programs is small enough to count on two hands and still have some fingers left over. Interesting that you note India and China. Both I think could easily become major centers of interaction design, since there is so much software development in India and so much manufacturing in China. Not to mention their enormous, under-served populations. One of the challenges of being a designer in the US is how sheltered we are from the rest of the world. We're so advanced in some things, and so behind in others, like mobile phones. It's a struggle here to be international in outlook, which I don't think is as much of a problem in Europe or in Asia.
James Leftwich, IDSA (jleft) Thu 5 Oct 06 18:35
My experience developing OS-level user experiences and application experience frameworks has involved quite a bit of collaboration with both Europeans and Asians, from business and marketing people, to engineers and technologists, to designers. One primary reason the United States is behind in the mobile technologies is because other countries didn't have our wired infrastructure and were thus had greater incentives to develop cellphone technologies. This is particularly true in Japan, where obtaining a wired phone a few years ago involved a lot more hassle than it does here. And in many developing countries, it became easier to put up cell towers than lay phone lines everywhere. Also, here in the United States, the numbers of desktop computers really began to take off in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. So the mobile technologies leapfrogged us. So we're still preparing to make the move to 3G mobile technologies here, where greater bandwidth, and hence services will be available, while it's already in use in Europe and Asia. In fact, Japan will soon make the transition to even faster and higher-bandwidth technologies. But this also presents us with a great opportunity to learn from their current products. That's why I think it's important for interaction designers around the globe to communicate and collaborate. I've learned so much from my colleagues in Scandinavia where they've really been working with and evolving ideas about mobile connectivity and interaction. The design organizations (AIGA, IDSA, IxDA, IAI) do a great job of providing forums for designers all around the world, both face to face and online. Design is so globally important, that it's great to be exposed to the many shared and unique needs as they exist around the world. I have great hopes that American designers will become more and more global as we move forward, because we'll all benefit so greatly. But even in the public internet sphere, we're seeing more and more coming together (and sometimes collisions) of cultures. Many people here on the WELL were early members of Fotolog and experienced the period when, through an interesting series of events, became very popular among Brazilian photographers and young people with cameraphones. Many of us found it amazingly cool, but it also led to a number of clashes because of different expectations, styles, and uses for the same underlying site affordances. The benefits of facilitating communication and mutual respect and appreciation between previously separated cultures are so great. What are your thoughts regarding designing products, systems, and services for very different cultures?
Ludo, Ergo Sum (robertflink) Fri 6 Oct 06 05:41
An example of the problem you are discussing may be buying a home versus living in one. "Curb appeal" may have little to do with the livability of a house but is important to "make the sale". It could be that visual aesthetics are so powerful in the bulk of humans that functionality has to be really bad to discourage them. One might see problems arising in other areas of life as well. Choice of a spouse would be one example. Idealism has a strong hold on people more for the thrill of contemplation than in the nuts and bolts of practical implementation. The whole process of selling, particularly to consumers, is to appeal to primarily visual aesthetics. Perhaps when functionality can generate epiphanies that are not mistakingly attributed to what is immediately visually and/or aurally perceived, then design for interaction will enter the public consciousness.
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