I remember reading those Scientific American magazines when I was a kid. I liked them because the design of the magazine was funky, almost a 50’s image brought into the 80’s. It had a flair for interjecting human qualities, humor, lifestyle issues, even cosmetic thinking, in a way that no other ‘serious magazine’ really did. I, like so many other people, did not read it or even just look through it, for the amazing scientific breakthroughs that they reported, but because it was well designed. So, for me, it wasn’t a science magazine, it was good design, and that was rocket science.
“Rocket Science” is one of those expressions that conjures up a lot of thoughts, but mostly it means something is incredibly smart, basically breaching the impossible. Now, I find “The Impossible” breathtakingly exciting, the idea of something not being able to happen just somehow thrills me to bits. For example, it really makes me tick that it’s practically impossible to design a reasonably easy to use, or aesthetically interesting, computer interface. But, there are a thousand good suggestions on how to get started on such an endeavor this in this book.
“Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction”:http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470018666.html  is cunningly released at a time when acceptance of Interaction Design as a discipline is reaching a critical mass. The book precipitates a huge turn in the creation of interactive technologies toward the more research/creative or human-centric model, approaching the subject of this change from different angles and illuminating historical insights.
The concept that practical research leads the way to good design is a good thing, but Interaction Design misses an opportunity, in some ways, by highlighting so many decent designs from only a research or technology-driven perspective. I never really understood how the field of Human-Computer Interaction is scientific anyway, so I’m glad to see the subtitle, “Beyond Human-Computer Interaction,” on the book, meaning a move toward “design and creative” in the discipline from a focus on hard-nosed research. It always struck me as an art form, to design computer software, and not a viable practice for using measurements and methodologies. Call me biased, but I feel science does a lot of legwork in trying to justify itself in the design of computer interfaces. Whereas, most people understand that designing a screen interface requires a creative approach.
The book sheds light on this aspect of HCI being a creative endeavor, but stays within the realm of the research, or semi-scientific, approach. Even as a social science, the dominant belief HCI research as the most effective way to design interfaces leaves too little room for real creative design talent. This book serves as a sign of the times by reflecting on this outlook.
It’s not that research isn’t appreciated in the design world (especially the findings), but my position is that some results could be found through sheer design approaches. The majority of successful applied designs include the conceptual, aesthetic, and semantic as well as input from the research-based approaches in this book. In my mind, however, sometimes the results of the research can be talked out in a few good casual conversations with other designers about the technology, placement, and end users.
The book does highlight quite a few good approaches that I use as a practitioner, so it certainly covers the reality of doing interaction design. In fact, every possible ethno-social-human-factors method under the sun is in this book, and it would be impossible to integrate many of them, even partially, into a real world project. It’s an excellent reference book for the shelf, and I know that I’ll refer to it often, even if I can’t use every approach in my projects.
It would be ideal to be able to use all of the information here. However, the reality of everyday design work is such that most of this research only really occurs in academia, amongst the most dedicated usability professionals, or within the lab environment. Unfortunately, these environments are not well known for their ability to produce interactions that are regarded as aesthetically pleasing by the general public. That said, I have employed a number of these approaches and have heard of almost all of them being used in the field, just likely not with the degree of formality that practitioners of traditional HCI tend to expect.
As a textbook for third or fourth year university students, graduate students may find parts of Interaction Design very interesting. It firmly plants the history of HCI accessibly for design students and takes the edge off of the more rigorous image that has accompanied user interface design research in the past. So, it’s a great book if you’re studying, working with a university or college, or just want to get up to snuff.
With the majority of material backed by research, it should be noted that this book is not light reading. While the approaches themselves are typically not about doing extensive research, an element of practicality pervades the discussions. Some students might find this attitude misleading, especially if the course they are on has more of a creative slant. But, if that’s your angle, there are tons of activities and processes in this book which will keep you learning for months.
Science and art can be combined wonderfully, especially when they are used in flexible and semantically meaningful ways. Students who read this book should be given the freedom and persuasion to integrate these techniques into their own approaches, so that they may avoid getting bogged down by the practicality of these methods. Products in the real world have used research and other practical approaches to create a more humane final design, and this book has a smattering of these example projects and products. Keep in mind that a personal touch helps humanize these approaches to fit them into creative design projects.
Interaction Design provides a lot of examples of successful design and will prove a great reference for the more pragmatic designers out there. The rational bent will help designers looking for explanations as to what it takes to do something well to why certain things work (e.g. iconography, different types of analysis).
The background information behind almost every approach and model out there is included, but alas, only a few of the examples are, unfortunately, elegant. They are research projects, so, they are not meant to be elegant. You might say that these types of projects are the stand-by of practitioners who recognize a problem, but who are not prepared to think of a more acceptable and effective approach. While the end design serves the purpose, unfortunately it does not do so with the inventiveness and personal value that shines clearly in products like Google Maps or the iPod Click Wheel.
Some examples of such technological determinism:
* The cascading menu: It’s an obviously difficult method of interacting with a system, but the researchers, developers and the people who put together the operating system SDK did not spend the requisite time inventing a more elegant approach.
* Speech interfaces: The reality of interacting with the system pales in comparison to the theory or the research behind it. Some companies now exploit this flaw by merely promise customers no phone trees or that calls will be answered in 2 rings or less.
* Pen-based (gestural) interfaces: Handwriting recognition software worked a lot better on the Newton than even the Palm OS, never mind the current offering on the Tablet PC.
In some ways, Interaction Design the practice is a field that seems obsessed with process over product. Experience has taught me that if overall the team lacks creative and artistic skills, the product is doomed to become unfriendly or inelegant. Essentially it boils down to politics, even within the smallest team. If there isn’t a general “agree-to-agree” mentality and a good amount of trust in the more creative members of the team, no amount of process, or developing a new one, will help make products that the customers want.
I approach the field from a design perspective, meaning two parts visual/creative, one part analytical public needs representative. When reading scientific books, journals, textbooks, I usually glance through them, looking for something inspirational, something logical, something that would make sense to the analytical side of my brain. I’m interested in the possibilities of the approaches, how they will affect my projects, and how they help me breach the impossibilities of science. I find it amazing how research and science struggle for elegance unless they also bring creative parts to bear.
Interaction Design, the book, presents many valuable approaches and background on the industry. Still, one should realize that learning this material is like learning to play the piano. You can follow many leads and avenues, especially in terms of extending your practice, but you’ll need creativity and artistry to exercise them well. Buy this book to support that good work, because you can never have enough background knowledge to do your job well.
fn1. Helen Sharp, Yvonne Rogers, and Jenny Preece; “Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Edition”:http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470018666.html; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2007.