Interaction 09 Follow-up

The responsibility of design in an ever-uncertain future

From February 5-8, 2009, IxDA hosted their second annual conference, Interaction 09, in Vancouver, BC. Last year’s inaugural conference in Savannah had a powerful and lasting impact on the community, filled with encouraging messages and the realization that for many of us that we had “found our tribe.” The challenge for 2009 was to see if that energy could be recaptured a year later — in a new place and during undeniably pressing times.

The Setting

The Four Seasons in Vancouver felt much less intimate than the refuge and privacy we shared in Savannah, and the impact of Simon Fraser University was invisible compared to that of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Still, one important aspect remained quite evident — this community of interaction designers truly adores one another.

Finding people with whom you share similar passions, challenges, and perspectives both comforts and uplifts the community. Even with the different feel this year, Interaction fulfilled a critical mission. Disenfranchised, overwrought interaction designers looking for a way forward found renewal that can last us the whole year. We encountered inspiration around every corner, ringing with the clear message that our time has come and our mandate as designers continues to grow.

Instead of practical advice on which interface elements to employ in particular situations or new techniques for prototyping, the overall emphasis at Interaction 09 was much more about the role that interaction designers need to play in their organizations and throughout the world. Even IxDA’s manifesto noted the aim to “improve the human condition” — a far loftier goal than simply making useful and engaging digital interfaces.

Day 1, February 6

After a day and a half of workshops, the Interaction 09 conference started on Friday afternoon with a lineup of impressive keynote speeches from John Thackara and Fiona Raby, along with a heated panel discussion moderated by Jared Spool.

Thackara, in his talk titled “Experiencing Sustainability” (description | video) demanded that interaction designers do our part to combat climate change, resource depletion, and economic crisis by shifting our focus and skills towards designing promising new solutions for repair and growth. As interaction designers, we have the ability to devise innovative systems to combat common, everyday problems, and Thackara urged us to consider our impact far beyond the computer screen.

Though A/V system problems mired her talk, Raby shared several projects from her design students at the Royal College of Art that challenge many constraints we artificially place on how people interact with technology, and more importantly how people interact with and relate to one another when facilitated (and controlled) by technology.

Spool kicked off his panel by noting that as of today, 10,000 new interaction designers are needed to support the growing challenges of even just the most major companies; he asked his panelists, both educators and managers of design teams, how they plan to meet the demand. Matthew Holloway of SAP, Josh Seiden of Liquidnet and outgoing president of IxDA, and Andrei Herasimchuk of Involution Studios discussed the perfect balance of skills, education, and experience that they seek from designers they bring into their teams. Liz Danzico, chair of the new MFA Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and Jon Kolko, who founded the interaction design minor at SCAD, discussed how to best prepare interaction designers to recognize and address everyday business obstacles, becoming all the more valuable to their organizations.

The panel was getting at some critical obstacles in growing the interaction design practice before it disappointingly devolved into a “define the damn thing” debate about the distinction between interaction design and user experience. Groans from the audience and fierce statements from the panelists revealed just how divisive and counterproductive this argument can be. Still, it was great to see the community alive with fervor, as many hallway and hotel room conversations on the topic followed.

Day 2, February 7

While everyone was still nursing their wounds, Saturday started off on a much more uplifting note. We had talked about the state of the world, laid out our differences, and recognized just how much we’re all desperately needed; now it was time to talk about how to get this stuff done.

In his keynote titled “Irrational Behavior” (description | video), Robert Fabricant showed us some concrete ways that his team at frog design is addressing pervasive public health issues in South Africa with Project Masiluleke. He shared inspiring examples of great interaction design and reminded us that “technology is not our medium; behavior is our medium.” Fabricant differentiated among the outputs, outcomes, and impacts of our designs, noting that just because people are buying a product doesn’t necessarily mean that their behavior is changing. Our goal, clearly, should be the latter.

Dan Saffer revved us up at the end of the day with an impassioned keynote (description | video). He called for an end to the “religious wars” and obsession with defining our practice and instead urged us to be flexible and determine what is best for each project. “There are no best practices,” he said. “Best practices should be a place to begin, not where it ends,” reminding us that our responsibility is to invent new systems. He echoed other speakers in focusing our attention on health care, education, government, energy, and other domains where our ability to recognize and solve ongoing problems is sorely needed. “Where are the interaction design rockstars?” Saffer asked, citing our need to be as visible as the Frank Gehrys and Philippe Starcks of the world.

Ultimately the message was that being poised to tackle these issues simply isn’t enough if we aren’t capable of selling ourselves. As revitalizing as it is for our community to come together and learn from one another, it’s more important that we get out of the echo chamber and make ourselves known to those outside of the practice who can put us in a position to create change.

Day 3, February 8

By day three, we were ready to step out of the shadows and no one better to show us the way than Marc Rettig, a very humble and discreet member of our community who exposed us to the ways in which he and his company are choosing to make a stand.

He reiterated many of the previous day’s themes in his keynote, “How to Change Complicated Stuff (e.g., the World),” declaring that the relationships we create through products are far more important than the products themselves. If our goal as interaction designers is to create positive change, then we can no longer just be satisfied with shipping the product or launching the site. “You must establish the change,” Rettig said, “and put in place the necessary conditions for it to be come the new Normal.” Ultimately, our success isn’t measured with metrics but instead by the personal stories that illustrate how lives have been improved by our design solutions.

Then in her closing keynote, Kim Goodwin noted that the sustainability and cultivation of our practice can be ensured by one very important activity: Mentorship. Goodwin noted that if everyone in the audience mentored just one or two people, our community would grow exponentially and we would all become better at our craft. Both the mentor and the mentee have much to learn from one another, and that passing of the torch symbolizes, and ensures, the longevity of our profession.

Indelible Marks

A single theme emerged throughout the three days of the conference: The time has come to expand the definition of what interaction design comprises. In an ever-changing, interconnected, and in many ways injured world, we need to apply our skill sets, techniques, methodologies, and critical problem-solving capabilities to much larger-scale systems far beyond the reaches of technology.

As Doug Lemoine of Cooper nicely stated in a blog post recap, “Like other disciplines, interaction design is wrestling with the ways in which we, as a profession and as individuals, can do more than simply design more disposable crap. How can we design stuff that lasts, stuff that helps, stuff that addresses real problems?”

Phillip Hunter was particularly intrigued by the greater number of touchpoints across which we can design. Reflecting on the conference two months later, he wrote, “It was really exciting to hear and see emerging design tools and interaction mediums. NUI & gestural interfaces, mobile, MS Surface, Axure, Catalyst (someday soon we hope), etc., along with continuing extensions of browser-type experiences with Silverlight and Flex.”

Our community is growing, and with new people come new approaches, perspectives, and methodologies. As Matthew Nish-Lapidus wrote on the nForm blog, “Our practice is still in relative infancy, but there is amazing momentum and a great sense of importance driving us forward.” The challenge now is to unify the practice and turn our attention to the profound problems that truly need our help.

Several other sessions deserve note for garnering much discussion. Leisa Reichelt’s “Design by Community — The Drupal.org redesign” examined how to use the community to grow the design, while Christina Wodtke’s “Designing the Viral App” examined how to use the design to grow the community.

Also of note were those talks providing insight into the full-body interactions required for touch screen interfaces — Nathan Moody’s “Designing Natural Interfaces” and Bjorn Hartman’s “Enlightened Trial and Error – Gaining Design Insight Through New Prototyping Tools.”

Looking Forward

One of the most interesting things about the IxDA conferences are the sheer number of sessions presented over the course of just a few days. While “Lightning Round” slots allow for a wider variety of topics, 25 minutes is much too short to get anything of value out of a session. By the time everyone arrived, got settled in their seats and pulled out their notebooks or laptops, almost half the session had passed. There were several sessions that left me wanting more, feeling as though I would have gotten greater depth out of reading a blog post or article on the topic. I hope in the future that the organizers schedule more in-depth 45-minute-to-one-hour sessions and reduce the number of these shorter sessions.

In the end, the best thing about Interaction 09 was the opportunity to spend three days with so many brilliant, passionate practitioners, educators, and thought-leaders from all around the world. It is an honor to be among them, and no matter where we are or how we gather, these events and the community’s support energize me to do more, try harder, think smarter, and reach farther. Here’s to next year back in Savannah!

Note: Videos have been indicated here where available. More videos will be posted by the IxDA on Vimeo. Feel free to check there for updates. -Ed.

Posted in Conferences and Events, Learning From Others, Reviews | 3 Comments »

3 Comments

  • Dave Malouf

    May 4, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    Hi Whitney,
    I think one thing happening in our community might be differently stated than “growing” is that the community is becoming more inclusive of other spheres of interaction design than where we started. Our beginning was squarely on interaction design as defined by “The Valley”, but today European perspectives from RCA, Copenhagen, Italy, etc. have been gaining momentum in the community. This perceived “growth” of sphere is less a redefinition of IxD, but rather IxD working towards connecting its various incarnations.

    — dave

  • Uday Gajendar

    May 4, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    Thanks for the nice summary! I agree, this new-found awareness of the possibilities of expanding IxD’s influence into new domains is very exciting and, at least in my view, long overdue, per Dave’s comment of going beyond “The Valley” definition. Just ask any IxD grad from CMU or IIT or Stanford :-)

    Indeed, back in 2006 I briefly illustrated as a short poster “new” areas of application of IxD methods, which readers may find useful: http://bit.ly/H1KZ7

    And for a very ambitious attempt at understanding in visual form the expansive range of influence from 2D to 3D to n-dimensional wicked problems of increasing scope, check out this “design typology poster” based upon Richard Buchanan’s Four Orders Model: http://bit.ly/102xI7

    -uday

  • Amjad Khan

    May 28, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    When you get to know and hang around with great educated people there will always be benefits. Such organization is important to lead the society in the right path

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