Interactions 08 in the Garden of Good and Evil

An Interview with Dan Saffer

In 2003, design luminary Bruce Tognazzi called for interaction designers to get their collective act together and become a force for better software design. As a result, a small group of impassioned professionals kick-started what is now the “Interaction Design Association”:http://ixda.org/index.php (IxDA).

After being hard at work starting the organization and getting local groups off the ground to seed its growth, the IxDA is now inviting people interested in interaction design to join the community in person at Interaction 08, the first IxDA conference.

Boxes and Arrows supports all UX communities of practice, so we like to see new endeavors like the IxDA that provide places to have focused discussions that don’t exist. B&A is thrilled to be a media sponsor of Interaction 08, so we will be bringing you some stories about the conference and the speakers before it happens February 8-10, 2008.

The first is this interview with Dan Saffer, Conference Chair and IxDA Director. Dan discusses the context of the organization, how the conference emerged and formed, what the conference will be like, and how one might get a flavor even if attendance is not an option.

Boxes & Arrows: In the “User Experience as Communities of Practice presentation, Andrew Hinton discusses how the different practices in UX relate and overlap with each other.

The IxDA is a good example of an organization that emerges because one of those communities feels under-supported, also exemplified by the IA Institute, which at first glance would potentially fall under the aegis of UPA, CHI, or AIGA. Tell us a little about how that fits with what you’re doing at the IxDA.

Dan Saffer: The IxDA is definitely the AK47 of the UX world! Inexpensive, networked, and built of mostly off-the-shelf parts. It’s designed for conversation, not for instruction, and it is constantly evolving. That’s why we want to keep the barrier to entry and participate low, even if it means some risks to the organization (like running out of money).

When Bruce “Tog” Tognazzi first did his call to arms to create a professional organization, I think the founders of the IxDA (at that time the Interaction Design Group) did look around at all these large organizations and ask, “Could we live there?” And the answer was always, on closer look, no. Most of those organizations overlap our organization in some ways, but there is still a monstrous piece in the center of the Venn diagram that was empty and that was where our interests lie.

We aren’t human-computer engineers, usability professionals, information architects, or industrial or graphic designers, even though we have a lot in common with all of those groups. We’re professional designers, not engineers or researchers or testers, and what we design is behavior—how systems behave in response to human action. The combination of interaction and design really set us apart from what existed.

And aside from that, we simply wanted a different kind of organization, a 21st century organization, designed and built differently, focused on the members and how to best serve them and not some self-perpetuating organization. The conference isn’t being done just because some people wanted to do it, but because it is a vessel to serve the needs of our members in the best way we know how.

B&A: What made you consider creating a separate conference rather than doing presentations or tracks at existing ones?

DS: It’s really for the same reason there is an IxDA at all: We feel there are issues and experiences and techniques that are unique to the field of interaction design. The conference is just an excuse to get a large group of people from around the world in rooms together to talk about those things and create a community of practice.

The mailing list and our online tools do this already to an extent, but we know the face-to-face contact is important, the personal network is still important. For any organization. That’s why we have local chapters in cities around the world—from San Francisco to Hong Kong to Stockholm to Pune, India.

For years, interaction designers have spoken at various conferences: CHI, the IA Summit, IDSA, AIGA, DUX, DIS, and numerous web design conferences, just to name a handful.

I’ve always had to wade through the taxonomy and tagging sessions at the IA Summit to get to the interaction design material, and CHI and DIS and other conferences were always far too academic for my taste; they were all about academics presenting research papers that had little to do with professional practice.

We did briefly consider combining with another conference, but we knew we had so much material and interest that it simply didn’t seem feasible. Part of the reason we’re doing the conference is to really cement and spread the word about interaction design as a separate discipline.

B&A: In an ideal world, what would a relative neophyte experience there? A long-time expert?

DS: Hopefully both will experience the same thing: a fun, well-designed conference that features some of the world’s best interaction designers. It’s a chance to rub elbows with luminaries like Alan Cooper who literally wrote the book on interaction design, as well as up-and-comers like frog’s Michele Tepper talking about interaction design across platforms. We’ve set up the conference to have a lot of great content—and insane amount of content, really, in just two days—but also to have activities and social time to hang out and talk to other designers.

For newcomers to the field, it’s a chance to experience the breadth of what interaction design has to offer the world. We have Carl DiSalvo talking about interaction design for community empowerment, Gabriel White on everyday design ethics, and Yasser Rasid talking about visualizing radio for the BBC.

For experts, it can be learning new tricks like Dan Brown’s Concept Models or how Jenny Lam “hits it with the pretty stick.” Or you can get deep and conceptual with Sarah Allen’s Cinematic Interaction Design or Dave Cronin’s Designing for Flow.

But it’s definitely not all theory; we have a lot of great practical sessions like Jonathan Arnowitz on effective prototyping and case studies like Saskia Idzerda on redesigning Sony Ericsson’s Product Catalog. And if you want more hands-on, we’ve got four great workshops on the Friday before on prototyping, designing in an Agile environment, turning research into design, and effect mapping.

B&A: How did you pick Savannah? It’s an interesting place to consider visting as a tourist, but we would guess that it wouldn’t occur to most people to got there for a conference.

DS: We knew we wanted to do it early in the year in a small city—both for budgetary reasons. We looked at several different cities like Portland, Austin, and Providence alongside Savannah. The people at Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) were so accommodating and excited about having us there that the answer was clear. They are showing us some real Southern hospitality.

Plus, Savannah is a great city; one of America’s little gems. It’s beautiful, filled with history, fun, and very walkable. I’m personally a big fan of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which captures the spirit of the city so well.

B&A: What has it been like creating the conference? What has surprised you as particularly difficult or easy?

DS: It’s taken a while to get the conference off the ground—over a year now. Some of it was simply generating the willpower to do it, but once we committed and found a location, it’s been all-go. Of course, the logistics of setting up a conference for the first time is a challenge.

Choosing and balancing a program was also very difficult. We got 80 entries in our call for submissions, which we had to whittle down to 20 lightning sessions.

Any one of them could have gone on the program, so getting it down to 20 was agonizing. We initially set the sessions at 14, but we couldn’t bear to exclude so many so we squeezed in six more. Even then, some excellent sessions and interesting topics had to be excluded. It was an awful lesson in design constraints.

What has been great is the support SCAD is giving to us. We’re excited about the launch they are giving this conference. Having the students and faculty of SCAD participate in the conference is going to be a real added bonus.

Another good surprise is the enthusiasm people have for the conference. People always want to talk to me about it and are psyched at the program. I’m thrilled at the caliber of speakers we were able to get our first time out of the gate.

B&A: The IxDA is doing some interesting things to show what it means to be an IxDA member. Tell us a little about those and how these things might affect people that want to, but cannot, attend the conference.

DS: We’ve been working on a number of initiatives for our members, while keeping our commitment to keeping membership free and open to all. Not only do we have the IxDA Mailing List, which has some 4000 members, we’ve also recently created the next generation of the IxDA website, so you can follow threads and topics in various ways, such as via RSS.

We’ve also stepped up our efforts at getting local IxDA chapters off the ground. We now have groups that meet regularly in cities around the world. We have groups in cities all across the US, Europe, India, and parts of Asia.

Conference-wise, we’re hoping to share, via Boxes and Arrows and other media partners, some of the content we’re going to have at the conference available via articles, reviews, slides, and podcasts of the speakers. It won’t be like being there, but it’ll be the next best thing.

B&A: Thanks for all the great information, Dan. We’ll look forward to seeing you at the conference!

DS: Thank you. See you in Savannah!

For more information, visit the “IxDA”:http://ixda.org/index.php or Interaction 08.

Posted in Conferences and Events, Interactivity, Interviews | 3 Comments »

3 Comments

  • David C Dunkle

    December 19, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    I chuckled at Dan’s metaphor, “The IxDA is definitely the AK47 of the UX world!” To extend it a bit more, perhaps each is a powerful tool in the hands of a willful revolutionary; a vehicle designed to break the oppressive shackles that limit mankind.

    But it’s not a “perfect” metaphor, is it? Clearly, there are object differences. IxDA membership, for example, is not discouraged in the UK, and the organization has an effective range far beyond 200 meters. There’s also that pesky legacy of the weapon to deal with. “AK47. When you absolutely, positively have to kill every [person] in the room.”

    I suggest a different metaphor; one with healing attributes. “The IxDA is definitely the polio vaccine of the UX world” Hmmm… Maybe, “…the Muscle Milk™ of the UX world” or, “…the Baby Einstein™ of the UX world”?

    Perhaps an Interaction 08 lightning session could select the best.

    Happy Holidays to all.

  • Richard Dalton

    December 20, 2007 at 2:17 am

    The AK47 metaphor is actually Andrew Hinton’s … see his Communities of Practice presentation.

  • Eric Reiss

    February 13, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    The Savannah event was one of the most interesting conferences I’ve attended in years – you, David Malouf, and the entire committee are to be congratulated on your well-deserved success. But to say that interaction designers merely “design behaviour” is both simplistic and limiting. Something like saying UX designers merely facilitate “endorphin and dopamine release.”

    Curiously absent in Savannah were both IA and usability sessions. Hopefully, the recipe for future conferences will include all four of the UX foodgroups you mentioned earlier – HCI, design, IA, and usability.

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