Design Is Rocket Science

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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”: [1] 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”:; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2007.


  1. I think you are doing a disservice to those who choose to adopt a more scientific approach to interface design. Flair and creativity are an important aspect of interface design and it is true that if the team lacks creative and artistic skills the end result will be soulless, difficult to use and lack an element of intuitiveness and humanity. But the other side of the coin is the same, if a team lacks the ‘harder’ skills related to the scientific or engineering side of design then the end result becomes little more than an art project. Both types of interface are bad for the world we live in, but in different ways. The best results are always obtained in teams working together towards a common goal, but where there is dynamic tension between sections of the team. Done well this always results in a beautifully balanced solution.

  2. “Experience has taught me that if overall the team lacks creative and artistic skills, the product is doomed to become unfriendly or inelegant.”

    I disagree with this statement. Artistic skills have nothing to do with interaction design or visual design. “Design”, even visual design, is not “art”, even though they share a common touch point in being aesthetically pleasing (sometimes).

    Furthermore, I am completely baffled by what you mean by “the impossibilities of science” and by “research and science struggle for elegance”. The heart of science is evidence and reproducibility. It informs our lives in rich and meaningful ways. How does that lack elegance?

    Science is not design. It does, however, help us become better designers. An example is the immense body of knowledge coming from cognitive neuroscience, which helps us better understand the basis of visual perception and cognition.

  3. i’ve ordered the book — always looking for something new to read. thnx!!!!!

    on the continuum between theory and practice, i generally come down on the side of learning all the new methodologies as they come along, and then having new tools and approaches when i actually sit down to do something or invent a process myself.

    on a scale of 1-10, if 1 is completely practice driven and 10 is purely theoretical, i think 7 is the place to be: well informed about the theory part, in service of and guiding the doing part.

    this poster is up in my kid’s school, and it sums things up for me: “An education is what you remember, after you have forgotten everything that you’ve learned.” – Albert Einstein

  4. Just to reply about the art / design / science comments, I’m simply saying the field in general is based too heavily on scientific and research approaches. Computers are something that live in people’s lives, in their homes, and they should be designed with this in mind. The interface is like a book, a lot of people need narrative, creativity, emotion, and other artistic values in order for it to be interesting. Most interfaces are drawn on purely functional values, making them the equivalent of non-fiction books, or even more specifically, resource books.

    Many people are still tied to the idea of the computer as a functional work tool, an ideology that is now very dated. The majority of users now see it as a communications device, for entertainment, and other possibilities. The interfaces need to reflect this, the field needs to be more like interior design, or architecture, where the social values of the environment play the key factor.

    Like it or not, design is an arts discipline, and some even argue it is a fine art. My opinion, I would simply say that design is a form of contemporary art, perhaps a solely commercial one, but one that the public has the opportunity to embrace. By ignoring this simple fact we abandon our relationship with the culture we live in, and provide designs which aren’t able to represent public interest.

  5. Clifton,

    Great article and thanks for sharing!

    I was Vice-Chair of Ottawa’s HCI group last year. I’m an Information Architect by trade and surround myself with graphic designers; programmers; and the like to learn from their experiences. (It’s my belief that you can’t see the whole picture if you don’t learn from others’ professions and experiences.)

    You’ve noted, “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.” I agree with you.

    Though the science behind design is an important foundational element, it does not provide the complete picture. We are designing systems and solutions for other people, not other programs and machines (most of the time). If one doesn’t understand how people think, interact, and learn, how can you create a positive user experience? Usability, for example, has come to the forefront b/c there isn’t a one-size fits all when building web services. Information Architecture recognizes the need to not talk about “rocket science” using the professions vocabulary if you aren’t addressing other rocket scientists – so anyone can find anything they need; and the list goes on with other professions and the value add they bring to the table when designing.

    I think this book, and others in the HCI field, would be an important resource for all professions. As you’ve pointed out, this is a reference book. I’ve created a library of resources from other professions related and unrelated to my profession as an Information Architect. This insight has allowed me to build creative and useful solutions for clients in ways I never would have thought of, without the sharing of such perspectives.

  6. First of all, thank you Clifton for your spot-on commentary. I’ve been waiting to hear these words for some time now. I agree that design is a form of contemporary art and has been for some time. The designs of cars in the mid to late 1930’s totally reflected their view of a streamlined future as many contemporary designs of each era reflect cultural or aspirational shifts. Web sites designed just ten years ago are light years behind where we find ourselves today (the wayback machine provides a wonderfully sobering view of this – This fine tradition of design reflection has been in place since Leonardo. He was as comfortable dissecting the human body to understand muscle, as he was designing helicopters and other “industrial design” used for the military. So to see the comment from Vytas… “Artistic skills have nothing to do with interaction design or visual design. “Design”, even visual design, is not “art”, even though they share a common touch point in being aesthetically pleasing (sometimes)…. was shocking. It is akin to stating that sight has nothing to do with visual design! Anyway, designers are often misunderstood and vary quite a bit in talent across a broad range of definition. But if one is a genuine designer, one is most definitely an artist.

  7. Physics is not chemistry. French is not German. Sky diving is not scuba diving. And design (of human computer interfaces) is not Contemporary Art.

    There are huge differences between Design and Art, though there is a fuzzy border between them, just as with thousands of other areas of study. Art is about personal expression. Design is about building products and services that others will use in a practical way and, hopefully, enjoy.

    Let’s look at illustration versus painting for a minute. The goal of an illustrator is to convey a specific concept that enhances some other primary experience, such as a novel, magazine article, or an ad. Thus, illustration is at the service of the primary content and not intended to be the sole expression of the illustrator.

    Contrast this with a painter, who is generally conveying a feeling, point of view, reflecting on an his/her impression of beauty, or making some sort of social commentary. Unless it’s a specifically commissioned piece, the intention of a work of fine art is to be a form of personal expression. Even though there are edge and crossover cases, it’s important to understand this distinction.

    In many ways, design is like illustration in that it also is at the service of people. Designers create experiences that are intended to make people’s live better, safer, or both. The best design also delights. As Don Norman put it, “attractive things work better.” They do because human perception makes it so. Understanding visual perception and cognition is key, and these fall under the domain of design via the process that is followed.

    It’s not enough to merely blend some colors and say “Yeh, green looks cool. It will be green.” That my be fine for a digital artwork, but what are the issues with respect to visual perception, the psychological associations to color, cultural interpretations, color-blindness concerns, the character it lends to forms, and branding issues (with respect to the competitive landscape)? These are “design” issues.

  8. I think somehow this became a discussion about the premise that Art is one definition and Design is another. I evidently did not understand your point and failed to make mine. Agreed that French is not German, but it is a language. Sky-diving is not scuba diving– but it is a sport.

    I understood Clifton’s post to be about the commonality of what might be called the “creative view” -versus what might be called the “scientific view,” no more no less.

    In my experience, scientists are not very good at creating “attractive things” to the Don Norman quote, nor particularly adept at solving design issues raised in your final paragraph (mileage may vary). For 35 years or so I have been a fine artist, a graphic designer, an interaction designer and an illustrator. As you state, it’s important to understand the distinction– and I agree. My point is that it’s also important to understand the commonalities within a creative view. I could not possibly handle each discipline equally, but I am the same person.

    Of course where the scientific views of research, cognitive, perceptual, psychological and all of the factors that would enter the design arena for-hire are concerned, they are a paramount part of the equation, but not the sum. or are not elegant websites in my opinion, but they are highly scientific and usable.

    I’m not suggesting that design (of human computer interfaces) is a binary decision for using either a scientific view or an artistic (design) view. I believe it is a requirement to find a blend that works for the end user/participant.

    As for the reference to contemporary art, I think your definition is too narrow. Warhol broke open commercial products as contemporary art 45 years ago. The G4 cube from Apple Design Group is in the Museum of Modern Art, even though the product failed. An iPhone is way closer to a work of art, than it is a work of science, even though both disciplines are blended into it. However the elegance of the design (the art) causes an emotional response. I include product design all the way to graffiti within the definition of contemporary art. Things that are in our lives and surround us, qualify as art and if they are new, they are contemporary. Thanks for the stimulating opinions 😉

  9. Yes, to me it’s a simple balance, there is no right or wrong, just more or less of one thing or another.

    I just see the business and technology sides of this industry (and I use that word with regret) taking over the possibilities of the medium. Disastrously. I think we live in such corrupt times, times when a local baker is about as close to having local design as we currently have. Gone is the tailor, the iron worker, the shoemaker, and even the farmer and the machinist. We are living without design, and to be perfectly frank, you have to be an artist to see this.

    Wouldn’t you prefer to have a local shoemaker, someone who knew your feet and could design the shoes you needed? There was a time when all of the railway cars in America were designed by different people, for different areas, and they typically worked on a piece by piece model, not a time and materials model, leading to some of the most distinguishable designs by region that transportation has ever had. An artist is paid per piece, not by how many hours it took to make the piece. But look at programming… yikes!

    I see programming as an art as well, and science, and, well everything really. The problem is that as design is so close to a fine art, it becomes difficult to lump it into into the industrial revolution model of time and materials. I would say the same is true of other areas, disciplines, that are frantically producing, yet yielding little, or at least repetitive results, just for the sake of time, instead of quality, or even quantity.

    I think those of us who are closer to seeing that the time and materials model does not work, by necessity, should be proud in our reservation, and in our knowledge that it simply does not work. Unfortunately the business world does not agree with these simple facts, as accountants have never learned to subtract.

    It’s very easy to see the problems caused with the manufacturing / industrial revolution model, when you look at it from the perspective of the ‘end users’, but the solution is not as easy as witnessing the results. I simply think that the arts have narrowly escaped the industrial production model, and people who produce arts are have the decency and the right to announce alternative models of production.

    There is a better world out there, and it’s hanging on your wall, it’s in your photo albums and it’s in your sketchbook.

  10. “I see programming as an art as well, and science, and, well everything really. The problem is that as design is so close to a fine art..”

    CD, If everything is Art then nothing is Art. Despite postmodernism, not “everything is art”. If this were the case, then the word would be rendered utterly meaningless. What would be the point?

    Design is a field in it’s own right and a very precise term when referencing, say, the process that led to the iPhone. Design has a rich aesthetic at its core that is informed by many disciplines, including the arts, but is not itself the same as Contemporary Art.

    Do we want design to resonate with us and our culture? You betcha. Can objects that were designed be looked upon as Art? Yes. After the fact. The G4 cube can be seen this way as can found objects and broken crockery (a la Schnabel from the 80’s). But the intention of the original “design” was NOT creative expression per se. Rather, it was to meet the needs of customers.

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