IDEA 2008: An Interview with Bill DeRouchey

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As IDEA 2008 draws closer, the IA Institute is conducting a series of interviews with the speakers for the conference. As Event Coordinator for IDEA, I fill a variety of roles, including the Interviewer of IDEA Presenters (which I proudly share with Liz Danzico).

For this interview, I was fortunate to draw Bill DeRouchey’s name. If his name is not familiar to you, some of his work should be. Bill’s blog is Push. Click. Touch. and his Conversations with Everyday Objects presentation is one that is well worth your time.

RU: How did you get your start in Interaction/Information Design?

BD: Like most people working in interaction design, I arrived from a lateral discipline. I had been an information architect working strictly on web projects from 2000-2004, either within an agency or as a consultant, respectively before and after the tech collapse. Prior to that, I had experience in writing, coding, product marketing, web producing, and then all the way back to my early days doing layout of computer science textbooks. So I had many angles on "tech."
In 2004, I was hired as an IA by Ziba Design, a product design company, not an obvious match. But they had a few website projects and asked me to come aboard. I quickly began working on physical products and learned interaction design along the way. Yes, I got lucky. I still take an architecture / flow / structure / behavior / systems approach to IxD, as opposed to the visual design side of it.

RU: It sounds like you’re relatively "young" to the field, but you’re well-known and well-respected in a short amount of time.  How did you get your start as a presenter?

BD: I blame/thank Christina Wodtke for starting me as a presenter. A few months after I started at Ziba, I signed up for a Future of IA retreat in Asilomar, by Monterrey, CA. During registration, Christina asked me "what are you going to present?" Uhhh… So I pitched a talk called the IA of Things discussing my transition from digital to physical products, and the challenges of documenting physical interaction. Later after gentle prodding from Dave Malouf, I finally realized I was talking about interaction design. But that weekend seriously changed my career because I got to meet 40 incredible people, many of which I now consider friends. I discovered I enjoyed pitching weird questions and wrapping presentations around them, such as, what is the history of the button?

RU: I think a lot of us put some of the blame on Christina–and she’s a self-proclaimed talent scout. I’d say she’s on the mark!
What should the audience take away from your talk?

BD: Besides their empty coffee cups? If people took only one thing away from my talk, I’d love it if people saw that they can find UI inspiration almost anywhere and expand their design eye from pure onscreen experiences to any interface out there. Gas pumps, thermostats, crosswalk, elevators, mall signage, anything. Every one of these interfaces affects how someone thinks about technology or information, so there’s always a lesson to be discovered within them. If just five people went home and really looked at their alarm clock for the first time to figure out the design decisions that were made when building it, I’d be happy. We’re going to need a lot more product UI designers in the coming years, and they’re going to come from onscreen UI designers. The job opportunities aren’t all there yet, but the opportunity to learn always is.

RU: Who do you look to for inspiration?

It may be cliche, but my parents. My dad was always the king of the many projects, but he saw most of them through and has done some really amazing things. He started programming somewhere around 1970 on DECs and VAXs and eventually started his own company whose flagship product (UAP-LINK) transferred files across different systems, DEC to VAX, VAX to IBM, etc. A few years ahead of his time. He taught me to program in C when I was still in high school and I did some coding for his company. So my first computer experience was learning CP/M on a DEC PDP-11 and playing Adventure, thanks to him. Then about 20 years later, he built his own plane. He built an RV-10 kit, riveting pieces together for three years during the day while he coded his own instrument panel at night. It’s a gorgeous piece of work and flies perfectly. And my mom will remodel her place in her spare time. Reconfigure the kitchen, build new dressers, sew up quilts, re-mud the ceiling, whatever.
Incredible to see. So I get my Get Stuff Done inspiration from my parents.

RU: Your dad sounds pretty amazing, and it’s interesting to see what other fathers in this space are starting to do with their own kids (Matt Milan and I seem to be teaching the best of the worst IA traits to ours) and how something that used to be considered pretty nerdy/geeky is starting to be viewed a bit differently.
This is a set-up question: What’s your favorite way to communicate with people who aren’t in the same room with you?

Do I have only 140 characters to say it in? Yeah, it’d have to be Twitter. It’s been an amazing tool to stay connected with people that I’ve met at various events and friends here in town. It’s really damn hard to stay connected with all the people we know, so Twitter does a fine job at maintaining that connection by hearing about their lives.

As David Weinberger said, "intimacy is in the details."

RU: Last question, and this is a doozy: Over the course of 2008, you and I have become “friends”–at least I’d say that, and I believe you’ve said that. We most likely will not meet face-to-face until October at IDEA in Chicago, yet I’d say we have built a level of trust and respect for each other–we’ve even worked “virtually” on putting together a panel presentation for SXSW together. How do you think that happened, and who should we blame?

This fascinates me too. It’s true. We’ve never met face to face and we’ve only talked on the phone once, but we’ve had enough online interaction to build both trust and friendship. How the hell is that possible? Tracing it back is an interesting case study. On Twitter, I noticed a few friends (people I have met f2f and trust) keep talking to @russu. Okay, I’ll see what this guy is up to. Seems harmless enough, okay, follow. Then we made some connection on music, and the conversation developed from there. But is this really different at all from meeting people in the “real world”? You meet through mutual friends, connect on something simple, and then just keep talking. That’s the beauty of Twitter. People are giving you many opportunities to connect in some way. Sometimes it clicks and you make a new friend. If you never actually meet, so what? Yes, it’d be a shame, but geography should never be a barrier to connecting with other people.


About Bill DeRouchey

Bill has over fifteen years experience as a writer, information architect, product manager and now senior interaction designer with Ziba Design in Portland, Oregon. With Ziba, he frames and details the experience, flow, and interaction on consumer and medical products. Bill also writes about the variety and history of interaction design in everyday experiences on his blog, Push Click Touch, and is a frequent speaker at industry events. He is determined to stretch how people think about interaction design, from beyond the pure digital to any interaction between humans and the artifacts they create. Bill is on the Board of Directors of IxDA, the Interaction Design Association, and serves as Treasurer.


About IDEA (Information Design Experience Access)

This conference addresses issues of design for an always-on, always-connected world. Where “cyberspace” is a meaningless term because the online and offline worlds cannot be made distinct. Where physical spaces are so complex that detailed wayfinding is necessary to navigate them. Where work processes have become so involved, and so digitized, that we need new processes to manage those processes.

This conference brings together people who are addressing these challenges head on. Speakers from a variety of backgrounds will discuss designing complex information spaces in the physical and virtual worlds.


  1. Thanks for an interesting interview. I really appreciated the last question as I think it reflects what is on the minds of all social media users- the question of how authentic is a relationship started and maintained by technology?

  2. Thanks Chris.

    On your authenticity question, this could be a naive answer, but the technology could be irrelevant. In any relationship, the burden is on the people to make the relationship authentic. The tech tools can only provide opportunities, reminders, and simple ways for people to connect with each other. But in the end, it’s the words we use, the things we say, the levels we expose that contributes to authenticity. How authentic are relationships that are started by people we meet at work? Say you work with 100 people. You may have casual friendly relationships with 40 of them, but only really really connect with 5. It’s the law of odds. However, the social media, mediums with which to be social, simply provides us more opportunities to find the people we really connect with. After that, it’s up to people to maintain that authentic relationship, whether through software apps, texting, phone calls, traveling, going for coffee, whatever. I really believe that questioning technology’s involvement is the wrong question.

  3. Chris–good question. I think I have to echo Bill, but mildly different.

    I think that, in this case, technology enabled the relationship, but it is up to us to be genuine to our online personalities (assuming, of course, that we are). As long as we are genuine in those manners, I think it translates nicely once you remove the technology.

    When Bill and I spoke on the phone, I had already had the advantage of seeing him speak via an online video–he didn’t have the opportunity to know what a fast-speaking person I am, but the way we spoke to each was in the same vein as email, IM and other messaging.

    I think it all depends upon how genuine people are and their intentions with each other and/or the relationship.

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