Success Stories

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Success is a difficult thing. What exactly does it mean? Rising to the top, or getting what you want? Having respect for your achievements? Whatever it means, it’s a regular expression in The Netherlands. You know, that funny place sometimes referred to as Holland, where, as they say goodbye, they wave and say, ‘Success!’ Now, I’ve seen it happen occasionally in other places, but never with the same degree of bitter humor or comical irony. Whatever it actually means, the Dutch seem to suggest, ‘Success… it’s a new thing.’

The Dutch are, historically, very good designers, seeing design as a facet of their culture. Like architecture, design is a public necessity and a purveyor of improvement (or ironic comments on improvement). So, when something becomes improved, like the design of an interface, it is a success, but it’s still only a stepping stone to the next improvement. This idea hints at the problem with success stories. They capture the moment very well, but lead to the feeling that you have reached the end of the improvement, when quite regularly it is the opposite–you have simply just stepped a little farther towards a relatively unknown goal.

Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge[1] does an excellent job of revealing the people and the work behind many of the most important interactive products of our time and discussing their impact on the field of interaction design. The products with stories in this book have dead simple design approaches behind them and should give us pride as designers, knowing that the best things out there have come from a relatively painless approach. We should be honest, however. This isn’t the whole story, as most of these products come from the efforts of multiple people, from integrating the opinions of the general public, to copying other designs, and, in fact, almost always some combination of all these things.

While it’s a great read, this book might lead you to believe otherwise, slightly, as it is biased towards the perspectives and histories of a few ‘successful’ designers, and not the entire output of any given design culture, never mind the much larger international culture of interaction design. One of the central themes is summarized early on in the book saying that the core skills of design are synthesis, understanding people, and iterative prototyping. While most designers can agree that this statement is very insightful, especially coming from Stu Card, one of the computer science brains at Xerox Parc in the seventies, it doesn’t take into account simple influences like access to production lines, distribution, backing, and the aforementioned. In that light, the statement comes off like a sales pitch to gain access to things that are necessary, but only relevant when you are already part of the industrial complex.

Still, a huge amount of valuable information lies in this tome, and the book should go on your shelf for a resource if nothing else. Be forewarned that there is a certain amount of social network back patting and ‘Apple Glorification’ in this book that is kind of scary. I’m a Mac user, always have been, but not because it is the supreme operating system design, but because it is slightly better, if that, than the only other major competitor on the market.

Now, not to get strung into the old debate, Designing Interactions does a good job of summarizing how the current mouse and windows operating system came to be. It does not provide tons of insight into what else was happening at that time. I’d like more stories from ‘the innovative seventies’, and how some of those ideas might have been able to help us if they had evolved. We all know we could use a period of cultural R&D like that in this field again, especially without the computer science (CS) focus. If you’re looking for a book that tells a bit more, check out Howard Riengold’s, Tools for Thought[2].

When pining for a period of innovation without the CS focus, I’m not saying that pure ‘design talent’ can solve all design problems, though it definitely helps, as you’ll see by reading the stories in Designing Interactions. The problem is that designers (through agencies, firms, shops, and individuals) are only responsible for a very small percentage of the designs out there, leaving many to be designed, by other means, technical, industrial, or other random approaches. As a result, most people get rare access to “decent” design.

Perhaps this is just a numbers game for establishing creative organizations. If there were more creative approaches out there, the market would reap the rewards and the creative approaches would prove their worth. As that has yet to be proven (or “proves” impossible), perhaps we should shift into a more creative approach?

To turn the coin on it’s head, before I get too strong minded about creative approaches, as much as that design is indeed an art form, design also has too strong a focus on the notion of “the elite,” and Designing Interactions certainly reflects that. To be part of true public awareness anyway, like in countries like the Netherlands, design requires a certain amount of separation from the industrial complex, or at least from the companies that are fixated on it. Creative development seems more about the culture in which it is created, and less about developing the best products for the highest bidder.

The book tends to be agreeable to this principle on average, including some examples of more responsible people designing for the culture they live in, not for “the future” or “the market.” Three examples in particular shed light on how design could be done, how the technology industry is indeed very backwards, and how most of us just twiddle our thumbs when it comes to creating making decent and responsible products.

Purple Moon, for those unaware, was a very innovative research project-turned-games company, led by Brenda Laurel, a guru in the interaction communities. Most innovative about the company was its focus on a completely untapped market in the IT industry in general, young girls. For that part, it was successful. Even its crash–like so many other decent dotcom era projects–fails to negate real success.

Not only did the Purple Moon empire have a huge member base, it was the first successful product, in perhaps the history of computing, with the young female market. In some ways, we’re actually talking about the Facebook of it’s time for little girls. To put it more bluntly, Purple Moon was the only product out of Silicon Valley, in it’s history, that would have appealed to any of the young mothers I know today. It’s a shame and a disgrace that nothing even remotely along these lines has been substantially perused since.

Another example of a responsibility-based project, in this book, is some of the work that the Live|Work outfit out of London put together. They focus on Service Design, looking at the ecologies of interactive systems, how things like banking and automobiles effect our everyday lives, and looking at solutions to some of the problems that these larger systems have in terms of interaction.

Live|Work thinks above and beyond everyday products and looks at the systems that those products operate within. Moggridge highlights one project, an automobile network for the UK, where new fuel-efficient models of cars, the Fiat Multi+, would be released on more of a licensing model, than an ownership model. Seeing the infrastructure realities of the automobile in Europe, particularly the cities, this project entailed working with the Italian manufacturer and the UK government to implement a more cost effective model of transportation, resulting in a more sustainable impact on the culture and the overall ecology surrounding it.

Another story revolves around something more elegant and well-designed than even the iPod. For an Epson “conceptual design” project, a group of design researchers at Ideo Tokyo created a set of printers more like furniture than appliances, more like tables and shelves than objects typically sitting on top of them. One printer even simply had a sheet draped over it, so that the printout slid out from underneath–very elegant and mysterious. The Epson project exemplifies an exercise where the focus is not on the technology, but the aesthetic impact on its resident environment.

Projects like this uncover that people’s unsaid desires. They would actually like to have printers like these. Less than “better designed,” “more elegant,” “fancy,” or even “Japanese,” we simply enjoy looking at these artifacts. They may even be “presentable” even and would make the most elegant computer (including a Macintosh) look robotic and foreign. Something hard-edged lies in our current technology, something unfamiliar. Projects like this showcase the potential of comfort with technology. As things become more ubiquitous, the need to create devices that are unobtrusive and familiar will be a governing factor.

While reading another story about the Will Wright and the making of SimCity, I overheard someone sitting next to me in the cafe say, “He makes nice scones.” I wondered to myself, can this guy behind this video game make decent scones? While he might be able to, would he share the recipe? Should we just ask him how it was done, or is it a “family recipe” secretly handed down through the generations? As Wright says in the book, SimCity is not one of those stupid shoot-up games. Perhaps it’s a valuable contribution to society then. Why not let other people know how it’s done, like those tasty scones? Or at least give us the basic ingredients.

This last thought implies the real problem that Moggridge works to reveal. I feel, though, that it is far too subtle in it’s approach to really “hit the nail on the head.” The primary theme of this book, other than the success stories of our favorite collectibles, is how most of the most popular designs were created with a “popular approach,” by an individual drawing on a napkin, guiding a secretary to imagine, to fantasize the ideal text editor on a blank monitor, chatting informally in the hallway, or packing up and going somewhere else where they were willing to listen. Just like cooking scones, these are everyday, ordinary scenarios, and that’s how great design is created. This book does a wonderful job of showing how success stories are just regular accounts.

For me, at least, with the success stories of the most creative companies out there, like Ideo, the focus lies in blending the business process with the creative. Even at these design-driven shops, they tend to lean heavily toward the process and not the creative as the real explanation of the work, or at least it’s value. There just aren’t many completely creative focused interaction design organizations out there. There are a ton of research, design, analytical, and technological driven organizations, all blending their offerings with creative to an extent, but only an extent. In this light, Moggridge paints a relatively pretty picture of a new wave of possibilities by showing that success is born not out of a process, but happens organically like everything else.

For all practical purposes, Designing Interactions is about Ideo and its connections to Silicon Valley, with the occasional Tokyo or MIT connection. The subtlety ends up being only partially gratuitous, with the connections thrown in for what seems to be a comparison. It’s an important book in that it bridges a relatively huge gap in understanding between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world in terms of what we should be doing with technology. Moggridge does a great job of bridging that gap by focusing on the projects at MIT, which have over the years resembled a lot of what the labs, artists, and design communities outside of North America consider to be part of interaction design.

While this book has the histories of Apple, hyperlinks, Google, SimCity, I-Mode, the iPod, the Palm Pilot, laptops and tablets, the main question that I feel this book stirs up is, “How are we going to reflect our culture with all this technology?”

From reading these success stories, my answer is, “We can’t represent our culture if the creation of all of our artifacts is done in secret.” Most cultures take part in the design of their handicrafts, their instruments, tools, utensils, equipment, toys and decorative artifacts, but what are we doing with technology? Quite the opposite.

Designing Interactions gives access to a very detailed and adept summarized history of commercial interaction design. It’s an invaluable resource to anyone who wants to know what happened to get us to this point, especially with the computer interfaces. But, again, it does beg the question to be answered, “Why did these few people have such an effect, something that more designers producing more varying designs could have had?”

To end with a final thought is based on an old expression, nature never produces the exact same thing twice. Should we all not be working to achieve this state of natural variation and symbiosis? We’ll not get there focusing just on success stories or processes, but we can certainly learn how they can help us feel confident in our own methods.

fn1. Moggridge, Bill. “Designing Interactions”: MIT Press; 2007. Buy from: “MIT Press”: | “Amazon”:


  1. I’m glad to see another critical review of Designing Interactions. You’ve hit on many of the points I made in my review of it last November.

    But frankly, I think you’re being much too nice. Huge sections of this book are garbage–the section on Google is just recapitulating the Larry/Sergey PR myths. Much of it is very sloppily edited, and the interview format is a huge crutch to pad out the text. The best that can be said about the book is that it’s large, and has lots of great pictures.

    I think Moggridge’s failure to be crystal clear about his relationship to IDEO and to the many people interviewed in the book is deeply unethical. He doesn’t mention he *founded IDEO* anywhere in the text, for pete’s sake! Come on. I’m ashamed of MIT Press for allowing that to pass.

    That he works so hard to make everything here seem like the outcome of “natural” iterative processes is so biased, so much part of Silicon Valley culture of the 1970’s-1990’s that I’m sure he doesn’t even notice it. It’s naked mythologizing, not historical research.

  2. Thank you for such a review that goes beyond the book’s content to put the topic in context. I hope to see more reviews like this that strive to become educational vehicles themselves and not just product reports.

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