I feel like my baby grew up this year. From February 1-5, 2012, the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) put on Interaction12 (IxD12), its fifth annual conference, held in Dublin, Ireland. As somebody who has been involved with IxDA since its nascence as a Yahoo! Groups discussion list in 2003 and then as a Director Emeritus of the global organization (2007-2010), I am immensely proud to witness its accomplishments in advancing the state of the interaction design discipline.
The Interaction conference platform is the most visible and energetic of all the organization’s endeavors thus far, even though just a tiny percentage of IxDA members are able to attend in person. This year, even as IxD12 attendance grew to 750 people, that percentage diminishes because the organization now counts somewhere around 35,000 members in its digital forums, with over 100 local groups operating in cities around the globe. Only about 40% of the attendees came from North America this year, with over 32 countries represented.
Happily, even if you weren’t at IxD12 you can partake of its fruits, beyond reading conference reports from media sponsors like Johnny Holland (for which, start here: http://johnnyholland.org/2012/02/interactions-12-day-one/). IxDA promotes “Redux” events held by the local chapters and also records all presentations in order to publish them online. (Despite good intentions, the IxDA.org’s Resource Library is little used, so you’ll have to Google the hashtags “ixd08”; “ixd09”; etc. to find Interaction conference materials from over the years that are scattered around the internet.)
I have been fortunate to attend all the Interaction conferences thus far. While it always feels to me rather like a family reunion mixed with a holiday celebration, this year I was positively overwhelmed by meeting so many new people, all of whom brought a tremendous sense of excitement and engagement to the event. I was also both invigorated and stunned by the level of intellectual sophistication and professional maturity exhibited across the range of excellent keynote speakers and presenters. Stitched together into a delightful, coherent program by the inestimable Megan Grocki, the content reflected many of the lenses on the field that interest me professionally at the moment. (And all due props to the conference co-chairs Steve Baty and Seamus Byrne, as well as the entire team of volunteers who made it happen!)
In my new role as a Product Manager at a large hospital organization and charged especially with identifying opportunities to innovate and integrate social media into our offerings, I principally attended those workshops and talks that supported designerly concerns around consumer research, social media, and healthcare. The following summaries of people’s presentations and conference events are surrounded by my idiosyncratic analyses and insights, which I’ve attempted to identify with the “I” pronoun as much as possible!
Wednesday, February 1
Designing Social Experiences, by the Facebook UX team (Half-Day Workshop)
The workshop leaders introduced us to Facebook’s “In HACK We Trust” philosophy, and explained that their UX team comprises the specialties of: Communication Design; Product Design; Content Strategy; User Research; and UI Engineering. They provided their framework of design considerations around bringing new features and applications into their insanely-heavily-used social media platform. These considerations are:
- Social value: what positive purposes to bringing people together does [x] offer?
- Identity: what does [x] say about who I am? Does it position me in the best light?
- Distribution: how will [x] spread, and to whom?
- Feedback: what affordances for [x] will drive engagement?
Awesomely, the workshop exercise put us into groups with the challenge to define a social experience around health and fitness. My group developed a short pitch around a specific concept, and then put together a prototype of that concept. We conceived a product that would let people snap pictures of their plates of food, and then a very sophisticated algorithm would assess the picture to determine the meal’s overall nutritional value. Ancillary features would involve longitudinal assessments of eating patterns; tracking food consumption against dietary goals; social tagging of whom you ate with; information sharing about where you ate especially healthy meals; and expanding awareness of global cuisine options. To brainstorm, conceive, refine and prototype was a fun way to warm up for the conference!
That night was the opening party at the Trinity College dining hall, the first place I started to feel truly awed at the large community that had gathered. I had my first chance to speak French with some interaction designer students from Paris, as well—vraiment magnifique!
Thursday, February 2
Disrupt by Luke Williams (Opening Keynote)
Incremental innovation keeps businesses on a narrow path. Even strong predictive abilities is a “spot and react” mentality that cannot deliver the provocations needed to disrupt an industry and generate new value in the marketplace. He posited that we have exited the Information Age, and exist in a new Age of Disruption, an age of expanded creativity. I’d personally like to see some time of reconciliation or transition between the two ages; I also wonder at the contradictory import of dwelling in an “age” of disruption, and suppose I believe more in a pattern of punctuated equilibrium for human society.
Design Language by Mike Lemmon (45 minute talk)
We are in a phase transition from physical to digital products, and risk a dilution of elegant and meaningful forms and functions in that transition. In considering product design across new digital contexts and platforms, we need to work from the level of the consumer up to the level of brand, up to the level of structure, interactions, and lastly visuals. A design language is like a constitution, and the brand promise is the basis of that design’s representation. Mike contended that brand is a discourse that is earned, and but yet that we can look to a brand’s authentic personality for guidance. I wondered at how this dialetic meshes with the designer’s quest to define a design language based on brand; it seems there is a tension between determining the perceived personality of a brand and imposing a designerly point of view on the forms and expressions of that brand. Also, he referred us to seek familiar interactions. As I wonder where such familiarity can reside (since we are already long past the age of mechanical reproduction that philosopher Walter Benjamin called out its lack of authenticity), I suppose we have to look towards science fiction. Good thing I love the genre so much!
Innovations in Accessibility: What We Can Learn from Digital Outcasts by Kel Smith (45 minute talk)
“Communication is the essence of being human,” said a therapist in one of the videos in Kel’s inspirational talk. He covered iPhone apps for autism and musical instrument apps that have brought sociality to people locked into conditions that make communication difficult if not impossible. He pointed out that we live in a “high-tech, low-touch” society, and cited terrible statistics that include the fact that 13% of post-operative patients have to return to hospitals within 60 days of release; 60% of them don’t return to visit their primary doctor as they’re supposed; and 125,000 people in the U.S. alone die for medical non-adherence. He posited that considering affordances; universality; and empathy are key to improve accessibility for all people. And, when 15% of the world’s population reports as disabled in some way, we all need to relate better to the world’s digital outcasts for we may be one of them ourselves.
Student Design Challenge organized by Steve Portigal and Jeremy Yuille for IxDA
I was asked to be on the jury of the Student Design Challenge this year, along with about ten other senior representatives of the discipline. Four students selected from many entrants spent the two days prior to the conference in a master class that introduced design techniques and a chance to work on the problem posed to them: design the future of news. From such a broad brief, each student chose to tackle one aspect of the problem area, and developed a short presentation encapsulating their thinking and design outputs. I was most impressed with Priscilla Mok, who ended up winning the competition, because her process included user research and considerations of feasibility and she crafted a nicely-targeted “Act” feature to be added to platforms such as Facebook. This simple feature links one to whatever hands-on activities have coalesced around a news story, from donating to charity to attending events, addressing the sense of powerlessness many of us feel in the face of daunting headlines. One interesting thing I learned was that the students (all of whom happened to be women) collaborated and supported each other’s work rather than treating the activity like a true competition; several of us commented on how all four of their solutions could be combined to make the media more consumer-oriented and meaningful.
Future of Design, Healthcare and Mobile Technology by Virgil Wong & Akshay Kapur (45 minute talk)
In a world increasingly capable of delivering the quantified self (a concept led by Kevin Kelly), healthcare holds the promise of delivering truly personalized medicine tailored to the individual’s needs. The competition inherent in social interactions and the portability of data could help empower people to be motivated towards new behaviors. The presenters contend that seeing possible future selves could be a motivator for today’s behaviors, something they call the Proteus effect. They introduced a range of interesting products that will merit further study on my part, including: SenseWear; their own product called Medical Avatar; Hello Health; Ringadoc/Teladoc; and InTouch Health. I’m very curious to explore the potential of their Medical Avatar to change behavior, even though it suffers from the uncanny valley problem that could make it function as a distancing tool rather than the personalizing tool they intend.
Design for Healthcare and Ambiguity by Maggie Breslin (45 minute talk)
An interaction designer at Mayo Clinic in their Center for Innovation and part of the KER (Knowledge Encounter Research) team there, Maggie believes that designers in healthcare need to be primarily responsible for enabling difficult conversations between patients and their providers. Rather than focusing on “problem solving” and “visionary ideas”, she finds the outputs of her work mainly involving the creation of paper-based tools that facilitate interpersonal communication and shared decision-making. At Mayo, they try and test everything in live clinical environments, constantly iterating and experimenting to find approaches that will bring patient’s concerns to light at the crucial moment of their encounter with the provider. She shared a fascinating case study between two approaches at communicating clinical outcomes, and how they discovered the extraordinary persuasive power of couching potential outcomes as “100 Different Lives of Mary”. Viva parallel dimensions! She also mentioned how physicians frequently put up a screen against the kind of iterative modeling that designers want to do, pretending that everything is black and white when the reality is that it’s a hugely gray area. I know that this “it depends” space is precisely where design approaches can prevail.
I also had the insight that design in healthcare domain most heavily emphasizes soft skills of Understanding & Communication in the spectrum of user experience design (cf sundial model: http://ebacon.posterous.com/sundial-model-of-ux-and-ixd). I might also observe that it’s in the Definition skills area that many healthcare product teams have less internal expertise, leading them to turn frequently to consultants.
What If…?: Crafting Design Speculations by Tony Dunne (keynote)
Tony Dunne (a partner at Dunne and Raby with Fiona Raby, who gave a keynote at Interaction09) presented his view of the “what if…” space that lies between the well-established design approaches of problem-solving and commentary/critique. He cited the physics of moving from the present into the future, and the way that what happens in the future can be seen as occupying spaces of the probable, potential, and possible; the designer is charged with moving humanity in the preferable future. (He also quoted physicist Michio Kaku as saying that only two things are impossible: precognition and perpetual motion, which reminded me again of how much I hold to magical thinking since I don’t agree those things are impossible!) Dunne presented some fantastical and challenging projects from his work as a professor at the Royal College of Art, using techniques such as counter-factual histories and animalistic inspirations to conceive radical new products and services. He closed by asking us to consider the question of how do we redesign ourselves, rather than our precious, fragile environment, to fit within the limited resources of the world….
Thursday night I suffered from a bout of homesickness and did not manage to attend either the Great IxDA Debate or the Dublin Pub Crawl, but I did enjoy a long conversation with my wonderful host in Dublin, Caroline Toland, wherein we consumed more than a bit of liquid cheer.