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.
Friday, February 4
Exploring, Sketching, and Other Designery Ways of Working by Jonas Lowgren (keynote)
I hotly anticipated this talk, as Jonas is a voice of reason and light in the IxDA Discussion realm and wrote a wonderful book on the discipline called Thoughtful Interaction Design. He provided an understated tour de force of using sketching to explore the space of possible ideas. Sketching applies both to the act and to the temporal unfolding of ideas. He believes that non-idiomatic systems require increased material fidelity to have the sketch perform usefully in the design process. I enjoyed his prototype of a skin-activated theremin which was sketched out in arduino and lights and parts, and then iterated on at the Burning Man festival. He emphasized the need for designers to work in divergent manners and be open to changes of direction. I saw him emphasizing that the movement from design to use has to be open to collaboration and team work as well if we want to realize the fine goals to which we aspire.
Beyond Gamification by Dustin DiTommaso (45 minute talk)
This super-edifying talk introduced me to Motivational Theory and Self-Determination Theory as windows onto which we can serve unmet needs through elements derived from the arena of games. He posited that people’ behaviors will continue if they meet people’s needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness. In the game structure, actions that are guided by meaningful information around the rules beget recognized feedback that lead to outcomes. I thought about my childhood love of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and how branching temporal pathways are so intriguing in games but are positively hard to find in many software contexts. He spoke about juicy feedback and how the sense of the opportunity for improvement is crucial to good gameplay. Moments of relevance amplify short-term goals – made as personally meaningful for the player as possible - toward long-term goals. This insight prompted me to consider that skill development is a fertile area for application of game structures to the healthcare context. I also loved his raising the question of the system’s persona; I’ve long wondered at how we’re going to have another go at the digital robot after the Clippy debacle.
Understanding Us: The Next Frontier by Dirk Knemeyer (45 minute talk)
I loved this talk exhorting designers to gain knowledge in the fields of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, endocrinology and economics. Dirk stated that the next great frontier of human endeavor (and the rest of his professional career) needed to be devoted to understanding ourselves and each other. He pointed out that people are simultaneously the center of all meaning in our lives, and yet we know little about how to get inside our minds or how to sustain positive human relationships. He discussed considerations such as products designed for a particular personality type, and introduced the Applied Empathy framework. I loved hearing a speaker cite Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and the Carl Jung-infused Meyers-Briggs in the context of design. Besides the social sciences he mentioned, I firmly believe that study of art, philosophy and poetry & literature are essential components to the well-rounded practice of human-centered design. Putting together a broad curriculum such as this one lends credence to the idea that Interaction Design could be the new 21st century liberal art.
How Being a Jock Makes a Better Interaction Designer by Lis Hubert (10 minute talk)
Lis made a compelling case for sports metaphors & know-how supporting the practice of design. Designers need to be a good team mate – knowing what position they play as well as what others’ positions are. We need to be motivators, cheering on our team and keeping a positive attitude. Lastly, we need to understand the overall game strategy. Consider the tortoise and the hare, for that wise tortoise knew that it was she who finished first that wins, not just the one who went the fastest at the start.
Users Don’t Have Goals by Andrew Hinton (10 minute talk)
This talk provided a helpful reminder that many activities which people conduct are not consciously goal-directed. People are organic in nature and may move through their lives without particular direction. As somebody who trained up in the “goal-directed design” methodology, I had found myself agreeing with him yet feel that a goal-oriented approach helps designers to innovate, by raising considerations up from the mundane level of tasks.
Real Users Don’t Do Tasks: Rethinking User Research for the Social Web by Dana Chisnell (45 minute talk)
Amusingly sequenced directly following Andrew’s talk above, this talk addressed the fact that in the world of social activities, “user tasks” fall apart as a meaningful measure of activity. Highly experienced with traditional usability research, Dana found herself recognizing how deeply lacking lab-based methods like think-aloud studies are when it comes to understanding people’s behaviors on the social web. Individuals are not operating all alone; they are not necessarily goal-driven; they don’t have “tasks” that are neatly accomplished in a lab. Rather, the social web is about context and relationships. She advocated for using more field-based testing methods; doing more testing with multiple users in one session; and employing longitudinal tools like video diaries with retrospective reviews and/or experience sampling via text messaging. Overall, she concluded, user research for the social web will take more time to conduct and require more creativity to discover what’s right.
From Solid to Liquid to Air: Interaction Design and the Future of the Interface by Amber Case (keynote)
Amber is a TED speaker, and a Portlander to boot. Her calling card (“I’m a cyborg anthropologist” ) garners a lot of credibility in the IxD community, and she enjoys living in the leading edge of ambient intimacy and pervasive computing. Her presentation included an entertaining ride through the work of pioneers like Steve Mann of the MIT Media Lab. She railed against skeumorphs and raised interesting conjectures about the potential for persistent architectures. She also countered the idea that “people are bad at computers” with the observation that computers are bad at human.
Friday night after dinner, the IxDA Awards ceremony was held at the swanky Mansion House, the home of the Lord Mayor of Dublin and venue for visiting dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth. Sitting with the crowd under a star-studded night ceiling at tables stocked with cupcakes decorated in weird primary colors, I was awed by the production values of the presentations to introduce the finalists across a half-dozen categories, which were judged by a jury using the lenses of Craft; Context; Impact. Having tangible representations of the outputs of Interaction Design is a wonderful way to communicate our rather esoteric discipline to the world, and several of us envision this award ceremony being televised within the next five years. However, I feel that to be truly consumer-oriented and accepted by the world, we may want to open the jury to people operating fully outside the profession. What voice, I might ask, does the market play in judging a product’s success? That said, I do fully covet the most winning product, the Sifteo cubes LoopLoop music sequencer that was designed at the San Francisco agency Stimulant, which swept Best in Category: Expressing and Best in Show. See http://awards.ixda.org/ for the full panoply of entrants.
Friday night I also enjoyed a late night out on the town with friends old and new, getting up to some Jameson & ginger-fueled dancing goodness. That activity may well be responsible for the lack of report on the conference’s Saturday morning events….
Saturday, February 5
How To Lie with Design Thinking by Dan Saffer (10 min talk)
Dan ran to the podium down the center aisle, slapping hands like a rock star. He proceeded to skewer the illusion of “design thinking” as a business panacea while poking fun at some big names in the field. He also shared some tips to achieve fame in the arena of design thinking: stop wireframing and start post-it noting! draw cool-looking, incomprehensible models! come up with wacky, unbuildable concepts!
What Would Nature Do? By Joshua Sin (10 min talk)
This inspiring talk shared a variety of ways for nature to inform our discipline. Nature moves in cyclic processes, which may sound familiar to those versed in the iterative practice of design. When studying natural architectures, the concept of a keystone species is especially intriguing, as this creature forms the glue of an ecosystem, enabling other special to flourish and leading to growth and diversity. (Heard of Apple, anybody?) In nature, cooperative and symbiotic relationships lead to locally-tuned and responsive systems. As nature adapts and evolves to changing environments, striving towards equilibrium, we can witness the practice of optimization rather than maximization, a philosophical approach that may just help to save the world.
Telling the Data Comparison Story Using a Skyline Graph by Bill Caemmerer (10 min talk)
Pie charts basically suck at communicating the specific values of each slice, and two pie charts are particularly poor at peforming comparisons in slice values between two states over time. To improve this state of affairs, Bill refined an infographic that he calls the skyline graph. Each of the first state values are drawn across the x-axis according to the unit of measure, and then all are drawn up to a point on the y-axis that represents 100%. Then the second state values are laid on top of the first state values, to the same place on the x-axis as the first state but then up to a point on the y-axis that represents the second state value vs. the first (e.g., 50%, or 125%). The final chart looks like a city skyline, where comparing changes over time or values against goals are easily perceived in silhouette form. He referred us to Google “variwide charts” and “bar-mekko charts” for more information.
Why We Share: Motivations at the Heart of Sharing by Angel Anderson (45 minute talk)
Another talk in my sweet spot! Angel introduced the three commonly-agreed causes under which people share: dominance; communality; and reciprocity. However, she delved deeper in to the “why” behind modern social web behaviors. People want influence; people want cash & prizes; people want validation; people want to complain; and people want to reach out. Sharing is a form of caring. Under this framework, she presented the top six characteristics for social interaction design: 1) Landscape (considering the “social layer cake” each of us have with respect to such services); 2) Frameworks (considering fundamental structures such as reciprocal vs. asymmetric); 3) Social Objects (determining what exactly gets shared); 4) Personal Boundaries (wherein she posed the curious question: “what if social tools made us better at being social?”); 5) Privacy (discussing how some are ready to trade privacy for value but that our mental models of privacy often don’t match the reality); and 6) Friction (making the brilliant point that without friction, sharing loses its meaning).
Bananas, Technology and Magic by Adrian Westaway (45 minute talk)
This talk was my favorite of the whole conference and I’ve already recounted the story to numerous colleagues and interested parties. (I am so glad Adrian and his design partner Clara Gaggero approached me after Kel’s session to offer their own answer to a question I had posed to the speaker, and also that their product design won Best Concept at the IxDA Awards!) This thrilling case study of answering a Samsung design brief to “design a phone for older people” resulted in a brilliant reconsideration not of the phone itself but of the out-of-box-experience. Older people, as they discovered through ethnographic-style research, want the same smartphone features that everybody else does; where the product falls apart for them is in the transition from purchase to use due to the pathetic qualities of the typical user manual. Addressing this experience touchpoint through participatory design sessions and other field research techniques, they ultimate reframed that first use in the form of an “out-of-the-book” experience that resonated deeply with older people. I emerged inspired and excited to bring creative research tools to bear on defining product opportunities in my own line of work. One key point he made that’s applicable to healthcare is that people have to see the benefit in order to bother learning something.
Rage Against the Machines? By Genevieve Bell (closing keynote)
I don’t know how it happens almost every year, but Interaction’s closing keynote presenter has a knack for tying together themes of the conference, both summarizing ideas and inspiring us to go farther. Anthropologist Dr. Bell likened our relationship to technology today as a high-maintenance “backpack full of baby birds” and went on to explore the genealogies of anxiety and wonder that comprise human’s relationships to technology. From uncanny mechanical deceptions (defecating ducks and Edison’s talking doll) to thoughts of creating life (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Turing’s machine), we’ve moved into the mechanization of ideas. She pointed out how the Japanese ethos imbues technology with an element of wonder and grace, noting their predilection today towards robots. Ultimately, as a human-oriented social scientist, she challenged us to move from considering the realm of interactions to exploring the world of relationships.
The Saturday night closing party was at the Guinness store house, a huge museum on many levels where they tell the story of this fine, unique porter. I’ve rarely rued my gluten-free status more than when observing the open bar serving carefully tended glasses of Guinness, bubbles rising faithfully to the top before delivery to a thirsty designer. However, glutted on social interactions and filled to the brim with thoughts on emerging relationships within the discipline, I researched within myself and discovered one highly satisfied IxD12 attendee.
What a great writeup, Liz! You captured the flavor, the fact, and the verve of the conference. Too, it was soo great to see ya!
Great recap Liz! I completely agree with Joe .