Interaction Design and Sci-Fi

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Prof. Robert Thomas' Collaborative Design For Innovation class at Georgetown University. The curriculum is fantastic - something I could keep studying for a long time - and Robert and his class were welcoming and attentive. Afterwards, one of the students I was speaking with noted that I had listed a number of fiction - science fiction in particular  - works in my annual reading list, and asked why. At the very core of their practice, designers are clearly tasked with imagining the future state of a product or service. Herb Simon said that "The process of design is a continual cycle of generating alternatives and testing to evaluate them." I've always had a fondness for speculative fiction, and it informs my ability to create and iterate solutions by training my mind to think beyond present realities and imagine different ways of doing things, big and small. When I was in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon's School of Design, Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age was required reading. One of the greatest science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke, was also credited with inventing a number of significant scientific breakthroughs. In much the same way, I enjoy traveling to different countries where I can experience a significant culture shock.

I highly recommend that designers read science fiction periodically. It doesn't need to be stereotypical rockets-and-lasers stuff, either: there's quite a bit of work being produced today that is excellent. I came across a few readings related to this that might be worth digging into for more inspiration:

Why Todays Inventors Need To Read More Science Fiction and mentioned in there is Sophia Bruekner's class on scifi 

Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction

Designers, not Dribbblers

Paul Adams has written a fantastic short article (I suppose it might even be considered long-form these days, but that's another topic) about what he calls The Dribblisation of Design. In it, he derides the growing trend, as he identifies it, of designers posting attractive mockups and reworks of existing or fictitious products on Dribbble, a gallery of member's work, in the absence of any context. By context, he means the business environment that almost all substantial product work takes place in. He's not knocking the desire of designers to show off their work, but the undue influence that showing work out of context can have.

Dribbble itself shapes the conversation to some extent, the medium shaping the message, with highlighting of colour palettes and other superficial details prominent in the UI. People look and people emulate.

Designers can easily retreat into pushing pixels because "it’s just more fun to draw nice pictures and bury oneself in pixels than deal with complicated business decisions and people with different opinions."

Regrettably, this is a problem that has always existed and will never go away. Designers come from all sorts of backgrounds, with a huge array of skills and experiences informing their practice. Richard Buchanan, one of my professors at CMU talked about design practiced across four orders, and while he emphasized that these should not be considered as existing on a continuum or as outcomes, it is a useful framework for understanding the breadth and depth of what a contemporary product designer should be addressing:

Communication

Construction

Strategic Planning

Systemic Integration

Inventing

Signs, symbols, and images

->

->

->

Judging

Physical Objects

->

->

Deciding

Activities, services, and processes

->

Evaluating

Systems, environments, ideas and values

Most designers aren't trained to do more than decorate - to spend time in the upper left, where their skills are most easily displayed and recognized. The woeful lack of preparation designers are getting in most schools is a serious issue. I think Paul is addressing an elite group of product designers in this piece, not the vast majority of designer/decorators. Not mentioned in Paul's piece are the structural issues within most contemporary product development environments that favor the atomization of output, further exacerbating a designers worst habits. He does talk about the need to align work to company vision and provides some excellent guideance on how to frame that understanding. Processes that disallow for a holistic view of the business problems and user goals are only going to yield fragmented, disconnected experiences. They might look great, but they won't be solving the real big problems designers should be.

Designing Trojan Horses

What do OXO Good Grips kitchenwares and the Apple iPad have in common? It may be hard to think of how chunky-handled potato-peelers and cutting-edge tablet computers may be related, but I think both are really "Trojan horses" of product design. When I read the reviews, look at the UI, and play with it (admittedly, I don't own one yet), I've come to think of the iPad as a device aimed primarily at the Baby Boomer Generation. This is significant when you consider how the iPad is marketed and discussed in the media: like most new technologies, there is a heavy emphasis on early adopters, younger people, and the tech-savvy elites. Apple is too experienced to introduce a product just for seniors or anyone else outside of the 18-34 demographic that content producers trip over themselves to attract. Despite the fact that 'boomers have far more disposable income, the leisure time to use and buy lots of apps and books, and a strong desire to keep up with the "digital natives", it would probably be suicide to market the iPad this way.

To the original question - what do these products have in common? Good Grips were designed using Universal Design principles to the accommodate aging hands of seniors. However, this veneer of utility masked the real market of style-conscious consumers needing a reason to replace their perfectly good utensils with new neoprene-handled models. The iPad is not your grandmother's computer, but with its giant buttons, bright high-resolution screen, and ease of use, it could be. The tenets of Universal Design are centered on the notion that designing to accommodate the requirements of people with disabilities can yield products that by default work well for everyone else. The iPad is a big step forward that takes advantage of the most profound aspect of computers - their chameleon-like ability to adopt forms that belie their endless computational (and networked) abilities - and creates a new category of devices. Even though they have made a clean break with previous computer forms (iPhone notwithstanding, even other tablet devices adhered to the desktop computer metaphor), Apple knows full well to proceed with caution and let the market inform its evolution. Apple promotes it as an empty vessel as much as anything: most of the language from Apple uses word like "magic" and "never before" to describe it, leaving consumers and media to fill in the gaps.  Similar to many other products marketed to younger people, but adopted by older consumers, Apple needs to keep up appearances to through the gates.

New NYC Parking Signs

For the last few weeks I've admired these new parking signs in the Chelsea, New York neighborhood that my office is in. I'm surprised the city used what appear to be high-quality materials and a clean design for both the form and the typography. It looks like something out of Northern Europe. I checked around online and couldn't immediately find any reference to these. Perhaps these are the result of a business improvement district and city partnership, or maybe test models.

Given the uneven track record of city agencies in carrying out revisions to signage, I'm not holding out hope this represents the future of signage in NYC. Paul Shaw recently wrote an article for the AIGA that covers the history of Helvetica as the typface of the MTA subway signage. Beyond the typical organizational cluelessness and inertia that dogged the rollout of a modern wayfinding system, relevant to today is the issue of cost - replacing signage in the subway system, let alone the city streets, must be a huge expenditure. Returning to the design of the signs, it would seem the city has invested in a quality fixture, with a solid base bolted to the street (assume it breaks on impact, sparing the cost of a new one and tearing up the sidewalk to replace), and an interchangeable and adjustable upper portion that is removed with a simple bolt. I'd be curious to know more about these.

Ideation and Invention

In grad school, we talked a lot about invention. Invention is distinct from discovery and the scientific method in that it is a process of combination rather than unique observation or singular insight. This helps mark the distinction between designers and scientists - the latter is about finding a single truth, while the former can accomplish multiple solutions through a more inductive process. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about invention in the New Yorker and one of the takeaways was his distinction between invention in the artistic (or cultural) realm and the scientific realm. He notes that artistic invention is truly invention in that it is the unique creation of an individual, while scientific inventions happen in a cloud (or, that most inventions are destined to be discovered eventually). By this, he means that a scientific invention is the product of previous accomplishments as well as (and this is important) the fact that almost all "inventions" have been duplicated simultaneously or even previously. Many times, the wrong inventor is credited when in fact someone else - completely independently - has developed the same solution.

It seems the definition of invention needs clarity, since the common perception of how solutions are discovered is more aligned to the archetype of the solitary genius than someone working within a community and era. Gladwell mentions this as well, reporting that Robert Merton researched the subject and posited that geniuses do the work of many people (30+). This doesn't diminish their accomplishments, in fact it shows how brilliant they are that 30 other people might discover the same thing it took only one person to

Social Medium

Virginia Heffernan in the Times Sunday Magazine writes about emerging talents on Flickr, and how the medium - specifically the social aspect - has shaped the work of artists.  Her description is provocative, especially the notion that Flickr as a whole may constitute a new medium. There are elements of performance (interacting with the audience via comments), the genre of heavily digitally-processed images, with the images as a commonplace. The images themselves confidently step away from traditional notions of photographs (and truth) and into a more participatory space. 

We're still in the early stages of weaving digital tools into our social lives, but we've come a long way from just eight years ago and the fears expressed in Bowling Alone, where everyone online would be isolated in "interest enclaves". Chalk me up as an optimist.