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IxDA Interaction 08: Day 1

I’m down in sunny Savannah for the weekend at the inaugural IxDA conference, Interaction 08. With about 400 people in attendance, it is the first professional conference that is specifically for interaction designers, by interaction designers.

The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) started in 2003 as a grassroots organization to unite the worldwide community of interaction designers, and today has more than 1,500 members and something like 22 local chapters.

Being an interaction designer can often feel like being a man without a country (or a woman). You’re never quite sure where you fit in to an organization, and typically don’t receive the basic rights necessary to do your job well. You feel marginalized, disrespected, and misunderstood. Until you find a group of other wearied interaction designers and decide to take over the world.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting this weekend because I was finally going to be around a large group of people JUST LIKE ME. Yes, we all look different, act differently, and have wildly varying opinions. But at the end of the day, we are all endlessly passionate about one thing: making people’s lives better through the use of technology. Our goal as designers is to create effective and engaging interactive experiences, and yet it is an art we will never perfect. We are aware of this, and yet we still keep fighting to get better, know more, do more. Being around our own, exchanging ideas, experiences, processes, tools, anecdotes and visions bring us that much closer to achieving something truly meaningful, a sort of Utopian democracy in the digital world.

The conference so far has not disappointed. My colleague Lily and I arrived in Savannah on Friday afternoon. After checking in to our hotel, we grabbed a quick bite at Vinnie VanGoGo’s, a New York-style pizzeria with “the best pizza in Savannah.” The slice was bigger in my head, and though not quite what we New Yorkers understand as New York pizza, but still a good slice in its own right.

Afterwards we headed out to The River Club for the opening reception. The conference is being held in buildings owned and operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), who have been gracious hosts. The reception was booming and I got to connect with a great group of people — some who I know in the real world, some who I know online, and some who I only aspire to know. It was smiles all around, and I could tell that people felt like they were coming home for the first time.

Yesterday was the first official day of the conference, though pre-conference workshops had been offered on Friday. The morning began with a large family-style southern breakfast and a welcome from Robert Reimann, the current president of IxDA. Next was a keynote by Alan Cooper, one of the most respected leaders in our field, called “An Insurgency of Quality.” In his speech he asserted that “best to market beats first to market,” assuring that “considered design” will always be more successful than sheer innovation. He focused on the loss of craftsmanship in the industrial revolution, where value was instead placed on mass production of products at a lower price, and therefore lower quality. Now in the post-industrial age, he encouraged us to see software as the new craft and programmers as our craftsmen. One particularly insightful comment that I latched on to was that in the industrial age, behavior was a byproduct of functionality, but in the post-industrial age, functionality is a byproduct of behavior.

The purpose of Cooper’s talk was to rally us around an insurgency, with interaction designers as the insurgents. He made the claim that programmers don’t respect authority, but that they do respect competence. And since we’re the competent ones (so we think), it’s our role to facilitate a process to allow “programmers to practice the joy of craft,” and ultimately end up with more usable products and services (because they are both designed well and executed well).

After the keynote were two 45-minute sessions. I chose to go hear “What Makes a Design Seem Intuitive?” by Jared Spool and “Cinematic Interaction Design” by Sarah Allen. Jared, who I’m now going to call the stand-up comedian of usability, was funny and engaging, and his talk had a lot of great takeaways. As a leader in usability evaluation, he has seen endless hard evidence of what works and what doesn’t. He made an important point that I think a lot of us get but don’t often enough articulate: design isn’t talked about when it’s intuitive; when design is not intuitive, that’s when it’s noticed. Users end up being focused on the wrong thing — figuring out how to use the design instead of doing what it’s intended to do. He showed a slew of painful examples of design gone wrong, not the least from Microsoft, who Jared says, “Must have an entire department dedicated to creating unintuitive designs.”The most insightful part of the presentation for me was about the knowledge spectrum. “Current knowledge” is what the user has when they pick up or walk up to the product. “Target knowledge” is what the user needs to know in order to use the product to accomplish a task. “The Knowledge Gap” is the distance between the two, and as Jared emphasizes, where design happens. When does design become intuitive? When current knowledge = target knowledge. And as interaction designers, it is our duty to minimize the knowledge gap.

Sarah Allen’s talk got off to a slow start due to some technical difficulties, but the crux of her message is to use cinematic techniques, in particular pacing, to evoke emotion. “Create fans not users,” were her parting words.

I also attended the afternoon lightning round sessions (25 minutes each) on “Concept Ideation and IxD” by Gretchen Anderson, “Dramatic Features in Interaction Design” by Chris Conley, “Conversations with Everyday Objects” by Bill DeRouchey, and “Experience Design, Convergence + The Digital Agency” by David Armano.There are great write-ups on each of the presentations at Core77, or you can watch them in their entirety, so I don’t need to go into painful detail here. But the overall theme of the talks I attended was interaction design as storytelling. My top-level takeaway from each session:

  • Gretchen Anderson: provoke conversation
  • Chris Conley: Function -> does it work? Usability -> can people use it? Aesthetics -> is it nice? Drama-> is it meaningful
  • Bill DeRouchey: interfaces inherit meaning from other interfaces
  • David Armano: innovation happens when team members play outside their sandbox

The afternoon keynote was called “Intervention – Interaction” by Sigi Moeslinger. She started off the talk by saying that “design is an intervention which generates a new interaction.” She showed samples of her firm’s work in the intersection of industrial and interaction design. They have created designs for the NYC subway ticket vending machines, jetBlue check-in kiosks, Bloomberg dual displays, and more. She posed the question, “How can you change an environment with an object?” Though she was referring to the physical space, many of us ask ourselves that same question when it comes to designing devices and systems. It was an inspirational talk and got a lot of people excited about the future of our work.

Dinner was on our own, and a group of us got together to have dinner at The Pirate House. Good old southern comfort food. Everything fried. Delicious grits. Local craft brews. A good time had by all. We followed it up with a reception hosted by Microsoft at The Gulfstream Center, SCAD’s Industrial and Furniture Design building. It’s a great space and we got to tour many of the workshops. They also had Rock Band set up, which Lily, Lorri, Enric, Ricardo and I stood around for a couple hours. They managed to convince me to get up on stage. Lily, Enric and I played “I Think I’m Paranoid” by Garbage, and I sang. Then later our manager Josh joined Lily and I for “Creep” by Radiohead. I might have a terrible voice in the real world, but Rock Band seems to think I rock.

There was an after party hosted by Adaptive Path at a bar near our hotels. Though it was hot as hell in the basement, I had a great time catching up with some folks, talking shop, reviewing the day’s sessions, and just generally reveling in how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing at this moment in time. It feels great, and I’m more inspired than ever to create truly revolutionary work — the kind that’s less about technological innovative and far more about putting people first.

Day 2 is about to start, and I’m running late. More thoughts on this experience to come.

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