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Interaction’11 Thoughts and Themes

Interaction’11 wrapped up just over a week ago, and I’ve been letting my impressions sink in. There were many amazing moments, both in and out of the sessions. It was great seeing the community come together to learn from and teach each other. 

Reflecting on the content of the sessions and hallway/party conversations left me with a few distinct themes. As usual, these are working ideas.. nothing set in stone and I’d love to talk to anybody about this. 

Theory, not Definition

There was a little moaning on the backchannel about too much talk of defining interaction design, and not enough practical information for day-to-day use. However, this year above all others I finally saw our circular “Defining The Damn Thing” conversations move past that point and into legitimate design theory. There is a big difference between the ridiculous “What is IxD vs UX vs IA vs Pool Digger” and the content of the talks at Interaction’11.

Bill Verplank and Richard Buchanan gave us all a serious lesson in real design theory, grounded in the history of design thinking and practice. Yes, some of this ends up being about what interaction design actually is, but in a really good and productive way. They framed IxD within the greater context of Design and looked at real issues and ideas that influence our daily work lives. Verplank’s (well known) breakdown of the makeup of interactions is brilliant and concise.. something you can use in your work and to sell your work. This type of theory will make you a better practitioner and have an immediate impact on the approach you take to your work. The same applies to Buchanan’s framing of the orders of design. Neither of these were about websites or mobile apps, but neither is interaction design. Those are potential outputs of a type of design practice that is bigger than it’s product.

I came away from those sessions (as well as others) enlightened and inspired. Not all the information was new, but it’s all valuable. Even if you (or I) already knew the concepts, each speaker had a different frame and perspective when putting them all together. It’s through that type of synthesis of theory that we improve our practice. We need to build on the work of our predecessors, not reinvent it because of ignorance.

That leads me to my next theme:


This year also contained much more talk of design history that pre-dates the web. I love seeing us realize that we’re part of something larger and need to learn about it.. not only that, but that there is a lot to learn from. One of the most inspiring design books I read this year was from the mid 1960’s, but the ideas are applicable now. We ignore our history at our own peril, and we have been doing just that. At Interaction’11 I felt like our understanding of the history of what we do is getting better, and we know what we don’t know.

Not Just Software

The focus of our community, both online and at these events, has been largely on software and websites. Interaction’11 provided a healthy balance of content about these things, but also began straying away from our safe zone. Yes, the reality is that most of us work on software and websites at least some of the time, if not exclusively, so we need content that addresses the practical aspects of that type of interaction design. But we don’t want to ignore the other types of work going on, especially since they’re becoming more and more common. Services, robots, interaction light sculptures, immersive environment… they all involve behaviour, intent, actions, people, and technology. I saw some great examples of non-screen IxD at the conference including Jason Bruges light installations and Carl DiSalvo’s farming robots among others. 

I would love to see more inclusion of people from the new media/electronic/interactive art work in our community. There are people that have been doing incredible and thoughtful work for decades on immersive spaces, motion capture, surveillance, and many other issues that we grapple with. If you’re unfamiliar with this area I suggest checking out the work of David Rokeby and the book The Language of New Media by Lev Manovich


As anybody who attended Bruce Sterling’s closing keynote will say, there was no lack of criticism at Interaction’11 - I mean criticism in the formal sense, not just criticising people. Sterling’s keynote felt to me like the first time I had heard real, thoughtful, critique of our community and practice. Other forms of art and design have a strong base of criticism.. people make their livings at film critics, or architecture critics.. but we’ve never had that type of criticism for interaction design. 

Borrowing heavily form his experience as a critic of new media/electronic art and as a futurist, Sterling spent four days observing and listening to our community of practice, then he told us what he thought, both good and bad. His criticism of our lack of vision (or valour as he said), lack of understanding of our own history and theory, and lack of rigorousness, were all completely true. We need to listen and grow, some of which I felt happening right in that room.

In Vancouver Dan Saffer (I think it was Dan, if not please correct me) lamented the lack of IxD “celebrities” - designers we can look to as a source of inspiration and a benchmark for good interaction design. Who will be our Le Corbusier or George Nelson? I’m beginning to think that we can’t figure that out ourselves. Those figure rose out of critique external to their own community of practice. We need more learned and wise non-practitioners looking at our work and evaluating it through a lens of history, theory, culture, and relevance. That is where our stars will come from.

Maybe, to have a mature design discipline we need three pillars: Theory, Practice, and Criticism. 

IxD(A) Growing Up

The overall theme that I left with is that we are growing up. The IxDA as an organization has had a year of growing pains, and now we’re learning and maturing because of it. The same could be said for interaction design as a whole.. we’re maturing and growing into a fully realized discipline. Whether our practice stays separate from other design fields, or becomes a larger part of other disciplines (i.e. industrial design), we are establishing a solid body of theory, practice, and criticism on which to base our growth.

I had an amazing time at Interaction’11, I hope everybody else did as well. If you couldn’t be there please keep your eyes open for the session videos, which will start to appear online within the next week. 

See you all in Dublin.

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