What I’m taking away — besides a ton of knowledge and ideas and business cards from new friends — follows. I attended ixd09 hoping to learn more about interaction design as a field and I leave with more questions than I arrived with. Which is always a good thing.
Let’s get this out of the way: “defining interaction design”. I agree that arguing about it is a waste of time, but I think that not all people arguing carry equal weight and that we need something descriptive, not proscriptive, for use when talking to people outside the field. I challenge the leaders of the warring factions to agree upon a one-sentence definition I can use next time I’m in Customs. I need a simple definition that won’t get me subjected to extended questioning about what it is I really do by some well-meaning 20-something who could care less about UX vs. UE vs. IA vs. CD vs. GD.
The hallway, mealtime, and barroom conversations were truly amazing. I think I learned as much in random conversations with people I’d never met as I did in some of the talks. I’ve never before come home with such a huge stack of cards from people I want to stay in touch with. What a wonderful group of people to meet and talk with, it was a much better experience than I’ve had at something like SIGGRAPH or a con.
I went to a lot of presentations, but here are the ones that changed me and my view of the world:
John Thackara’s opening keynote was a powerful challenge to get off our (collective) ass and do something that matters. I’ve never heard Papanek speak, but I wonder if Thackara ever met Papanek and what sort of conversations they had. I heard a few people complain about the “doom and gloom” and I think that they’ missing a huge point. Collected in that room were a few hundred people who, if they worked together, could make a significant change for better in the world. That’s not hyperbole. Form teams lead by Saffer, Herasmchuk, Rettig, Kolko, et al and staff those teams with everyone who had an ixd09 badge and turn them loose with some laptops, coffee, and booze. Think of the damage that has been caused by a few hundred individuals involved in 4th gen warfare against a superpower — now think of the amount of good the same number of expert designers could create with a 4th gen “war of design” to improve our situation.
Modulo some technical difficulties, Fiona Raby gave an excellent presentation on conceptual design and challenged the idea of what is possible in design. She showed some excellent work by her students, including a video sketch of life with a desk based on reconfigurable nanotechnology, that I hope really got people to thinking about the lack of limits in what we will do in the next ten years. Designers are taught to push themselves, ask questions, and explore possibilities, I hope that Raby’s talk moved the “creative goal line” for many people in the room. Her work (along with Dunne) makes what I do possible and I hope that other designers and designers to be follow up by reading her work and the work of her students.
Mikkel Michelsen had only 25 minutes to talk about mission critical design when he should have been given hours, if not his own track. Kolko (I think) made a comment at a panel to the effect of “if [we] fuck up, nobody dies.” True, if you have a bad user experience at a ticket kiosk or downloading a movie it’s not the end of the world. But (IMHO) design needs to focus on harder problems than social networking sites for tweens and efficient porn searches. There’s a real challenge in designing systems for people involved in life or death situations, whether they be patients, doctors, first responders, or soldiers. Perhaps it’s not popular or comfortable to talk about interaction design for the military, or maybe it’s too application specific, but isn’t it worth more than a 25 minute “lightning talk”?
I won’t lie. I’m going to rip off Andrei Herasimchuk’s “Building a Digital Concept Car” as soon as the podcast is up. I’ve spent what feels like ages trying to convince people of the value of prototyping as part of software design and engineering, but Andrei’s case study really makes it blindingly obvious. I went in not needing to be convinced, but needing help figuring out how to convince others it’s a worthwhile proposition, and I think I’m now on the right track.
Camille Moussette gave another “why didn’t this get a full hour?” presentation. I’m a huge fan of hardware sketching in general, Camille makes an excellent case for interaction designers getting their hands dirty while they’re sketching ideas on paper. I look forward to seeing more of this — perhaps a workshop — at Interaction ’10.
Due to time constraints, Marc Rettig’s keynote was the last presentation for me. Every time I talk to Marc, I end up feeling like I’m not as smart as I thought I was but that I walked away smarter than I arrived. His recent work on not just designing things, but designing ways to change things for the greater good gave me huge hope for my newly adopted field of design. Thackara’s talk was the setup and Rettig’s talk slammed it home — we have to get off our asses and do something. If you didn’t “get it” after hearing Marc speak, go farm goats or something. Seriously.
Finally, in his thoughts on ixd09, Kolko writes, “this field is screaming for a unified theory that relates cognition, aesthetics, and culture.” Perhaps it’s naive of me, but isn’t that the Greater Discipline of Capital-D Design? How could a unified theory of interaction design exclude the design of tools and shelter? Or is the real answer to his request the research we’ll do trying to answer an unanswerable question?
As I get on the plane for home, I am overwhelmed with gratitude towards those who took the time to share and help the rest of us become better designers. Thank you all for your kindness, advice, and friendship.
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