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Observations on Interaction Design – Part I: Misconceptions

24. September 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I met up with friends and family for a beer. We had a chat about this and that. We even talked about physics and I got the opportunity to explain my naive understanding of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. We also talked about work. Some distant acquaintance asked me what I was actually doing. I started talking about the role of digital technology in our everyday life, the iPhone, data visualisation and Facebook. And I realised that it was easier to explain the Uncertainty Principle than to explain interaction design.

For someone who is working in the area of interaction design for some time now – and who is teaching interaction design at university – this is a bit frustrating.

Everyone seems to work on a computer nowadays. There are millions of smartphones out there. One seventh of the world population is on Facebook. So if you change an element on the Facebook webpage, one billion people have to deal with it. It is clear that interaction design has a huge impact on the way we use and perceive digital technology. So why the hell is it so hard to explain what we do?

I will try to address this question in a series of blog postings. Today: Misconceptions.

I think a major reason for the fact that interaction design is difficult to understand is that a lot of people have a completely wrong idea about design. Not only about interaction design but about design in general. And this is partially the fault of the design community.

There is an odd understanding of design in our society. Design is an integral part of the industrial age. Almost all consumer goods are designed. In that respect, both a luxury car and a plastic water bottle are design objects. Everyone knows this – but no one is really aware of it.

Here is a related, amusing anecdote about a friend and former colleague of mine: He is a leading designer in the area of transportation design. He has designed trams for dozens of cities. He know them inside out, knows about platforms, technology and the production constrains. He knows how people use trams, how they behave in them and how they fit visually and aesthetically into the urban landscape. So – in short – he is a real design expert on trams. At one point, a public transport authority rang him up. They told him that they would like to participate in an upcoming design festival so they wanted to give him the opportunity to come up with a »design tram«. It would be a great opportunity for him – if he wanted, he could go wild. His reply was very clear – but not fit for publication. He is still furious when he tells this story.

When there is talk of »design objects« in the media, it usually refers to extravagant luxury items. Geometric chairs, oddly shaped shelves, golden lamps in the shape of a machine gun. Design is considered to be »different«, exclusive, expensive and it’s main function is to convey a high social status. Design is synonymous with style.

I have an ambiguous relationship with style. In design, without style everything is lost. But style alone is fluff. For me, style is a vehicle. It is a container for concepts, ideas and solutions. It’s a positive Trojan Horse1. Design in general – not only interaction design – is a highly complex affair. The fact that the public likes to focus on style is highly problematic and leads to great misconceptions2. Design is about many things – it’s not only about style.

One of the things that really struck me while reading the recent biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is that the author is completely unaware of interaction design. The way Isaacson talks about design is very much about Jony Ive and Apple’s product design achievements – which are undeniably great. But it is surprising that Isaacson does not even touch the surface of interaction design3. Obviously, for Isaacson, design is style. It is regrettable to find such a design understanding in a biography about the founder of a company who fundamentally defined the way we interact with digital technology.

It is very difficult to explain interaction design to someone who has such an approach to design – because interaction design is very different from »pure« style. Interaction design is understandable and inclusive. It’s inexpensive and it is mundane – bordering on the invisible. Interaction design is consistent, egalitarian and profound. And it is highly fascinating.

By principle, interaction design cannot be exclusive. There is no haute couture in interaction design4. This partly lies in the nature of software. If you can replicate something with no effort and no cost in any volume – how can it be exclusive?

There are exclusive hardware products like the Vertu phone range. But they are decidedly not about interaction design. You can buy a phone by Vertu for over 10.000 € – and you get an exclusive, ostentatious and »different« piece of hardware. But the funny thing is that the interaction design will be the same. That’s why Vertu only shows phones on their website with blank screens. You switch them on and – hey – it’s Android! Or – if you are lucky – Symbian5.

As John Gruber has pointed out in his posting about the Apple Watch, digital products are in a way quite egalitarian. The iPhone itself has quite a price tag – but for ten times the money you won’t get a better phone. There are no  better iPhones out there as the current models. However, Gruber points out that »Apple Watch changes this dynamic.«.

I don’t quite agree with that. I have not seen and tried the Apple Watch. But I am quite sure that the golden Apple Watch Edition is not going to be a better watch. It’s just going to be a more expensive one. The interaction design will be the same – no matter if the casing is aluminium, steel or gold. So the quality of use will be the same for all Apple Watches. This move might work out well for Apple. However, as an interaction designer I feel a bit uncomfortable about the fact that Apple is now playing the stupid style game.

I started with Heisenberg and I have arrived at the Apple Watch. Does this help you to understand what interaction designers are doing? Probably not. But it provides context for understanding interaction design better.

Interaction design is not a style-driven design discipline. And as long as the general perception of design is focused on style, it will be difficult to explain what interaction design actually is.  However, I will have a go at it in one of my next postings.

(To be continued)

  1. Style alone is then – logically – a Trojan Rabbit

  2. Misconceptions that we designers are often guilty of invoking.  

  3. The term »interaction« appears three times in the biography. It is only used once for the interaction with digital technology. There is one anecdote about the design of iDVD that touches on interaction design. That’s it. 

  4. I sometimes regret this. 

  5. Vertu has concierge service – which will probably change the user experience of the phone. But I have not tried it – for obvious reasons. 

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