| boris müller: Life Blog Projects Teaching & Research

Thoughts on Interaction Design

12. January 2017

Why we need more writing on interaction design.

Interaction design is a weird discipline. It shapes our perception of digital technology. It makes complex digital systems understandable and manageable. It provides access to huge information systems. It allows people to participate in all kinds of online social activities. It defines the look and feel of soft- and hardware. It is a truly global design. And yet — it is not a popular subject of public debate.

On the one hand, this is not surprising. Interaction design tends to be a discreet and unobtrusive discipline. In some ways it is like typography. Most people take words on paper for granted and spend very little time on the question of why some texts are more pleasant to the eye and easier to read than others. The same is true for interaction design. We take computers — in all their forms — for granted and don’t think too much about the intricacies of the interface and interaction design. Unless, of course, the design is really bad and stands in the way of the things we want to do.

On the other hand, it is astonishing. Currently, interaction design is the most influential design discipline. In September 2016, Facebook reported 1.18 billion daily active users. We now have more than 2 billion smartphones worldwide. 80 Million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day. This is not only a huge technological feat — it is also a major design achievement. Good interaction design enables people to participate in the digital world. And the impact of interaction design is tremendous. If Facebook changes the design of its website, it has implications for about 15% of the world population.

I don’t mind that interaction design is slightly obscure. But I believe that we — as interaction designers — should talk more about what we actually do. Our work is clearly relevant. Not only our community would benefit from a more comprehensive discourse, but also related disciplines.

In order to contribute to such a debate, I will publish a series of short essays on interaction design in the next few weeks and months. As I believe that debate also means personal engagement with experts and professionals, I will — prior to publishing — discuss every essay with a colleague. So in a way, every essay will be reviewed and challenged in two stages. First from a peer, then from the Medium community.

In the essays, I will reflect on my work as a practitioner, teacher and academic. I have very consciously chosen the form of an essay. Vilém Flusser once wrote an excellent text on essays in which he juxtaposes the form of the essay with the form of the treatise. Flusser argues that the distinction is of existential nature. The author of an essay identifies with the topic and must take full responsibility for his or her statements. The author of a treatise, on the other hand, dissociates himself or herself from the topic.

As a practicing designer, I obviously cannot dissociate myself from the subject matter. So choosing the form of an essay was the obvious decision. For me, it is a suitable framework for my thoughts on interaction design.

Note: This posting was originally published on Medium on 5. January 2017 under the same title: “Thoughts on Interaction Design”.

The Medium is Medium

7. January 2017

I have started writing again – this time on Medium. I kind of like it as a reading environment and as a social network. We’ll see how it works out, but for now I am quite happy with the overall feedback and experience.

Nonetheless – the day I started publishing on Medium, the company fired one third of its staff. That’s pretty drastic and it demonstrates very clearly that even the big online publishing platforms will not be around forever. So I will continue publishing here on esono. It is good to know that all my writing is available in a place that I own myself.

But for now, I will publish my essays on Medium first. So if you want to read my text right after they are fresh out of the word processor, I suggest you follow me at Medium.

Books are the new Horses

13. October 2014

Books will die out. eBooks are the future.

The pragmatic arguments for eBooks are overwhelming. Electronic devices are cheap. Storing text is simple – we can already download a huge amount of literature onto a single device. Schoolbooks can regularly be updated without the need to print them. They can be stored in the cloud – so you cannot loose them. The text display can be adjusted to your preference. You can easily search and annotate. Multimedia elements can be added and allow for a richer reading experience. And you no longer need to fell a tree in order to print a book. Books – in the sense of stacks of printed paper – will no longer exist in a few years.

80 years ago horses died out1. With the rise of the automobile and tractors, working horses became obsolete. Horses needed to be sheltered and fed – no matter if they were idle or working. Machines were faster, more powerful, flexible and cheaper. Horses were a thing of the past.

In 1945, there were about 1.5 million horses in Germany. This number dropped very quickly to about 250.000 in the 1970s. Horses were presumed to die out or live in zoos.

Today, we have about one million horses in Germany. Four times the number of the 70s. What happened?

Keeping a horse is not a pragmatic decision. Except for breeding there are very little economic incentives to have one. The reasons for the increase of the horse population can be found in economic changes. With an increasing living standard and more leisure, many people could invest time and money for keeping horses. Either for sport – or just as pets. In any case, there are almost no rational reasons to own a horse.  So the widespread existence of horses is a cultural phenomenon. Horses have become cultural artefacts.

I believe we will witness the same pattern with books. There is a strong notion that paper books will vanish. And a lot of this is very plausible. As smartphones, tablet computers and ebook readers are becoming ubiquitous, paperbacks will be less in demand. Having schoolbooks always up to date – and not having to carry around several kilograms of paper – is certainly attractive both for teachers and students. The number of printed books will decrease dramatically in the next few years. It will look as if books are going to be extinct.

But books have not only a pragmatic side. Horses had to become cultural artefacts in order to survive. Books have always been cultural artefacts.

The way printed books are edited, published and distributed will change fundamentally in the next 20 years2. I assume printing will be more more individual. There will be standard designs for books – pretty much like today. But books you really value can be designed just for your taste. If every book exists in a highly abstracted and well-structured format3, it is possible to create design variations that address taste, readability and sheer typographic beauty in different ways. For this to happen, the distribution and the licensing model has to change as well. Imagine the text of a book would not be published – but released. It could immediately be designed, printed and sold by anyone – as long as a licensing fee for every sold copy would go to the »releasing company« (I won’t call them publishers).

To be clear: printed books will be a niche market like other luxury goods. There is no need to own a horse – yet they proliferate. There is no need to own an analogue, mechanical and extremely expensive watch – yet it is an extremely profitable industry4. In 20 years, there will be no need to own a printed book – yet there will be individually crafted books and wonderful private libraries. It is quite possible that the rise of electronic books will actually improve the aesthetic quality of printed books.

  1. Tractor Versus Horse as a Source of Farm Power, published in: The American Economic Review, Vol. 25, No. 4, Dec., 1935 

  2. The Economist has just recently published an excellent essay on the future of the book

  3. Yes – I know. We are still far away from that. 

  4. In 2012, Switzerland exported watches worth 21,4 billion swiss francs. 

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. 

A Map is not a Service

22. September 2014

When developing new apps or new software products, designers often refer to the notion of »services«. The idea is that the software should have a clear purpose and help the users to complete a specific task. Conceptual and technical complexities should be hidden in order to give the users a pleasant and frictionless user experience. This works especially well when the parameters and the possible variations, that are taken care of in the background, do not have a great influence on the quality of the user experience.

Consider taking a cab. You enter the taxi, state your destination and relax. At some point the cab reaches its destination, you pay and you leave the car. All the complexities – building a car, owning a car, driving a car, navigating through the city – are hidden from you. In most cities, taking a cab is a good service.

A service is like a black box. You specify your problem – and you get a solution.

There are many situations, where such a service-oriented approach in software design is absolutely preferable. Overwhelming options and dependencies can frustrate users and the notion of delivering clear and simple services through software is fine. But in order to make a service work, you have to trust it.

Maps and data visualisations have a completely different approach. They do not offer a service or a simple solution. They show the complexity of a situation or an issue – but they can enable the users to relate to this complexity. They contain much more information than the users currently need. But this additional information presents a context for understanding and thus provides the user with a scope of possible actions. The user has to generate the solution for him- or herself.

When you are using them, maps and visualisations are essentially about decision making. Using being the operative word here. There are many intriguing visualisations and many captivating maps out there. The National Maps of Switzerland are probably the most beautiful maps ever1. I could spend hours just looking at them, imagining the mountains, glaciers and the valleys, enjoying the sheer beauty of the maps. But it makes a difference if you are warm and comfy at home and enjoying the map – or if you are near the Cima di Gagnone, lost in the clouds and trying to figure out a way over the ridge 2. In a moment like this, a map becomes a vital instrument for decision making. Using it means that you literally decide your next steps based on the interpretation of the map.

The same is true for good data visualisation. There are many beautiful and intriguing data visualisations out there. I love to explore them, discover relationships, learn new things and just enjoy the playfulness of the interaction. But their real power enfolds when you have to figure something out and act on it.

The gold standard for data visualisation is informed decision making. To have an interactive »map« that enables you to judge the situation, that displays possible options and that allows you to create a plan for action.

It takes more effort to interpret and to understand data visualisations than services. Maps and data visualisations are not necessarily about reducing complexity. They make complexities readable and allow the users to relate to the data, generate insights and make decisions. Visualisations can be empowering as they leave the interpretation of the data to the user3.

These two different approaches are actually not totally divergent. Digital maps are visualisations, turn-by-turn navigation is a service. So both perspectives can be incorporated into one product. But conceptually they are very different.

The comparison of services and visualisations highlights a fundamental challenge in interaction- and interface design. When do you need a simple, uncomplicated solution that is easy to use but which internal decisions are opaque to the users? And when is it better to provide users with an interface or visualisation that is visually complex and contains a lot of options – but that is transparent and enables understanding?

As always, design is about trade-offs. But it should be a conscious decision. Not everything needs to be complex – but at the same time not everything needs to be simple.

  1. The maps are available online in all scales. 

  2. True story. 

  3. Deutungshoheit for my German readers. 

« Older postings | | Recent postings »

RSS Feed | Twitter @borism | Impressum und Datenschutz