Some notes about teaching Interaction Design to undergraduate students
I’ve been teaching a number of classes at the Quasar Institute for Advanced Design in the past few years, mostly within the bachelor’s course of Interaction Design but also in other curriculums such as Habitat Design and Green Design. I’m going to have busy times in my immediate future so I decided to take a year off from teaching, and eventually do shorter workshops or lectures but not regular classes. This break is a good opportunity to take stock and write up a post to share some notes. I hope my thoughts can provide inspiration for other teachers.
Interaction Design has been around for a few decades, and it’s not really a fancy buzzword or a new trend: hundreds of universities provide Interaction Design curriculums and the increasing pervasiveness of technology in everyday life is raising awareness about the need to design consciously how we interact with it. However, the academic approach to Interaction Design is far from established: this subject area is full of different disciplines with blurred boundaries and debated hierarchies (User Experience, Human-Computer Interaction, User Interface Design, Usability and so on).
Literature describes a varied landscape and teachers face a common challenge: what Interaction Design should I teach?
No, you can’t pack everything in three years
I was asked by my institute to restructure the curriculum of the bachelor’s course. Given that I couldn’t pack everything into a three-year course, I had several options: should we focus on the market-driven interpretation of Interaction Design, thus assigning most hours to UX and UI classes, as well as complementary subjects such as web technologies, mobile app prototyping and visual design? This approach would definitely train professionals that match what the digital job market is asking for.
Should we combine such classes with more theoretical classes such as Human-Centered Design, Multimedia Communication and Service Design, at the cost of reducing the amount of practical skills but giving more food for thought and methodology? Of course we should.
What about other skills related to digital arts (video making and editing, photography, photo editing, 3D modeling, animation, sound design)? Interaction Designers do need to know their fundamental concepts (both theory and practice) because they’ll handle those materials anyway. Also, such skills open the doors to many other professional paths.
And last but not least, what about physical interaction? That’s my personal background, by the way, as that’s the area of Interaction Design that includes electronics prototyping (Arduino etc.) and interactive products design. It also includes interactive environments (videomapping, Kinect, computer vision), Virtual and Augmented Reality. Oh, there’s also game design out there but that’s unanimously worth a dedicated curriculum.
So, should we include a little bit of everything with no deepening or should we pick a subset of subjects to teach thoroughly?
More in general, interaction design education can be oriented to designing and prototyping products in the form of digital or physical artifacts that satisfy some needs or to investigating its creative applications: do we want to invest on our students’ work skills that they can spend immediately or on their creativity and their thinking skills to lay the groundwork for a higher level education?
There’s no single answer to these questions, as many different combinations are valid. Building a curriculum depends on other context factors, such as: previous education of students (more technical or more artistic, high-school or degree etc.), their expectations, their future intentions (looking for a job or studying more), market positioning of the course (in relation to competitors and other courses by the same school), potential partnerships etc. Because of this, I’ll not focus much on my final choices, which I finalized with the scientific director of the institute; I am very satisfied about them but I’m aware that they are valid just for a particular context and can’t be replicated elsewhere.
We, as designers, manipulate a few elements including shape, visuals, motion, sound: interaction is one of them. It is an autonomous design element which we can handle creatively.
This concept has been the main focus of my classes. In their second year students will start prototyping physical artifacts and interactive products: my class serves as a gym for creativity to generate sound concepts and balance the students’ natural attitude to just focus on expression of objects (appearance) rather than behavior and time.
We define interaction as the conversation between a human and a device: actions, reactions, feelings belong to this conversation. Just like human-human interaction, a device can be kind, funny, rude, frustrating. Our interaction can be seamlessly functional or inspiring; it can be challenging or exciting, playful or awkward. It does not matter how the device looks like: this is about how it behaves.
Designing interaction is often more similar to writing a screenplay rather than shaping an object.
I taught an Interaction Design class in the final year of a Habitat Design course: those students were so much used to designing static plans, buildings, rooms, furniture that it was very hard for them to think in terms of something that happens over time.
I usually start my courses with a lecture about history of interaction design, which is in part history of humans and their tools and in part history of technology and computers. The abstraction level of human-computer interaction increased over time: with the first computers, humans’ role was about operating the machine (punch cards, plug cables, program operations); later it evolved into using a software (word processor, spreadsheet), and then it evolved further into performing simple tasks (drawing a picture, composing music) and finally more complex ones (running a business, managing an online community etc.). Level of understanding, mental models and interfaces changed along with this increasing abstraction.
Who bought computers? Who used them? What interface did they have? If we go through each decade starting from 1940s to 2000s we’ll give different answers to those questions.
This topic could span many hours, but over time I realized I should keep this part short because it’s probably less fascinating for students than it is for me. I still dedicate a good amount of time to talk about two giants: Ivan Sutherland and Douglas Englebart.
A bit of theory of interaction
Within the first lectures I introduce some laws and principles of interaction design:
- the task-artifact cycle;
- the seven stages of action by Don Norman;
- Fitt’s Law (and steering law);
- Hick’s Law;
- Tesler’s Law;
- the poka-yoke principle;
- direct/indirect manipulation;
I then proceed onto one of my favorite lectures, which is about aesthetics of interaction. After a super-short introduction to aesthetics (what’s it? what’s beauty? is it about my pleasure? can we find absolute values about something?) I start diving into what makes an interactive artifact “beautiful” or valuable or desirable by listing some ideals: efficiency, coherence, emotion, criticism, sensing, playfulness and more. For each one I show examples of designs to discuss with students. Ideals are like guidelines that help designers declare where the value of their designs will be. Where are such values located? Are they in the artifacts themselves or are they complemented by the context where the artifact will be used? Or maybe such values only exist when someone actually interacts with such artifacts?
In a couple more lectures I talk about tangible user interfaces and the main technologies used in physical interaction to capture gestures and body motion, with tens of examples that I discuss with students.
Finally, I give a couple of lectures about creative coding. The first one is an introduction about code: it is mathematical (beauty, complexity), it can be surprising (emergent behavior), it enables interaction (playfulness). The second one is about representing time in many creative, and possibly interactive, ways.
From theory to practice: assignments
These are some assignments I tried over the years. Students usually start working in the classroom and then finish at home for the next lesson.
Pick interesting projects. I share a list of blogs about technology and art and every two or three weeks I would ask students to pick a project they like and write a blog post with a description, technical details, some criticism or ideas for improvement, aesthetic ideals. We discuss these ideas all together at the beginning of the next lesson.
Design the interface of a microwave oven using only a simple 7-segments display and one button. This is best done by having students discuss and sketch this in pairs, and then using Post-Its on a wall to merge the ideas into a few optimal flows while discussing with the whole class.
Pick an object we use daily, and investigate all the ways it can be augmented or made more interactive. How can it provide feedback? How can it sense? How can it anticipate our behavior? How can we turn it into a physical interface?
Design two calculators (in a broad sense) inspired by declared aesthetic ideals, one of them being an emotion. This exercise worked pretty well. Here are a few ideas students came up with:
- A carpet-calculator, that involves the whole body to enter the digits.
- A calculator with a camera that can read a hand-written expression without requiring users to enter digits.
- A calculator in the form of a handheld game, where users must play a Snake-like game to pick digits scattered randomly in the screen.
- A calculator with voice recognition that gives correct results only when addressed in a kind way.
- A mechanical steam-punk calculator where digits are entered by pulling levers and turning knobs.
- A calculator that looks like an old rotary phone, where users should dial the digits; the phone would ring when the solution is available and pronounce the result over the headphone (and sometimes it would refuse to perform the operation by emitting a busy sound).
- A calculator that encourages users to calculate the result in their head before giving the correct one, to fight the mental laziness induced by the calculator itself.
Design a ticket vending machine that generates angst in users. I learned that this should be done in two iterations, because most students did not do proper brainstorming about what angst is (they just designed misfunctional machines that would generate frustration, but that was not the point of the exercise) and they worked on expression (appearance, sound etc.) rather than behavior.
I borrowed the last two exercises from Sus Lundgren’s excellent write-ups.
I usually ask for simple but effective sketches. No fancy Photoshopped posters or 3D renderings: just quick and good looking sketches, made with pens of at least two different widths, and some color to highlight things. For each exercise I’d require a layout or a perspective view of the object with captions and callouts, and then a storyboard that shows the sequence of interaction.
Future Interaction Designers: you must learn to hold a pen and sketch quick and effective storyboards.
More practice: coding!
In a couple of classes, final projects were made with Processing. Students had to design the interaction, write the actual code, and create graphics/videos/animations using the skills they learned in the other classes during the year.
One year I asked my students to form three-people groups and design an interactive game/experience that would make users change their mind about some sensible topic. The results were quite nice:
- One group designed a very effective textual experience where users had to choose a drug (cannabinoids, cocaine etc.) and then had to type “I’m fine” repeatedly. However, typing would be more and more difficult according to the alterations produced by the chosen drug: delayed rendering, fading characters, inverted keys etc. Claiming to be fine in a credible way gets more and more difficult.
- One group designed a game where users should file waste in the proper recycle bin. Whenever they failed, waste would accumulate in front of the bins making the game harder and harder: the consequences of bad behavior will turn against you.
- One group designed a game where users would follow the path of an African migrant and face the choices and dilemmas he would find along his way: whether to trust some unknown guard, to abandon a sick fellow to seek freedom, to give all his money to a trafficker and so on.
- One girls-only group designed a game where users would have to protect a cosplayer girl from “threatening hands” of naughty old men during a cosplay show. If users failed to cast out such hands, they would be reprimanded because looking without taking action means being accomplices.
- One group designed a game that would show the importance of speed limits and braking distance by throwing sudden obstacles in the roadway.
- One group designed a game where users had to bring a blood bag to a hospital by jumping over viruses and other obstacles, thus emphasizing the importance of donating blood.
This year I proposed a different topic. I asked each student to pick a chapter from Susan Weinschenk’s book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People and design an interactive experience/game that would explain that concept. This would make a nice year-end exhibition explaining basic concepts of how humans behave. They picked these topics:
- Time is relative
- What you see isn’t what your brain gets
- People read faster with a longer line length, but they prefer a shorter line length
- People think choice equals control
- People remember only four items at once
- People are happier when they’re busy
- Attention is selective
- People can’t actually multitask
- Loud noises startle and get attention
- People believe that things that are close together belong together
- People reconstruct memories each time they remember them
- People can miss changes in their visual fields
In my Habitat Design class I asked students to design an interactive installation applied to the context of their final architecture thesis, which included a public park with some pavilions, crossed by a viaduct. It was a large class so I’m only listing a few good projects:
- Public seats with spotlights that would turn on when people sit under them, and they would also turn on the day after, as a memory of the ghost of who was there the day before.
- A “forest” of metal poles that would play organ notes while people would walk close to them. Some poles could be bent and the sound would be altered.
- Spotlights under the viaduct that would follow skaters that would play under it.
- Many spherical lightbulbs under the viaduct that would turn on when a child is born in the nearby hospital.
- Public toilets with a real-sized toilet-tiny-man (the one used in signage for man/woman toilets) that would mimic the body motion of users playing in front of it.
- An interactive climbing wall.
- A distributed installation that would let users record sounds and sketch drawings and quotes from many places in the park and the pavilion, and would collect all of them in an interactive blackboard.
- Interactive bus shelters.
For each project I required a layout, a storyboard and some technical details about the technology.
In 2018 I supervised twelve graduate thesis. Working closely with my esteemed colleague (and friend) Furio Valitutti, we asked students to work on an initial common research activity. Each of them was invited to choose a visual artist (a painter, an illustrator or a photographer) and pick some characterizing elements (style, colors, objects, anecdotes from biography etc.) to be carried by a new hypothetical Noah’s Ark onto a world where people would not trust academic authorities anymore, including art historians, but would only trust direct experience and evaluation as a consequence of information overstimulation and immediate access to online knowledge. We then asked students to propose their thesis topics by choosing among the main subject areas of the bachelor’s course (UX/UI design, physical interaction, virtual reality) and incorporating in their projects the characterizing elements of the artist they picked.
With this structure, final projects had a common research basis while still spanning many applications of Interaction Design.
Some of the results:
- A VR game set in Vincent Van Gogh’s house (made with Unity).
- An immersive room where people would see themselves transformed into the Minotaur, with many philosophical references (made with Kinect and Processing).
- A tool for dysgraphia therapy that allows children to follow paths and drawings with interactive feedback, some gaming and data collection to monitor the progress (made with Arduino).
- A game for mobile devices where users can challenge other users in completing drawings by remembering the position of details (made with React).
- A complete UX/UI project for digital touchpoints in a bank.
- An audio-book inspired by the “The Tell-Tale Heart” novel by Edgar Allan Poe, with a creative representation of audio tracks in the booklet.
This is a very incomplete list of books that I’ve been using as a reference for these classes (or asking my students to read):
- John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity
- Bill Moggridge, Designing Interactions
- Stephen P. Anderson, Seductive Interaction Design: Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences
- Lars-Erik Janlert & Erik Stolterman, Things that keep us busy: the elements of interaction
- John Deway, Art as Experience
- Dan Saffer, Designing for Interaction: Creating Innovative Applications and Devices
- Jonas Lowgren & Erik Stolterman, Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective on Information Technology
- Katja Kwastek, Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art
- Jamie Steane, Interaction Design: From Concept to Completion
- Brian L.M Boyl, Interaction for Designers: How To Make Things People Love
Oh, this was a long article
Sorry, I tried to make it short but failed. Congrats for being still here. 👏
Just a few more words
I’d like to thank the extraordinary academic colleagues I had the luck to work with: Cecilia Anselmi, Federico Baciocchi, Renzo Carriero, Valentino Catricalà, Alessio Cimarelli, Riccardo De Antonis, Valerio De Cecio, Luisa Fabrizi, Massimo Falvo, Arianna Farina, Massimiliano Forlani, Carlo Frinolli, Carola Ghilardi, Daniele Gravina, Emanuele Macri, Davide Mariani, Martina Meo, Gina Oliva, Piero Savastano, Giovanni Scarfini, Furio Valitutti, Massimo Zennaro.
I also want to thank Benedetto Todaro, Scientific Director, and Alessia Vitali, Director of Academic Affairs, for their confidence and their incredible support in these years.
If you find this article useful or you have comments for me, I’d be happy to read your feedback.