Interaction Design School
10 Meaningful Things Interaction Design Students Learn at School
You may be wondering, what does an Interaction Design student learn in a semester?
If Interaction Design is about designing for and with constantly evolving technologies, how are the tools learned at school still relevant after graduation? This semester, instead of focusing solely on the results, it’s in the process and the reflections that we learned essential interaction design skills.
We had 4 projects over the 14 weeks: Game Design, VR Design, AR Design, and 3D-4D typography. All of which explored the theme of sports and games design for positive social change. I was also on the team that wrapped it all up together in an exhibition at ECUAD. Instead of presenting these projects individually, I thought I’d focus on the learning outcomes:
1. Collaborating (Game Design, AR)
Throughout the semester, we collaborated on several occasions with the Communication Design majors. I worked with Maddy Phillips on designing a game and added an AR experience to a zine that she had designed. In the field, designers of different specializations work together and this was a great way to get familiar with division of tasks and learn from one another. With Maddy, I could get a fresh perspective on my IxD work, and focus on the interaction side of things. It was interesting to see where our roles overlapped too: When we created a game, copywriting and creativity was something we both contributed a lot to.
2. User Testing and Understanding Behaviour
We looked at game design and play values (what a player gets from playing a game) in several different ways: We read about it, researched it, and experienced it by playing games, changing the rules and observing changes. When it was time to create a game, we built a minimal prototype to be able to blind test it before putting more resources into it. Our game was a geocaching-inspired treasure hunt around the new Emily Carr campus. The treasure was The World’s Smallest Gallery, a shoe box where the students could leave some of their art and look at the pieces left before. We silently followed the first players. We took notes of every comment, excitement, or confusion. With these insights, we were able to quickly make changes and improve the playing experience. You can read more about this whole process here.
We learned the value of testing early and letting people guide our design decisions. Throughout the rest of the semester, we did testing+rapid iteration to craft our VR and AR experiences and always considered the play values behind them.
3. Rapid Prototyping for New Tech (Sketching VR)
When creating the VR piece, we had clear goals in mind: For the viewer to feel immersed, to understand the story, and to be inspired by the social change fostered by sports. We discovered a simple way to measure a concept against these goals: Sketchy VR, a tutorial from Ryan Betts, based on his Medium article. Using a 360 VR grid, we sketched the story scenes and imported these images into A-Frame, where we added interactive hotspots. In less than 5 minutes, we had a working VR (albeit a low-fidelity one). The constraints and opportunities of VR require this kind of process, where the comfort angles, the exploration space, the screens interactions can be tested easily. It’s important to look for these quick first steps into a complex medium, as they help establish the basics and give the designer enough satisfaction to keep going.
4. Designing in Discomfort (VR, AR, Modo, Unity)
Learning new technologies can be intimidating. But this semester we learned that there’s always a place to start. And that Google is your friend to move forward. In this field, being able to be in a constant state of learning is essential. As designers it’s tempting to focus on how polished or portfolio worthy the results will be. But learning, especially for new technology, comes in discomfort and uncertainty: Resources are limited, progress is moving fast, and you sometimes have to get the coder out of you. After starting from scratch in A-Frame VR, A-Frame AR, Modo, and Unity, we felt more optimistic when approaching new tech. We even saw the glitchy-ness of the results as an opportunity, rather than a limitation.
Designing in discomfort created an environment where students helped one another more. And when someone would find a fun thing to do with the code, they would share it.
5. Critically Shaping IxD
It’s important to be conscious of how current interaction design practices are shaping our decisions and how our decisions are shaping interaction design practices. Psychological and social impacts of UX design are only starting to be analyzed. Attempting to be aware of all potential impacts of our choices is crucial. What do we want VR/AR to mean, to make people feel, to encourage? It is great to have mediums that are young enough to be malleable, but it comes with a responsibility as the scale and reach can be larger than ever before.
6. Crafting Layered Experiences (AR)
Designing IxD experiences offers an opportunity of depth. It means designing layers that reinforce each other around a specific goal or story. I used Maddy Phillips’ zine and added an AR dimension to it. I ensured that I understood the larger picture and the vision behind Maddy’s zine. Because she had used an essay from a very prolific friend of hers, I was able to explore the rest of his work and add extra layers of meaning to the zine through AR. All the elements worked together, from the story, to the interactions, text, and non-linear flow.
Many collaborations like ours happened where several zines were given an AR experience. I was on the ‘Marker team’ to create a whole with all of them. We made custom markers (the icons that trigger the AR to appear), that would be provide continuity between the zines. They simultaneously connected to one another and to the zine they were a part of.
7. Displaying Transparent Work (Exhibition Design)
The idea of creating an exhibition that would display our collaborations with the Communication Design student came with its challenges. First, interaction design work is often difficult to display in an accessible and comprehensive way. The process behind IxD work is usually hidden, a goal of the exhibition was therefore to reveal the sketches, code, and thoughts that go into the final pieces. Second, we needed to create a whole with all the seemingly disparate pieces, and this is where curation and copywriting would play an important role. Third, and most importantly, we had 4 days to make it happen.
With our instructors Eugenia Bertulis and Jon Hannan, the curation team (Maddy Phillips, Kerem Dogurga, and myself) took care of the creative direction, copywriting, logistics, templates, promotion, prototyping, testing, and execution of the exhibition. We learned a lot on the opening night about how people interact with VR/AR in the gallery context.
8. Creating Wonder ✨
The main surprise from the exhibition was the awe and the conversations that the IxD pieces created. Simple letters floating in a Unity virtual space were enough to make people smile and play, as well as start meaningful discussions.
9. Using Randomness as an Opportunity
Touching back on the glitchy-ness of our medium, we realized that once the pieces were available for people to play with, unexpected experiences occurred. The AR pieces’ audio would sometimes overlap, creating comic and interesting results. It was also triggered from photographs of our markers in our process documentation. The VR pieces’ glitchy-ness came together to create a unique visual language, as if imperfections made the digital world more human.
10. Finding Purpose and Engaging in our Community
Being in contact with the Vancouver Street Soccer League (an organization that addresses the issues of homelessness, marginalization, and addiction through inclusivity and soccer), and structuring our projects around social change and community, gave us a compass and a mission. The possibilities are endless when it comes to Interaction Design, and getting inspired by organizations like VSSL helped guide us towards meaningful projects.
11. Understanding the Medium
We also took some deep dives into the tech sides of things. This is sometimes left behind by designers, but understanding your medium inside and out helps you design better and more flexible experiences for it.
12. Keeping in touch with the industry.
I had the opportunity to go to the Grace Hopper Celebration (of women in tech) in October, I shared my learnings here. Something I cherish about studying Interaction Design is the permeability between industry and academic. I think each side can teach the other a lot. This is something our instructors understand, as we received several guests throughout the semesters that gave us valuable feedback and insights.
In conclusion, this semester has been about trusting the process. About connecting the dots, and understanding what’s the underlying meaning or objective of a project — and that it can be questioned and changed. That is the advantage of being in a new and rapidly evolving field, we get to shape it.
Thanks for reading.