Interaction Design Education & Its Summit

Interaction Design today is as confused as it has ever been in a long history of confusing times.

What does that even mean? Why is it relevant to the Education Summit and what can you do about it? These questions and others will be answered below.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be confused. Confusion often leads to attempts to clarify when done in collaboration with many other attempts to clarify, leads to some amazing (all be it temporary) clarifications. But confused we are.

We lack clarity in the very discipline that is supposed to help — among other things — bring clarity to the world. We use specific terms to be general, general terms to be specific, and other words in ways that just feel right to us regardless of how they might actually be understood by others. We have no clear path of career development. We have no agreed upon assessment criteria for how we determine what successful practice even looks like, let alone how those going through educational programs should leave those programs.

But what does this confusion do? What’s so bad?

  1. Have you tried to job hunt recently? The vague term of UX Designer means something different to everyone and terms like Information Architect and Interaction Designer have been so polluted over time that they have become unpredictable as well. This confusion impacts both those searching for positions and those searching for talent. I’d be willing to wager that the average search takes 3–4x longer than it has to because of our confusion with terms.
  2. This is the important one. We have diluted our practices. The generalizing of practice to just user experience design does have some immediate service to the “real world” but as educational systems attempt to meet the “real world” need, they are diluting the core disciplines that make up this practice. When we talk about “Web design” or “digital design” and not “interaction design” or “information architecture” we are loosing our depth in our practice. We gloss over GOMS and Fitts. We skim Contextual Inquiry. We outright ignore embodiment, cognition, etc.
  3. Organizations are spending sometimes millions of dollars to make up for the failure of formal institutional education, by creating their own educational institutions (or investing in outside ones).
  4. Arguably we could also see how some organizations are taking advantage of our lack of clarity by offering options that don’t really address the needs of our practice, but speak about creating working designers in short order without assessment criteria or otherwise definitions of success or oversight from outside institutions or third party advisory boards.

One reason for this is that there is so much riding on our ability to work in the “real world”, which has been cornering us to generalize. The creation of “the generalist” is not the creation of a swiss army knife as we would like to think. Each tool of the classic knife is just as good in the knife as it would be if it was separated. But when we generalize our practice, we are creating a generalization of our practice. Like any generalization our frames (crafts) become dulled, diluted, imprecise. (I am not arguing whether this is really a necessity of business or a poor solution to a different problem. That’s a different essay.)

But these educational institutions are not alone. Industry’s role here is complicit as well. They are the marketplace making these calls for generalization when what they really mean is they are looking for someone who is multi-faceted. But instead of talking about the real complexity of the individual facets that they require to make their organization run smoothly, they try to redefine the term UX to mean a new thing that includes all the facets without having to describe them. The most egregious example of this is the industry cultivation of the phrasing “UX/UI”.

This means, “I need someone who is really a UI Designer, but I have to pay lip-service to the more strategic and powerful term, UX, so that I can try to get better talent, but I really doubt I’ll do anything that falls under UX other than UI and please code for production.

Here is where I’m going to add a new piece of complexity and annoyance.

There is no one kind of practice of Interaction Design and that’s a good thing. This piece became abundantly clear for me this week as I was having a nice email back and forth with Dan Harvey at SapientNitro in the UK (who are sponsoring this year’s IxDA Student Design Challenge). We were talking about educational institutions and in the conversation I noticed that I had some biases because of the context of work I think about: Enterprise. Dan’s world is in the agency. What an interaction designer does overlaps greatly, but the differences, much like the deployments of a piece of enterprise software, can be the difference between a chimp and a bonobo — species generating — or cat and dog — family generating. There is so much overlapping in both cases, and the amount of overlap between two species in the same genre is really as important as the difference between two species that are in different genre. (Here is your look up of Linean-Taxonomy.)

Different contexts of practice are looking for their species of interaction designer. The best industry players are creating deep relationships with great schools and even investing in helping to craft specific curriculum that meets their specific needs. Schools in turn can’t have all of their students hired by a single corporations (or can they?), so they have to temper these requests to make their students valuable to a broader context of practices.

The different contexts of practice also have a lot to learn from each other around their differences of their practices. We may not focus per se on the same type of engagement patterns in enterprise product design as they do in advertising experience practices, but there are theories and crafts that can definitely help.

It’s a new time and we have great opportunities

These are not all together bad problems. They are issues that any broad practice will face when they mature. But to make sure that maturation happens well, we need to nurture it and not just let it run amuck.

This is where a project near and dear to my heart comes in, which is the Interaction Design Education Summit. We have had 3 great editions of the Summit so far and are now in the midst of planning our 4th edition happening in Helsinki, Finland, hosted by Aalto University, on 28–29 Feb, 2016.

The mission of the Summit is to bring together educators of all types and all contexts:

  • academic researcher institutions
  • design schools
  • alternative vocational institutions
  • Certification providing organizations
  • MOOCs
  • in-house or agency educators
  • internships and apprenticeships
  • students
  • Mentors

We also invite those industry professionals who need to find and advance the careers of the talent they need to help them meet their organizational goals (or those of their clients).

Currently we have the Call for Proposals open for the upcoming Summit and we hope that you will join us. You can submit a talk proposal or a proposal to lead a working session. A talk is an opportunity to share a case study, a piece of theory, or some other piece of information that you feel others will gain value from. Working sessions are facilitated (by you?) collaborative workshops. Bring a problem to the Summit that you feel could use the benefits of some manner of designing with a group of like-interested people. We expect that leaders of working sessions will contribute the outcomes of the sessions back to the community as a whole to help us advance on the chosen issue.

Registration for the event is also open and we hope that you will come to engage. Our keynotes have been announced and we are very excited with the breadth of diversity we have with this year’s slate of keynotes.

We look forward to seeing some of you there at the Summit in Helsinki this February. If nothing else lets spend Leap Day together!