IxDA Interaction 17 : My Field Report — Part 2

Part Two: Introspection

Picture by Sven Buschgens

This is part two from a couple of reports I wrote after my experience during the Interaction 17 conference at NY. The first part was dedicated to Technology Trends, give it a look if you wish (it is not mandatory to understand this second part, though).

Along with inspiring (and pretty formative) talks about ‘new’ technology in IxD (short for interaction design), there was a wide discussion over the more introspective aspect of our work; the collateral impact of IxD in society, culture, knowledge, politics, education, and so on.

This second part of the report aims to provide a deeper insight on these conversations, which I consider fundamental in the context of both IxD Education, as well as the practice itself. I divided this report in three main blocks: Ethics; Design Education; and Design Futures. Let’s start with the first one.


Ethics

As a great warmup on Friday’s evening, Paul Ford and Rich Ziade, during a live performance of their Track Changes Podcast, developed a very powerful idea: what would it mean for Twitter to delete @realDonaldTrump’s user from the platform? Through a skit-like narrative, Paul ‘talked’ to different departments inside Twitter (impersonated by Rich), such as Legal, Tech, PR, Investor Relations, Design (go figure) and so on. The main point being that “Design tends to happen inside a vacuum, within a very specific context”; and they argued to move further towards a more systemic approach.

Paul & Rich on stage

They also questioned the neutrality of a platform like Twitter; of it’s staff and directors; and mostly of the interactions it allows between users inside and outside the platform. Anthony Dunne would later build on top of that, arguing that:

“Technology is entangled with Politics; we need to stop thinking of it as neutral”.

Same applies to Design, and there was a thread within the keynote of other speakers exploring this political entanglement, like Cennydd Bowles during his talk about ‘Ethics in the A.I. Age’.

Ethics & Emerging Tech

Cennydd referred to Design as “applied ethics”, pointing out that Designers “become moral by working on it (Design)”. Cennydd provided a simple set of questions to approach Ethics for any A.I. project, but these hold true (in my opinion) for any Design project:

  1. What if everyone did what I’m about to do?
  2. Am treating people as ends or means?
  3. Am I maximizing happiness?
  4. Would I be happy for this to be published in tomorrow’s papers?

One of Cennydd’s most notable thought on A.I., is that the promise of automation and A.I. implies a struggle between agency & concealment; an instinct to hide complexity that poses a threat to free will. This means a cautionary advice to all designers out there putting all the energy in more addictive, immersive and compelling experiences (as opposed to experiences that reinforce the audience’s own experiences and desires).

Design & Power

Probably the most notable talk about Ethics was Chelsea Mauldin’s talk, ‘Design and Power’ (opening keynote on Monday morning). With a focus on the public-sector, Chelsea works as social scientist and strategist bringing better life conditions to addicts, homeless, convicts and other vulnerable groups.

A picture of Chelsea during a workshop for the Public Policy Lab

In an industry where “our employers own a higher power than our end users”, Chelsea asks “what is our moral frame as Designers, regarding the context?”. According to her, we have 3 universal duties, ethically speaking:

  1. Doing a good work (“When I take this work, can I deliver something valuable?”)
  2. Loyalty (“Can I put my users first? before the client? before myself?”)
  3. Obedience (“My judgement doesn’t rule: my users get to define their own desires”)

One of the most powerful ideas presented by Chelsea is a fresh perspective of the act of relinquishing individual power as a Designer: for her, this means that “you channel the power of everyone you are designing for”.

The Future Voice Award

As an interesting fact, during the IxDA Awards Ceremony, the ‘Future Voice Award’ was given to Juliana Rotich, Executive Director of BRCK.org and co-founder of Ushahidi Inc.

One of IxDa’s small clips about the winners of the Awards

Juliana leads organizations devoted to bringing connectivity and literacy to Africa and the world, and this provides a clue on what the IxDA Awards Board considers “a stellar example of what Interaction Design (and) Activism can be”.


Design Education

The weekend before the main conferences, the Education Summit was held. As far as I understood, each year this event grows bigger in number of talks and duration, which seems fantastic to me; some of the boldest ideas I listened to emerged during the talks of the Summit.

Education Summit introduction

Anthony Dunne opened the Education Summit talks on Saturday morning, and one of his boldest invitations was to “design conditions for learning, not just teaching”. My highlights on the following three topics was mainly guided by this thought; and I’m bound to recognize a profound respect and admiration for the ways all of these individuals are challenging the way Designers teach and learn these days.

Post Industrial Education

Gary Chou and Christina Xu led a great workshop about what they call ‘Post-Industrial Education’ in Design, which is basically a response to former teaching techniques — originally meant to insert young designers into an economy of Industrial Development. According to Gary and Christina, emerging generations of designers should instead be taught “how to navigate an unimaginable uncertainty”.

It was refreshing to listen to their views on education (which is basically how they teach at the SVA) , most notably including developing confidence on the student –which specifically meant to learn that failure is O.K.; foster interdependence by “letting students model for each other how to learn; and the most exciting one: guiding students to work in public.

Working in public for Gary and Christina means getting the student’s work exposed to real people, and getting used to the fact that their work is intended for other people to use in their everyday life. They have this awesome dynamic where they challenge their students to come up with a business idea and then make $1,000 USD by the end of the semester. Imagine how radically different your path through University would be, if you actually had to make money out of your ideas!

Some projects from their 2016 Entrepreneurial Design course

You can follow their work at their website, full of neat resources like notes, student’s experiences, sample syllabi, and so on.

Teaching New Technologies

Molly Wright Steenson and Phil van Allen led a really fun workshop about how to teach & learn ‘disruptive’ new mediums’. These new mediums are nothing else than what Molly & Phil call the Avalanche: A.I. and Machine Learning; A.R., V.R., M.R. & Immersive Media; I.o.T and the Industrial Internet.

Using a great quote from British Architect Cedric Price, Molly & Phil set a common ground for everyone to chill out in front of these seemingly intimidating new technology:

“Technology is the answer; but what was the question?”.

According to them, students and teachers should move away from the initial novelty of new mediums, and gravitate towards “using the intersection of Design & Technology for exploratory purposes”.

They provided three simple pieces of advice to teachers who want to support their students, even when they are learning themselves:

  1. Designers & Educators have long been teaching new technology (they used the Bauhaus as a great example)
  2. There are futures in our past (teaching Design has always involved dealing with forecasts of the future and generating bridges toward those broadcasts)
  3. Even if you are not a techie, there’s a way to teach new mediums

This idea of co-learning and discovering together –students and teachers- the implications of these new mediums imply a way of overcoming the initial hype with disruptive tech; and in turn adopt a more critical approach addressing further implications of these technologies becoming part of our everyday life.

Transgressive, Near-Illegitimate Design

Let me add a small side note here, to remember you why I mentioned that some of the boldest conversations happened during the Education Summit. Allan Chochinov’s talk is my top highlight of the Interaction 17: not only because it strongly challenges how we think about teaching and learning Design, but because it challenges everything about how we think about Design itself.

How often are we allowed, as Designers, to ‘play with fire’? Allan explores this question with his student’s from the SVA’s MFA in Products of Design, where students work on transgressive Design projects, most of them on areas that Design “would originally had no business inserting itself into”.

These experiments range from Apps to browse slow-poisoning recipes; trackers for non-citizens in foreign countries; assisted suicide artifacts; and so on. This last example, called ‘SINCERELY, Toward a Contemporary Design of Assisted Suicide’, by Natsuki Hayashi, presents a series of artifacts and devices that contribute to improve assisted suicide in the increasing places where this is legal in the United States.

Image of Natsuki Hayashi’s project SINCERELY, Toward a Contemporary Design of Assisted Suicide (caution: images on this link might be found disturbing by some readers)

Natsuki opens up to Allan during an interview, where he asks her about her initial research on end-of-life-issues, and she responds:

“I realized my work is for people who are seeking control and dignity in death; that perhaps the work isn’t supposed to be pleasing for everyone. That was a turning for me in the process”.

For Allan, there is a fundamental duty as a teacher in “crossing the line between critical design and objectionable design”, and move towards a scenario in which “(critical) Design is meant not only for discussion, but to be put into the world”. In his experience, ‘bad design’ (as he calls his student’s transgressive work) “have the biggest energy and potential”; and this is totally groundbreaking in a world where strong ideas about morality and consumption seem to govern the way student work is evaluated inside the classroom.

The work of Allan and his students is trascendental in the way that they are testing the boundaries of what is reasonable regarding how Designers teach, learn, and act. Make sure to follow the work from the MFA’s students, they’ve done a wonderful job documenting everything in their website.


Design Futures

I collected some notorious reflections about the future by some of the speakers, usually going back and forth from ‘Designing the Future’ and ‘The Future of Design’.

Anthony Dunne used samples of his speculative design work to invite the audience into the possibilities that design-fiction provide to form alternative perspectives of the world we live in. According to Dunne, “the future space is only a part of how we deal with fiction — and a very limited one”. A design-fiction more oriented towards the present, as he suggested, would provide tools for determining if it’s worth to introduce new objects (or products; or services) to our life.

Some of the the projects he showed during his talk were done by students at the Designed Realities Lab, a research and teaching platform inside the New School. These projects provided interesting and alternate vies on politics, technology, and –much impressively– ‘world making’ (like ‘United Micro Kingdoms’, a “deregulated laboratory for competing social, ideological, technological and economic models”).

United Micro Kingdoms

Dunne made a point about respecting people’s capacity to find their own way through fiction, and promoted the migration from world building to world hinting; where the audience is guided by the fiction but retains creative and ideological independence.

Finally, and without leaving outside a creative and aesthetic approach to Design, technology, and fiction, he wondered if there is “room in people’s life for more poetic and metaphysical objects.”

Design Principles for Death

I mentioned on the first part of my report that most speakers barely scratched the surface of more profound ethic and anthropologic implications of new technologies. Melissa Martin was one exception to this behavior, providing a truly interesting talk about an aspect that –according to her- most digital products fail to take into account: mortality.

Melissa highlighted the way in which our ever-increasing use of digital products generate a massive amount of personal information, evidence of a wide range of life experiences. This presents a gap in most journeys considered by the products we use: what happens if the user passes away?

She shared the result of more than 3 years of research on users “experiencing death and mourning in digital spaces”, what she calls Design Principles for Death:

  1. Embrace the though moments; engage users early about how your product supports death
  2. Balance the needs of a grieving community with the intentions of those who died
  3. Leverage privacy decisions made during life, to what would be desired settings in the event of death
  4. Provide generous and gracious exits: let families easily remove the deceased’s profile from your product

Melissa’s insight on dealing with death points out the importance of addressing this and other human needs with the development of emerging technologies and interactions.

Our Future Relation with Technology

James Cuddy & Roman Levin also went deep into “the ways in which technology is affecting how we think, act and behave”, presenting the insight obtained from their project ‘Rethinking our relationship with technology’.

Image from Six:Thirty’s Unread Messages project

For their project, they asked a group of international multidisciplinary designers to develop three core topics: Empowered But Dependent, The Curated Self, and Compulsive Behaviours. The resulting projects provide a relatable set of objects and interactions that wonder how can Design and Design Research “promote a healthier relationship with technology”.

A robot that takes selfies, part of the Unread Messages project

Check out the full projects at their dedicated website.


Final Notes

That’s it, I hope you found this useful; please reach out and let me know your thoughts on this report — write me to martinez@raidho.mx

As a reminder, consider this report limited in terms of the specific talks I was able to attend (I had to make choices between simultaneous happenings) and my personal interests — as well as the kind of sense-making process I went through when studying my notes. For an unfiltered experience, though, get your tickets for the Interaction 18 conference in Lyon (probably see you there!).