Notes on “The Future of Interaction Design”

Musings of a Silicon Valley Designer

The following essay is based upon a lecture given at the University of Notre Dame, hosted by the Department of Art & Design, mid-February 2016. I was asked to offer some thoughts (as an experienced designer visiting from Silicon Valley) on what the “future of interaction design” might mean.

What is the future of interaction design? That’s a rather loaded question for anyone, not just a lone visitor to this acclaimed university. In preparation for my talk I happened to come across this striking image from a recent article at the Fast.Co Design website.

Anyone know what this is? It’s wildly provocative, even alien, with some violently dramatic lines. It’s …a futuristic violin! While I’m sure there’s some kind of rationale behind the form language, it seems rather bizarre and unfriendly — a weapon even! What kind of future is this suggesting? It does make one wonder…

In this talk I offer no bold proclamations.

Indeed, it would be quite arrogant or hubristic for me to do so. Instead, I’d like to talk about what it means to define the future of interaction design.

While walking around Palo Alto downtown, near University Avenue, I came across the offices for The Institute for the Future. Such a grand name, right? Of course, they’ve been around for a long time, Paul Saffo and his team, quite legendary in their own right. These offices are quite nice, with giant windows emblazoned with interesting quotes about the future. In particular I noticed this one by Buckminster Fuller, who should be well-known to most design students and faculty.

The Institute for the Future, Palo Alto CA
“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”

Hmm! Indeed, that Alien-esque violin thrust upon us so brashly does make one feel a bit like a victim, doesn’t it? We’re forced to reckon with this “entity” — semantically, perceptually, behaviorally, culturally. So many questions and challenges. So little time…

But how do we go about becoming those architects? This is the overarching theme of my talk tonight.

Thus, instead of proclamations, what I offer to help grasp & shape the future of design are strategic frameworks of thought. If we structure our thinking effectively around key ideas, then we can increase the probability of defining a future we truly want, responsibly and meaningfully. To define that future we have to consider how to apply various concepts and methods of “interaction design” as a liberal art of technological culture, per the philosophies of Richard Buchanan that shaped the Carnegie Mellon (CMU) School of Design in the 90s/early 2000s, whose intellectual lineage arose from John Dewey, perhaps the original thinker of “experience” as a pragmatic value of living — not merely pushing pixels. Because there were no pixels in Dewey’s era ;-)

To look to the future of interaction design, we must consider Conversations, Engagements, and Embodiments. Not just slick gestures, mechanics, or tools that sensationalize or romanticize a fantasy notion of interaction.
Obligatory image of Tom Cruise from ‘Minority Report’ doing “futuristic interaction design”

// Conversations are central to what we do: staging necessary & significant dialogues with stakeholders & teammates as well as with users via the “It” being created. As interaction designers we define behavior, and shape meaning. Conversations serve as the vehicle for that to happen, which are mediated by artifacts and outputs we deliver.

// Engagements are the product encounters themselves, the actual using of “It” to act in some way or achieve a goal or perform a task. I use this word — engagement — in particular because it suggests something deep, committed, profound, and very significant personally. As you play around with a product (or interact with a service or system), sussing out the actions and responses, interpreting what does what and for whatever reason, you are cultivating a relationship.

// Embodiments are the manifestations of a designer’s ideas into some perceptible form that can be engaged with on various levels, thus enabling the rich storied conversation to happen, and hopefully enable a shift in that person’s attitudes and behaviors for the better. Without some embodiment, it’s difficult or tricky to have meaningful interaction.

To coordinate that dynamic among Conversation, Engagement, and Embodiment, we must regard the activity of designing as a rhetorical act of argumentation, going back to Aristotle’s triad of ethos/pathos/logos — the core elements in a speech that influence and enable productive value. (Not the gross political rhetoric of today, but in the original sense of shaping human action through deliberated invention & persuasion) There is a negotiation between the speaker’s intent and the adequate solutions for the audience —basically, the designer creating a sign, an object, a service, or a system for interaction with a certain audience to achieve some relevant outcome. This naturally requires empathy for the audience (pathos), deep understanding of the logical underpinnings of the output (logos), and a judicious aesthetic sense of character that resonates with the audience (ethos).

R Buchanan’s model of rhetorical balance via Aristotle, to achieve “good design”
But let’s come back to the future.

How does all this matter in terms of what’s coming next for today’s & tomorrow’s interaction designers? I suggest we need to apply this style of forethought to what I term the Four Forces of Interaction, which dance and intertwingle (to borrow Peter Morville’s lovely phrase) in powerful ways, suggesting innovation and opportunities to improve the human condition.

My Four Forces of Interaction are:

1 — Domains of Impact
2 — Tech Marvels
3 — Business Creation
4 — Existential Value

Domains of Impact

What are some domains of impact for applying concepts & methods of interaction design, beyond the mainstay of pixel-based screens or devices? To pursue a vibrant future of IxD we gotta move out of “#FirstWorldProblems” towards difficult or unpopular situations & audiences. I suggest there’s tremendous untapped value in seeking out domains that arguably represent the best (worst?) wicked problems — situations that are inherently indeterminate and lack clearly defined solutions or even stakeholders.

What if we could apply IxD thinking to enabling better policies for insurance and legal claims? How might we make assistive care for the elderly & disabled more humane across an entire journey, elevating their quality of life? What about enabling a truly unified sense of community & civic engagement (beyond simply e-voting!) for localized, and increasingly globalized citizens (ex-pats living abroad, etc.)? Or pursuing the deep, complex challenges of the developing world in terms of food, water, disease and refugees, etc. Climate change and the planetary evolution… these are all huge entangling issues ripe for future interaction thinking!

Technology Marvels

No doubt we are living in an era of dazzling and even gratifying technological development that embodies a certain zeal of “infinite possibility”. There’s an enthusiastic optimism for better living through more advanced tech — at least, as I see it coming from Silicon Valley! And this stuff is pretty freaking marvelous! From Internet of Things, to Big Data, Machine Learning or AI Agents, and Algorithms…Wearables quantifying our daily movements, home robotics that assist with chores, VR headsets with hyper-realistic visuals rivaling 4K cinematic quality, or self-driving cars, and drones delivering your goods…Whew! It’s indeed a bold future being suggested, that’s already happening — just not evenly distributed — and perhaps racing ahead of what ordinary human can process and/or identify with. How much of this is too much and what kind of digitally augmented future is driven by the power of smart-tech? Some profound questions ahead…

Business Creation

The rise of design thinking and UX in startups or large corporations has helped “validate” the use of design in business contexts, which is great for design grads entering the industry! Do note, there’s some increasingly blurred boundaries between UX & Product Management (indeed, seems recently more UX leaders are taking on roles like Product Director or Product VP— an interesting trend!). As the very popular, successful book Business Model Generation suggests, visual illustrations of defining business models is very compelling to regular MBA-types and has promoted another sense of design into business creation, from a fundamental POV: visualizing the relationship among partners and customers, their mechanics and outcomes, etc. Value creation via businesses is a critical element in defining future possibilities, and that’s increasingly influenced by design in some big ways — it will continue…

Now what’s interesting is to think of these pillars (Domains of Impact, Tech Marvels, and Business Creation) as an ever-evolving, dynamic Venn diagram, constantly changing shape, rates of change, and of course the levels of overlap. Want to know what’s the future of interaction design and how that will impact our lives and contexts? Look at the intersections (overlaps) because therein lies the potential for applying interaction design concepts & methods for influential, and hopefully positive, effect. That’s where the signals and cues lie that we need to seek out and extract.

Indeed, it’s also noteworthy to recall a similar Venn diagram from the Eames Office, a powerful hand-drawn sketch that embodies the essence of design practice as a mediation of intersections. Of particular note are the two “notes” saying “these areas are not static–they grow and develop as each one influences the others”, and that “adding more clients add to the relationship in a positive and constructive way”. A very hopeful statement of the ecological nature of design situations and the elements therein, not as distracting adversaries but as cooperative engagements. Cool stuff!

But also, see the part where Eames scribbled, “It is in this area of overlapping interest that the designer can work with conviction and enthusiasm”. Hmm! Want to design the future? Then we must understand what it means to be a designer, and this implies the fourth pillar: the existential value of a designer related to a process and strategy of interaction design.

Who is a designer nowadays? And how is that sense of identity which shapes the “sense of conviction and enthusiasm” (per Eames’ words) evolving into the future, given what we’ve discussed already? I recently wrote an essay on Medium on the core qualities of what I believe constitute a successful, modern, mature digital designer (with a focus on digital product design: software, mobile apps, network services, etc.).

A few highlights are relevant here:

  • Thinks in terms of “first principles”, daring to ask fundamental questions on the origins, purposes, values of problems being tackled, eagerly digging deeper at a humanistic level of interpretation and interaction.
  • Knows how to nimbly dance with data, either quantitative or qualitative, exercising good judgment in ambiguous and incomplete situations
  • A highly evolved sense of self-awareness, intuitively considers the materiality, medium, and expression of various digital solutions
  • They design to an internal compass of doing what’s right, necessary, and sufficient to support the original business & design aims. Driven by a pursuit of ideals (i.e., design integrity), guided by pragmatic concerns, with sound doses of strategic & tactical awareness of the situation.

This last point about designing to an internal compass with a pursuit of ideals, led me to further ponder what that means in terms of the future sense of being a designer. So, recently thereafter, I wrote another essay proposing the rise of what I term “the meta-designer”, and suggesting that designing design itself will become the critical, strategic, humanistic practice as technologies and businesses and situations change collectively dramatically (and quickly).

This suggests a rather profound notion that designers, in effect, serve as the “therapist” or “philosopher” mediating that confluence of intention and outcome via a sense of significance for what is consequential, impactful for an audience. Yes, it’s about ethics, doing what is right and good. Following some principled compass that guides effective problem-solving and decision-making. By the way, please note…All of this happens in action — not just some theoretical thinking! It’s ultimately about “how do we make meaning” — the creation of value as a design practice, and leading that discourse with purpose. And the designer operating with that conviction Eames spoke of can truly lead that endeavor.

Now we can see that the diagram of overlapping pillars or forces is complete, with the addition of that deeply existential value of “being a designer”, shaping and defining and expressing and mediating and enabling — all those actions that make a designer valuable and influential. Indeed, those intersections pointed out earlier as places for potential now become places for provocation, through the designer acting with purpose and meaning. Surfacing something that challenges lazily held assumptions with a sense of improving the human condition. And rooted in this is that scary question of “why even do this at all”? That lies at the core of the existence of designing. Why design?? Answering that, unlocking that secret — which only you can answer as students and professionals— offers a powerful clue as to what the future of interaction design can be.

Maybe Kenya Hara has a clue about unlocking that secret.

The legendary (and very humble) designer for MUJI, Kenya Hara recently said in this interview what he regards as the true value of a designer — To visualize and awaken the hidden possibility of an industry. Whoa, so simply stated yet quite loaded of a statement! That’s exactly what I refer to as the intersections/overlaps among the forces to arrive at discoveries that inspire and provoke new ways of thinking, grounded in some desire to do good, guided by a compass of the “meta-designing” attitudes.

But how do we translate that into something practical in terms of skills, since that’s what pays the bills, right?

Recently while perusing Twitter I came across this breakdown of “top 10 skills” for 2020 vs 2015. Sorry I don’t have the exact reference/source as I just grabbed the image, it was such a fascinating list of skills.

When I look at items like Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Emotional Intelligence, Judgment, and so forth, I keep returning to Buchanan’s model of “good design” based upon Aristotle…these are all fundamentally design skills, the core arts and methods of interaction design as a liberal art of technological culture. These are relevant and valuable for making productive, impactful, and yes profitable futures.

Now look at this set of design methods and sensibilities, that I found online, originally from Jane Fulton Suri of IDEO. An anthropologist and deeply profound observer/thinker of human experience, she has portrayed an array of skills in this intriguing layout of the yin-and-yang symbol of contrasting balance. Methods are tactical and objective, while sensibilities tend to be more personal, intuitive, existential. Together as a whole, they all shape the identity of the designer and their outlook on the world, in the course of sense-making, and so on…

So, when I think about the future of interaction design, ultimately I think about frameworks to help us literally “make sense” of our responsibility to be those architects as summoned by Buckminster Fuller, and create that future with care and value. I think about a balanced duality of optimism for what’s emerging, what’s next, but also healthy criticism of what’s happening now in our present state of affairs. And to bring to bear upon the various forces affecting that relationship (Domains of Impact, Tech Marvels, Business Creation, and Existential Value)… I realize we need a powerful set of tools to think through those intersections.

To truly become those architects of the future, guided by the concepts & methods of interaction design, we need to apply the following:

  • Critical Lenses: methods and tools that serve as frameworks to interpret trends, changes, opportunities and suggest questions to understand and provoke. The focus is “critical” — challenge and question!
  • Radical Insights: emergent understandings from the deliberated overlaps of various domains, fields, topics, spaces from economics to astrophysics. Provocative yet penetrating insights into beliefs and behaviors. That’s what makes it “radical”.
  • Purposeful Actions: Looking and understanding are all good… but to have valid, deep impact, influence that shapes real outcomes, you gotta design with a sense of intentional outcomes with significance. Make stuff that matters, to put it simply.
Industrial Design shop at the University of Notre Dame

So what does all this mean for you, the students and faculty here, immersed in your programs of design (graphic, industrial, interaction, and beyond)? Substantive discussions must begin in earnest around these Four Forces, requiring engagement with willing partners from other departments unafraid to raise serious questions & possibilities that challenge current thinking or practices. Design must take the lead but can’t do it alone.

Figure out how to define those critical lenses, and enable radical insights that foster purposeful actions in your own student projects and as aspirations cultivated within your selves as you go out into the “real world”.

For that is how — indeed perhaps the only way — we can truly become architects of the future via interaction design. Thank you.

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