This week, Seattle welcomes the IxDA’s Interaction Week 2019, bringing together interaction design practitioners, researchers, and fangirls to explore the state of the discipline. In collaboration with the University of Washington DUB group, the conference began with the seventh annual Interaction Design Education Summit.
My current research projects explore the role of design skills and principles in introductory computing education, so I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to learn about interaction design education from the best in the field. Luckily, the summit was very welcoming to outsiders like myself. I met designers and educators from all over the world in fields ranging from marketing to architecture. Each attendee brought their unique perspective to the conference’s themes of interaction design in flux and experimentation. Below, I’ll share summaries and thoughts about my time at the summit and what computing education can learn from interaction design pedagogy and practices.
The summit kicked off Sunday afternoon at the Microsoft Studio B campus in Redmond.
Microsoft Inclusive Tech Lab Tour
Bryce Johnson of the Inclusive Tech Lab showed off how Microsoft was making gaming more accessible for a wider range of ability levels. The lab itself was designed to be an ability and sensory-friendly space. Chairs were upholstered in high-contrast colors to the floor, light levels could be adjusted for sensory accommodation, and tables could raise and lower to ensure no gamer’s controls were out of reach. Bryce described the origins of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, created for gamers with limited mobility and how it followed Microsoft’s inclusive design principles: recognize exclusion, learn from diversity, and solve for one/extend to many. Before leaving the lab, the group gathered around to watch Bryce demo a game of no-hands Rocket League.
Panel: Anticipating the Future of Organizations
After the opening remarks, a panel of industry leaders, moderated by Microsoft AI Design’s Ana Arriola, took the stage to discuss human-centered design in today’s culture. From the start, panel members emphasized the need for design educators to teach softer skills as well as craft. Multiple panel members called out effective communication as one of the most important skills a designer can have. Others discussed the role of failure in novice designers’ education and how important it was that failing become normalized so students would feel okay taking risks. Empathy — with users, teammates, and humanity in general — was lauded throughout the talk as well, though some of the panel members were skeptical about whether proper empathy could be taught, going so far as to ask:
“How do we teach each other to be a human being?”
From a computing education perspective, I’m not sure if we can teach empathy, but I do believe we can teach students more effective perspective-taking to better understand their users’ needs. Perspective-taking is necessary for some types of empathy, but it is unclear whether it is sufficient. One of my current research projects is exploring what constitutes “useful” empathy in UX design processes, so I hope to start answering questions like these in the next few months.
Keynote: Sadia Bashir, Pixelart Games Academy
Sadia Bashir, the co-founder of PixelArt Game Academy, gave the summit’s opening keynote. The academy focuses on collaborative learning and was born out of Sadia’s dislike of traditional computer science education, which often (intentionally or not) emphasizes competition over cooperation. PixelArt welcomes students from all backgrounds — two described were a mechanical engineer who wanted to become an artist and a member of a rural village seeking training in new skills. Each student brings different experiences and knowledge to their group as teams work on designing, developing, and deploying a game over the course of a few months. Sadia finished with a call to consider how each of us can support learners to explore their passions and take risks, either formally as an educator or informally in the form of tweets, blog posts, and video calls.
After the requisite networking and socializing, I joined a few other attendees in catching one of the earlier shuttles returning to the conference hotel. At this point, the snowfall that started in the afternoon had begun to stick, lending a festive atmosphere to the whole proceeding as we made our way back to downtown Seattle.
A snowy Monday kicked off at the University of Washington’s Alder Hall with a brief welcome from Michael Smith, Director of UW’s MHCI+D program. Isabelle Sperano also let the group know about the IxDA Medium publication, which houses the resulting discourse from previous workshops. Keep an eye on this page for updates in March with the 2019 summit’s activity.
I opted to attend the presentation track for both the morning and afternoon sessions, where each speaker had 30 minutes to talk about a subject of their choice related to the guiding ideas of interaction design in flux or experimentation.
Beyond the IxD Degree Program: Why and How Industry and Academia Should Partner Around Pedagogy
Dianna Miller of Syracuse University began the morning session with a response to a talk at the 2018 Education Summit on identifying core competencies for design. A better way to approach design education, she claimed, was to begin by analyzing how designers know what they know (their epistemology) and how they know they are teaching and assessing effectively (their pedagogy). To better prepare students for interaction design careers, Dianna called for teaming up around education: Industry should host educators as “faculty-in-residence” to gain better understanding of real-world design processes , and academics should invite practitioners from diverse fields to engage students in challenging conversations. She also encouraged educators to “radically share our teaching journeys,” not only in paywalled academic papers, but in publicly available mediums such as blog posts or repository websites.
Building Transdisciplinary Design Capability through an Integrated Studio Approach
Colin Gray of Purdue University gave an overview of the institution’s new undergraduate UX design major. The program squarely positions design as a transdisciplinary field, drawing from six different areas — psychology, anthropology, history, graphic design, philosophy, and ethics — to inform its curriculum. Colin argued that traditional design education, in which competencies are often taught in semester-long, siloed formats, aren’t as effective as threading the development of those competencies throughout students’ intellectual development.
“It’s like a rope…It’s the combination of all those strands together than make it work.”
In CS education, we’ve seen a similar approach being used for topics that don’t fit well into traditional computing curricula, such as HCI and ethics. A neat distinguishing feature of Purdue’s program is its support for students’ growth: Each student has a peer and faculty mentor throughout the duration of the program, and projects are conducted in teams of first, second, and third-year students rather than stratifying based on experience.
Silo-Busting and Island-Hopping: Blending Theory and Practice
Keeping to the theme of integration, Michael Gibson and Troy Abel of the University of North Texas presented a way to use theory to help students learn to avoid “solving the wrong problem in the right way.” At UNT, design students are taught theoretical frameworks for approaching problem-solving in their first term of instruction. As they design, students explicitly identify which of these frameworks they’re using to approach their research question, prompting them to explicitly consider not only their solution, but how and why they arrived at that solution. This allows students to start generalizing their approaches beyond one specific problem and gain intuition on which to base similar solutions.
In computing education, these kinds of metacognitive strategies have shown promise in helping novices programmers learn to problem-solve, so it’s great to see that similar approaches can help novice designers. Moving forward, CS education might consider integrating theoretical frameworks as guidance too, especially into introductory classes where novices tend to flounder.
4D Design at Cranbrook Academy
In the last talk of the morning session, Carla Diana walked us through Cranbook Academy’s radical approach to their graduate art and design curriculum. Cranbrook, labeled as “the most dangerous design school in the world,” takes a critical theory approach to teaching design and challenges its students to learn by interfacing with their wildest ideas. For example, Carla spoke of a student who asked What if plants could help nurture long-distance relationships? and eventually designed a “smart plant” that, when paired with a partner’s, would allow the user to see when the other person was watering or taking care of it. Central to Cranbrook’s approach is an emphasis on physical, functional hardware prototypes. Students learn techniques for creating not only with electronics and code, but with everything from traditional woodworking to 3D printing.
Over lunch I had a chance to connect with some of the other summit attendees. Surprisingly, a large portion of those I spoke with weren’t interaction designers by trade. Instead, like me, they were there to observe and learn about design education to gain some insight into the state of the field. One person at my table brought up the need for design literacy in other fields so that team members could communicate well with designers and understand what they were capable of. Another spoke about how the mark of a good designer is that they can dissociate their ego from their ideas and avoid tying their identity into their designs. I see a parallel there with computing education: students often get very invested in the first few programs they create and are offended on a personal level when they break. Introductory CS might do well to embrace design’s philosophy of productive failure and teach students to reframe breakdowns as learning experiences, not defeats.
Also present at lunch: much criticism of Seattle’s inability to deal with what most attendees considered the barest dusting of snow. Most major cities in the Pacific Northwest don’t get snowy weather more than once or twice a year and often aren’t equipped with the machinery or infrastructure to deal with it. This leads to horrible traffic snarls as drivers spin out on highways and city transit diverts to snow routes. As a PNW native from west of the Cascades, I can confirm that two inches of snow and ice is our soft apocalypse.
What can the Circus Arts Teach us about Pedagogy?
Paloma Holmes of Normative kicked off the afternoon session with a discussion of what design education can learn from circus pedagogy. Through a two-year ethnography on circus communities in Canada, she found an inclusive pedagogical culture that welcomed those who “didn’t fit” in traditional schools. Paloma pointed out ways that circus pedagogy encouraged students to engage in exercises on their own terms and learn through failure, to communicate without relying on words and overcome their fear of public criticism. Each of these finds a parallel in the goals of design training. Perhaps by emulating the circus, educators in all fields can help their students to become more resilient, creative, and collaborative.
Encouraging Experimentation: Helping Students Respond to Interaction Design in Flux
Daniel Buzzo from the University of the West of England, Bristol spoke to what he saw as a key shortcoming in design education: a lack of room for exploration and failure.
“We didn’t get here by design. We got here by stumbling through dozens and dozens of alleyways that didn’t work.”
Daniel claimed that the best path to engage students in learning is to allow them to teach themselves — show them what they should avoid, and let them figure out what should be through iteration and experimentation. In this way, learners develop their own language and intuition around the problem and design solutions that aren’t artificially constrained by best practices or prior examples. Instead of emphasizing outcomes, which contributes to a fear of failure, Daniel’s students are graded on their mastery of the design process and their ability to contribute ideas.
Interaction Design and Motivational Video Games
Isabelle Sperano and Robert Andruchow of MacEwan University presented a case study of interaction design for educational video games — a topic close to the CS education community’s heart. However, instead of focusing on K12 as these kinds of games are prone to do, the design students in question were tasked with creating a game to teach undergraduate-level biology concepts. Students had a short five weeks to design and prototype the game with the help of a biology professor (for content knowledge) and a team of CS students (for implementation). Teaching undergrad-level content through a video game presented unique challenges for the design students, but when the dust settled, many of them named the challenge as a favorite project. Some were even encouraged to pursue game design as a career — a route they hadn't considered before.
A particular challenge called out by the MacEwan team was that of communication — especially between the design students and the CS students. According to the talk, CS students weren’t used to presenting their work to teams and handling public critique, and design students encountered similar difficulties conveying ideas to the CS team. This scenario underscores the need for some form of design literacy in computing education. Given how often designers and programmers work together in industry, it’s crucial that both are able to understand each others’ skills, proficiencies, and mindsets.
High School Students Create Startups
To wrap up the afternoon session, Melanie Kong presented her experiences on teaching design to high school students through a year-long entrepreneurship class. The first quarter of the year helps students to identify real-world problems, ask good questions, and begin ideating solutions. During the second quarter, students learn skills like networking and iterative problem-solving that they’ll need in the third and fourth quarters, when they’re unleashed on the world to launch their own startups and compete with their peers on the annual demo day. Melanie shared students’ stories, emphasizing that these high schoolers were successfully learning and implementing design principles through the class’s embedded approach. She ended by encouraging educators not to underestimate the abilities of secondary school kids and calling for design education to be integrated into primary and secondary curricula.
Closing Keynote: Andrew Davidson, Senior Lecturer, UW HCDE
Summit attendees reconvened to listen to UW’s own Andy Davidson give the closing keynote on filling the human-centered design pipeline through K12 outreach. Andy began by unintentionally echoing Melanie Kong’s sentiment that the earlier kids are exposed to design, the better. Through his experience as a high school teacher, he quickly realized that, more often than not, students weren’t aware that the field of design existed before they got to college:
“This is not a problem of ability; it’s a problem of opportunity.”
When he joined UW’s Human-Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE)department, Andy worked to integrate service learning into the undergraduate curriculum. Now, he estimates that around half of HCDE undergrads participate in some sort of design outreach before graduation, traveling to middle schools in underserved areas and teaching students problem-solving, ideation, and prototyping. Check out the UW Pipeline Project for more info on this excellent program.
The rhetoric surrounding Andy’s closing keynote (and, indeed, throughout the summit) strikes me as very similar to the language driving initiatives in computing education: increase access, immerse learners as young as possible, and prepare students to engage with a new and challenging world.
There, the momentum comes from the idea that computing is a new literacy for a citizen of the 21st century. Here, though, the topic is design. This begs the question: Is design another new literacy? Would students benefit from exposure to design skills and principles in ways that would allow them to become better, more critical thinkers? If so, perhaps it’s time to push for access to design education not as an elective, but as a fundamental right for learners.
The IxDA Education Summit was a fantastic opportunity to connect with the world of interaction design. I got to spend two days among leaders in design education, getting a feel for both the present and future of the field. I’d highly encourage everyone interested to attend next year’s summit (which, apparently, will be somewhere in Europe — vacation anyone?) to interact with a community that pushes the boundaries of pedagogy and practice in pursuit of a well-designed future for all.