Passion and Progression:

The Evolution of Interaction Design

I have been an interaction designer at IDEO for almost 20 years, and I’ve had the good fortune to see the discipline evolve from its earliest roots. I recently had the pleasure of sharing the highlights of those years at the IxDA15 conference, and this post is adapted from my talk. I feel that it’s important to reflect on the tremendous accomplishments of the past two decades in order to gain perspective on just how much progress we’ve made, as individuals and as a discipline, and empower us to continue breaking new ground in the future.

1967–1977: Foundational Years of Audacious Design

I consider this period to be foundational both for me and for what was then our nascent interaction design discipline. The audacious Apollo space program was in full swing and there was a tremendous amount of user experience work taking place at a breakneck pace for entirely new contexts of use.

A closer look at artifacts from the Apollo program reveals just how audacious this time for was for our discipline. The Hasselblad camera used during the Apollo 11 moonwalk in July 1969 was one of the most advanced cameras of its time. However, on the camera, we can see clear evidence of the need for our emergent interaction design discipline: Extensive instructions, retrofitted to the body of the camera in sticker form, to help ensure that astronauts did not expose precious images on film to sunlight. Whenever I see instructional stickers on products, I think that we, as interaction designers, perhaps could have worked harder. As someone in the IxDA15 audience thoughtfully tweeted, “stickers are the band aids of interaction design.”

70mm Hasselblad camera used by Neil Armstrong. Photo: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Perhaps there is no better image illustrating the need for the discipline of interaction design than this photograph of the Apollo Command Module control panel. You can see that the integration of so many systems required the design of clear hierarchies for control zones and a myriad of new control switches and indicators.

A Pressing Need for Emergent Interaction Design: The Apollo Command Module Control Panel. Photo: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Looking at the daunting task early interaction designers took on is inspirational, especially since it was all accomplished during the age of the slide rule. The success of the Apollo program serves as reminder of what can be accomplished when we work with other disciplines as we face new interface challenges and opportunity areas.

The question that comes to mind from studying the formative era of interaction design is, “How might we work on more audacious design challenges?”

The 1980s: The Microchip Comes of Age

Jack Kilby’s original integrated circuit is a powerful embodiment of the “Rough, Rapid, and Right” prototyping philosophy we live by at IDEO, and clearly there was something very right about Jack’s prototype. Very large scale integrated microchips opened up new product and experience possibilities throughout the 1980s and shaped our discipline further in a number of ways.

Jack Kilby’s integrated circuit prototype. Photo: Wikimedia.

At that time, key members of what would become IDEO were involved in shaping many of the devices powered by microchips.

The first laptop computer designed by Bill Moggridge for GRiD computers. Photo: IDEO.

These included the first laptop computer, which was designed by IDEO co-founder Bill Moggridge. Bill not only designed wonderful affordances for use of the GRiD computer, including careful labeling and legends on the product, he also did something that we can all be thankful for: He began advocating for the importance of putting that same careful thought into crafting digital experiences, and he coined the term “interaction design.”

Original Apple Macintosh Mouse engineered by IDEO. Photo: IDEO.

David Kelley, another of IDEO’s co-founders, worked with some friends to help Apple commercialize their first mouse for the Macintosh. While other similar input devices existed prior to this effort, Steve Jobs insisted that the Apple Macintosh mouse be usable on everything from Formica to blue jeans, that it rarely need to be cleaned, and that it cost $15 rather than $400. It was certainly an audacious design challenge, and this is another example of colleagues from across physical and digital disciplines coming together to find a solution. With that mouse came the friendly new face of the Macintosh computer.

I feel so fortunate to have discovered the field of interaction design when I did. After all, it was 1987 and these were the heady days of HyperCard. I spent countless hours exploring the power and freedom afforded by non-linear hyper-linking. HyperTalk provided easy entry into the world of programming and designing for interactivity, and the interface had many affordances that made it possible for the public at large to easily create interactive stacks of content and share them via floppy disc.

Hypercard: A friendly gateway to exploring code and non-linear interaction design.

Much can be learned from the way HyperCard was made for creatives, and Bill Atkinson’s work is all the more impressive when you consider the hardware constraints of the time. To give you an idea of what we were working with back then, I created my graduate thesis — an exploration of the first 24 hours of the Normandy invasion that provided affordances for mixed learner types, including creative writing exercises that allowed students to integrate media from photo and video scrapbooks — on a computer with the following specifications: Macintosh IIsi, 5MB of RAM, and a 40MB hard drive, using SuperCard and Quicktime.

So, what do you do when you face constraints like these? Well, if you are clever, as I am sure many of you have been over the years, you embrace and draw inspiration from them. Since grayscale images looked so much better than color images at the time, I chose content that was well suited for grayscale displays.

An interactive overview of the Normandy invasion: Working within constraints of technology in 1992.

Reflecting back on the 1980s, you might ask yourself, “Have you embraced constraints lately to help drive creativity?”

The 1990s: The Age of Exploration

The 1990s brought about a brave new era of exploration during which alternate form factors for a variety of digital devices were explored. The 20th anniversary Apple Macintosh design positioned the personal computer as something very different from the beige boxes seen thus far.

Apple’s 20th anniversary design introduced a very different take on how personal computers could be integrated into our lives. Photo: 512 Pixels.

At IDEO, we helped companies explore the personal digital assistance space. Scout Electromedia’s Modo was a wireless, handheld device with a distinctive look that delivered up-to-date information on practically everything to see, do, or eat in a given city.

Scout Electromedia’s Modo. Photo: IDEO.

The device was a casualty of the first great dot-com meltdown, but it was an idea ahead of its time that addressed a persistent need. On today’s smartphones, there is a healthy ecosystem of apps providing this same service.

Handspring Edge represented a new take on personal digital devices as lifestyle objects. Photo: IDEO.

IDEO also helped companies like Handspring navigate a path forward from the early days of PDAs toward elegant lifestyle objects, which would ultimately form the basis for today’s smartphones.

Inspired by all that took place in the ‘90s, one might well ask, “Where are the edges of of interaction design today, the areas that lend themselves to adventurous exploration?”

The 2000s: The Age of Enlightenment

The turn of the century saw elegant integration of hardware and software that served a real purpose — in other words, enlightened interaction design. Apple’s first flat panel iMac is emblematic of the thoughtful design that was done during the 2000s, introducing consumers to the notion of a digital hub and an elegant, purpose-driven form factor.

Apple’s first flat panel iMac presented a thoughtful and integrated digital hub. Photo: Macworld.

The QUE proReader from Plastic Logic was another enlightened effort. This was one of the most beautiful products I’ve had the pleasure of working on. At a time when the merits of reading on dedicated e-readers with e-ink displays vs. full color tablets were widely debated, the QUE proReader represented the cutting edge: a highly sophisticated e-reader targeted at professionals.

Plastic Logic’s QUE proReader offered a high-end reading platform for busy executives. Photo: IDEO.

The skilled team assembled to work at this startup included former employees from Palm, HP, and Apple, all passionate about what the QUE could bring to the market. But the various individual perspectives were so strong that, three years into development, the company asked IDEO to build consensus around a shared vision, catalyze and finalize the product, and design a compelling user experience. We worked with the team to create a product with all the requisite qualities of a winning high-tech device: A great user interface, compelling new brand touchpoints, cutting-edge plastic electronics backplane, and a light, thin shape. The QUE was recognized as a top 10 notable product upon its launch at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show.

However, Apple’s iPad came along just three months later and redefined the high end of tablet use, demonstrating the critical importance of timing and a powerful brand presence.

Gaining perspective from the decade of exploration, one might ask, “Are you moving fast enough in the design of elegant, integrated solutions that the market has come to expect?”

The 2010s: The Age of Empowerment

As the barriers to starting a company are being removed through crowdsourcing forums like Kickstarter, we are moving from an age of enlightenment to one of empowerment. However, defining and maintaining focus and balancing human-centered design with technical innovation continues to be real challenge for many startups. Keeping a clear design vision is critical, and the interaction design discipline is more important than ever before to help bring focus to new innovation efforts.

When designing the video-sharing app Spark, IDEO team members held fast to a singular guiding vision for the user experience: holding up a clear piece of glass through which to frame and capture the world around us. As new team members were on-boarded and new features were discussed, this clear vision guided the evolution of both the team and the product.

A window on the world: The UX vision for the Spark app guided the team in keeping the interface simple. Photo: IDEO.

The Kickstarter-funded startup Melon takes this concept to the next level: it is singularly focused on improving focus.

Melon’s headband senses brain activity. Photo: IDEO.
The Melon app helps users reach a state of mental focus. Photo: IDEO.

The headband sensor IDEO helped Melon design monitors your brain’s activity and tracks its output, and the Melon app teaches you about cognitive performance and how to improve focus.

Not surprisingly, the design effort was similarly focused. As part of IDEO’s Startup-in-Residence program, Melon co-founders Arye Barnehama and Laura Michelle Berman spent four months in early 2013 collaborating with IDEO.

During that time, they renamed the company, defined their brand, refined the product, developed their user experience, and prepared a Kickstarter campaign that garnered considerable press coverage.

A key question to be asking today is, “Is your guiding vision as clear as it was when you started building your project?”

The Future and Science Faction

The key to finding a guiding vision and keeping it in your sights is often embracing what you are really passionate about. Working hard to align my daily activities with my passion as a creative individual has proved invaluable throughout my career, and my own passion has always revolved around time-based visual interfaces and interactivity. In recent years, I’ve become more passionate about exploring the places where rich visualizations of user experiences intersect with science fiction and core human needs to provide us with compelling glances into what our future holds. This is “science faction,” or the notion that what was once considered science fiction ultimately comes into being.

When designers think carefully about technology and how it intersects with timeless human needs, we can visualize powerful hints of our future long before a technology becomes widespread. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which debuted in 1968, astronaut Dave Bowman uses a device that very much resembles today’s popular tablet computers.

An early instance of tablet computing in 1968's release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Science fiction becomes “science faction” when concepts are grounded in timeless human needs and become reality. Image: 20th Century Fox.

Similarly, futuristic user interfaces in film inspire us as to the possibilities of near-future interactions, as seen here in this visualization of Tony Stark’s heads-up display created by my colleague Dav Rauch for Iron Man. The fact that we have a team member leveraging his future user interface talents on current projects at IDEO is a sign of just how key this two-way street between present and future (and fact and fiction) is to our work and our ability to link inspiration with realization.

Seeing is believing: The future user interface work that went into Tony Stark’s helmet interface demonstrates compelling potential.

Back in 2000, IDEO created this visualization of a highly personalized device for mobile payments that uses fingerprints for biometric validation of financial transactions. It appeared in an article in BusinessWeek.

IDEO’s early vision of mobile payments using a personal agent device and biometric touch points. This concept was created for BusinessWeek in 2001. Photo: IDEO.
Persistent user need: Apple Pay and other mobile payment methods are a response to a persistent human need for convenient payment options. Photo: Apple Insider.

Because the work was grounded in real human needs, it anticipated services like Apple Pay that are now available and are remarkably similar to the concept we were passionate about visualizing fifteen years ago.

IDEO recently completed an in-house passion project to visualize three ideas of the future that will be enabled by autonomous vehicles. This work, titled “The Future of Automobility,” was created by an interdisciplinary team of design researchers, storytellers, and industrial and interaction designers. It is based on patterns we have seen in our work in the transportation and mobility space over recent years and is intended to help inform and encourage further discourse.

IDEO’s Automobility point of view presents a variety of potential futures that could come about as autonomous vehicles become more common.

Our point of view is organized into three chapters. The first, “Slow Becomes Fast,” looks at how perceptions of today’s slow commute times might change drastically as autonomous vehicles allow us to focus on things other than driving. The concept harnesses many of the systems that are already starting to ship in today’s vehicles and envisions possibilities for vehicle-to-vehicle communication, an important enabler for autonomous vehicles and an area for interaction designers to refine in the future.

Slow is Fast: As drivers are liberated from the tasks of driving, carrying out other activities may make tomorrow’s commutes seem much shorter. Image: IDEO.

In chapter two, which we call “21st Century Mule,” we considered what might happen when delivery fleets are automated. Users will enjoy convenient curbside delivery anywhere, at any time. Biometrics will ensure safe and timely deliveries, and mobile touch points will allow users to take full advantage of flexible, responsive autonomous delivery services.

21st Century Mule : Convenient curbside delivery made possible through on-demand autonomous delivery vehicle fleets. Image: IDEO.

And in our third chapter, we see workspaces moving autonomously toward workers, a phenomenon we refer to as “Inverse Commute.” Prior to peak commute times, WorkOnWheels pods are transported to underused spaces throughout the city, so urban workers can walk or ride bikes to collaborative work areas. Each location is optimized to support the pods with necessities like running water and power, and the spaces would provide full connectivity, climate controls, and cloud-based storage.

The Inverse Commute: A new early morning sight might include autonomous work spaces on their way to meet team members. Image: IDEO.

To learn more about IDEO’s point of view on Automobility visit:

Thinking Big Together

I am just as excited for our interaction design discipline as I was back when I was shaping my first digital interactions. Given the scale of challenges we are now capable of taking on as a discipline, perhaps this African proverb will serve us well moving forward: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I wish us all the wisdom and ability to know when to do one or the other. As for me, I consider it an honor and privilege to have shared the journey of our discipline with so many of you and I look forward to our continued journey ahead.