Designing for Interaction Revisited

As the semester comes to an end, and I look back over all that I’ve learned, asked and been confronted with, I realize how far my notion of what it means to design for interaction has really come. I have been surprised, startled and scared all at once by the incredible possibility and extreme danger wrapped up in concepts like artificial intelligence, machine learning and data culture. Though these ideas have much to offer the world, their dark underbelly is undeniable. It is in this context that Interaction Designers must now make their bed — between possibility and something more sinister.

As with any design, Interaction Design is embedded with values. There are complex power dynamics at play each time you agree to the terms and conditions associated with an app or transfer data to your new Mac. These power dynamics rarely see the light of day, couched in complex language, small type and Thunderbold 3 Ports. This too is intentional. While these examples may seem innocuous, they represent much more complicated truths that are entangled in the technology we’ve come to see as indispensable.

Take algorithms, for example. Algorithms control much of our digital world —and the dangers they pose are not even completely comprehensible to the programmers that code them. Once set, algorithms become an indisputable black box, spitting out results based on logic you’ll never see. Cathy O’Neil demonstrates the danger this poses in her piece Weapons of Math Destruction where she looks at the ways in which algorithmically determined prison sentences, considered the model of unbiased decision making, actually reflect and magnify the biases of the humans that created them. Eli Pariser describes a similarly startling truth about filter bubbles in is TED talk. To demonstrate the power of filter bubbles, he places two identical Google searches side by side, pointing out the differences in their search results based on algorithmic logic. Our very sense of reality is shaped by algorithmic forces we don’t understand.

As I grapple with the complexity of these truths, and wonder what my role as an Interaction Designer will be in them, I continue to return to Janet Vertesi’s notion of “seamful spaces” as the most inspiring example of how the politics of design can remain firmly rooted in the hands of its users. As the world moves towards seamless everything, what might it mean to design a product that showed itself fully — its beginnings and its ends, its intersections and connections? As Vertesi explained in a class lecture, celebrating seamfulness might be an important point of departure in design; the existence of seams putting the politics back into the hands of the user and better reflecting the realities of their actual lives.

Rather than hide the seams beneath a slick silver skin, forcing users to interact in prescribed and limited ways, seamful technology can be co-opted and combined in any number of ways. This, I think, is the goal of interaction design, to imagine new ways to embrace the seams between things for richer and more flexible humans experiences.

With the Vertesi’s notion of seamfulness echoing through my mind, I returned to my first attempt at defining interaction design. I was pleasantly surprised to find the following passage, one I feel reflects my inherent interest in the power of seams:

“What I found most fascinating about this work was that the most effective solutions in these spaces were not products but rather complex systems of people, products and processes interacting to support a desired outcome. I became enamored by these moments of interaction and how they could mean the success or failure of a well-meaning effort.”

Though this passage refers to complex social systems rather than technology, what it really speaks to is seamfulness — embracing the complexity that arises when many people, products and processes must come together to effect change. While the seams that arise between these pieces are inevitable, I want to be the type of Interaction Designer that turns them into assets for a richer, more egalitarian more human experience.