Interaction Designers must put people first

Linda McNair
Published in
4 min readJun 13, 2019


Peter Bihr and Sami Niemela welcomes attendees to Interaction Week 2016 in Helsinki. Photo credit: IxDA

People are at the center of Peter Bihr’s design philosophy. He urges interaction designers to consider all the implications of what they are going to do. “Embrace the chaos, and be sure of your moral compass. If you don’t have all the information (and you never do), this is the only reliable guide.”

He reflects on his experience co-chairing Interaction Week 2016 in Helsinki, Finland and shares advice to North American cities interested in hosting Interaction Week 2021. The deadline for Call for Proposals is midnight GMT 30 Aug 2019.

You are not an interaction designer by trade. Tell us why you decided to co-chair Interaction Week 2016 in Helsinki, Finland.

Good question! Sami Niemela, who later became my co-chair, asked me to take part because of what my experiences would bring to the conversation. As Managing Director of The Waving Cat, I explore the impact of emerging technologies — like the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) — on society. I’m also co-founder of ThingsCon, a non-profit that advocates for a responsible, human-centric IoT. So while I’m not an interaction designer by trade, my work can be used by the industry to shape what they create. I also think he appreciated my experience hosting a fair amount of conferences.

How does interaction design (IxD) impact the work that you do?

The human-centered approach that drives IxD is being applied everywhere from design and strategy to policy and regulation. Putting people first is what I strive to do in both my non-profit and consultant work, and I see a powerful change of perspective among my clients. For example, when discussing how to better design a connected product, users and their rights always go first. Or, when helping policy makers guide the development of smart cities, citizens — not vendors! — are first.

We have to rethink how decisions are made, away from organizations and towards the people using these systems. It’s a correction of an otherwise unbalanced, asymmetrical system of decision making.

The IxDA Call for Proposals is now open for North American cities interested in hosting Interaction Week 2021. Any tips or advice you would like to share?

  • What you put in is what you’ll get out. Realize that you will invest a significant amount of time, but it’s incredibly rewarding. It’s a lovely community that’s ambitious, has a strong moral compass, and is actively shaping a field that is super relevant — and still pretty young! It was this pooling of knowledge, skills, networks, curiosity and excitement that created a lot of creative tension and fresh points of view.
  • Make big decisions ASAP. We made early choices and commitments that helped lay the foundation for everything that came after. We got a kick-ass production company on board, booked a fantastic venue, and reached out to the city for support.
  • Build a strong local team. Assembling an incredible team is key. So before applying, assess the passion and commitment of your design community. Helsinki’s was rock solid and then some. You need a strong foundation plus top notch planners. On event days, it’s how you get through the inevitable chaos.
  • Be inclusive. Be curious, humble, and a good team player. Be sure to invite diverse perspectives when selecting topics and speakers. Involve a mix of students, young professionals, educators and practitioners. Make sure you’re acknowledging all contributions. Let others, who are speaking, finish their sentences, especially women (just, y’know, don’t be *that guy*).
  • Minimize your footprint. Looking back, we could have done more on the sustainability front in Helsinki. If you apply to host Interaction Week 2021 — or any event for that matter — use guidance from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). They offer a free brochure that outlines best practices for managing sustainable events.
  • Take it all in. I think we succeeded in having a super smooth production and great atmosphere, a diverse (but never diverse enough!) speaker line-up, and an inspiring mix of topics and presentations. I felt truly humbled when one participant took to Twitter to call our event “probably the most creative and thought provoking industry conference I’ve been to,” and others shared tons of positive feedback along similar lines, too.

With that, I leave you with the inspiring closing keynote in Helsinki from Cameron Sinclair, who for the past two decades has worked at the forefront of social innovation, community development and sustainable construction. As the impact of climate change grows, he urges us to use our talents to drive social change and “design like you give a damn.”

Peter Bihr is the Managing Director of The Waving Cat and co-founder of ThingsCon. He is based in Berlin, Germany. Inspired by long walks, Peter has ben a traveler ever since he was old enough to book a ticket. “Nothing clears my mind as a good cultural immersion in a new place.” Follow him on Twitter @peterbihr



Linda McNair
Writer for

Lucky to share stories about the positive impact creative thinkers and doers make on society. IxDA Contributing Editor.