“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

The language we use

In my Senior Intearction Design Studio today I had a student present his sketches to me and the rest of the class. During his explanation I kept getting bothered by the words he was using to describe what was otherwise a good framework for the user interface he was designing for a kiosk system.

Then it struck me. He kept using the word “click”. He meant nothing by it. Really! he didn’t mean anything by it. But it was clear to me that his framing of his interface around “clicking” was leading him towards a specific direction in the interaction design.

As he said click it was very clear that he was using the word “click” to mean “change context”. In the web world, that would mean a new page or a new screen. He would say “click” and then move his hand to his next view, as if to say the current view is over, or “Next!”

I confirmed my observation during the critique when I offered my interpretation, and offered him the following, “You might want to be clearer about when it is necessary for you to change contexts.” (paraphrasing from memory) His eyes sorta lit up as did the rest of the small class as I explained further that he should start thinking about increasing the information and interaction density of the interaction design by layering through progressive presentation elements within the same context instead of always moving to the next context.

Similarly, this happened in the earlier class with the same students where their use of metaphor was single-dimensional, relying on staid patterns like “tabs” which have no reference to the message of the information they are trying to bring futher understanding to. There were two examples where the metaphor of space (buildings) would have been much more appropo and it could have been easily implemented using a zooming interface instead of one that relied on “point & CLICK.”

My point in explaining this is that for me there was an epiphany (this is why teaching is so wonderful), I was finally able to see the example of what I have been trying to articulate for years about the complexity of interaction design, and its so strong tie to language. Not just narrative (as all interactions tell a story) but to the semantics, syntax and semiotics of what makes up the way we talk about the interactions we design.

In this case, even before a real wireframe was developed of any fidelity, the means of framing the interaction already pre-determined (or limited) the interactions that were to be available in the designer’s mind.

Coincidentally, on this very day, @rhjr (aka Robert Hoekman, Jr.) asked the twitterverse about what is good and bad about patterns. He was speaking about design patterns. I think though this ties directly to what can be dangerous about design patterns is that some patterns get TOO ingrained in our minds. They become the only way we can even conceive doing X,Y,Z, and we freeze our creativity.

But this is what language is. It is the cultural patterns embedded in our sentences. As designers though one might say it is our job to move past these limitations of language and structure and open our minds to new possibilities.

Something I usually look for in designers (it doesn’t always work) is to hire designers who are multi-lingual (btw, this design student is at least bi-lingual; disproving my point) because if you have different language sets to access during problem solving, you have multiple frames of reference.

Anyway, my point after rambling is that you need to deconstruct your language. Write it down. Write down your narrative of your interactions and look for affinities that develop around words and phrases and see if anything calls out to you the way the word “click” called out to me.

Anyway, people have asked me to write more about my teaching, so here is one for you all. Enjoy!

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  • http://www.jamesmelzer.com James Melzer

    I heard an ad yesterday that asked me to ‘click on’ oururl.com. But you type in a URL, you don’t click on it. I had the same feeling, as though click had come to mean ‘interact with’ the same way Google has come to mean ‘search.’

  • http://www.robfay.com Rob Fay

    Reminds me why exploring storytelling and metaphors is so powerful in the design process.

    By the way, site looks great on an iPhone with the the WPTouch plugin :)

  • http://www.fabrique.nl Pieter Jongerius

    Hi Dave,
    excellent post! We as users are now so used to this interface language, that it’s becoming natural and transparent for us. At the same time, for designers, it has become harder to keep looking at it as a language. Back when we called it HCI at least the two conversing parties were in the acronym. :-)
    At the same time, something beautiful happened: we grew into designing actions, user experiences and maybe even behavior. Like driving the car without having to worry about the pistons!

  • Marcus

    Mr. Malouf…this is that student you are talking about and guess what? After two years of being puzzled about what you meant that day I finally get it.


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