“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

Directing the grand improv

I came back from Brazil about a week ago. My time there was really great! Pictures of architecture, fruit and people can be found on flickr. The Interaction South America conference (my reason for the trip) was really great. Érico Fileno (@efileno) led a wonderful team of organizers to great an amazing event. Beleza! There were many highlights for me including giving my own workshop (Sketching: The secret sauce of design) which had one one of the most energetic and positive groups I’ve ever taught this workshop to. Obrigado pra tudo. Also, I gave my very first keynote presentation opening up the conference. I think it was one of the best presentations I’ve ever given. I felt great about the content, delivery, and the conversation that ensued afterwards.

Another highlight for me was the closing keynote by Jonas Löwgren. His talk, which I hope will be available online soon, was called Interaction Design vs. New Media. The talk though was rather a great break down of the history of his own work as a professor of Interaction Design at the University of Malmö in Sweden.

One concept really stuck with me from his talk and I’ve been ruminating on it ever since. During his talk Jonas compared the work of an interaction designer to that of a director of an improv group. Yes, there is a theme, an ensemble, and even a closed context for the audience, but in the end, these are at best boundaries for the outcome of the co-creation between designer and all the stakeholders involved. (This is NOT co-design/participatory design.) That moment of engagement is always unique within those parameters and that final merging of performance and audience can never be known beforehand.

I have lately spoken about interaction design as designing towards increasing the probability of experience. This seems to fit what Jonas was alluding to in his metaphor of improv director. The difference between the improv director and the interaction designer in my mind is the latter’s delusion that they are in control of the final outcomes. The improv director revels his lack of control and plays with it purposeful in order to increase the absurd. The designers is threatened by it, as they often consider any failure an attack on their own capabilities.

None if further from the truth and this truth is growing instead of receding as we further increase the complexity of our culture(s). As we increase the complexity of ubiquitous tools, systems, environments, etc. the bell curve that allows us to predict successful behavior is flattening. We think of the bell curve as a nice lofty hill w/ slopes on both sides equal and ascending/descending at much higher than 45º. But as the breadth of types of people increases when using what is now everyday tools, the curve is now a flat speed bump where the ascent & descent are both well under even 20º.  This means that to reach the same target of 60-70% of the types of people who may use your site is spread out across a much broader breadth of people’s capabilities, understandings, agreed upon semantics/metaphor and expectations. All this decreases the accuracy by which we can predict the correlated level of success across all these types of people.

The micro app of the mobile age and the upcoming Mac App Store might be the solution type for designed solutions. If i can pick at reasonable costs solutions that best fit my way of looking at a problem, the interaction model, and the semantics of meaning, then I’ll have greater success in that service area. A great example of this is how Twitter primarily started out as a data service engine where people could pick and choose w/ limited differentiation in expense from a host of options allowing people to interface with the data engine that really is the product offering of Twitter. So some love the business like intense views of TweetDeck while others like the simplicity of Twitter itself. Some live in the mobile, and others rely on the desk/webtop. Twitter remains the owner of the most valuable component, the data, while other organizations make money or gain notoriety through developing applications that interface with that data.

But in this game of improv there is only so much that the design organization can really account for. How many scenarios can even the best designer predict. As our tools and services increase in complexity, often attempting to hide this complexity through progressive disclosure, the permutations for failure occurring have increased dramatically. Many of these failure cases, especially for large distribution numbers, are such edge cases. A close friend recently fell victim to the lack of prediction of their otherwise edge case. Google’s attempt t Buzz is a clearer example of how good intentions can go awry so quickly.

So to put this in more controversial terms:

The Designer cannot design the experience, but can only design the at best a critical mass of conditions that all the co-creation of amazing experiences to occur

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  • http://webzone.k3.mah.se/k3jolo Jonas Löwgren


    Extremely pleased to see how you have managed to take my rudimentary metaphor and flesh it out in such an eloquent way. I agree with the implications you draw out for ixd practice, and I support every word you put in the second half of the post above.

    /Jonas Löwgren

  • http://twitter.com/adamstjohn Adam StJohn Lawrence

    Great article.

    This is what we do. :)

    I am a theatermaker (actor, director, improv, comedian) and I work with process-wizard @markusedgar to create a safe space and apply tools for the co-creation of new services.

    Theater is the oldest, most powerful tool for modeling and prototyping human action and interaction. Crucially, it’s the only one really capable of handling emotion… and that is what experience is all about.

    A theater rehearsal (or an improv) is exploratory. Anyone who enters an exploration thinking they know what lies at the end of it, is just plain wrong. (Some) designers could learn from this. :)




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