“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

“There is no [IxD]” –Neo

Last weekend I gave a talk to a group of non-designers. It’s been awhile since I did that so it was a chance to flex some thinking muscles on identity and definition issues I’ve been exercising over the last few weeks (well since Interaction South America) in December.

First here is how I introduced myself.

I’m an Interaction Designer. But what I am is not so important as what it is I do and what frames what it is I do. I explained that my first background is actually in Anthropology. I am first and formost a humanist. I love people and I love thinking about the cultural context of people. One important aspect of culture is their technology. That is lucky for me, because I also fancy myself a technologist. I’m definitely a geeky soul. I love technology, using it and creating it. I have worked my entire life trying to bring these two parts of myself together and that is how I found Interaction Design.

What I’ve learned though my anthropology side is that our contemporary framing of technology is a false one. That technology itself is transient and impermanent. That the pen was tremendous technology and before that the quill. That both had tremendous impact on the cultures that acquired this technology. While technology augments the human being’s natural abilities, it also often creates new problems or complexities. The roads made Rome a power, but they also needed to be maintained.

Today we are facing new staggering levels of increased complexity due to the technologies we have at our hands today. This new reality has forced us to examine the effects of this complexity on the world around us and in particular of the people who live in this world. We have had to re-examine the fundamentals of almost every aspect of our culture. We have also created a prime directive in our society that we must find ways to mitigate the complexity in our lives so that we are not overwhelmed by it or its effect to our holistic system.

Mitigating complexity is at the core of what I think about, teach and do.

This seemed to resonate with people, when I told this story. A few people even came up to me and instead of saying great talk, they said “You are a great story teller.” I consider that a better success.

So why does this mean that Interaction design doesn’t exist? It doesn’t exactly, but it leads to a slippery slope that I’ve been falling down for the last 2 months or so.

I sometimes say that Interaction Design (IxD) is a horizontal design discipline, while other disciplines like graphics, industrial and architecture are vertical. IxD is a discipline that can be applied to all of those other disciplines. Please don’t react w/ the land grab defensiveness, because that is not where I’m going here at all, in fact the opposite. They all CAN practice IxD as part of their own practice. Because interactivity can exist within any medium these days, it is an imperative that the elements of design consideration that we package under the banner of Interaction Design has to be used within those disciplines.

Then I started to think a bit more (rolling down the slope). Design disciplines easily appropriate IxD theory and UX practices into their work. They do this without diluting the meaning of their work, nor the definition of their practice and discipline. I believe they are able to do this because IxD has no tangible medium, no tangible foundations to call its own. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most people mean “interactivity” or “interactive design” when they say “interaction” or “interaction design”. The reality is that even a service as a collection of tangible points of intersection is more tangible than an interaction.

But then why did we create the term. If I listen to Bill Moggridge’s talk in “Objectified” (the movie about industrial design), where he reminisces the moment when he and Bill Verplank coined the term. He is discussing a new problem, but he is not describing a new material. At least that is my take. What he describes is not a new design discipline, but more accurately a new topic of human interest being applied in his design domain–industrial design. He just didn’t have all the answers he needed based on his discipline’s current body of knowledge. But by no means was he moving away from that discipline’s primary foundations and material.

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is clearly not a design discipline, but an academic discipline who’s goal is to create new knowledge to be used by designers working with computational systems. The knowledge is more about the human condition then it is about aesthetics of any type. And when aesthetics is discussed it is not in a critical theoretical way as in Art/Design criticism but rather in how the mind reacts to visual beauty and processes it cognitively and emotionally.

Further areas of knowledge that have been created due to this shift in technology that fall under the purview of IxD include our need to better understand human context before designing. There is no design activity here, but rather a research activity. Same for evaluative design methods like usability testing. There is nothing particular about any single medium’s application of either of these concepts, which again, while forged due to IxD is not limited to its purview or its otherwise unique identity.

Interaction Design is a conceptualization that has allowed us to create knowledge & methods of practice to help us with complexity regardless of context type. This is why there is so much confusion between IxD and service design. This is also why I have repeatedly said that UX is just a marketing position statement and not a real type of practice of any kind.

What’s funny in an ironic way is that I can’t say the same thing about information architecture like I can about IxD. But that’s not this article.

So why doesn’t it matter? Because we still need a wrapper (w/ a bow) for what it is we do do. It like UX above. It is an ontological mechanism that helps us bring meaning, set roles for tasks and operations. It helps us clarify and think about the complexity of design itself.

I do take pause and have 1 area where I am still ambivalent about all this. That is where I discuss the Foundations of IxD [video | slides]. I can’t get past them. Like line and color and shape to Graphic, Industrial and even architecture metaphor, abstraction, time, and motion all still combine in my mind to define how human’s interact with interactive systems. But are these really the fundamentals of interaction design, or of interactivity?

Another way to look at this is to look at the heart of IxD itself.

“There is no spoon”

Yup! our world, IxD, is just a metaphor. As soon as we understand the intent of the metaphor we can decide that the metaphor is unnecessary and we can finally deconstruct it and generalize it more easily.

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  • http://blog.jochmann.me Jakob

    I totally agree with the “no spoon” reference. However, at times we need to construct a metaphor like IxD to delienate those features of interaction that we want to study independently.

    Much of this holds true for communication in general – even interacting with devices can be interpreted under the same paradigm – if we view it as the facilitation of social interaction. In a social interaction paradigm devices take part in a network of social agents as much as the people interacting with them. Without a gun, there is no shooting. But if we want to explain the functional difference between the shooter and the gun, we need to define concepts like agentivity and we need criteria, why agentivity can only be ascribed to the shooter, not to the gun.

    So research fields like IxD or computer mediated communication (CMC) serve as a helpful frame to develop those concepts. As long as we remember that the frames are artificial, if constructed for good reason, we should be fine. Once we do construct these frames, there is a medium to scrutinize, even if it is not tangible.


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