Originally published in Voice: AIGA Journal of Design
Think back to the school gym, the backyard, the rec room or the playground—hours devoted to hide-and-seek, flashlight tag, Lite-Brite, The Game of Life, Shrinky Dinks and Big Wheel. No matter where childhood happened or what filled those salad days, one thing is consistent: it probably included games—and lots of them. In our youth we played games with rules made up on the spot. Friends and enemies were made for life when teams got chosen. And everyone participated without inhibitions. As we get older, game playing becomes more rigid. Rules are the norm, and it’s harder for people to express what they want—especially if it’s beyond their understanding. In other words, it’s hard for individuals to innovate.
For designers, predicting what customers want—not what they say they want or what they think they want—proves to be one of the barriers to innovation. Innovation contradicts confinement, and comes from that ability to strategically let go and play. But what if you could take your clients to a place where they felt comfortable, more inclined to open up? What if you took them back to games?
Luke Hohmann, author of Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play (Addison-Wesley Professional), talks about how to have fun with your clients and customers, letting them show you the way to innovation.
Danzico: Why did you turn to the intersection of games and innovation with this book? What did you set out to accomplish?
Hohmann: Innovation could be breakthrough or could be incremental. I think it’s funny when people make distinctions over whether something was a “breakthrough innovation” or an “incremental innovation.” What is more important is how well we understand users so we can actually solve their problem.
What I want to accomplish is the understanding that actually leads to solving the user’s problem. That’s really the heart of the matter: understanding.
Danzico: But why games? What’s wrong with traditional market research or usability testing?
Fun with packaging at SDForum’s “Foundation of Innovation II,” November 2006.
Hohmann: I don’t want to say those methods are invalid—this is just another tool in the toolkit. Games are characterized by their degree of open-ended exploration, and usability testing by its nature isn’t particularly good at exploring an open-ended problem space.
In addition, clients do pretty expensive focus groups that take up their research budget, so they only end up talking to customers once a year. There could be better results if they did the research on their own and talked to their customers more frequently.
When usability researchers and focus groups typically start working with customers, contexts we don’t really understand frame the nature of their conversation with customers. Because researchers don’t make those contexts very clear, we can get different or misleading information. Even though I’m a consultant, this is the anti-consultant book because it’s about giving people the techniques they need to do the work themselves.
Danzico: Can you describe one of those games and how it might differ from the ways we’ve traditionally gathered market or user research?
Hohmann: One of my favorite games is called “Start Your Day.” The purpose is to make that particular kind of context explicit. And in this case, that context is time.
Here’s how it works: imagine you are Intuit, and you’re studying people’s reactions to TurboTax. You would get different results if you started your study, say, at the end of March versus another time of year. You would expect that, since tax season is the overpowering context of use.
“Start Your Day” makes time explicit by making time visual—time by day, by week, by month. We did a project associated with caregivers in school systems where we make the school system calendar big posters on the wall. Customers received different color pens, and we asked them to write down on the posters how they use the product. Because they’re publicly writing and talking about it, we can see how they use a product as the context of time changes.
Danzico: We know that people aren’t able to articulate what they want. If asked, they’re going to give you an answer based on what they understand to be true of their current reality rather than looking ahead. Are these games putting customers, wrongly, in a position to dictate what they think they need?
More fun on display at “Foundation of Innovation II.”
Hohmann: The customer isn’t making the choice about what goes in the product; that’s still the responsibility of the product marketing and development team. But you’re going to get better results if you include the customers in the process. Users aren’t the only ones driving, though—they’re the student drivers and you’re sitting right next to them with your foot on the brake.
The basic construct of a book called Everything Bad is Good for You [by Steven Johnson] is that because we’re being exposed to more complex media—more complex video games, more complex television shows and films—as humans, we’re able to process more complex storylines and plotlines, and therefore becoming more intelligent.
Danzico: Given this, perhaps usability testing alone isn’t participatory enough anymore. People are now used to co-creating content through things like Wikipedia, blogs and commenting. Is Innovation Games just the logical next step in moving usability testing forward?
Hohmann: I agree that both media and information and the capabilities of consumers are becoming very rich, but when you actually play a game, you’ll be stunned at how simple they are.
Danzico: But instead of a traditional usability test, where you might ask, “What do you think will happen if you click that button?” games allow you to observe tacit information—people engaged in fairly extensive relationships with one another. That’s more complex.
Hohmann: I wouldn’t use the term “complex”; I would use the term “rich.” It’s a very rich experience. When we work with observers, we coach them to not only look at the person who’s speaking, but to look at the other people in the room and how they’re reacting to the person who’s speaking.
On one level, you could say that those people aren’t trained in observational skills so they’re going to miss stuff. But if you put together a team of highly trained usability experts, you’re going to fall back into exceeding the budget, and they’re going to talk once a year to customers.
People who are trained in usability professionals are going to do a better job. They should. However, we have a responsibility as designers to balance this with the needs of the client and the reality of the business. I would much rather have one designer work with a client so he can have 10 conversations with customers, rather than have 10 designers work with a client and have one conversation with a customer.
Danzico: I’ve read that you have four kids. Has their play or their influence affected the games you design?
Hohmann: Yes, I have four kids. [But] believe it or not, no, partly because the context is so different. I’m always trying to find better ways to ask the questions, “how can my product or service evolve?” and “how can I understand what customers are looking for?” I’ve been doing the games for over a decade, so the strongest influence is my own successes and failures in trying to understand what customers want.
Originally published in Voice: AIGA Journal of Design
Watching The Daily Show as part of the studio audience is like being part of a highly efficient—and undeniably enjoyable—product development team. Mondays through Thursdays, the show begins with an extensive “warm up” where Jon Stewart (the show’s host) and the “warm-up guy” get to know the audience, and vice versa. By the time the taping starts about an hour later, not only has the temperature of the audience been taken (and raised), but the audience feels they have participated in the process and, on good days, helped contribute to the show’s content. How might this form of participation affect people’s affinity toward a product?
One of these things does look like the other
While the consumption of them is quite different, there are some striking similarities between developing a television show and developing a product. Both involve a group of people working together toward a common goal, typically on a limited schedule and budget. Both may involve a compromise of values, an evaluation of costs, late nights, and mistakes that require quick thinking to repair. And, most importantly, both are created for an audience.
Whether you are developing a mediated experience like The Daily Show or an online experience like a website, understanding audience is imperative in creating and maintaining a compelling experience. Teams of market researchers, user researchers and writers are hired to think about just that.
Yet, after a product or television show is created, after all the research has been done, how does that experience encourage and celebrate a person’s participation? How does audience contribution and participation affect the product? How does its distribution and usage create value?
Both The Daily Show and product developers share an approach that I’ll call participatory disclosure. Participatory disclosure is, in part, what gives audiences a voice in the product and builds loyalty along the way. It has some visible components—invitations, beta branding and revealed secrets—among others.
Love at first invite
When Google introduced their web-based mail program, Gmail, they didn’t release it publicly, but to an exclusive audience. New accounts were distributed by invitation only, with each person given five invitations. Those five people could invite five more, and so on. And as with any supply and demand model, the exclusive nature of this invite system increased the value of having a Gmail account. Strategies for releasing other products such as Flock, Measure Map, Newsvine, and certain TiVo features have included similar invitation approaches.
Likewise, although they are free, getting a ticket to The Daily Show isn’t easy for most people, requiring a combination of phone calls and email messages months in advance. But once you secure a ticket, you’ve been included in something exclusive. Seeing “The Daily Show! You have tickets!” in your inbox is better than some major holidays. Because very little about the studio audience is shown on the show itself, what one can expect is unknown. If people could simply request or buy tickets online, they wouldn’t be nearly as valuable.
“Seeing, “The Daily Show! You have tickets!” in your inbox is better than some major holidays.”
The beta brand
The state of a product can be important in creating audience loyalty. In product development, a product may be released in “beta” before a public launch. Beta testing—the testing of that release—is limited to a small audience to uncover bugs. As a result, engineers get the bugs worked out before a public launch, and the company gets a loyal core of people who are already using their product. Because beta testers have helped contribute to the product, they may be more invested in it. Its beta state becomes less of a brand attribute and almost a brand itself.
Not only was Gmail released in the spirit of participatory disclosure, but it was (and still is) visibly in beta (See Fig. 1). The limited, but growing, number of people using Gmail, therefore, are in on the secret. Product developers can build loyalty with the people who are using the systems and momentum and anticipation for those who cannot yet.
The Daily Show audience too gets to see a process that is only revealed to a limited audience—one never revealed on television. And while the show is not being performed in beta, per se, the audience is getting to experience a pre-show prior to the airing of the show itself.
The first stage of the pre-show is a warm up. The warm-up guy’s job is getting the audience excited, of course, but he also gets the audience to know one another. Sometimes the crowd is full of New Yorkers, where the show is recorded, but more often it is full of people from out of town. Questions are revealing, exposing hometowns, jobs and insecurities of audience members. When the show is delayed, the warm-up guy lets us in on further secrets, “They’re just making some last-minute changes to the script back there.” Where in other circumstances an audience might feel impatient, they are now empowered. The warm-up guy is entrusting in them what is happening behind the scenes. They have secret knowledge.
Behind the curtain
With research and beta testing come ideas for improvement. In the beta phase, questions and suggestions from the beta testers inform the final product. Products are better and stronger for it, and beta testers are fans for life. Amazon.com’s “Customers who bought this also bought” feature, for example, was a direct suggestion from a customer (See Fig. 2).
“Perhaps the right combination of audience participation and product is the real moment of zen.”
Attendees at The Daily Show get to ask their questions in person. “Jon wants to get to know you, so get your questions ready for him,” the warm-up guy says. Audience members can ask Jon questions about him, the show—anything seems to be fair game. From “Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?” (Yes, once, and it was pointless, but he was a psychology major); to “My dad wants to know when you’re coming back to Atlantic City.” (Ten years ago, he opened Sheena Easton there); to “What kind of suits do you wear?” (Canali). Although the dialog officially stops before the show, Jon works parts of the conversation into the script when he can. To the audience watching on TV, the integration is seamless. But to that live audience? When he slips in your hometown in the opening monologue, well, he’s made a fan for life.
And Jon cares, “And be careful on your way out—it’s a dangerous neighborhood. As you leave, just stack yourselves up ten at a time and you’ll be fine.”
Good things come in secret packages
While there’s nothing particularly unique about the way The Daily Show involves the audience, it does remind us that good design practices that truly include audiences are ubiquitous; not just for narrowly defined brainstorming sessions and design reviews. Being more aware of how people grow to love products can help us be better designers. Care about your audience. Invite them along. Then listen to them.
When people say things like “it changed my life” or “it was the greatest experience ever,” I tend to distrust them. I guess I don’t trust superlatives in general; they seem like placeholder descriptions that preface what people are really trying to say.
That said, the AIGA/Harvard program was one of the best weeks of my life.
This is about how each day started: Eight o’clock a.m. Eight of us sit with coffee around a table. A group of us work through that morning’s cases-Apple’s competitive advantage and the personal computer industry since the 1990s; Black & Decker’s focus on maximizing segment profitability through a harvesting strategy; and finance, dear god finance, through an analysis of the financial viability of Butler Lumber.
It could have been a Monday morning editor roundup at the Wall Street Journal, a weekly status meeting for S&P’s business analysts, or an attentive set of MBAs studying for an upcoming exam.
Instead, this was a group of designers.
“Business Perspectives for Design Leaders,” the AIGA program at Harvard Business School that took place this past summer, requires superlatives. And a lot of them. It was up there with the most invigorating and innervating experiences of my career. It also happened to single-handedly change my perspective; I’ll never look at things the same way again. When someone shows you an entire dimension of your profession that you’ve never seen — the profession you are supposed to be an expert in; that you are an expert in — it, well, changes everything.
It begins by making you feel quite humble. The program promised to be five intense days at one of the most prestigious ivy-league institutions with forty-three of AIGA’s most senior design executives. A quick visit to the website reveals that it aims to:
“Help creative leaders discover opportunities within the forces transforming the business environment. The knowledge gained will enable them to assume the complex task of leading and making a difference in a world where change has become the only constant.”
Reading the profiles beforehand, my own seemed awkwardly wedged between those of design leaders from Citibank to Sterling Brands to Disney to Pentagram. I was to read twelve case studies and two books before I even arrived. I certainly didn’t feel qualified and I hadn’t even gotten there yet.
But from the first evening, it was clear that this program wasn’t out to intimidate or make us feel nervous. It was about how quickly we could drop what we came with to become part of something new. It was about feeling comfortable enough to let our guard down and being open to immersing ourselves in superlatives.
And superlative it was. Each day was a series of rigorous discussion groups, classes on strategy, finance, marketing, operations, and corporate ethics, lunches, dinners, drinks, and all the really important stuff that happens in between. Discussion groups were small, and getting together with the same group every day provided a nice consistency. Our group, led by the fantastic instigator, Christopher Gavin, marched us through the material each day. The people in our group were nothing short of remarkable so I must mention every one of them — Michael Bierut, Jenifer Gulvik, Marcus Hewitt, Max Nelson, Brigette Sullivan, and Jean-Laurent Vilon-brought great insights to the otherwise dense case studies every morning. No matter how late the night before, we were all on time and engaged every single morning. We attended classes together each day, lined up in alphabetical order across the classroom with giant nametags at our desks (so the instructors could call on us without breaking flow).
What’s most surprising to me is not that I learned so much, but that business thinking can, in fact, apply to many areas, most often forgotten about: the design process. After a couple of years of believing that the MFA is the new MBA, I’m no longer sure. In fact, the old MBA is probably the new MFA, if anything. With programs like Stanford’s d-school focused on bringing design to business, who is focused on bringing business to design? I can’t not mention that AIGA offers initiatives such Harvard, the Center for Practice Management, and conferences such as “Gain.” But beyond that, where can we turn?
For now, I’ll continue to consider some of the Harvard lessons. They include, in part, the following:
1. Even messy dilemmas have structure.
The way that our instructors helped us unpack the case studies was truly magical. Jan Rivkin, head of the AIGA program, was so exacting in his methodology that he climbed the chalkboards, literally, to get us to the answers. Business cases like the success of Wal-Mart, Nutrasweet, or Marvel Inc., where it was not clear at all what the senior management should do had quite rational and logical answers. I learned that business problems may not have one right answer, but there are certainly better and worse answers. And, as it turns out, there is a logical and reasonable way to get to the best answer. It’s just a matter of deciding.
2. Admitting you don’t know is the first step.
My natural reaction, particularly when working on new projects, is to appear that I understand. I want the client and the project team to know that I’m “with them,” so the best way to do this is to nod and agree. Wrong. I learned that creating an environment where the client or project lead thinks I understand seems to be the right path at the moment quickly snowballs into a bad place full of missed expectations and unclear conversations. Harvard showed me that by just saying I don’t know, entire new dimensions are revealed. It was only when faced with information that I know nothing about — Net Present Value, discount ratios, finance in general — was this clear. Robin Greenwood, our finance professor, showed us ways of looking at the world that none of us had seen-not just about running a business, but about how to understand the value of leasing a car, understanding mutual funds, things that affect us both as people and professionals.
3. Intimidation leads to inspiration. I learned not to be intimidated by people who know things I don’t. Tuesday afternoon was spent in a six-hour leadership training session where the professional centerpiece was a presentation to our colleagues at the end. Sitting alongside the head of director of global design for Disney and professor of design at Carnegie Mellon’s Design School, I couldn’t imagine what I could possibly contribute. As it turns out, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations urges you grow and learn. We all were, as it turned out, intimidated by something and therefore opened ourselves up to be inspired by one another. Intimidation encourages a kind of intimacy, vulnerability perhaps, that actually opened me to be inspired like never before.
4. There’s a 90/10 rule.
Communication is 90% about how you tell the story and 10% about what you tell. Through a kind of performance training, we learned not to underestimate the value of good storytelling in presenting an argument or persuading. The facilitators we had most often teach actors how to have “presence.” Remarkably, through this training, it was clear that presentation style won out over content every time. Shelly Evenson had an incredibly compelling story to tell, but it was the quiet force in her presentation style that drew us in. Maurice Conti, on the other hand, used the room, lying down on the coffee table to present his story. Sometimes it is the medium after all.
5. Be uncomfortable and do it often.
Doing this, going out of my way to put myself in an uncomfortable situation paid off. Removing myself from a process where people know me well, from colleagues who know what I’m capable of, and placing myself in the middle of unfamiliar territory might just be one of the rewarding moves I have made. I’m going to do it as often as possible.
Monday morning back at the office presented a challenge. Would I return to The Way Things Were? Would anyone? Only time will tell. I must admit, I looking into admission requirements for the business school when I returned. After all, I do believe the old MBA is the new MFA. In the meantime, at least now I can evaluate The Way Things Were from a business point of view.
I’ve been invited to participate in the new tradition of CanUX 2006, the Canadian User Experience workshop. Not only is it about good things like user experience and interactivity, but it takes place in Banff, Canada, one of the lovliest places on the continent.I’ll be exploring the new role of editors and readers in a presentation, “Part Today, Sum Tomorrow” and just tickled about digging into the ideas with a small group. Earlier this year, a panel I moderated at SXSW, set out to examine the principles and approaches that have been consistent (and dissonant) between traditional design (graphic design) and new technology (web design). This workshop session explores traditional principles in writing and what we might be missing as the roles and artifacts of content are changing.
I’m thrilled to be participating with a super-duper lineup, including:
- Joey Benedek, Microsoft Windows Client Usability Lead
- Kevin Cheng, OK/Cancel
- Bryce Johnson
- John Morkes, Expero, Inc. and Free Usability Advice
- Gene Smith, nForm User Experience Consulting Inc.
Originally published in Voice: AIGA Journal of Design
If you’ve been delighted by your iPod, intrigued with your TiVo, or frustrated by your mobile phone, then you have encountered the work of an interaction designer. And an interaction designer, most likely, has crafted the experience we have with many of the products and services we encounter every day. Dan Saffer, a senior interaction designer at Adaptive Path, leads us through an exploration of this emerging discipline. Published this month, Saffer’s new book, Designing for Interaction, is a much-needed primer on the topic, helping us understand the design of interactive systems. Voice talked with Saffer just prior to his book being published in July.
Liz Danzico: How would you describe interaction design? And why is it important to write this book now?
Dan Saffer: I have a fairly expansive view of what interaction design is, which is that interaction design is about people: how people connect through products and services. Now, what does that mean?
Interaction design is about behavior, how things work. I push a button on my mobile phone and something happens. Or I enter a fast food restaurant, walk up to the counter, and something happens. Defining what happens when a person uses a product or service is what interaction designers do.
The reason we do it is to enable connections—interactions—between people. People want email and instant messaging and their mobile phones to be easy and fun to use. They want their trips to the DMV to be pleasant and efficient. They want the check-in kiosks in airports to work smoothly and well. All of these things—and many, many more—are about connecting people and helping them communicate better between themselves and the world.
This book is important now because we need new interaction designers and people who understand what interaction design encompasses. Technology is spreading into all corners of our lives, whether we want it to or not. Political, social, and economic forces are making it so. In order to make all this new technology useful and usable by humans, it needs to be designed with humans in mind. That’s where interaction designers come in.
Danzico: In the book, you point out that Bill Moggridge (a principle at IDEO) was the first to call the practice “interaction design.” Haven’t we always been designing for interaction? Why is interaction design, as you (and he) describe it, new?
Saffer: Bill Moggridge and his colleague Bill Verplank at IDEO realized in the late 1980s that they had been doing a different kind of design than what was traditionally called “graphic design” or “industrial design,” so they gave it this name (which is much better than their alternate choice: “SoftFace”). But in my opinion, it’s something we’ve been doing since before recorded history. Aboriginal peoples made cairns to mark trails—that is, to communicate through time via a product. Native Americans used smoke signals to communicate over long distances.
The only thing new about it is that now, thanks to microprocessors being embedded into all sorts of objects that can now exhibit all sorts of different behaviors, it’s been recognized as a discipline. Somebody needed to figure out how these newly empowered objects should behave, and the tools of design were well-suited for it. Now, you can study it in school, and get paid to practice it. Whereas before, like other types of design, it was simply done without much reflection.
Danzico: In a recent interview with Brian Oberkirch at Weblogs Worknotes, you describe interaction design by saying: “The discipline that makes technology useful, usable, and fun to use. Good engineering is what makes it happen. But interaction design is what makes it approachable for people to use.” Is interaction design just about technology, or can it involve other types of products?
Saffer: I was giving the easy answer. It’s not only about technology, but these days it often is. Most interaction designers work on software, websites, and other technology like mobile devices. But interaction designers can also design services which have little to no technology in them. By services, I mean processes and ways of doing activities. So you see interaction designers working in retail environments, figuring out flows of the store. Interaction designers work for the Mayo Clinic, changing how health care services are delivered. You even find interaction designers working with government agencies, making the system of paying taxes, say, better for people.
Of course, services can be a combination of technology and non-technology. Netflix, for example, has its website, but it also has the envelopes that the DVDs get mailed and returned in. Someone designed that service.
Danzico: What was your first experience with interaction design? In other words, was there a time where you saw interaction design emerging as a thing separate from other design disciplines?
Saffer: My first experience with interaction design took place when I was a teenager in the mid-1980s, about 15 years before I ever heard the term “interaction design.” I designed and ran a game “online,” meaning users dialed in to my Apple IIe using their 1200 baud modems. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing at the time.
But around the mid-1990s, others certainly knew what was happening. Carnegie Mellon established its interaction design program in 1994. Agencies started offering it as service (albeit often mislabeled as “information architecture”), and software companies started hiring people for these roles. Right before the internet bubble burst, interaction design started to come into its own, and it began to get known. In 2003, Alan Cooper changed the subtitle of his seminal book from The Essentials of User Interface Design to The Essentials of Interaction Design. Also in 2003, the Interaction Design Group (now Association) was formed as a professional organization for interaction designers. So it has some traction now.
Obviously, “interaction design” is still not a term you hear often, and probably never will be. But thankfully, “Design” with a big D covers it pretty well.
Danzico: Can you give a good example of a typical interaction design that we’re all familiar with?
Saffer: The Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) is something that most would be familiar with—at least most people who might be reading this. An ATM facilitates interactions between banks and their customers. It has an interface—both the digital screen and the physical structure—that has been designed for privacy and rapid transactions by a wide variety of people with a broad range of familiarity with technology. My grandfather—deaf, in his 80s, never owned a computer—used his first ATM only a few years ago. ATMs do a remarkable job of turning the complexities of banking into some clear choices, usable by large segments of the population.
Danzico: I was really surprised by your pointing out that “user-centered design” is only one of four approaches an interaction designer can take. Can you talk about one of these four approaches: what you call “genius design?” At first, it might seem counter to the things we were taught as good researchers and designers, where it was important to do diligent user research.
Saffer: It is counter to what we’re told today is good design practice, but I deliberately tried not to judge any of the approaches to interaction design, to include all the ways you can practice interaction design whether I agreed with those methods or not. I find myself moving through most of them frequently, often on the same project. Each of the approaches has produced great products over the years, and perhaps none more so (because it is used the most often) than what I call “genius design.” Genius design is when the designer relies on his or her own experience and skill to design, without any input from users. It’s done by designers who either don’t have the resources or the inclination or temperament to do research. Too often, it is practiced by inexperienced designers with little skill, but it can and has been used by many designers to create impressive things. Reportedly, the iPod was made with no user research, for example.
Danzico: When have you used the genius-design approach successfully?
Saffer: More often than I care to admit. In the past especially, I’ve worked on projects where there was no time or money or willpower to do any of the other approaches. I just finished designing Soundflavor, a music application and accompanying playlist-sharing website with the genius design approach, and I’m pleased with the results thus far. Of course, even if you do have the resources and inclination for one of the other approaches, I find there are always moments on every project when I employ genius design. I have hunches and make educated guesses based on previous experience. One could argue (and many have) that this is why people hire designers: for this sort of genius.
Danzico: Why is it important to design hackable products?
Saffer: That’s a good question: I’m not sure it is important. People will hack your products anyway! That being said, leaving “seams” in your product for people to customize it to suit their needs is a very interesting practice.
Saffer: As designers, we’re traditionally taught to get out of the way of the product, to leave no trace of ourselves or how the product was made. Think of the iPod in its hermetically sealed case, for instance. But Matthew Chalmers had this idea of “seamful systems (with beautiful seams)” where, for those so inclined, you could see and take advantage of how the system was created and adapt (hack) it for your own use. Seams afford hacking, in other words.
Companies can get new ideas for new products through exposing the seams and affording hacking, and could even repurpose their existing product to take advantage of the modifications people are doing to it. Of course, it’s also a dangerous practice. People can hack things in dangerous ways that could open up the companies to serious liability issues. If they are going to build in seams for hackers to rip open, designers need to make sure just what it is exactly they are exposing. On a financial website, of example, it’s one thing to expose the CSS so that someone could change the colors of their version of your site. It would be quite another thing to expose users’ financial data!
“The idea that we as designers control any product is a myth.”
Danzico: For some time, people have been able to hack their TiVos to view their flickr streams on their televisions. Next, you might imagine a similar hack for YouTube videos, streaming on our TV as well. With users having this much control over the design of their environment, where does the interaction designer’s role start and end? Are interaction designers in danger of losing control?
Saffer: The idea that we as designers control any product is a myth. It’s a useful myth, to be sure, since it allows us to actually make the product. But once it is out of our hands and out into the world, we can no longer control what people do with it. Sure, we can design how we hope people will use it, but there’s no guarantee they will use it that way.
The interaction designer’s role is one of facilitating particular uses for a thing, and possibly dissuading other uses. I will design X so it can be used for Y. If someone uses it for Z, well, that is his business. The problem comes when Z is something harmful. If I design a hammer, and someone uses the hammer to bludgeon someone, how responsible am I? Think of email: we want to design email clients so that they are easy to send and receive emails. But you don’t want to design them to enable spammers to easily send out tens of thousands of messages. Not that spammers use email clients, but you get the idea.
Danzico: In your book, you build a nice definition of interaction design by saying, “It’s about making connections between people through these products, not connecting to the product itself.” What do you mean by “making connections between people?”
Saffer: Traditional industrial design is about making a connection to an artifact: This is a great chair. Traditional communication design is about making a connection to information: Yes, I will attend the event this poster is advertising. Human-Computer Interaction is about connecting with the computer: I enjoy using my Mac OS X operating system. But interaction design, although it draws on all these fields (and many more), is subtly different in its purpose: to connect people via our products and services: I know you better because I read your blog.
As I think about it, an interaction is really a communication. It can either be one-to-one, like a telephone call. It can be one to many, like a podcast or a blog post. Or it can be many-to-many, like a giant system like the stock market. All these things are surrounded by tools that make the communication possible, and those tools, for the best experience, should be designed.
Danzico: Is good interaction design visible? In other words, is the success (or failure) of interaction design something we talk about and point to? How can we recognize good interaction design?
Saffer: The visible part of interaction design is the interface, which is usually the controls for manipulating the features and functionality that make up the interaction design. Interface design is only the physical expression of interaction design. The interaction design part of a product or service is usually invisible. However, it can be felt. The iPod would just be a beautiful object if it also didn’t work well. And certainly the failure of interaction design can cause anger, frustration, lost time, and, in the worst case scenarios, injury and death.
In the book, I list the characteristics of good interaction design, things like trustworthy, appropriate, and smart. Things that are hard to visualize, although there are certainly visual cues for these things. And users certainly notice, usually unconsciously, both their absence and their inclusion. My mobile phone, for instance, is a beautiful piece of industrial design. But the interaction design is terrible. I simply can’t use it easily and well to make phone calls and do all the other things a mobile phone does these days. It annoys me and causes me angst and embarrassment. It is the opposite of another trait I mention: clever. It doesn’t anticipate any of my needs and tailor itself to help me accomplish them.
Danzico: Do interaction designers need to be good graphic designers? How much cross-over is there between the visual and the functional?
Saffer: No, although it certainly helps, as it would to be a good industrial designer. On small teams, often the visual designer and the interaction designer will be the same person. And even when each role is played by a different person, there is a constant back and forth. I was recently on a project where my interaction design called for four buttons on an application’s interface. The visual designer came back to me and said, “Due to X, Y, and Z, I’ve only got room for two buttons.” So then I had to tailor my design to fit his. And of course, since my work was done first, he had already had to tailor his design to work with mine.
What visual and interaction designers have to collaborate most on are the affordances of the interface: those things that indicate how the product could be used. The visual cues users rely on to understand what they can do with a product: push a button, turn a dial, and so on.
Danzico: What are the ways that we might train interaction designers differently from a non-interaction designer?
Saffer: For the most part, I think interaction designers should be trained the same way most designers should be: taught to draw and model and prototype, about typography and visual principles. And, most importantly, to problem solve.
But also in the same way that industrial designers need to understand the properties of, say, metal and plastic (their materials), I think it helps interaction designers to know how the technologies they use work. An interaction designer working on the web should know about how web pages are made, for example. Not that they should be programmers necessarily, but knowing what the medium you are working in can do is immensely valuable. The difficulty in teaching this is that those things change rapidly and it is hard to keep up for even people working with it every day. Plus, in school, you aren’t certain what medium you might be working in afterwards. Tricky dilemma.
I also think more experience with writing is helpful. Both creative and technical writing are valuable, and interaction designers use both very frequently, for scenarios, storyboards, documentation, and so on.
“Services are the new frontier of interaction design.”
Danzico: You talk about the field of “service design.” Can you describe how service design is becoming more important to designers?
Saffer: We are coming to a time, if we aren’t already there, when most products aren’t stand-alone. They are part of a broader service. My mobile phone has a service plan. My television has a cable service and TiVo hooked up to it. Even the tea I buy (Peets: delicious!) can be ordered online. The point is that most products have to be viewed as part of a broader context: a service. Designers have to pay attention to the environment, the processes around the product, and a new set of users: the employees providing the service. Services aren’t only about end-users: they are co-created by service providers (employees) and customers.
Services are the new frontier of interaction design.
Danzico: How are new technologies influencing the sphere of influence that designers have?
Saffer: The history of design can be thought of as the history of materials. Now that we’ve gotten this new material—the digital—wherever it goes, hopefully we’ll go as well. Bill Moggridge says, for instance, that the reason interaction designers are getting involved in services now is because technology is involved in them. There are opportunities everywhere for interaction designers, in all areas of life. RFID and similar technologies are about to change the way we shop, cross international borders, and find objects. Robots are in our homes now, vacuuming floors. People are wearing devices on their arms to monitor their bodies. And the internet…well, don’t get me started.
With all this technology, we really can’t help but have an influence on people’s lives, on public discourse, on the future of the planet. Certainly, I don’t want to overstate the power of designers (that’s been done enough lately), but I don’t want to understate it either. We’re almost an invisible force, shaping the tools that shape us as human beings, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan.
Danzico: You write, “To design is to make ethical choices. In other words, design is ethics in action.” Is it really the designer’s responsibility to make ethical choices, or should those come from the client? How can a designer know the “right” thing to do?
Saffer: Ideally, ethical choices come from both the client and the designer, but I don’t think designers can rely on the client for those. Since many of our clients are for-profit companies, the lure of filthy lucre can sway even well-meaning companies from doing good. And certainly, designers aren’t immune to money either.
Design, being mostly subjective, isn’t usually filled with clear-cut “right” answers unfortunately. There’s just the scale of better and worse. And this is why it is so difficult. Having professional codes of ethics, like those promoted by AIGA and IDSA is a starting point. They provide a baseline, to which the designer can bring his or her own ethical beliefs for further enrichment.
For interaction design, I’ve proposed that the quality of the interaction be our ethical baseline, for both the instigator of the interaction and the receiver. It should be easy and pleasurable for users to both send and receive email or instant messages. If it isn’t (aside from technical issues), then something is probably wrong, ethically. If I design a service that only benefits one side (the business, say, or even only the users), then I’ve probably failed in my duty as a designer.
Danzico: You’ve developed an interesting model with your book’s site. Not only is it available as a Rough Cut through Peachpit, but you’ve posted the full interviews and interview excerpts on your site. Was your intention to demonstrate interaction design as well as talk about it, or was that just a nice coincidence?
Saffer: It was by design. I deliberately wanted to show the seams of the book as I was working on it, both for marketing and to get interaction designers involved. Since this is a new field, I certainly don’t have all the answers. I wanted feedback as I went along on the book. I also knew that in the final book I only had a limited amount of space for my interviews, and I wanted every part of the interviews to appear somewhere. So the website became a place where I could do that: share ideas the interviewees had generously given to me, but that were probably for space reasons not going to make it into the book. All my interviewees are amazing and had really great insights, and they really took the book to a higher level. So in a sense, the website is just a way to extend the book, stretching it out to create (hopefully) more interactions.
The idea for the AIGA Internet Kit began well before I arrived at an AIGA Leadership Retreat in 2003. The premise was to make available a tool, most likely a content management system, that would allow chapters to set up a website quickly and easily. “Easy” was critical because chapters are run by volunteers who have limited time to learn (and teach) new systems.
AIGA Internet Kit timeline
Feature lists are typically just as challenging as they are fun. Gathering requirements for this particular project, however, proved to be quite difficult since the features that had been requested for two years were never written down. A combination of interviews and mining mailing lists proved to surface the pertinent feature requests.
After working with the business and technology teams to prioritize the features, I used a sitemap to organize the system-level information. Although there were other ways to evaluate this information, a sitemap would be more familiar to the document’s audience: chapter members. My next step was to show the sitemap to chapter members to gather feedback about how useful the categories are.
Feedback on the sitemap proved invaluable in informing the wireframes. It was clear, from all the users I talked with, that users visited the AIGA chapter sites to 1) find out about events, and 2) find jobs. All other tasks seemed ancillary.
Importantly, the Kit is intended to a framework, not a prescription. Therefore, we created templates and stylesheets rather than a design system that chapters would implement. Although chapters can start using the Kit right away, they also have the option of customizing both the design and feature set. They can implement one of two standard stylesheets or modify one themselves.
I set to work helping to define the interaction model for the CMS. Because the system includes features and templates at a global as well as a local level, one of the key challenges was developing a visual design and nomenclature that helped distinguish these levels for the CMS users.
Interface design for CMS
Eight months later, 23 chapters have registered to use the Kit, and five chapters and two communities have launched sites.
Originally published in Samsung Magazine
In the heart of the meatpacking district in New York City, a simple glass storefront stands against its unheroic warehouse neighbors—the first in a series of juxtapositions from Vitra, the internationally renowned furniture manufacturer. Walk into the store and you see the second big juxtaposition: Vitra’s new HeadLine chair, the company’s fresh entrant into the office chair market, sitting side by side with a plywood Eames chair, one of the first designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s. The contrast defies expectations. The world has clearly changed a lot since the Eames classic; Vitra, however, seems to stay the same.
Vitra doesn’t play by the rules, and they’ve been winning for half a century, staying competitive through aesthetic and functional compatibility rather than coordinated corporate integration.
It’s been that way since 1950 when Willi Fehlbaum (father of the current chairman, Rolf Fehlbaum), discovered an Eames chair at a trade show in the U.S. Until then, Vitra had been known as a manufacturer of glass cabinets (vitrines, therefore Vitra). But with the start of Vitra’s relationship to the Eameses, design met mass manufacturing in a way that combined the Fehlbaums’s fanatical enthusiasm for chair design with an interest in reaching ever wider audiences lusting for classic design. Today, Vitra not only produces re-issues of modern classics by the Eameses, George Nelson, Jean Prouve, and Verner Panton, but continues to push the design envelope with a host of new classics (from Gehry, Citterio, Starck, Arad, etc.) and soon-to-be classics (Jakob Gebert, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, etc.).
None of these designers are unknowns. They seem to be chosen, as Dieter Rams, chairman of the German Design Council and former design head of Braun once wrote of Rolf Fehlbaum, “based on meanings…on an understanding of cultural and social values.” Where other design firms choose talent on style, Vitra selects designers who go beyond style. As Hanns-Peter Cohn, Vitra’s chief executive officer, explains: “It’s not about designers; it’s about auteurs.” Can this auteur philosophy (borrowed from film) define a successful furniture maker as well? In Vitra’s case, the answer appears to be yes—but there may be more to the story.
Take that Headline chair, for example. While the design process involved teams of ergonomists, engineers, and the designers Mario and Claudio Bellini, it also involved extensive work with R&D firms in New York, San Francisco, and L.A. Cohn will only reveal that the process “was extremely inspiring” and included many recommendations to improve the product.
What Cohn wants to talk about is the design process. While the designer maintains an identifiable imprint on a product, Vitra supplements their ingenuity with research and technical expertise, bringing together product managers, technicians, and R&D. But, says Cohn, it is the designer who leads. Always. “From Vitra’s point of view, the designer is always the hero.”
It sounds simple: Give a designer a job, get out of the way, and give them all the help they need, et voilà—a chair. But surely the company must produce products that don’t sell. How do they know who to sell HeadLine to? “With HeadLine, we are convinced that we are in the right market at the right time with the right product,” says Cohn. But there must be more. How do they determine if the market is right for a specific product? Cohn says they just know: “The U.S. market is always open to real innovative products.” Perhaps, as John Thackara has written, Vitra is successful because it knows how to “attract and keep the interest and attention of the architects who tend to specify office furniture for their clients. Fehlbaum enjoys the company of architects (his customers) and has genuine enthusiasm for innovation. His design patronage cleverly enables him to mix with architects on equal terms; he is a client more than a salesman.”
Or, perhaps, as Cohn seems to say, there is some special spicy sauce at work in the collaborative process. Even if a team has worked together before, the process must be made exciting each time. “In a long relationship where everyone knows one another, there is a real danger that the level of inspiration won’t be as high as in a new relationship. People are the key: they must bring inspiration to the discussion in terms of new materials, color, design language.” This is why, Cohn says, Vitra has invested so much in its amazing campus in Weil am Rhein with its gorgeous buildings by Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, and others, each a testimony to the lasting organic benefits of pursuing the cult of freshness and relevance so essential to good design.
Hence, the increasing importance of new collections such as Joyn, an open system for office furniture, bringing together 40 years of office research expertise along with the youthful spark of the brothers Bouroullec to create a system that is utterly relevant to the historical changes taking place in today’s workplace. Hence, too, HeadLine, a chair that may never attain the cult status of Herman Miller’s Aeron, but may create new headwinds for Vitra in the highly competitive office chair market.
Even Cohn admits as much. “We are always at risk of failure,” he says, “because we are creating new products yet trying to build this risk into our process.” Vitra’s audience—originally consumers of office products, and since 2005, home products, too—are among the world’s most sophisticated consumers of design, but the company still has to study patterns at work and home to get a sense of what works. Not that market research helps much. “You still can’t be sure that it won’t be a flop,” says Cohn. Every Vitra piece is tested before it goes to market. But even then, he says, “it is the user who knows how he wants to use it.”
By and large, Vitra’s confident approach has served them well. Just as a Hitchcock film is immediately recognizable, there is a tangible design sensibility that ties a designer’s line of products together. Interestingly, sometimes “classic” can appear too “modern.” A potential client might claim that a product is too modern, when it is, in fact, 50 years old. “It is hard to create a product with a long lifecycle intentionally,” says Cohn. “It always comes from the market and the market only. You can’t plan to create a classic product.” Nor do measures of success come quickly. It typically takes five to ten years before Vitra sees a product become timely. Forty or 50 years later, it might finally be deemed timeless.
An unquestionable classic, the Panton Chair, by Verner Panton, is a plastic chair produced from a single molding. When it went into mass production in 1967, it was considered a success. Then in the ’70s, ’80s, and even the ’90s, it fell out of favor. Thirty-four years later, Vitra found new materials and reissued the Panton Chair. Today, it’s an overwhelming success once again.
“We are not here to tell you how to be, we are here to show you the possibilities,” professes Vitra’s annual catalogue, Workspirit 9. In a world where work has merged into play and the office has merged into home, Vitra stands for its own merging of classic and modern. While this blend may be new to us, Vitra has been planning for it—designing for change—since its beginning. “Vitra creates new ideas and changes tastes,” reflects Cohn. “To foresee expectations is really of second importance. For us, the motivation and inspiration is to create new ideas, to surprise people with new ideas, to make things new again. Yes, that is the thing.”