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Adam Greenfield Interview


What do interaction designers need to know about ubiquitous computing, what you call “everyware?”

Probably the single most important thing that we need to wrap our heads around is multiplicity.

Instead of the neatly circumscribed space of interaction between a single user and his or her PC, his or her mobile, we're going to have to contend with a situation in which multiple users are potentially interacting with multiple technical systems in a given space at a given moment.

This has technical implications, of course, in terms of managing computational resources and so on, but for me the most interesting implications concern the quality of user experience. How can we best design informational systems so that they (a) work smoothly in synchrony with each other, and (b) deliver optimal experiences to the overburdened human at their focus? This is the challenge that Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown refer to as "encalming, as well as informing," and I think it's one we've only begun to scratch the surface of addressing.

How will the interactions we have with digital products now differ from those in the future?

The simple fact that networked information-processing devices are going to be deployed everywhere in the built environment rather strongly implies the inadequacy of the traditional user interface modalities we've been able to call on, most particularly keyboards and keypads.

When a room, or a lamppost, or a running shoe is, in and of itself, an information gathering, processing, storage, and transmission device, it's crazy to assume that the keyboard or the traditional GUI makes sense as a channel for interaction - somewhat akin to continuing to think of a car as a "horseless carriage." We're going to need to devise ways to interact with artifacts like these that are sensitive to the way we use them, biomechanically, psychologically, and socially. Especially if we want the systems we design to encalm their users, we're going to need to look somewhere else.

Voice and gestural interfaces, in this context, are very appealing candidates, because they so easily accomodate themselves to a wide variety of spaces and contexts, without taking up physical space, or preventing the user from attending to more focal tasks. They become particularly interesting given the expansion in the number of child, elderly, or nonliterate users implied by the increased ambit of post-PC informatics.

On the other hand, they're computationally intensive, and they also present serious questions of capture fidelity, of interpretation, and again of multiplicity. Even under ideal circumstances, present-day IVR systems are fairly wretched. I, at least, groan inwardly every time I'm forced to interact with one.

What all this suggests to me is that we're a couple of years away from the truly robust application of voice and gesture-driven interfaces. It's reasonable to assume that, in the fullness of time, voice-recognition and gestural interfaces will form part of the everyware designer's working armamentarium - but we're not there yet.

How can interaction designers begin to document these systems?

That's an excellent question to which I'm afraid I don't have a good answer, at least not in the abstract. I think it's going to take some time, and the opportunity to internalize our experience of developing real-world ubiquitous systems, before we can come up with a consistent set of deliverables that represent and document the kinds of interaction we're talking about here.

I'm optimistic, however, that both a community and a body of practice will rapidly accrete around everyware. The challenge of consistently modeling hypermedia spaces existed for half a decade before the now-standard set of Web deliverables emerged as a response, forged by the requirements of daily practice; similarly, I think it'll take a few years for their everyware equivalents to crystallize out of solution.


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Rough Cuts (pdf) edition

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Available August 2006



Adam Greenfield is an internationally recognized writer, user experience consultant, and critical futurist. Before starting his current company, Studies and Observations, he was lead information architect for the Tokyo office of Web consultancy Razorfish; prior to that, he worked as senior information architect for marchFIRST, also in Tokyo. He’s also been, at various points in his career, a rock critic for SPIN magazine, a medic at the Berkeley Free Clinic, a coffeehouse owner in West Philadelphia, and a PSYOP sergeant in the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command.


Table of Contents

Read an excerpt "The Elements of Interaction Design" in UXmatters

Marc Rettig interview excerpt on Interaction Design's History and Future

Hugh Dubberly interview excerpt on Systems Design

Larry Tesler interview excerpt on The Laws of Interaction Design

Brenda Laurel interview excerpt on Design Research

Robert Reimann interview excerpt on Personas

Luke Wroblewski interview excerpt on Visual Interaction Design

Shelley Evenson interview excerpt on Service Design

Carl DiSalvo interview excerpt on Designing for Robots