When does the history of interaction design
I can think of an answer, but
if you don’t mind I’ll
sneak up on that answer by first offering some definitions.
If “design” means “applying the design process” — start
by understanding the problem space, attempt to create a satisfactory
solution, put an embodiment of that solution into the context of
use, then iterate, refining your understanding by seeing each version
of your imperfect solution in use…
If “interaction” means something like “conversation” —the
back and forth of signals and symbols between people and an object
capable of holding up its end of that conversation, or between
people through such an object…
If “history” means someone wrote
…Then here in this room without doing more research
I’ll pick the work at Xerox PARC on the Star interface as a very
early example of self-conscious interaction design, the publication
of which influenced others to begin working in a similar way. As
just one example, the idea of associating a program with a picture
was born there. We call them icons, and forget what a breakthrough
connection between interface element and underlying meaning that
once was. That was the early-to-mid 1970s, and the Star papers
are still great reading. There’s probably an argument to have about
their process versus the one I just described, but given the range
of “processes” in practice today I’d say that’s a nit.
It’s likely that there is earlier work that fits
my definitions, but it’s not coming to mind right now. And of course
there are competing definitions to all those terms, in which case
you could get answers all the way back to the beginning of language.
Humans coming up with names for things, and having other people
use those same names for the same things—that’s the start of interaction
What’s the seminal moment in interaction design history?
I’m not sure we’ve seen it yet. I’m not sure we’re
going to. Has there been or will be a Seminal Moment—the moment
when the seed was planted? To me it makes more sense to think of
the history of things like this in terms of eras. Everybody’s working
away, making, thinking, writing. We tend to work in similar ways,
and make similar things, because we’re all seeing each other’s
work and reading each other’s stuff. We’re in the middle of an
A few are out exploring, trying
to do new things but rarely getting them into practice. Each
year there are a few
papers that really influence some thinking. And maybe (sadly?)
most importantly, technology is shifting like crazy. This influences
us, and at some point we look around and realize, “Hey, we really
are thinking and working differently than we did ten years ago.
It’s a new era!”
You can’t point to one seminal moment that caused
the shift. To the extent that we’re climbing higher, it’s less
a case of “standing on the shoulders of giants” than “standing
on the piled bodies of those who have tried before.”
This is somewhat comforting,
by the way, for ambitious people. Don’t pressure yourself to create that one Great Thing
that will influence everyone, or write that one Great Book that
will change design thinking and practice. Just do the best work
you can, and tell us, your colleagues, what you did and how it
worked out. If we all do that, we’ll make much faster progress.
Where do you see interaction design heading in the near future?
Well, in some ways we’re still building foundations,
so it will be a while before we see much progress above ground.
There’s a real itch for definitions and clear boundaries, but I
don’t think we’ll be able to have those until we accomplish a lot
more work. We need a longer history and a larger body of collective
work. We need a few more leading educational institutions. We need
to blend in, shoulder-to-shoulder, with the colleagues from other
areas who work with us in the cloud of effort surrounding the conception,
design, development and support of products and services. After
all that, will it still be called interaction design? I don’t know.
The longer and more useful answer
is something we only have time to sketch in this conversation.
Here’s the recipe
for that answer: if you want to guess where something is headed,
identify the forces that influence its direction and speed.
What forces are influencing the
direction and speed of interaction design? It would be fun take
time to cook up a list,
but here are a few things that jump to mind…
The components of interaction—inputs, processing,
and outputs—are becoming increasingly decoupled and disintegrated.
Which is to say our job will a) get more difficult because we will
only have control over the design of fragments of the user experience,
and b) become more strategic, as companies try to compete in what
can only be called an “ecosystem of devices and systems.” We’ll
worry more about indirect effects, ripple effects.
There has been a rise in the value of putting the
power to design and create in the hands of everyone, along with
a rise in the means to do so. Blogs, right? Cheap cameras, cheap
printing, even desktop fabrication. This means some of us will
have the job of designing tools that make it easy for anyone to
design and make things for themselves. This is much harder than
designing a web page.
As computers become more pervasive, there are areas
in which the role of generalist (programmer, business analyst,
designer, etc.) is being replaced by specialists in this or that
vertical application area. Just as there is such a thing as medical
computing, or computing for manufacturing systems, it really would
make sense to have medical interaction designers, for example.
Aviation interaction designers. Manufacturing interaction designers.
Thanks to corporations that are learning the value
of integrated teams, interaction designers will find themselves
more often part of the team from beginning to end, rather than
specialists who are called to make sporadic contributions from
time to time.
And I hope more of us find ourselves
working on projects aimed at serving people other than wealthy/middle-class
technophiles. Access to services! Tiny businesses! Learning and
personal development! Developing nations! Oh, wait. I’m wishing
instead of predicting. I’m an idealist.