Book Cover

Marc Rettig Interview
The History and Future of Interaction Design


When does the history of interaction design begin?

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 about it…

…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 design.

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 era.

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.

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Marc Rettig is a designer, educator, and researcher, as well as founder and principal of Fit Associates. He has taught at Carnegie Mellon’s Graduate School of Design (where he held the 2003 Nierenberg Distinguished Chair of Design) and the Institute of Design, IIT, in Chicago. Marc served as chief experience officer of the user experience consultancy HannaHodge, and was a director of user experience at Cambridge Technology Partners.


Table of Contents

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

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

Adam Greenfield interview excerpt on Everyware