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An Emerging Divide: Some Thoughts from the IxDA 2010 Conference

While reflecting on the IxDA 2010 conference, I’m trying on various lenses of evaluation, and coming to a conclusion that the profession of Interaction Design is reaching an interesting and critical divide. The divide seems to break down around two forces of gravity, loosely identified as:

A. Design, as a discipline. A locus of study, similar to science or art in breadth and depth, and focused on criticism, behavioral change, craft, empathy, humanism, and reflection.
B. UX, as a form of applied design in the context of marketing, and focused on consumption, speed, innovation, and often, apparently, compromise.

Perhaps the divide is not new, as we've long seen theorists like Victor Papanek and Bruce Mao pitted against the producers like Raymond Loewy or Karim Rashid. Yet the split was constantly the source of conversation at this conference of 500 people, bringing the discussion to the forefront of what has long been a one sided view of design in the context of a business environment.

I found this split evidenced in a number of speakers’ work, but it was embodied almost structurally in a presentation by Nathan Shedroff. Nathan began with the controversial “I think we can all agree that our goal is to design experiences – everything we create is an experience.” While it’s safe to say that ruffled my feathers, I’ll leave that argument for another post. He supported his statement with a less controversial view of aspects of design, one that relies on significance, interaction, breadth, intensity, triggers, and duration. I appreciate the model, as “significance” and “intensity” are wonderful ways of framing the manner in which a person will engage with a product. Yet the application of this model was, both implicitly and explicitly, on manipulation – on getting consumers to buy things that they likely don’t need and weren’t aware that they wanted. Nathan described this as the “good kind of manipulation”, and as I cringed, Mitch Murphy – a senior interaction designer at frog, leaned over and said “I’m waiting for him to say ‘but this is all wrong’”.

In a way, Nathan did just that, as the second half of his presentation seemed to reject everything he began with. He declared that “consumerism is dead,” and went on to talk in great depth about making meaning for people. I’m puzzled at how he can rationalize these two contradictory views, one which paints the consumer as a rag doll to be thrown about, and the other that deeply embraces humanity.

It seemed I was not alone in my observations of this contradiction. Shelley Evenson’s presentation on service and social offered a glimpse of her research, identifying a shift in consumer expectations towards information, speed, and control in attempting to manage their consumption. As she described how product ecologies work to offer multiple interaction touchpoints for users, she broke from her talk to say “I’m sorry Nathan, but I disagree – we can’t design experiences for people to have.” Instead, she argues, we can design the touchpoints that people will interact with, creating a framework for people to find meaning by having their own experiences. The pursue of meaning, then, comes from a disciplinary focus on empathy, humanism, and understanding.

Mike Kruzeniski presented an often quite funny presentation on his work at Microsoft’s EXG Studios, articulating some of the challenges he’s found in attempting to translate humanism (the “soul of a product”) to engineering requirements. Through a purposeful language shift – moving from P0, P1, and P2 features to literally calling some of the features the “soul” of the product – Mike found some success in guarding the essence of his designs from an engineering culture that focuses on timelines and production rather than emotional quality. This divide again points to a split between disciplinary designers, focused on craft, beauty and emotion, pitted against a culture of production, release cycles, and consumption. In his words, “understanding emotion improves the experience of the emotional”, and in that way, empathy is a central role for his team.

Allan Chochinov offered a rapid-fire glimpse of fabulous student work, often intended to provide in a discursive fashion. His teaching approach paints products, and the entire process of design, as a form of cultural criticism – again, in line with a trend towards humanism, a liberalization of design, and a shift in the role of design away from creators of consumptive artifacts. This view introduces several fairly challenging questions: If it is deemed acceptable for a designer to offer cultural criticism through their work, what roles do judgment and compromise play in the process of design? More importantly for many practicing designers, how does that manifest in a corporate setting? In the fog between Nathan’s view of a “good kind of manipulation” and Allan’s view of “activism and having a point of view”, we arrive at a fairly critical point, that of intent and meaning.

There is a strong connective fiber between the two seemingly disconnected takes on IxD, and that connectivity is found in the word meaning. Nearly every speaker I attended described how regular people are conducting a search for meaning, and positioned design as a way of completing that search. Nathan described that there is a form of innovation called “meaningful innovation”, and meaning is the biggest connection one can make with their consumers. Allan prescribed that designers “make it personal and urgent”. Liz Danzico urged designers to allow people to improvise, by focusing on frames rather than rigidity. These frames offer meaning, as they encourage regular people to find flow, much like an artist or designer.

My own talk supported this theme. I’ve found success in framing a design philosophy around four pillars, that of experience, behavior, meaning, and culture. I view these as the baseline of our profession, and while these are “big words” in that they position design in a lofty and essential societal context, they are also the words I try to avoid using in my everyday work with clients and with my design teams. I find them to be reserved words, often loaded and controversial, and deeply personal. My talk attempted to unpack these words and continue a conversation many have been having about the role of design in our challenging world.

I’m thrilled by what appears to be the emergence of a thoughtful, societal, and empathetic profession of design. All of the speakers I heard – those I agreed with, and those I found challenging – are now trying to extend the dialogue of design further than that of specific methods or case studies. The conversation has been elevated, and that speaks volumes for the hard work of organizations like the IxDA.

I look forward to continuing the conversation at IxDA’s 2011 conference, Interaction ’11, to be held in Boulder, Colorado next year.

Jon Kolko