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Creativity and the business of social innovation.

Behaving Badly in Vancouver

Interaction Design IS NOT ABOUT Computing Technology

I just got back from Vancouver IxDA. Had a great time but seem to have kicked up a bit of a controversy by declaring that, as interaction designers, our medium is not technology – it's behavior. I must admit to a certain amount of surprise at the strong response, and I appreciate the immediate back up from my cohort, Jon Kolko (you can see my slides - mostly visuals - here). It is very interesting to me that this statement would seem controversial, even novel in this community. And I think it says a lot about the state of our discipline.

There is universal acceptance of a holistic approach to human centered design within this community – generally referred to as 'experience design' (not my preferred term). This approach considers all of the contexts surrounding use and then tries to build a unified interaction model to support user needs over time, across these contexts. It focuses not just on expressed needs but on those that are unexpressed: the emotions, motivations, and desires that shape user engagement over time. In fact, more and more of our clients are looking for our help in identifying these latent, unmet needs. So, it is interesting to find designers who are very comfortable, in fact insistent, on this holistic approach and yet spooked by the idea that we are in the 'behavior business'.

It strikes me that this issue may be at the core of why we don't always get the respect we feel like we deserve in the business community. It is confusing to them: here we are pushing the value of ethno, design research, and consumer insights, and yet we don't really have a solid behavioral model to plug our insights into. Maybe we would spend less time trying to explain the business value of what we do if we made this model a much more explicit part of our approach and took some more responsibility for the ways in which we do (and don't) influence behavior?

When I sit down to talk with clients in healthcare or financial services about issues like diabetes or financial management they are very clear about the value of behavior to their businesses. And eager for our help in understanding how consumer behavior is changing and how to support and influence that behavior. Guys like BJ Fogg, Dan Lockton, and Jess McMullan are writing very eloquently on the topic, and have been for some time. If you haven't read up on Behavioral Economics, Persuasive Technology, and Design with Intent, then you should give it a try.

I sense that much of discomfort has to do with our role in 'influencing' behavior. It goes against the sense that we should be somehow impartial as designers. That we should not impose our intent or manipulate outcomes. That the best designs allow people to address their own needs and fulfill their own goals free from intrusion or intervention from us, the designer. This is a very serious question: are you willing to trade some of this perceived impartiality in order to bring about meaningful change? If we, as a community, are not willing to invest some effort and yes, exert some influence, through the products and services we design, then how exactly will these changes come about?


As frog's Vice President of Creative, Robert Fabricant leads efforts to expand the impact of design into new markets and industries. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert is lead partner in Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat HIV and AIDS in South Africa. He is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.