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Conference insights from Vancouver and Boston to Paris and Beijing.

IxDA 2009: Behavior, Definition and Synthesis

I’m reflecting on the IxDA 2009 conference on the plane from Vancouver back to Austin, and as I ponder, I find myself impressed with the variety of material that was presented, thrilled with the level of discourse, and deeply irritated with the contentious nature of ‘designing for behavior”.

Let me explain.

I attended some great talks. Of note was John Thackara, who set a particularly negative opening theme by describing multiple threats converging at once (climate change, economy, food supply, disease, etc). Thackara’s slides were awful, and his message was dark, but it didn’t matter one bit: he knows what he’s talking about, cares passionately about it, and can weave a story of doom and gloom without creating a sense of apathy or fear. I spoke with Luke Wroblowski at a reception after this talk, and he holds the opinion that it’s incredibly arrogant to think we can destroy the world. The world has existed long before us, and will continue to exist regardless of our credit troubles or landfill excess. I suppose Luke is right, but I continue to see a beautiful capability in the human ability to create, and so I also feel a direct sense of blame in the human ability to destroy.

Juxtaposed was Robert Fabricant’s keynote, which introduced a shift from “design as visualization of data” to “design as the changing of behavior”. Robert’s talk ended with a description of frog’s work on Project M; while I’ve heard and seen presentations about it around the studio, it was quite moving to hear about it directly from Robert.


Marc Rettig then reiterated, in his quiet and human way, the need to understand the behavior of people, and design to support it, to change it, or to better it.

The comments around the conference, primarily driven through twitter (#ixd09), had a particularly strong level of discourse. That isn’t to say people were saying anything intellectual, or even well structured (“Dan Saffer is slamming down a Danifesto”?), but the conversation and backchannel discussion was generative and productive. People were describing what was happening, and others were responding with new examples or contradictory experiences. The liquor-in-hand discussion later extended the virtual chat, with people commenting on and drawing connections between multiple talks. That’s always been one of the most difficult parts of a conference – to generate cross-talk connections. It speaks incredibly highly of the speakers and organizers, as people were able to make tangential and often subtle connections on their own.

My own talk was on Design Synthesis, offering two methods and an underlying theory of synthesis as an abductive sensemaking process. I enjoyed the challenge of jamming all of that content into 20 minutes, and it seemed like the packed room enjoyed it too. I got a lot of questions in the following day and a half, and it seemed, again, that people were finding their own connections between my take on synthesis and the behavioral, temporal, and cultural aspects of interaction design. You can grab my slides here.

So, what’s the complaint I alluded to above – what’s there to be irritated about?

Designing for behavior was, if you listen to some of the idle chat and tweets, a contentious framing of our field. Many people were overheard saying things like “that just isn’t what I do”, or “I just don’t see how that’s relevant”.

I find that absolutely stunning, considering it’s at the root of any and every definition I’ve ever heard of interaction design. From Dick Buchanan, to John Rheinfrenk, to Bill Moggridge and Robert Fee, interaction is continually described as the design for behavior. It is the creation of a dialogue between a person and an artifact – digital, physical, or systematic – and that dialogue is behavioral, as it is frequently nonspoken and implicit. It’s embedded in culture, and manifested in a temporal aesthetic; it’s about our ability to affect change. Interaction design is the design for behavior.

How can that be contentious? How can we, as a field, not have moved beyond “interface design”, or “website design”, and be so shortsighted as to think we are technologists or digital artists?

The contentious nature of the definition of our field notwithstanding, the conference was excellent. I trust that next year, the discourse will have moved beyond the surface of behavior; this field is screaming for a unified theory that relates cognition, aesthetics, and culture.