Two recent blog posts by fellow CMU alumni collided on my iPhone as I was reading over the weekend. They complemented each other, even though they were inspired by separate sources.
First, Dan Saffer posed a question on Kick It: Is industrial design the new interface design? The question was prompted by a statement in Carla Diana’s Core77 report on the CHI conference, claiming that this was the “mantra of the week.” Dan’s exploration of the question is very insightful, pointing out that in many cases, it is true. There are physical objects that act as controls or “interfaces,” without buttons or screens or any of the widgets that interaction designers typically work with.
But he also looks at it from the opposite side, where the physical form is only a container for the UI. The iPhone is a perfect example of this. The industrial design of the iPhone is quite nice—no question about it. But the entire purpose of the object is to present the user interface that one views and interacts with through the touch screen. All of the value delivered in the iPhone comes from the virtual part of it. As Dan succinctly explains, “Start from the inside-out (the behavior), and then figure out what should control it: the physical form, UI elements on a screen, or even gestures in space. For users, the interface is the system, and they don’t care which discipline(s) designed it, only that it looks good and works well.”
The second post appeared a day later when Jamin Hegeman philosophized about Bill Moggridge’s statement that interaction design as a discipline may no longer be necessary. Moggridge’s reasoning is that interaction design is now pervasive. Jamin points out that there are “…many communication and industrial designers who feel they have had the same focus on behavior that interaction designers… like to refer to as their domain.”
I’ve often stated that industrial design is a better background to bring to interaction design than others, as industrial designers are steeped in usability issues of form. Most of my favorite examples of user-centered design and design process are products resulting from industrial design: Oxo GoodGrips, Dyson vacuums, and Simplehuman trash cans, to name a few. I, myself, come from a graphic design background, which prepared me with the foundational practices and processes that all design domains are based on. This also was a good basis for moving into interaction design.
But in either case, I believe there is much more to be learned before one can claim the title “Interaction Designer.” As Dan and Jamin both mention, behavior is at the core of interaction design, but there is a lot of specialist knowledge that goes with it. Industrial designers must have knowledge of materials and building processes. Graphic designers must have knowledge of paper and printing processes. Interaction designers must have knowledge of digital materials (e.g. UI patterns, form widgets, input and output devices, etc.), and development processes. This doesn’t preclude any one role from working in another’s realm—my graphic design students are finishing up portfolio websites as I type. But there is certainly room, and I would argue a need, for specialization. It may be possible to do it all, but it isn’t efficient.