I’m not dead yet.

Way back before Twitter was a thing, there was a neat little mailing list for the IxDG. No, that’s not a typo. It was the Interaction Design Group before it became the official association we know and love. The mailing list had to have been one of the most successful discussion groups of its day. Its participants were very active. Against all odds, discussions were relevant, intelligent, and while some were heated, trolling was almost nonexistent. True friendships and professional partnerships were birthed from it. Then the organization got serious.

The IxDA decided to launch a new platform, replacing the aging forum with a robust discussion board befitting members of our profession. There were grand ideas and a lot of heart, but the result fell short. There were a lot of technical issues. The platform switch, the rise of blogging, Twitter, and other channels, and a huge influx of new members all created a situation that saw participation in the IxDA discussions drop off significantly. Where I was once getting around 100 posts a day sent to my inbox, the torrent reduced to a trickle. For years now, the forum has been a pale ghost of its former vibrancy.

But it doesn’t want to go on the cart! This week, a brand new discussion board has launched, and it looks promising. The visual design is appealing, it’s mobile friendly, and it has the bells and whistles one would expect of a contemporary web application. A few of us have already started some new discussions. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of trying to follow threads through tweets—some by those I follow and some by those I don’t—and worse, trying to express my own view in so few characters. I pine for the rich, deep, debates we used to have about design theory, craft, and yes, even defining the damn thing. Won’t you join us?

By the way, the IxDA discussion archives, dating all the way back to October of 2003 are still available. This is an excellent resource—over a decade of instigative design thinking.

I feel happy!

Verizoned Out

I received email from Verizon the other day informing me that they are changing the way their email servers work and that I would need to change the settings in my email application. I linked to their website, and it told me that I could use their Automated Email Setup to square things away. Okay, that sounds great. I clicked the button and was presented with this.

I must meet the following requirements.

  • Supported Email Clients: Apple Mail - check
  • Operating System: Umm, what about Mac OS X? It’s the only OS that Apple Mail runs on, you know.
  • Browser Requirements: Okay, now I know you are loopy, because there is no IE for Mac, and I certainly don’t have Active X.

So I of course pressed continue. On the next screen, it provided options for Apple Mail, as well as the iPhone and iPad, and I was able to make the adjustments to my account settings without a problem. This instilled me with great confidence in Verizon as my internet provider.

Pardon me as I mop up the puddle of sarcasm that dripped off that last statement.

EASy come, EASy go

Dave Malouf made a perspicacious observation in his recent blog post about the Emergency Announcement System (EAS) and its first national test.

EAS has a huge flaw. It requires being attached to a radio or TV. However, a growing critical mass of people are never on a major broadcast system and thus EAS will never get its very important message to a core unit of the population.

He’s right. Case in point, I had no knowledge of said test until I read Dave’s post, nearly two weeks after the test had been conducted. I never watch live TV. The few shows that I do watch, I record on my DVR and view when I have the time, often weeks later. Nor do I listen to the radio on a regular basis. When I’m at home, I play music from my iTunes library. When I’m in the car, or doing chores, I listen to podcasts, audio books, or music on my iPhone. I occasionally have the radio on in the car when I’m chauffeuring my kids around town. I get my news from RSS feeds, podcasts, and Twitter.

I think Dave’s suggestion for expanding the EAS to contemporary, digital media channels, such as SMS, is important. And while his suggestions for pushing messages to platforms like set top boxes and gaming consoles isn’t a bad idea, an easier first step would be to harness social media, getting the word out on Twitter, Facebook, and so forth. As is typical, the government is lagging behind the technology, designing solutions for where the puck is (or was), rather than where it will be.

National Design Awards

The Cooper-Hewitt recently announced the winners of the 2011 National Design Awards. I was pleased to see that Ben Fry is the winner in the Interaction Design category. Ben has created some fantastic information visualizations and authored the O’Reilly book, Visualizing Data. He has a Ph.D. from the Aesthetics + Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab and was the Nierenberg Chair in CMU’s School of Design during the 2006-2007 school year. He is also one of the creators of Processing and has published books on using the language. He is an outstanding representative of our field, deserving the recognition.

Also of particular note are Steven Heller, author and editor of over 130 books and winner of this year’s Design Mind category; Rick Valicenti, winner in Communication Design; and the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award, Matthew Carter, designer of many popular typefaces, including some of the most used, such as Verdana and Georgia.

You can check out the winners and finalists in all categories on the Cooper-Hewitt website.

Rarer than a Unicorn

Jeff Gothelf asks, “Why is it so hard to find strong visual designers who have interaction and product design experience?” I may not be the best person to answer his question, as I’m not in a position in which I’m often hiring, so I haven’t been looking. However, I do teach at a university, so I can tell you where to look.

Students studying Graphic Design (also sometimes called Communication Design) will not likely have huge amounts of experience in Interaction Design or Product Design, but they will have strong visual design skills, and they will likely have some web design experience. That’s a start. Many of the students coming out of WVU this year have taken my product design course and have been taught a UCD approach.

If an Interaction Designer with strong visual design skills is a unicorn, what does that make an Interaction Designer with strong visual design skills and a base level of technical skills?

Pedestrian Channelizing Devices

Leave it to government to make things as confusing as possible. I received this public service announcement in an email from one of our state senators:

When traffic-control signals are not in place or not in operation, the driver of a vehicle must yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.  Pedestrian channelizing devices are being placed in the approach of painted crosswalks and on the centerline of roadways due to the increasingly complex driving environment within the curbs and the fact that post-mounted signs may go unobserved as motorists focus all of their attention in the street from curb to curb.

Pedestrian channelizing devices? Are these some new, ground-breaking technology that will improve safety? What do these devices do? So I clicked the link.

They’re crosswalk signs.

A Reason for Everything

A good designer must have a reason for everything. Every detail is the result of a decision, made consciously or unconsciously. The designer should document decisions for any issues that were deliberated over or contested. He must also recognize the subconscious decisions and understand the reasoning behind them when asked to explain. If a client ever receives an unsatisfactory answer, such as “I don’t know,” or “I just thought it looked better,” they have carte blanche to overturn any decision the designer has made.

When evaluating one’s own work, a designer should continually ask herself why. Why did she use that color? Why did she place a particular element in that exact spot? Why is it that specific size? Perhaps these were intuitive decisions, but there was still a reason behind them. Understanding those reasons will make a designer more confident in communicating the solution to others, leading to more trust from clients and other collaborators.

There is a reason for everything. If you don’t have a reason, you haven’t given enough thought to your design.

Data Visualization in the National Design Awards

Yesterday, I wrote about the Cooper-Hewitt’s 10th National Design Awards, pointing out that Lisa Strausfeld—known for designing rich information visualizations, among other things—was a finalist in the Interaction Design category. Data visualization was particularly noticeable in the past year, what with the olympics and the election. This was due in large part to the New York Times, and their graphics department was recognized as the winner in the Communication Design category. To see more examples of their spectacular work, check out the following links:

Megan Jaegerman’s brilliant news graphics

InfoDesignViz’s NewYorkTimes Bookmarks

Why Interaction Design?

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.