Make something from HERE. Wherever here is to you. Thoughts from Interaction16.

Last week, over a thousand designers braved the Nordic winter and met in Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall. They had come together for Interaction 16, an annual event about what is happening in design and technology.

I was keen to tag along. While I’m very far from a trained designer, I’m definitely design curious. That’s because I’m increasingly aware of how many of the open source projects and participatory events could benefit from what designers bring to the table. And especially in emerging fields like the Internet of Things, design’s attitudes and skillsets will play a powerful role.

ixd16 setup

What is interaction design?

Firstly, I was keen to understand some fundamentals. There are different kinds of design: product design, service design, user experience design, industrial design, systems design, and on and on. What, pray tell, is interaction design?

I asked Sami Niemelä, one of the co-chairs together with Peter, to give me his take:

“Design is a mindset. And interaction is about behavior. Interaction design is an approach to making things that understands the experiences and behaviors around them.”

ixd16 sami

Sami also recommended checking out these notable folks:

  • The Mother of All Demos by Douglas Engelbart. This is where many people say that interaction design as a discipline began.
  • Xerox Park and their invention of graphical user interfaces, WYSIWYG text editor, ethernet and more.
  • Gillian Crampton Smith founded a masters program in computer-related design MA at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. It was a very influential degree program. Gillian has gone on to found the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, which in turn helped shape the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID).
  • Alan Cooper who pioneered the use of personas and pioneered many user experience practices.
  • Donald Norman who argued for how emotions play a crucial role in our ability to understand the world and learn things.
  • IDEO a design agency who advocates the use of human-centered design. They’re teaching a free online course that the Mozilla Berlin office and other Mozillians are currently taking.

What I gather from all that is:

The role of the designer is to listen to people. They ask “Why? And what if?” Then they translate these observations and conversations into usable and delightful experiences. Designers understand that this is an iterative process. So they continually check in and listen to people as they interact with products and services, making adjustments along the way.

The Entanglement.

After Sami helped me get the fundamentals, I was ready to dive into the event. It opened with Marko Ahtisaari, introducing us to Finnish culture: their love of silence and nature…and of heavy metal.



Marko cited some important guidelines for design today:

  • From Enlightenment to Entanglement. We’re becoming increasingly entangled in our machines. During the Enlightenment, we probed and reconstituted our political institutions. It was a struggle to give these new institutions the power to act on our behalf. Now as we build smarter machines, we’re facing a similar uneasiness when handing over power to computers. What happens when machines make decisions on our behalf?
  • Systems over objects. The ability to manufacture smart machines is no longer something that only large industry can do. Individuals and small organizations are gaining production capabilities to make entire intelligent systems. This calls for supply chains and ecosystems more transparent and accessible, if we want to foster innovation from smaller players.
  • Participation over user-centric. These new intelligent systems don’t have a center, so there’s no center to put a user. Instead, we’re seeing the rise of complex, adaptive systems. The role of the designer will be more facilitative–more like a conductor than a producer.
  • Emergence over authority / control. Lastly, we’ll co-design with artificial intelligence. The studio will be a symbiosis of human and machine, so we’ll want to figure out what humans do best and what’s best done by machines.

These trends are explored in more depth in a new publication by MIT Press, the Journal of Design and Science.

The myth of the single perspective

The ethnographer Tricia Wang delivered an eloquent critique of our search for The Truth in visual representations.

The West has a long history of seeing the truth as a single, stable thing. Tricia builds an argument that spans the invention of single point perspective in Renaissance paintings through to the advent of modern mirrors and on to Big Data and Virtual Reality. She demonstrates that we regularly confuse visual representation with reality. We see the world through our technology, and we believe its The Truth.

The brilliance of her talk was connecting this theory with contemporary examples, which give a fresh perspective on diversity & inclusion.

For example, Google Photos royally messed up when it trained its phototagging algorithm. It falsely identified some people of color as “gorillas.” In another example, Nikon cameras falsely interpreted the eye shapes of many Asian users. The cameras suggested that people in the photo had blinked when their eyes were actually open.

Tricia called these mishaps perspective collision. It’s when the perspective of the designer or creator of the technology clashes with the perspectives of users.

ixd16 tricia

It’s related to the Malkovich Bias, the notion that everyone users technology the way you do.

To counteract these collisions and biases, Tricia advocated for Thick Data. She sees Think Data as a complement to Big Data. It’s qualitative instead of quantitative. It bundles stories and ethnographic data into insights that can be used when creating technology. Thick Data can bring balance to our quantification bias, meaning that we overly value things that can be measured.

Think Data enables designers to go beyond their single perspective. Similar to what Marko suggested, the designer is a facilitator. They guide the inputs from a range of perspectives. They’ll change their practice from ”explicit design —> generative design” and spend ”less time conceiving solutions —> more time guiding input.”

Conversation as user interface

Another fantastic talk was from Alper Çuğun. He gave an overview of conversational user interfaces. It was based on his own experience making mobile games that use conversations and messaging as the main mechanic. He also shared an analysis of the tools out there to make conversational UIs and a prediction of where the scene is heading.

In particular, I was struck by how conversations, like the messaging apps we’re all familiar with on our phones, can lower the barrier to people using technology. It now feels very natural to text back and forth with friends. When machines can text with us, that might give us a sense of accessibility and agency in our interaction with them.

Speculative design

Simone Rebaudengo and Nicolas Nola rocked the house with an introduction to their speculative design practice. Their collective Automato Farm makes “real fictional products for real fictional people.” Their products are everyday objects that enable you to experience a near future. And blog trolls hate them.

politics of power

See for example:

With these speculative objects, Simone can probe our assumptions about what “smart” means. Typically, smart is defined as “sensing + computing + acting”. Yet Simone asks: do objects know what’s best when they sense our environment? When they compute, what ideology are they propagating? When objects act, are they really set up to make good decisions for us?

I love this approach. By building something that people can experience, we get to learn about the consequences of a technology. Speculation becomes experiential and interactive. These objects become a physical touchstone for deeper discussions and questions about ethics, opportunity, literacy, agency and more.

Designing for privacy

A strong trend at Interaction 16 was the focus on better design for online privacy. There were a series of talks looking at how to facilitate better user experiences so that people have the knowledge and ability to control their personal data.

As we move through the world exuding personal data, like a virtual version of Charlie Brown’s Pig Pen, technology could better inform us of what data is being collected, how it is being used, and how we can take action to modify that if we wish. Furthermore, many of the practitioners in this series advocated for technology makers to offer an opinion — set strong defaults that are in the user’s interest, and give them the knowledge and the skills to modify them.

These conversations were quite salient and offered a bridge between the interaction design community at #IXD16 and the concurrent Internet Freedom Festival in Barcelona. We definitely need more people contributing to the user experience and interaction design of privacy tools.

ixd16 finlandia hall

More good stuff

Other sessions I enjoyed were:

Closure experiences

Lastly, I was struck by the thesis of Joe Macleod. He’s spent the last few years thinking about what he calls “closure experiences.” He argues that we spend so much time beginning things–be it a purchase, an experience, a relationship, etc.–and not on ending them in a thoughtful, healthy way.

We jump from beginning to beginning, because it’s a thrill to start something new. Endings remind us of death. However, endings are inevitable. And it’s therefore worthwhile to think about how to end things in a satisfactory way.

Well, no event would end properly without a round of karaoke. So I’m glad Interaction 16 closed out with a massive singalong.


Photos: Designer be kerning, Finlandia Hall, Selfie With the Co-Chairs, Tricia Wang at Interaction 16, Happy fruity co-chair Sami by The Waving Cat available under CC BY-NC-SA. Lordi-04-0x by Alterna2 available under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. “POLITICS OF POWER” by Simone Rebaudengo.

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