IX08 Signage

I got back from the first Interaction Design Association (IxDA) conference, Interaction08, late Monday night after an 11-hour drive in a rented minivan with five other of my Carnegie Mellon peers. Rather than provide a blow-by-blow, I’ll apply a little bit of poetic license and start at the end.

At the end of the second day of the two-day affair, in lieu of one of the presentations, anyone who wanted to share their thoughts on the conference and what it should be next year was invited to attend a group meeting. At first, I wasn’t going to go, but one of my peers, Kyle Vice, was going, and the previous presentations were not inspiring me.

Kyle and I were the only ones to show up, initially. But eventually a small band arrived, totaling nine, though most were already IxDA board members. Thus, CMU students represented 25 percent of attendees. Not counting the board members, 50 percent. Gregory Petroff led the session and asked each of us to say why we came, what we thought could have been better, and what we would like to see next year. That seems like a reasonable way to construct this post.

Why did I attend?

I agreed with Bill DeRouchey, who was also present, who said that it felt important to be at the first conference on interaction design. I also mentioned that as an interaction design graduate student, who has been in the bubble of academia for the past two years, I wanted to see what the discipline thinks of itself, and contrast that against my thoughts of interaction design attained at Carnegie Mellon. What I didn’t say was that at the School of Design, we explore interaction design is a broad sense, and often talk about design and interaction design interchangeably. In design, there is no subject matter. My peers and I bring this perspective to interaction design and are thus interested in applications of interaction design beyond the screen and software.

Many of my peers were frustrated and angry with a lot of the presentations, as was I. Though I was tempered by the expectation that there would not be much new material, given that my life is currently devoted to the study of interaction design. That said, we found the application of interaction design by the representative community narrow, which brings me to the second question: what could have been better?

What could have been better?

I told the group that I would have liked to have seen a discussion and attempt at defining interaction design. Of all places and times to address this question, the first conference on interaction design seemed to be a likely place. And as this is a question that plagues every interaction designer, and serves as fodder for heated debate on the IxDA discussion list, I hoped it would receive some attention. Instead, the definition of interaction design escaped discussion, which I found disappointing. In relation to this, I also said that I would have liked to have seen a greater exploration of the boundaries of interaction design. What I didn’t say, and what my peers echoed, was that interface and software received too much attention. Surprisingly, there was very little presented regarding mobile interaction, physical products, ambient devices, gestural interaction, wearables, ubiquitous computing, and the role of interaction design in experience design, service design, organizational change.

Dan Saffer, Larger than Life

Ironically, during the closing remarks, Dan Saffer listed five themes he garnered from the conference. The first was that we were exploring the boundaries of interaction design. In addition, he remarked that we skipped the question of the definition of interaction design, which received cheers from the crowd. This distressed me for the reasons stated above.

Five Themes

Since I brought it up, now seems like a good time to go over the five themes, mentioned in Saffer’s closing remarks.

Boundaries Where is our role? What defines us? Answer: comes from what we’re working on; common tools and prototyping

Tradition Not practicing in a vacuum

Context Space/time; organizations

Argument Providing tools for argument; and products are an argument

Influence How the products we create influence the way people behave

As I said, I did not think there was enough exploration of the boundaries, evidenced by the gap between what my peers and I think of interaction design and what we saw as practice at the conference. I disagree that what defines us is what we’re working on. It may be how others currently perceive interaction designers because other opportunities do not exist. But it doesn’t define us.

In talking with other attendees, I was glad to hear that people entertain the application of interaction design to more arenas. But it seemed evident that everyone was limited by their current circumstance and no place else to go. This is a fear that many of the students at the School of Design have when considering employment opportunities. If this is the situation, perhaps interaction design needs to design its way into other areas.

What would I like to see next year?

In the meeting, I said it would be great to see more representation from outside the community, like business and management. And for presentations, it might be nice to see designers and clients presenting both sides of the endeavor. What I didn’t say, perhaps because I felt it was assumed by my earlier comments, was that I would like to see a good and constructive discussion of the definition of interaction design, or some acknowledgment of the struggle. We did this at the Emergence conference with the question of service design both in the first and second year, and people seemed to respect the discussion and appreciate the struggle.

In addition, it would be great to see more case studies with actual projects. Heck, it would have been interesting to hear about the role of interaction design in the Charmr project. But what about interaction design for a service design project? Or the process of interaction design in organizational strategy?

One of the group participants mentioned a forum where attendees could show their work. This is an intriguing idea, which would allow greater attendee participation and provide greater exposure to the different types of work in interaction design. One project on interaction design in an area that is off the radar could spark debate and inspire curiosity and further broadening of current practice.

The Good

OK, now that I’ve offered some criticism, constructively, I hope, let’s talk about the good.

Dan Saffer, who according to my understanding, put together a lot of the content, did a great job of attracting some quality speakers. I especially enjoyed seeing Alan Cooper and Bill Buxton (not that I agreed with them). And I could see the attempt to have both practical and more philosophical presentations. Other speakers I enjoyed include Matt Jones and Carl DiSalvo.

Savannah is a great location to have a conference in February. T-shirt weather. Not too big. Lots of bars and restaurants. Also, the Savannah Collage of Art and Design was impressive. Carnegie Mellon should take note.

The food was top notch. Sunday’s lunch was better than any wedding I have ever attended. And parties with free food and booze are always welcome, and I would say essential for a successful conference.

As with any conference, the best part without doubt were the people that attended and the conversations that ensued. I was happy to run into designers who knew me from Emergence and UX Week, and to see some CMU alumni. Best yet, I made some new friends whom I hope to see at the next conference or elsewhere in the small but healthy interaction design community.

While I haven’t covered everything, these are the things that are resonating with me. I am happy that I went and feel that overall for the community it was a success. I am very curious to see how things shape up next year.

Walking to Opening

In total, eight interaction design graduate students from the School of Design attended the conference: Kipum Lee, Srividya Sriram, Carrie Chan, Kyle Vice, Beste Nazilli, Joe Iloreta, Imran Sobh, me.