If design and technology conferences were cities, which cities would they be?
We might imagine South by Southwest Interactive to be a sprawling and disjointed metropolis that has developed organically, like Bangkok. The various CHI conferences or SIGGRAPH would be meticulously clean and orderly, perhaps akin to Singapore. And TED might be closer to a utopian ideal that appears temporarily before vanishing again, making you wonder if it was really there in the first place, like an Atlantis, a Shangri-La or a Camelot. Surrounding these major centres of activity are smaller conferences that spring up from time to time, that start as intimate gatherings of like minded individuals that might eventually grow to be as well-trafficked and dispersed as those more established conurbations. On August 20th, San Francisco boutique product design company Kicker Studio held such an event: its inaugural Device Design Day (D3), at the San Francisco Children's Museum. This follows in the footsteps of design firms hosting their own conferences, which is something that tends to work well—it helps to articulate what a company does that is different from its competitors, as well as demonstrating a willingness to share knowledge and learnings with the wider community. It'd be nice if some of the more established design firms deigned to do something similar.
The unifying theme of the day was, in line with Kicker's own focus, design theory and practice specifically relating to product interaction design. Within that very specific area, the speakers managed to represent a broad range of perspectives, from academics to experienced professionals and heads of studios, to theorists. And managing to fit this all into a single day resulted in a conference that provided a lot of interesting content—there really wasn't too much in the way of album filler. It really is possible to have an exploratory and engaging conference in a single day.
All of the speakers present raised interesting points:
Kim Goodwin and Michael Voege discussed the importance of a convergent design process that includes both interaction and industrial designers right from the very beginning of an engagement to the coherence of the final design
Jared Benson of Punchcut discussed the importance of considering new physical interaction paradigms in the context of working with the latest devices
Ian Myles of Meep talked through his experience and differences he's noticed as a product designer both working in-house (at Motorola) and in an agency (at Astro), highlighting in particular how strategic projects are expressed in each environment
Dan Harden of Whipsaw walked through his portfolio, pausing to highlight which aspect of each project he felt added an extra level of "sing" to each.
While all of the talks were fascinating and eloquently presented, there were a few that I feel raised points that warrant closer examination. I have a theory that it's really the pithy quotes that people remember the most from conference sessions, and as this conference did not disappoint, I've tried to remember the most pithy with which to introduce each speaker.
"Not invisible, not fuzzy and not subtle"
Wendy Ju is a tutor and researcher at CCA and Stanford. Her talk covered the importance of considering implicit interactions (also the subject of her PhD dissertation), which is a nice term of describing those interactions that exist all around us and ease our transition through the world without attracting as much thought as others. Her examples included the way a doorman at a hotel or a high-end department store might manipulate a door as you approach to signpost the experience you are about to have, or a dog wagging its tail as implying meaning and adding subtext to a particular interaction.
While Wendy did resort to a 2 x 2 to help to express it (at least it wasn't a Venn diagram—that would come later in someone else's talk), her main point was that these interactions that are so subtle as to be ignored are exactly not that—they make or break a product experience. She showed a couple of fascinating videos from her research showing how people change behaviour based what happens if these implied cues are subtly changed—the behaviour of a door as a person moves near it, or the engagement of people with an informational kiosk depending on the way it was presented in a museum (interestingly, twice as many people would use the kiosk when it displayed a physical hand as opposed to an on-screen hand, but a physical arrow as opposed to an on-screen arrow didn't make any difference.)
Wendy also showed examples for how these interactions are now being embodied in the products that we are now getting used to being part of our lives, and used an example of the way an iPhone responds to human input that is inappropriate—pinching beyond the bounds of zooming into or out of a photo, for example, results in a springy return to the image—as Wendy pointed out, imagine what would happen if you had to dismiss an error dialog every time that happened.
Hers was a topic that will get more and more interesting as it becomes solidified with further research, and is certainly worth keeping an eye on in the future.
"Like a shrimp hanging behind your ear."
Stuart Karten's talk was, for me, probably the most emotionally affecting of the day. He discussed his company's work on designing a new range of hearing aids for a manufacturer that had what it believed was a killer noise-cancelling technology, but found that this technology alone wasn't enabling it to create or sell a compelling product. The hired Stuart's firm to help based on their earlier work in designing bluetooth headsets.
The affecting part came from the insights Stuart shared from the research part of this project—how hearing aid users end up getting the device in the first place (apparently, it's a four legged patient, meaning there are two people in the process—one person who is tired of the other person saying "what" all the time), how they deal with the hearing aid in the course of their everyday life, and their feelings around using, maintaining and hiding the device.
Stuart showed some videos of participants taken during the research, and in particular of one person who very eloquently described the problem he had with changing batteries: that, because of reduced finger dexterity, during the process of changing the battery he would often drop it on the floor. But the main problem he had with this is that he of course wouldn't be able to hear where the battery fell, and so would lose it. Which might seem obvious, but is the sort of thing that has a immense impact when told with the voice of a person who actually lives out this frustration.
The point I took away from his talk is that humanising technology is vitally important when that technology is used in an intimately human way—for the people that use them, assistive technology such as hearing aids affect their experience of the world in a far more profound way than another touchscreen gizmo.
"Miniaturisation and increased efficiency of processing power is as important for the world as brick."
Mike Kuniavsky, always entertaining to hear speak, started out with a video from Samsung highlighting how to use their latest touchcreen gizmo, a remote control, which he eloquently described as a "smoking crater of UX design" (and as someone who has worked at Samsung I shrank a little in my seat as I watched.)
He went on to talk through some ideas taken from a chapter of his new book around the increase in efficiency and decrease in cost of processing power, and the subsequent rise of information as an essential building material in our modern world. He went through some of the essential properties that information has: that it can automatically sense the world, autonomously act on the world, has memory, can replicate behaviour exactly time and time again and can create complex behaviour.
Taking this, and bearing in mind his earlier point that technology that enables these type of behaviours is now affordable, he sketched out an idea of object-oriented hardware (of which Arduino is possibly one of the better-known examples) that will allow people to easily create intelligent, information-based reactive environments, realising some aspects of visions of the future proposed by pioneering mid-century futurists (although not one that involves atomic powered hydroplaning Soviet battleships.)
It's certainly a fascinating future to think about, and Mike closed by saying that it is the responsibility of product and interaction designers to craft it. Hopefully it will involve better remote controls.
"How do we get the robot to deliver the toxic crap to the right part of our body?"
Gretchen Anderson, latterly of Lunar but now freshly minted at Punchcut, delivered what was essentially a call to arms for interaction and product designers to bring their natural consideration for the emotional design of product interactions to the design and crafting of medical devices.
And, like Stuart Karten's hearing aids, she has a very valid point—there is an entire sector of products that affect us in intimate and profound ways that have only relatively recently been receiving the sort of attention that our media or communications products have. To this point, one of the most important observations that Gretchen shared was that "people don't stop being consumers when they go to work"—and the same is true of medical professionals and patients, too. There is a real need to soften what is an overly formal and in most cases scary experience, and designers are well placed to bring their expertise from crafting other products to this area.
"How do we let people spend ten years in space and still get on with the other guy?"
Julian Bleecker of Nokia and the Near Future Laboratory, chose to rouse an audience that had begun to drift into a slight warm afternoon post lunch stupor with an eloquent discussion of the role of fiction—and, in particular, science fiction—in articulating the design of products and vice versa, which he described as the "it's like that device in..." mode of inquiry.
He walked through some engrossing examples of how this exchange of ideas has been occurring, from "Neuromancer" ("it provided us with a lexicon for our discussions"), to Kurbrick's attention to detail before sharing some fake artifacts by which design has been woven back into science: a Haynes Workshop Manual for the Apollo 11 command module, and a highly entertaining excerpt from a project of his where he is attempting to play on the human-like qualities of HAL 9000 in Kubrick's 2001 by re-editing the video to replace him with... a human. The reimagined excerpt from 2001 he showed of HAL as a janitor attempting to inconspicuously eavesdrop on Dave Bowman and Frank Poole in the scene where they conduct a covert conversation while sealed in a pod was a hilarious way to round out the afternoon.
Really, though, Julian's discussion highlights how important story and a narrative arc in describing how these new generations of product experiences might fit into our lives, and how taking advantage of dramatic conventions we can make the things we design have more impact and meaning than by just including them in a CHI paper—as Julian said, "stories matter more than features."
The purpose of all of this fabulous content was, of course, to bring us toward the inevitable part of any design conference—the drinking. The excuse was a good one, however, as Kicker's second year in business provided extra reason to celebrate a hard earned victory against the prevailing economic winds. This is the part that doesn't require further elaboration, although a tip for other conference organisers is that drunk designers singing karaoke is always a good attraction.
All told, it was a fine day at the museum—good content, an intimate crowd, and well run and organised (by a team that brought you two IxDA conferences, no less.) Here's to D32, with maybe a hope that the constraints that helped to keep the focus that made the day so enjoyable are preserved before it develops into a designeropolis.