The Myth of Interaction Design
One day, as I was drifting off into one of my frequent reveries, it came to me. How, I said to myself, can we really call ourselves Interaction Designers, when the majority of us aren’t really designing any new interactions? I know what you are going to say. “But Lis, surely you agree that we design interactive sites, apps and other digital products all the time!”. But we need to ask ourselves, are we really creating new interactions based on human capabilities or just reusing old digital interactions in new ways. Chance would have it that this amazing article crossed my path, A Brief Rant On the Future of Interaction Design, and it greatly helped to clarify my thoughts. In this article, the author talks about how many of the videos and hypotheses that we see of “future” interactions are really just riffs off of technology that we already have. He uses the example of touchscreens heavily throughout the article, and points out something very key; that these so called “future” touch interactions are not really based off of the gap between human capabilities (how humans are capable of interacting) and current human interaction (what people are already doing today). Instead they are based off of the fact that we have touchscreen technology and thus feel the need to figure out more interactions that people can do with it. The author’s plea is for us to “be inspired by the untapped potential of human capabilities.”, and to me, the people that do that… are the real interaction designers.
So what if my whacky theories are true? What is the big deal? Well, I’ll tell you what the big deal is. The problem with us believing that we are interaction designers without really taking into consideration human capabilities is that we are stunting the ability to design new and meaningful interactions for our users. We stunt creative and innovative design growth because we plateau and refuse to push ourselves further. “We’re already interaction designers”, we say. “We’re the creative ones, the ones that can see into the future of digital interaction, so we must be right.”. Wrong. We are a big part of the gap that users have between interactions today and their physical capability to act further. Thus, what we end up really designing for are technical advancements as opposed to human capability, and our tools are not really for use by real people, but are just pushing the limits of technology to see how far we can take it. That is not design, it is selfishness and greed.
But, I promise you this, we can solve this problem, we can make ourselves part of the solution. The first step in doing so is to take a minute, stop and think. We need to, at a minimum, take the time to understand human capabilities. That is really what user research is all about. Bret Victor, the article author above, mentions that user research is all about understanding how people are already using interactions and tools, noting user goals and needs and then noting gaps and hiccups in the interactions the user is having. We need to go back to the roots of the user, the human, in order to design for them, and not for our own technological progress.
By understanding human capabilities and the gaps in interaction between those capabilities and the user’s potential for the interaction, we become interaction designers. Real interaction designers. We can create more meaningful digital interactions (and physical if that is the space you are in) and we then come even closer to meeting and exceeding our users’ goals. Being an interaction designer means that you have taken an oath, an oath to make the world a near effortless place to interact with. So, take that first step and understand your users capabilities so that you can begin to design for them as opposed to designing for the technology. By doing that you are making this complex interactive world an easier place to interact.