The Wide and Multi-Dimensional Field of Interaction Design

10 May 2007 - 9:42pm
632 reads
Jim Leftwich

Dan's piece is a sterling and concise example of what many long-time
design practitioners, and particularly consultants, know from
experience and common sense. His follow-up statements went even
further to clarify what he was talking about, and just as
importantly, what he wasn't talking about. I found his essay to be
spot on. I also found the ensuing thread to be predictable and
representative of the inherent difficulty discussing the wide and
multi-dimensional field of interaction design.

It's also important to bear in mind when following these often
entertaining threads on the IxDA list that the field of interaction
design spans an incredible diversity of development environments,
design targets, project scopes/histories, levels of expertise, and
many additional mitigating factors.

People often hear something, and apply it to their circumstance,
which can lead to misunderstandings. Or they'll interpret something
as a universal declaration, when if the original statement could be
discussed at length, and in the context of specific examples, it
would be better understood. I can hardly think of a medium less
equipped to present, explore, and discuss anything of the magnitude
and complexity on the order of the field of interaction design, as
this kind of text-based email list. But, here we are.

I thought it might be interesting to list, off the top of my head,
just a few of the countless spectrums that overlap here. Unless
someone is really suggesting that certain practices, laws, truisms,
or strategies are going to hold across the entire field, you can
almost certainly assume that they are not (or are woefully
misguided). Stop and consider the vast and multi-dimensional space
our general field of Interaction Design encompasses (in no particular
order or orientation):

Also, keep in mind that there are many tick-marks along each of these
spectrums, and many can shift with each project or circumstance...

- groups/teams <----> individuals
- large departments <----> small expert teams
- fresh out of school <----> 25-30 years experience in the field
- narrow experience <----> broad experience
- most comfortable in groups <----> comfortable being a maverick
- need permission <----> willing to find a way around obstacles
- need validation <----> intuitive/gutsy
- in-house <----> consulting
- large scale <----> small scale
- little "d" design <----> Big "D" Design
- design of some thing <----> design of a system in which many sub-
things will be designed
- complex/many dimensions <----> simple/straightforward
- hairball <----> beautifully, perfectly modular system
- schooled <----> self-taught
- specialized design education <----> generalized design education
- managed <----> mentored
- specialist <----> generalist
- refiner/putter <----> ground-breaker/driver
- 30,000-person corporation <----> 10-person startup
- competing against many existing competitors <----> new domain
- legacy considerations/restrictions <----> wide-open blue sky
- closed system <----> part of a larger product/service ecosystem
- conservative/risk-averse company <----> bold/attitude-fortified
- things going along fine <----> company's going down - time for the
Hail Mary Pass
- months or years available <----> need to have it in beta in six weeks
- beaucoup bucks at the ready <----> bloodless turnip
- expert <----> consumer
- referencing/valuing whitepapers/theories/books/pundits <---->
referencing/valuing projects designed/tales from the trenches/
experienced practitioners
- working at the project manager level <----> working at the
executive level
- entertainment <----> consumer <----> enterprise <----> industrial
<----> medical <----> military <----> special needs
- gadget/device <----> vehicular <----> environment <----> web <----
> desktop <----> palmtop <----> wearable <----> mobile <---->
enabling system <----> several-or-all-of-the-above

And that's a very small sampling...

The vast majority of people standing under the interaction design
umbrella (or any of the other fifty-seven acronyms) are clustered in
a very few regions of the total field. The circumstances faced, and
successful strategies employed by designers or developers in
different areas of this space are necessarily going to vary accordingly.

From my perspective, I think Dan's essay really points to the need
to dig further into the enormous and often-overlooked realm of
practitioner experiences that inform and support the kinds of
decisions and strategies he and Jesse are referring to. Among all of
the many presentations, theories, whitepapers, and punditry I've
encountered over the decades, that realm is the least represented. I
believe that's beginning to change though. Experience is beginning
to catch up with many of the interaction design practitioners who
began in the 1990s, and a lot of the academic, corporate, research,
and dogma-heavy punditry that has claimed hegemony over the field
(via conferences and publications) for so long is beginning to have
some healthy competition from the real world.

I really enjoy reading this email list. I'd like to think that the
topics and arguments will shift over the next twenty-five years. But
since I still see the same old chestnuts roasting over the flames I
first encountered back in the early 1980s, I guess I'll just sit back
and enjoy the endless reruns.


James Leftwich, IDSA
Orbit Interaction
Palo Alto, California USA

On 5/9/07, Mark Schraad <mschraad at> wrote:

I read this morning a column Dan Saffer wrote that is posted on the
adaptive path web site. It caused me some concern.

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