Can Interaction Designers save the world? Some might think, “That is a tall order”, or “They’re the wrong group for the job”. Some might say, “What is Interaction Design?”

This year’s IXDA conference, Interaction ’09 in Vancouver, became not just the venue for such a question, it was a ground-zero event that helped me connect some of the dots scattered around in my head. Yes, there were the great discussions on research and methodologies and flow diagrams and wireframes that I craved. But the big take away for me over the 5 days and 6 amazing keynotes was the direct linking of how our way of life is changing fundamentally and that the experience designer is in an ideal position to help people transition with the changes ahead. Regardless of where you stand on the economy, climate change, overpopulation or resource depletion, change in how we are going to live is inevitable and we just have to decide how smoothly we’re going to adapt along the way. This is a tall order, but one by one, each keynote and many sessions set the seeds for how this can start and how we can contribute.

Robert Fabricant of Frog Design summed up in his talk that “IxD is about behavior”. And this is why experience designers are suited to the task, because we are user-centric in our approach, and at it’s core we must focus on empathy. Discover a person’s story and unveil their attitudes, motivations and values to learn their goals and understand their behaviors.

How do we do this? 

  • With immersion. We need to step out of our comfort, norms and culture.
  • Interview, listen and engage by going to their environments – live in their lives. 
  • Bring our prototypes back to see them interact.

When we provision for this and take these steps, we rely less on “Genius Design” and instead uncover realities that might not be captured in a quantitative analysis or idle assumptions. You can find the gems that are completely missed, or as Dan Saffer put it, “see the moonwalking bears“. One example by Marc Reddig from Fit Associates, showed that while testing an in-home medical device, his team learned that users changed their lifestyle, even hairstyles, due to the device. But the real discovery was that any device is not the cure, the social network is and the household is the patient. This kind of reframed thinking is where more organic solutions can begin.

Rob Fabricant also said that, “Design is not just about coming up with a solution, it’s figuring out the right way to look at the problem”.

One moving example Rob cited was Project Masiluleke, where his team immersed themselves all over South Africa as part of an effort to figure out how to empower people with knowledge to prevent HIV where only 5% of the populace have been tested. 

  • They discovered the barriers of men testing themselves and scarcity of healthcare resources
  • They discovered tech inroads: that 95% of the people use cell phones and created a communication practice of sending messages even when minutes have run out

They designed an experience centered around a product that can be locally built with off-the-shelf diagnostics

  • Piggyback a testing message on the free messages sent by most of the population to start awareness. And encouraging cellphone followup in the test kit to deliver a message of pride form local personalities.
  • Planning out the levels of service to cover the two user outcomes.
  • Discreet in-home testing provided in a simple kit that unfolds with positive messaging that helps show them how their actions will strengthen the community whether they are ready to test now or not. 

Frog had the unique opportunity to test the kit concept with people who hadn’t yet been tested for the disease. The word of mouth spread quickly as these people shared their experience and brought their friends. The increase in testing was a major success and you could see the power of design enabling immediate change for this community.

With empathy, you can tell stories that connect and craft experiences that matter. Reduce feelings of inadequacy or fears or even discover touchstones that may be mental models just awaiting vast adoption – is the next “aha” gesture for a UI, ‘grating cheese’, as Nathan Moody from Stimulant postulated? Are we a Zipcar away from reducing global reliance on the automobile and it’s continuing impact on the environment?

So after immersion into the spectrum of UX professionals and issues, my mind is invigorated with questions and eager to apply new methods. But most importantly, I’m thinking more about how can we collaborate as designers to discover how to help foster positive change in people’s lives.

There’s much more to touch upon – whether inspirations like Kim Goodwin’s call to mentoring or how we can bridge disciplines to collaborate harmoniously among ID or developers – every session was very worthwhile and peppered with amazing moments. But I’ll leave these for future posts.

A big side note was that this was a shared experience (Crowdvine and Twitter integration was a master stroke) and I was fortunate to meet many great people and there was no shortage of big ideas to discuss! 

Needless to say, I would heartily recommend Interaction ’10 in Savannah GA Feb 4-7, 2010. Please look me up if you plan to go!

Share →