Thoughts on Interaction Design
By Jon Kolko
Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter One THINKING ABOUT PEOPLE
Interaction Design is a creative process focused on people. A number of well-known designers and academics have examined the commonalities across design processes as applied by various consultancies and have unrolled a distinct set of patterns that illustrate the movement of a design from conception through creation. These patterns explain the discrete steps that are taken when developing a cohesive Interaction Design solution. It is important to emphasize, however, that these steps are rarely delineated as carefully as they are described below. Instead, a designer works in a certain haze or fog—both lost within the trees but always aware, on some unconscious level, of the forest.
The process of design
John Zimmerman, Shelley Evenson, and Jodi Forlizzi, of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, have presented a formal framework for discovering and extracting knowledge during the design process. This framework includes six core components, each building on the previous and each requiring a unique set of skills and tools. These components are named Define, Discover, Synthesize, Construct, Refine, and Reflect. It's important to realize that the framework serves to paint a reductive picture of "what generally happens"—but the realities of design in business are rarely, if ever, as clearly delineated as the process described below.
Defining the design problem or opportunity
Definition occurs in an effort to understand the problem space. Rarely are designers given a blank slate upon which to create; instead, designers commonly inherit projects that are already under way or that have an existing history. For example, a designer may be explicitly given the task of redesigning the interface of a printer to make it easier to use or to take into account new functionality that has been developed. At this phase in the process, a designer's role is one of skeptical visionary—he is able to "feel" the outcome of the project yet is often unsure of what exactly needs to be done. To objectify this feeling, a designer may explicitly list questions relating to the task: Does the navigation need to be redesigned? Is the new functionality useful? Who are the stakeholders in the project? What types of projects has this team worked on in the past? Which projects succeeded? Which failed? The designer attempts to understand wants and needs and to balance political requirements with implied end user demands and business goals. The process of human-centered design relies heavily on modeling the behavior of target users in an effort to understand what people might, would, or should do with a new design. A model is a representation of a real thing, and a model of user behavior is a representation of the actions a person might perform and emotions a person might feel over time.
One of the simplest yet most powerful tools available to Interaction Designers is the written word. Language affords a host of capabilities, including the act of persuasion and rich description. When used to organize information, the written word can create narratives that explain the proper and expected utility of a system. A good model of human behavior is rich with detail and is thus predictable in the same way that one can predict the actions of a friend or loved one. While these predictions may not be right all of the time, it is possible to anticipate with some degree of accuracy what an individual will do in a given situation. The accuracy improves over time—a long-term relationship provides intimate insight into how people approach problems or situations. The same is true for these behavioral models. By "living" with these models, designers can begin to predict what these hypothetical people will do in novel situations. These predictions can be used prior to a system ever existing and can be used to create visionary and compelling rationales for new ideas. They can also be used to assist in understanding and revising existing systems; to structure scenarios of use that articulate ideal goals, tasks, and actions; and to understand actions that might occur in less ideal situations.
Engineers have formalized these scenarios and often refer to them as use cases in an effort to relate these written descriptions to test cases (systematic bug testing to ensure a piece of code is operating correctly). A modeling language (UML) has emerged to help visualize these use cases in a diagrammatic format. Yet the formality of these methods is a peculiarity that is useful but not necessary. A written scenario can also be thought of as a narrative essay, as it provides narration through a particular situation. It is, however, most usefully thought of as a story of a person using a product to achieve a goal. This presupposes that the product exists (it usually doesn't) and implies that the design team understands a great deal about what the audience will want to do and what they are likely to do. It also assumes, in many cases, that people will act rationally to achieve a result—as if they can selectively ignore their emotional drives and impulses or block out the distractions of real life.
The use of scenario-based product development has several core benefits. Narrative allows designers to contemplate the more human side of their creations—rather than focusing on technology, narrative shifts the emphasis to one of creative learning, problem solving, or attaining a goal. As behavior exists in the fourth dimension, these scenarios become sketches of time. Industrial Designers and Graphic Designers can quickly explain the value of visual sketching in their design process: Sketching is a problem-solving tool, used not simply to visualize ideas but to actually discover and generate a large number of solutions to a problem.
In the same way, the act of building a scenario is useful as a generative tool for discovering new ideas. The scenario, quite simply, becomes an Interaction Designer's napkin sketch. In the same way that a drawing has specific attributes that contribute to its success (perspective, line weight, tone, content), a scenario too has several critical components that aid in comprehension.
First, a scenario needs to include a product and a person. In the early stages of Interaction Design development, the product may not actually exist yet. The scenario development is also a form of product development. The product may be thought of as an ambiguous shape or a piece of information space; it need not be concrete.
Next, a compelling story is created that includes precise detail, sensory awareness, and vivid descriptors. Precision implies an exacting, accurate, and well-defined point of view. When combined with detail, the audience receives a comprehensive and thorough verbal discussion. Sensory awareness adds issues of sight, sound, and touch; paints an image of a smell; and may include (in rare cases) issues of taste. Vivid descriptors create colorful and dramatic emotional responses. The elements present in a story include a plot, characters, a setting, a climax, and an ending. These are also the major elements in a movie or in a television show that create the general formulaic essence of storytelling. Finally, the guiding principles of a compelling story include a point of view and the overarching goal of the story.
Explaining to your boss that you are going to require several weeks to write stories is a hard sell. Interaction Designers have developed various formalities associated with scenario writing in order to emphasize the business relevance of their creations. These may include matrices with formal variables described (including Actors, Goals, Tasks, Benefits, and Supporting Functions) or more formal step-by-step breakdowns of tasks into task flow charts. The essence of these creations is, however, the same: to humanize a situation and illustrate a cohesive vision of product use over time.
Discovering hidden wants, needs, and desires
After better defining the project scope and goals, designers attempt to gather data relating to the given problem. The next step in the design process, Discovery, is often lacking in many corporations and consultancies due to tight budgets and poor understanding of the value presented by this phase. Discovery involves understanding wants and needs and accumulating artifacts related to the defined opportunity. Traditional approaches to product or graphic design emphasize aesthetic qualities related to craft, beauty, and form. The solution to a problem of design is based on emotional value, and the judgment—or critique—is often grounded in the field of fine art. Interaction Design, however, shifts the focus from the visual to the human. A design solution is judged based on the relevance to the individual who ultimately must use the creation. Central to understanding this principle is embracing a very simple idea, but an idea that dramatically refocuses the locus of attention during the act of creation. This idea is that The User Is Not Like Me.
When embraced by designers, this core philosophy implies that consumers are unique and that all members of the product development team hold a bias in the form of an expert blind spot. The more one knows about a topic, the more one forgets what it is like not to know. Expertise makes it nearly impossible to remember what it is like to be a novice.
To illustrate this point, consider an example. You are employed by a telecommunications company in Europe that wants to extend their products—both hardware and services—into the African continent in order to reap the benefits of developing countries filled with potential consumers. You have a suite of mobile products already designed for the United Kingdom, including games, applications for finding retail establishments, and different ways to record videos and share them with friends; it seems fairly trivial to convert the interfaces to other languages and then begin to offer these in Africa.
Now consider some of the nuances of Africa—not the least of which is the 2000 individual languages spoken throughout the various countries. Consider that of the billion people on the continent, less than 60% of them are literate. The majority has access to a mobile device, but in many countries, the device is shared among a group or even the entire village. Some areas enjoy full service coverage, but remote regions may have as low as 42% service availability. And consider that even with these challenges, many of the southern countries—like South Africa—have fully embraced the phone as a medium for payment, photography, and even health care.
The User Is Not Like Me, and the people that will be using your products have fundamentally different perceptions, cultural norms, and cognitive models on which they draw when using things like new phone services and products. To simply convert an existing product into a new language (often called localization) without considering fundamental changes to features, capabilities, and behavior ignores the rich cultural differences of the end users—and almost guarantees failure. In order to understand that The User Is Not Like Me, Interaction Designers practice a form of user research that draws heavily on the fields of Anthropology and the other social sciences, yet encourages and emphasizes the richness of the individual over the demographic style of quantitative research commonly utilized by marketers.
Ethnography can be considered a qualitative description of the human social condition, based on observation. This human condition implies that social phenomena occur within a culture and exist when there is interaction between individuals. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski is considered to be the first to embrace the notion of actually observing, in person, the interaction between individuals. During World War I, Malinowski observed the native culture of Papua by immersing himself in this island culture and documenting the results in the text Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Malinowski's methodology was unique in that he used firsthand observation to document and analyze daily occurrences—Malinowski can be thought of as the first to utilize participant observation as an anthropological technique.
Participant observation is an important aspect of Interaction Design, as it formally acknowledges that a product does not exist in a rational and substantial way until it is considered in the context of the larger social fabric. Simply producing a beautiful, useful, or cost-effective item does not guarantee success. The product needs to fit appropriately into the culture in which it is to be used and sold, and this requires a deep understanding of the value structure of that culture. This is a core distinction between design and art. While art may be appreciated in the eye of the beholder, the artwork can be considered successful on creation (or when the artist deems it finished). The piece of artwork—and the artist—still creates a sense of dialogue with the user, but the dialogue is completely unconstrained. Conversely, design cannot truly be considered successful until the user considers it finished—on consumption. The dialogue has a much deeper set of constraints placed on it, and good design will help the user engage in that conversation fluidly.
Excerpted from Thoughts on Interaction Design by Jon Kolko Copyright © 2010 by Elsevier Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Morgan Kaufmann. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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