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If you’ve been delighted by your iPod,
intrigued with your TiVo, or frustrated by your mobile phone, then you
have encountered the work of an interaction designer. And an interaction
designer, most likely, has crafted the experience we have with many of
the products and services we encounter every day. Dan Saffer, a senior
interaction designer at Adaptive Path, leads us through an exploration
of this emerging discipline. Published this month, Saffer’s new book, Designing for Interaction, is a much-needed primer on the topic, helping us understand the design of interactive systems. Voice talked with Saffer just prior to his book being published in July.
Liz Danzico: How would you describe interaction design? And why is it important to write this book now?
Dan Saffer: I have a fairly expansive view of
what interaction design is, which is that interaction design is about
people: how people connect through products and services. Now, what does
Interaction design is about behavior, how things work. I push a button
on my mobile phone and something happens. Or I enter a fast food
restaurant, walk up to the counter, and something happens. Defining what
happens when a person uses a product or service is what interaction
The reason we do it is to enable connections—interactions—between
people. People want email and instant messaging and their mobile phones
to be easy and fun to use. They want their trips to the DMV to be
pleasant and efficient. They want the check-in kiosks in airports to
work smoothly and well. All of these things—and many, many more—are
about connecting people and helping them communicate better between
themselves and the world.
This book is important now because we need new interaction designers and
people who understand what interaction design encompasses. Technology
is spreading into all corners of our lives, whether we want it to or
not. Political, social, and economic forces are making it so. In order
to make all this new technology useful and usable by humans, it needs to
be designed with humans in mind. That’s where interaction designers
Danzico: In the book, you point out that Bill Moggridge (a principle at
IDEO) was the first to call the practice “interaction design.” Haven’t
we always been designing for interaction? Why is interaction design, as
you (and he) describe it, new?
Saffer: Bill Moggridge and his colleague Bill
Verplank at IDEO realized in the late 1980s that they had been doing a
different kind of design than what was traditionally called “graphic
design” or “industrial design,” so they gave it this name (which is much
better than their alternate choice: “SoftFace”). But in my opinion,
it’s something we've been doing since before recorded history.
Aboriginal peoples made cairns to mark trails—that is, to communicate
through time via a product. Native Americans used smoke signals to
communicate over long distances.
The only thing new about it is that now, thanks to microprocessors being
embedded into all sorts of objects that can now exhibit all sorts of
different behaviors, it’s been recognized as a discipline. Somebody
needed to figure out how these newly empowered objects should behave,
and the tools of design were well-suited for it. Now, you can study it
in school, and get paid to practice it. Whereas before, like other types
of design, it was simply done without much reflection.
Danzico: In a recent interview with Brian Oberkirch at Weblogs Worknotes,
you describe interaction design by saying: “The discipline that makes
technology useful, usable, and fun to use. Good engineering is what
makes it happen. But interaction design is what makes it approachable
for people to use.” Is interaction design just about technology, or can
it involve other types of products?
Saffer: I was giving the easy answer. It’s not only about
technology, but these days it often is. Most interaction designers work
on software, websites, and other technology like mobile devices. But
interaction designers can also design services which have little to no
technology in them. By services, I mean processes and ways of doing
activities. So you see interaction designers working in retail
environments, figuring out flows of the store. Interaction designers
work for the Mayo Clinic, changing how health care services are
delivered. You even find interaction designers working with government
agencies, making the system of paying taxes, say, better for people.
Of course, services can be a combination of technology and
non-technology. Netflix, for example, has its website, but it also has
the envelopes that the DVDs get mailed and returned in. Someone designed
Danzico: What was your first experience with interaction design? In
other words, was there a time where you saw interaction design emerging
as a thing separate from other design disciplines?
Saffer: My first experience with interaction design took place
when I was a teenager in the mid-1980s, about 15 years before I ever
heard the term “interaction design.” I designed and ran a game “online,”
meaning users dialed in to my Apple IIe using their 1200 baud modems.
Of course, I had no idea what I was doing at the time.
But around the mid-1990s, others certainly knew what was happening.
Carnegie Mellon established its interaction design program in 1994.
Agencies started offering it as service (albeit often mislabeled as
“information architecture”), and software companies started hiring
people for these roles. Right before the internet bubble burst,
interaction design started to come into its own, and it began to get
known. In 2003, Alan Cooper changed the subtitle of his seminal book
from The Essentials of User Interface Design to The Essentials of Interaction Design. Also in 2003, the Interaction Design Group (now Association) was formed as a professional organization for interaction designers. So it has some traction now.
Obviously, “interaction design” is still not a term you hear often, and
probably never will be. But thankfully, “Design” with a big D covers it
Danzico: Can you give a good example of a typical interaction design that we’re all familiar with?
Saffer: The Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) is something that
most would be familiar with—at least most people who might be reading
this. An ATM facilitates interactions between banks and their customers.
It has an interface—both the digital screen and the physical
structure—that has been designed for privacy and rapid transactions by a
wide variety of people with a broad range of familiarity with
technology. My grandfather—deaf, in his 80s, never owned a computer—used
his first ATM only a few years ago. ATMs do a remarkable job of turning
the complexities of banking into some clear choices, usable by large
segments of the population.
Danzico: I was really surprised by your pointing out that “user-centered
design” is only one of four approaches an interaction designer can
take. Can you talk about one of these four approaches: what you call
“genius design?” At first, it might seem counter to the things we were
taught as good researchers and designers, where it was important to do
diligent user research.
Saffer: It is counter to what we're told today is good design
practice, but I deliberately tried not to judge any of the approaches to
interaction design, to include all the ways you can practice
interaction design whether I agreed with those methods or not. I find
myself moving through most of them frequently, often on the same
project. Each of the approaches has produced great products over the
years, and perhaps none more so (because it is used the most often) than
what I call “genius design.” Genius design is when the designer relies
on his or her own experience and skill to design, without any input from
users. It’s done by designers who either don’t have the resources or
the inclination or temperament to do research. Too often, it is
practiced by inexperienced designers with little skill, but it can and
has been used by many designers to create impressive things. Reportedly,
the iPod was made with no user research, for example.
Danzico: When have you used the genius-design approach successfully?
Saffer: More often than I care to admit. In the past
especially, I’ve worked on projects where there was no time or money or
willpower to do any of the other approaches. I just finished designing
Soundflavor, a music application and accompanying playlist-sharing
website with the genius design approach, and I’m pleased with the
results thus far. Of course, even if you do have the resources and
inclination for one of the other approaches, I find there are always
moments on every project when I employ genius design. I have hunches and
make educated guesses based on previous experience. One could argue
(and many have) that this is why people hire designers: for this sort of
Danzico: Why is it important to design hackable products?
Saffer: That’s a good question: I'm not sure it is
important. People will hack your products anyway! That being said,
leaving “seams” in your product for people to customize it to suit their
needs is a very interesting practice.
Saffer: As designers, we’re traditionally
taught to get out of the way of the product, to leave no trace of
ourselves or how the product was made. Think of the iPod in its
hermetically sealed case, for instance. But Matthew Chalmers had this
idea of “seamful systems (with beautiful seams)” where, for those so
inclined, you could see and take advantage of how the system was created
and adapt (hack) it for your own use. Seams afford hacking, in other
Companies can get new ideas for new products through exposing the seams
and affording hacking, and could even repurpose their existing product
to take advantage of the modifications people are doing to it. Of
course, it’s also a dangerous practice. People can hack things in
dangerous ways that could open up the companies to serious liability
issues. If they are going to build in seams for hackers to rip open,
designers need to make sure just what it is exactly they are exposing.
On a financial website, of example, it's one thing to expose the CSS so
that someone could change the colors of their version of your site. It
would be quite another thing to expose users' financial data!
Danzico: For some time, people have been able to hack their
TiVos to view their flickr streams on their televisions. Next, you might
imagine a similar hack for YouTube videos, streaming on our TV as well.
With users having this much control over the design of their
environment, where does the interaction designer’s role start and end?
Are interaction designers in danger of losing control?
Saffer: The idea that we as designers control any product is a
myth. It's a useful myth, to be sure, since it allows us to actually
make the product. But once it is out of our hands and out into the
world, we can no longer control what people do with it. Sure, we can
design how we hope people will use it, but there's no guarantee they
will use it that way.
The interaction designer’s role is one of facilitating particular uses
for a thing, and possibly dissuading other uses. I will design X so it
can be used for Y. If someone uses it for Z, well, that is his business.
The problem comes when Z is something harmful. If I design a hammer,
and someone uses the hammer to bludgeon someone, how responsible am I?
Think of email: we want to design email clients so that they are easy to
send and receive emails. But you don't want to design them to enable
spammers to easily send out tens of thousands of messages. Not that
spammers use email clients, but you get the idea.
Danzico: In your book, you build a nice definition of interaction design
by saying, “It’s about making connections between people through these
products, not connecting to the product itself.” What do you mean by
“making connections between people?”
Saffer: Traditional industrial design is about
making a connection to an artifact: This is a great chair. Traditional
communication design is about making a connection to information: Yes, I
will attend the event this poster is advertising. Human-Computer
Interaction is about connecting with the computer: I enjoy using my Mac
OS X operating system. But interaction design, although it draws on all
these fields (and many more), is subtly different in its purpose: to
connect people via our products and services: I know you better because I
read your blog.
As I think about it, an interaction is really a communication. It can
either be one-to-one, like a telephone call. It can be one to many, like
a podcast or a blog post. Or it can be many-to-many, like a giant
system like the stock market. All these things are surrounded by tools
that make the communication possible, and those tools, for the best
experience, should be designed.
Danzico: Is good interaction design visible? In other words, is
the success (or failure) of interaction design something we talk about
and point to? How can we recognize good interaction design?
Saffer: The visible part of interaction design is the
interface, which is usually the controls for manipulating the features
and functionality that make up the interaction design. Interface design
is only the physical expression of interaction design. The interaction
design part of a product or service is usually invisible. However, it
can be felt. The iPod would just be a beautiful object if it also didn’t
work well. And certainly the failure of interaction design can cause
anger, frustration, lost time, and, in the worst case scenarios, injury
In the book, I list the characteristics of good interaction design,
things like trustworthy, appropriate, and smart. Things that are hard to
visualize, although there are certainly visual cues for these things.
And users certainly notice, usually unconsciously, both their absence
and their inclusion. My mobile phone, for instance, is a beautiful piece
of industrial design. But the interaction design is terrible. I simply
can’t use it easily and well to make phone calls and do all the other
things a mobile phone does these days. It annoys me and causes me angst
and embarrassment. It is the opposite of another trait I mention:
clever. It doesn’t anticipate any of my needs and tailor itself to help
me accomplish them.
Danzico: Do interaction designers need to be good graphic
designers? How much cross-over is there between the visual and the
Saffer: No, although it certainly helps, as it would to be a
good industrial designer. On small teams, often the visual designer and
the interaction designer will be the same person. And even when each
role is played by a different person, there is a constant back and
forth. I was recently on a project where my interaction design called
for four buttons on an application’s interface. The visual designer came
back to me and said, “Due to X, Y, and Z, I’ve only got room for two
buttons.” So then I had to tailor my design to fit his. And of course,
since my work was done first, he had already had to tailor his design to
work with mine.
What visual and interaction designers have to collaborate most on are
the affordances of the interface: those things that indicate how the
product could be used. The visual cues users rely on to understand what
they can do with a product: push a button, turn a dial, and so on.
Danzico: What are the ways that we might train interaction designers differently from a non-interaction designer?
Saffer: For the most part, I think interaction designers should
be trained the same way most designers should be: taught to draw and
model and prototype, about typography and visual principles. And, most
importantly, to problem solve.
But also in the same way that industrial designers need to understand
the properties of, say, metal and plastic (their materials), I think it
helps interaction designers to know how the technologies they use work.
An interaction designer working on the web should know about how web
pages are made, for example. Not that they should be programmers
necessarily, but knowing what the medium you are working in can do is
immensely valuable. The difficulty in teaching this is that those things
change rapidly and it is hard to keep up for even people working with
it every day. Plus, in school, you aren’t certain what medium you might
be working in afterwards. Tricky dilemma.
I also think more experience with writing is helpful. Both creative and
technical writing are valuable, and interaction designers use both very
frequently, for scenarios, storyboards, documentation, and so on.
Danzico: You talk about the field of “service design.” Can you
describe how service design is becoming more important to designers?
Saffer: We are coming to a time, if we aren’t already there,
when most products aren’t stand-alone. They are part of a broader
service. My mobile phone has a service plan. My television has a cable
service and TiVo hooked up to it. Even the tea I buy (Peets: delicious!)
can be ordered online. The point is that most products have to be
viewed as part of a broader context: a service. Designers have to pay
attention to the environment, the processes around the product, and a
new set of users: the employees providing the service. Services aren’t
only about end-users: they are co-created by service providers
(employees) and customers.
Services are the new frontier of interaction design.
Danzico: How are new technologies influencing the sphere of influence that designers have?
Saffer: The history of design can be thought
of as the history of materials. Now that we’ve gotten this new
material—the digital—wherever it goes, hopefully we’ll go as well. Bill
Moggridge says, for instance, that the reason interaction designers are
getting involved in services now is because technology is involved in
them. There are opportunities everywhere for interaction designers, in
all areas of life. RFID and similar technologies are about to change the
way we shop, cross international borders, and find objects. Robots are
in our homes now, vacuuming floors. People are wearing devices on their
arms to monitor their bodies. And the internet...well, don’t get me
With all this technology, we really can’t help but have an influence on
people’s lives, on public discourse, on the future of the planet.
Certainly, I don’t want to overstate the power of designers (that’s been
done enough lately), but I don’t want to understate it either. We’re
almost an invisible force, shaping the tools that shape us as human
beings, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan.
Danzico: You write, “To design is to make ethical choices. In other
words, design is ethics in action.” Is it really the designer’s
responsibility to make ethical choices, or should those come from the
client? How can a designer know the “right” thing to do?
Saffer: Ideally, ethical choices come from both the client and
the designer, but I don’t think designers can rely on the client for
those. Since many of our clients are for-profit companies, the lure of
filthy lucre can sway even well-meaning companies from doing good. And
certainly, designers aren’t immune to money either.
Design, being mostly subjective, isn’t usually filled with clear-cut
“right” answers unfortunately. There’s just the scale of better and
worse. And this is why it is so difficult. Having professional codes of
ethics, like those promoted by AIGA and IDSA is a starting point. They
provide a baseline, to which the designer can bring his or her own
ethical beliefs for further enrichment.
For interaction design, I’ve proposed that the quality of the
interaction be our ethical baseline, for both the instigator of the
interaction and the receiver. It should be easy and pleasurable for
users to both send and receive email or instant messages. If it isn’t
(aside from technical issues), then something is probably wrong,
ethically. If I design a service that only benefits one side (the
business, say, or even only the users), then I’ve probably failed in my
duty as a designer.
Danzico: You’ve developed an interesting model with your book’s site. Not only is it available as a Rough Cut
through Peachpit, but you’ve posted the full interviews and interview
excerpts on your site. Was your intention to demonstrate interaction
design as well as talk about it, or was that just a nice coincidence?
Saffer: It was by design. I deliberately wanted to show the
seams of the book as I was working on it, both for marketing and to get
interaction designers involved. Since this is a new field, I certainly
don’t have all the answers. I wanted feedback as I went along on the
book. I also knew that in the final book I only had a limited amount of
space for my interviews, and I wanted every part of the interviews to
appear somewhere. So the website became a place where I could do that:
share ideas the interviewees had generously given to me, but that were
probably for space reasons not going to make it into the book. All my
interviewees are amazing and had really great insights, and they really
took the book to a higher level. So in a sense, the website is just a
way to extend the book, stretching it out to create (hopefully) more
Liz is chair and co-founder of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts She is creative director for NPR in digital media, overseeing and guiding both the visual and user experience across NPR-branded digital platforms and content. She is advisor to startups, nonprofits, global companies, and lecturer. She has written for design-minded publications and writes part of her time at bobulate.com.
Previously, Liz was an independent consultant, working with businesses on design, planning, and execution of short- and long-term digital programs for global companies and nonprofit organizations. Liz is proud to be on the advisory boards for NEA Studio, Thiel Fellowship, and the Austin Center for Design.
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