Lateral thinking

Everyone’s talking about interaction design, but how does it fit into the current design culture?

Interactivity is an elusive subject. A practice originated by engineers, it has no longstanding design history to support it. Its direct relationship to computing means that it can be as slippery as the technology itself, and it can therefore deter those who are more comfortable working with pen and paper. But like computers themselves, interactivity is a subject matter of underlying validity, related to a dramatic shift in communications that has been taking place, almost unnoticed, in the design world. Traditional design disciplines have difficulties tracking this change, and yet it is slowly affecting their very nature and how they function.

The Royal College of Art has recently appointed Irene McAra-McWilliam as professor of Interaction Design and head of department of The Computer Related Design course. McAra-McWilliam is the ex-director of design research at Philips in Eindhoven, Holland; her appointment reflects the prominence of interaction design in industry. Three such courses in London underline that relevance. They are the BA (Hons) Interaction Design course at Ravensbourne College of Design and Education, the University of Westminster’s new MA Design for Interaction and the well established CRD course at the RCA.

So what values should interaction students focus on in 2001? According to McAra-McWilliam, they need to look at people rather than technology. ‘The interactive design discipline has originally come from interaction product design, and now the focus is on systems design, and that is quite a different thing,’ she says. ‘It brings home matters of complexity to do with the environmental and the social, rather than simply the user of a computer.

‘I think designers are people who take a point of view. They embody certain values and they have certain stark positions. You (as a designer) want to make certain things better and you have to be able to understand people in order to do that. I would like to increase that critical reflective ability here,’ she adds.

So perhaps the role of interaction designer is part social scientist, rather than just a creator of egocentric design. ‘Another way of describing it is design ethnography,’ says McAra-McWilliam. ‘Ways that help us look critically and accurately at the textures of everyday life, [instead of] making too many assumptions.’

As a consultant for the European Commission, McAra-McWilliam helped to create competing visions of the future for network technologies. She focused on the issue of the connected community and how you can create tools for everyday activities. ‘Issues in the corners of our experience,’ she explains, ‘such as a student looking for a room or parents needing a babysitter for the evening. Not the global village, but the local village, the local school or the local café.’ She found that while technology was striving to deliver global networking, ‘all of the technologies we have around us were not delivering anything on those small, but pertinent, everyday problems. Those issues are around us but nobody is doing anything,’ she adds.

The new MA Design for Interaction course at London’s University of Westminster also finds value in the theories of the everyday. ‘Our direction is based on exploring people,’ says interaction course spokesman Nigel Powers. ‘We are not trying to create cognitive psychologists, but are hoping to supply a working knowledge of valid design theories. Observation methods and design ethnography are important, as an interaction designer coul

d work on a diverse range of projects, from the interface of a Palm Pilot to the construction of a Tube station.’

As interaction involves people, Powers believes you cannot design intuitive products unless you understand how people behave, or at least understand how to engage them. Making sense of people allows the interaction designer to make sense of the world around them. And more than any other discipline, interaction design fails if it does not make sense.

The one-year MA course at Westminster University, headed by Roman Buj, is tailored to focus on pure aspects of interaction design to supplement the interactive design work of the BA course in Graphic Information Design, which attracts both graphics and interaction designers. ‘It’s a design course,’ says Powers. ‘But we want to be aggressively multidisciplinary. We want to open up design and learn from many contributors. We want to attract [people from] disciplines as varied as linguistics and architecture [and] develop a dialogue between design and communications disciplines.’

The course focuses on how digital media designers can extend their knowledge, allowing them to use a valid design theory to explore and construct a dialogue. Like McAra-McWilliam at the RCA, Powers suggests that the understanding of cross-disciplinary project processes are as important to the designer as design skills. ‘Even knowing who’d be involved in the design process is valuable,’ he says.

McAra-McWilliam pushes the cross-pollination issue further. ‘We are in a phase of meltdown between design disciplines,’ she says. ‘A good interchange between design disciplines [is valid] as they are all involved in these technologies. It is not particular to CRD because it is the nature of ubiquitous computing.’

John Durrant, head of the BA (Hons) Interaction course at Ravensbourne College, says, ‘There are common elements between interaction and the other design disciplines at the college. We have found that short projects using small teams, comprising multidisciplinary groups have worked very well.

‘The basis of the course itself derives from the other disciplines in design and communication here,’ he says. In these projects, interaction designers work with other disciplines, say, 3D or product design, and produce interactive solutions created by the whole team. This is supplemented by specialisms such as Interactive Broadcasting, Narrowcasting (such as mobile communications) and other modules.

Teamwork then, seems to be an intrinsic part of interactive design. Collaboration is also a mainstay of design research and research in interactivity may be a key way of relating interactive design education directly to industry.

The interaction course at Ravensbourne College, together with the BA (Hons) Product Design course, conducted a research project for Mitsubishi earlier this year. ‘It was trying to find a way of pushing itself forward,’ says Durrant. ‘We suggested that the project, based on mobile communications, should look five years into the future. We felt that if you design for two years ahead, the work may be out of date by the time it’s completed.’ Mitsubishi displayed the students’ work at Hanover’s CeBit Conference, one of the largest industry standard computing conferences in the world.

‘Research at college may be the best opportunity interaction students get to work inventively,’ says Durrant, ‘unless they get a research post.’ This may be true. The problem for digital media is that it works to a brief of companies with no direct research in their digital futures.

McAra-McWilliam believes that at present, companies are very reflective. ‘They are more interested in business practice, what their on-line presence is, what their brand values are and what influences how they are perceived,’ she says. ‘Design has a valid role [because] the technologies that are used to design products or services are the same ones that are re-defining interfaces between companies and people.’

Although companies seem to understand the need to be up to date with the way technology is transforming business, they do not necessarily understand how to implement it. How can companies such as Selfridges or NatWest understand the potential impact of mobile communications of the near future on their business? Where do they go to find out? Even companies like BT, which have research capabilities, are not necessarily in a position to expose the opportunities afforded by creative experimentation with technology.

‘There is a clear role for corporate research that interaction courses can take up,’ says McAra-McWilliam. She suggests extending her role into participatory learning, ‘projects we can do with business rather than be sponsored by business to research something’. CRD has a history of sponsorship by industry and students participate on corporate sponsored projects.

As an alternative, the University of Westminster has encouraged seminars by figures like Max Gadney, head of design at BBC News on-line, as a way of allowing students to relate to industry. ‘Discussing project work at these seminars allows students to define project work,’ says Powers. ‘One of the hardest things for students to do is identify a coherent proposal.’

In summary, it seems that each course is helping to redefine the discipline of interactive design. It is arguably the discipline that will change further and become more influential as time moves on. By focusing on understanding the social aspects of interactivity, by looking at people, these courses do two valuable things: allow students to have strong principles, whatever the changes in technology, and give them a model for creating truly social design.

Also, by focusing on what people need, rather than just technology, students of interaction might be inspired to create the most sustainable design yet. And the ability of interaction courses to aid design research is a powerful way to integrate students into industry and industry-based working practice. Participating with industry may be an avenue for companies to look at their digital futures that would otherwise be unavailable to them. This all bodes well for interactivity as an education.

The ability of the RCA’s CRD course to work with the other design disciplines may be crucial to the development and acceptance of interaction design. Ravensbourne’s cross-discipline teams could also be a way forward. The potential of these courses suggests that in future we could see interactive product design, interactive architecture and who knows what else.

Neil Churcher is director of digital group Edwards Churcher

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