Uncharted terrain

Spotting award-winning interaction design can be tricky because of the genre’s sheer newness – we still lack ‘a popular sensibility’ for it. But we will move closer to establishing a common standard if we avoid being so seduced by the wow-factor, argues Mike Exon

In the 1977 Oscar-winning film Annie Hall, there is amoment when Woody Allen is trying to sound smart about photography. ‘The thing is, a set of common aesthetic criteria have not emerged yet,’ he explains to a beguiled Diane Keaton. It’s pretty much the same with interaction design right now. We don’t really have any real common standard by which to judge it.

Ironically, interactive work has never felt so widespread. Not only do we get it online, it’s at our music festivals, in our art galleries, on TV and in shop windows. It’s in public spaces, at the bus stop and there when we’re waiting for a plane. We’re fascinated by its mix of mystery and technology, art and science that is hard to put your finger on. But the same thing that makes it so compelling, makes it challenging for designers to judge.

Comparisons are never straightforward, of course, because we’re always comparing apples with pears. Projects combine any number of elements, that’s the point – from print or screen graphics, to interface design and user experience, products and physical environments, audio-visuals and motion sensors. The list goes on and on.

But as Woody Allen says, there’s also the stark fact that as users we are not sophisticated judges of interactivity yet. We’re just not quite there. ‘In the past 20 years we have become very aware of communication, product design and architecture, in our surroundings. However, we still don’t have a popular sensibility for interaction design,’ says writer and digital commentator Nico Macdonald of Spy. ‘Most people engage with a graphical user-interface, e-mail and a browser every day, but they are largely uncritical of their interaction design – reserving criticism for websites at best.’

So how, then, do we make a decision about quality when faced with such variety? Nokia head of digital design Nikki Barton says it’s usually easy enough getting to a shortlist of contenders, but that singling out clear winners for awards can be a lot trickier when it comes to digital work.

‘It’s not necessarily harder to agree what great interactive work is, but it can take longer because there are more aspects to consider. To truly understand and assess interaction design you have to spend more time really understanding the work and looking at it from numerous angles. And often this time is limited and people make snap judgments based on immediate visuals, or after planned walk-throughs of work,’ she says.

Barton thinks great interactive work can sometimes be overlooked by awards judges because there can be too much focus on the wow-factor and not enough recognition of the ‘beauty of good, simple interactivity’.

Macdonald agrees that assessing interactive work takes longer, for the simple reason that it tends to be more functional. But he also reckons that overall it’s easier to judge effective interaction design because measuring the ‘success’ criteria of its functionality is often more black and white. In theory at least, there’s less room for subjectivity.

Poke creative director Nicolas Roope feels that there are other reasons the best work is not always recognised by awards. Not only do we need to think about the bigger picture, but Roope believes there’s an overemphasis, particularly among younger judges, on rewarding projects that play to prevailing trends.

‘Industry awards only return what the industry considers interesting, not what is actually interesting outside the industry perspective. The creative directors I sit with on international award panels are often the least interesting people I come across. They get seduced by lots of irrelevant things that the end-user never sees, feels or considers,’ he says. ‘It’s important to take awards with a pinch of salt. If you need an award to tell you your work is great then you’ll always be limited in your ability to recognise it. If you’re in front, your best work will go unnoticed. Sorry.’

Not getting it right with the judges can come down to practical things too. Design groups often fail at awards because they just don’t present their ideas well, says one digital expert who asked to remain anonymous (presumably to avoid a barrage of complaints).

‘Often it’s the small consultancies that don’t get it right. It’s not that their ideas aren’t as good, just that they don’t get their ideas across so well. Winning awards is a bit like winning new work – you need to be able to sell your ideas,’ he says.

Not all the best digital work even gets entered into awards. All of Us founder and D&AD president-inwaiting Simon Sankarayya calls this the ‘hot potato’. He suggests one way to help could be to encourage broader discussion before award entries get submitted to create public profile. ‘I think it’s about creating places (blogs and so on) where everyone can suggest and debate what they think is the best or most interesting work. That way, people or companies that would usually be wary of entering awards would feel that they have the public with them and thus have established “support” for their work,’ he says.

Opinion is divided on how easy good work is to spot when it does get put in front of the judges. While some work clearly gets unanimous acclaim, other projects can be overlooked. Roope gives two contrasting examples. The Uniclock for Uniqlo, created by Projector in Japan, was a piece of work that was loved by everyone, he says. Its execution made it immediately accessible to the aesthetes, while the more strategic loved the way it had been structured and packaged. However, the Henna e-commerce campaign by CCCP Amsterdam didn’t do anything like as well in the awards, in spite of its viral success, he explains. It probably lost points with the judges for not being ‘cool’ or for not nodding to social media. And yet it did what it was supposed to perfectly well and was hugely popular, he says.

One of the big challenges we face in terms of judging interactive excellence is whether we can learn to distinguish technological innovation from effective interaction, to split the ‘wow’ of the technology from how well it does what it does. Some feel a project should always be evaluated in the context of its own brief, rather than in terms of how it measures up against different types of digital work. Others think it’s about more clearly considering both the aesthetics of a piece of work distinct from its objective functionality.

No two award schemes honour quite the same thing though, and there are more views on how they should be judged than there are types of awards. But, hopefully, as we learn to separate the interactive strands a bit better, as users and judges of interactivity, we’ll all find it easier to agree on what gets gold

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