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Interaction 2012 – Again, a UI Design Practitioner's Report

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – April 26, 2012

2011 was a year without any conference visits for me and, consequently, I did not contribute any new conference reports to the SAP Design Guild Website. In February 2012, however, I had the the unexpected opportunity to attend the Interaction 2012 conference in Dublin, Ireland. Here is my "practitioner's" report on it.

Interaction 2012 logo

Figure 1: The Interaction 2012 logo

 

About IxDA, the Interaction Conference, and Dublin

IxDA

The Interaction conference is held by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) network, which was started in 2003 through a "call to action" by Bruce Tognazzini and a list in Yahoo! groups that was created in response to it by Challis Hodge (IxDG). The IxDG group was transformed into a non-profit organization named IxDA in 2005 following the "IxDG Retreat" (see the IxDA history). At that time, the community already comprised more than 1,500 members. Like the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) in the usability field, the IxDA has become the professional network for interaction designers all over the world. There is no membership fee, and "IxDA relies on its passionate members to help serve the needs of the international Interaction Design community". With nearly 30,000 members and over 80 local groups around the world, "the IxDA network actively focuses on interaction design issues for the practitioner, no matter their level of experience." Please keep the word "practitioner" in mind for a brief discussion at the end of my report. You may also want to read the IxDA mission and a definition of IxD provided by the IxDA network in the appendix to this report or on the IxDA Website (About page).

The Interaction 2012 Conference

The Interaction conference has been held annually since 2008. This year, it took place for the first time outside of North America, namely in Dublin, Ireland (February 1–4, 2012). Nearly 800 participants attended the Interaction 2012 conference, probably because of the strong interest shown by European interaction designers. The conference had a large number of sponsors from the industry, including SAP as sponsor at the so-called "recruiting level". The conference's rather vague motto "Journeys, Connections, Links" still makes me wonder what the organizers wanted to highlight – the network character of the organization, perhaps?!

A slide listing the Interaction 2012 sponsors

Figure 2: A slide listing the Interaction 2012 sponsors

The first day of the conference saw workshops during the day and an opening party at the Trinity College Dining Hall in the evening. The following three days comprised the "real" conference, which featured six keynotes and more than 50 presentations. Typically, these lasted for 45 minutes, but there were some 10-minute presentations as well. Except for the keynotes and "official" presentations, three presentation tracks ran in parallel. The main conference was held at the Convention Centre Dublin (CCD; see photos below).

Convention Center Dublin enty Convention Center Dublin

Figures 3-4: The Conference Centre Dublin (CCD) by the Liffey river

At the DIS 2010 conference I learned that there is a "cultural" difference between interaction design (IxD) and UI or UX design. So Interaction 2012 was the second conference in a row, where I was able to put out my feelers and explore "foreign realms", namely the field of interaction design. For a discussion of IxD versus UX, you may want to read my DIS 2010 report. I will briefly comment on the differences between the two conferences at the end of my report.

Dublin

This was my first stay in Dublin, and I was not well prepared for it from a tourist's point of view. Therefore, I was curious how the city would appeal to me. Indeed, I liked Dublin a lot, but because so much has already been written about this city, I will not add to this except for one observation made by my wife and me: People seemed to hurry along the sidewalks all the time, and at high speed. At home, I searched the Internet and discovered that Dublin's residents walk at the third highest speed of all European metropolises – and rank fifth fastest in the world. So our observation was not mere illusion. In the appendix, you will find just some of my many photos of Dublin and a few links to further information about Dublin.

P. S.: What amazes me even more is that Copenhagen, Denmark, has the fastest walking speed in Europe. I might check that in October, because I plan to attend the NordiCHI 2012 conference there.

 

Should I Write a Conference Report at All?

There are no written or digital proceedings for the Interaction 2012 conference. When I first started writing my conference report, I only had my scribbled notes, the abstracts from the conference Website, and my photos to help me. Over time, however, I found quite a few slide presentations on the Internet and some conference blogs that helped refresh my memory (see the references in the appendix). Just recently, a colleague who had also attended the conference pointed me to the IxDA resources, where you can find videos of many of the Interaction 2012 presentations.

Considering that so much information about the conference is available on the Internet, I began to ask myself whether I should even bother to write a conference report for the SAP Design Guild. Especially since I was only able to attend a fraction of the presentations in person (you may recall that there were three tracks in parallel). In the end, I decided to write a report after all but in a streamlined format – here it is: I will briefly focus on the six keynotes, provide a "feeling" of the topics and buzzwords that I came across during the conference, and report on two of my personal conference highlights. I will close the report with some remarks about the Interaction 2012 conference and a brief comparison between it and the DIS 2010 conference.

 

Keynotes

Luke Williams: The Disruptive Age: Thriving in an Era of Constant Change

Luke Williams, author of the recent book Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business held the opening keynote, entitled The Disruptive Age: Thriving in an Era of Constant Change. He contrasted common incremental thinking with disruptive thinking, which, in his view, encourages innovation and creates new market opportunities. Often, disruptive thinking is approached from a purely business perspective only. Williams, however, addressed designers, that is, the conference audience. One of the approaches to disruptive innovation that he disclosed is that of denying common assumptions and clichés. To illustrate this point, Williams cited the common cliché to sell socks in pairs: A company named Little Miss Matched rejected this cliché and sold socks in sets of three instead, searched for a market, and eventually found out that girls aged 8-12 love mismatched items.

Luke Williams Slide from Luke Williams' keynote

Figures 5-6: Luke Williams during his keynote, and one of his slides

Perhaps I should mention one more remark from Williams: A successful product is inherently dangerous because it creates complacency and anxiety: It seduces people into innovating in incremental steps only – no one dares endanger the product's success by introducing disruptive changes.

Anthony Dunne: What if... Crafting Design Speculations

Anthony Dunne (Royal College of Art, London, UK), whose presentation I had attended at the Innovationsforum Interaktionsdesign, in Potsdam, Germany in 2007, held the closing keynote on the first full conference day, entitled What if... Crafting Design Speculations. He characterized this approach as a "shift from designing for how the world is to designing for how the world could be."

Anthony Dunne Slide from Dunne's presentation showing his student Hiromi Ozaki as 'sushiborg' and as 'crowbot jenny'

Figures 7-8: Anthony Dunne during his keynote and a slide showing his student Hiromi Ozaki as "Sushiborg" and "Crowbot Jenny"

Typical "What if..." questions that Dunne and his students ask are: How would it feel for a boy to be a pubertal girl? What would it be like to be an animal, for example, a crow? How can we provide enough nutrition in an overcrowded world? How might state-run surveillance of private radio signals look like? How can we create more sustainable products in a world of scarce resources (for example, by integrating "defense mechanisms" into devices)? Dunne's projects often appear alienating or even shocking, but for me this sets his work apart from the projects of other critical design proponents, such as Michael Smyth and Ingi Helgason (Napier University, Edinburgh) who also presented at the conference.

Jonas Löwgren: Exploring, Sketching and Other Designerly Ways of Working

In his keynote Exploring, Sketching and Other Designerly Ways of Working, Jonas Löwgren of Sweden followed in Bill Buxton's footsteps, emphasizing sketching as an important activity for designers (or a "designerly way of working", as he phrased it). He encouraged designers to "explore possibilities while you can". I should add that Löwgren's concept of sketching is rather broad and includes the creation of videos and coded prototypes.

Jona Löwgren Slide from Löwgren's keynote

Figures 9-10: Jonas Löwgren during his keynote, and one of his slides

Amber Case: From Solid to Liquid Air: Interaction Design and the Future of the Interface

Amber Case calls herself a "cyborg anthropologist" (besides being a "User Experience designer"). So I had high expectations for her keynote, entitled From Solid to Liquid Air: Interaction Design and the Future of the Interface. But somehow, it felt a little bit like "hot air" to me... By proclaiming a future of "disappearing technology" and announcing the phone as a "remote control for reality" she came up with ideas that were not really new or surprising to me. Maybe I have already listened to too many talks about future interfaces.

Amber Case Slide from Case#s keynote showing Steve Mann

Figures 11-12: Amber Case during her keynote, and a slide showing Steve Mann

Case presented Steve Mann as her "model cyborg", who, as I recently learned, just has completed a chapter in the HCI encyclopedia entitled Wearable Computing (see also the respective UI Design Blink).

Fabian Hemmert: Hack to the Future

The title of Fabian Hemmert's (Deutsche Telekom) keynote, Hacking to the Future, suggested to me that his talk would be similar vein to the one by Amber Case, but this was not at all the case. Actually, his talk reminded me more of a keynote by Kristina Höök called Designing in the Wild that I had attended some years ago (see my INTERCAT 2009 report).

Fabian Hemmert Slide from Hermmert's keynote

Figures 14-14: Fabian Hemmert during his keynote, and one of his slides

Hemmert's overall research question was: How can we make digital content graspable? He presented a number of interesting design projects like cell phones that become heavier or thicker with more content or that transmit "kisses" by spitting water on the receiver's cheeks (which was not well received by test persons, Hemmert admitted). He was also the only presenter (that I listened to) who referred to the Research through Design (RtD) direction, which had been so prominent at the DIS 2010 conference.

Genevieve Bell: Rage Against the Machine?

Genevieve Bell from Intel (nearly) closed the Interaction 2012 conference with her keynote presentation Rage Against the Machine? Designing our Futures with Computing. She investigated what she described as an "emerging thread of anti-technology discourse", with the aim of understanding our changing engagement with machines.

Gnevieve Bell Slide from Bell's keynote showing Vaucanson's mechanical duck from the 18th century

Figures 15-16: Genevieve Bell during her keynote and a slide showing Vaucanson's mechanical duck from the 18th century

Bell pointed out that we increasingly want our devices to stop making demands upon us and maintain themselves, instead, yet still provide us with nurture and care – something I definitely agree with. She closed her keynote with a question: "What will it take for us to imagine relationships rather than interactions?" Actually, I am not yet ready to seek a relationship with machines.

 

Topics That Caught My Attention

After the conference, I tried to visualize which topics, trends, and buzzwords had caught my attention. I consulted the conference program, my notes, and other sources, and consolidated the results in text form and in a graphic. In a way, I was doing Post-it® notes without actually using them (for the uninitiated: Post-it® notes received a special mention in Dan Saffer's presentation, to which I will turn below).

Textual "Cloud"

  • Role of the Designers: Designers as change agents, demystifying their work, being a "jock" (good team player), apprenticeship (what to learn from German baker guilds)
  • Designerly Ways of Working: Ethnography, critical design ("what if…" questions), Research through Design (RtD), disruptive design (innovation), Design Thinking, sketching, coding (prototypes)
  • The Interface of the Future: Mobile (the "mobile frontier"), cyborgs (wearable computing), the disappearing computer, build the future now (hack to the future), potential futures: "what if…" design speculations, rage against the machine (relationship with machines)
  • Killing Holy Cows: Users don't have goals and don't do tasks (in the social Web) -> Going to the wild, Design Thinking ("How to Lie with..." series)
  • Designing for Digital Outcasts: How to learn from them
  • Gamification (no critical discussion…), Emotional Awareness
  • Design Language and Visualization (Skyline graphs, biomimic infographics)

Graphical "Cloud"

Graphic showing ideas that attracted my attention at the Interaction 2012 conference

Figure 17: Graphic showing ideas that attracted my attention at the Interaction 2012 conference

 

Two of My Conference Highlights

Next, I would like to report on two of my personal conference highlights: Pete Denman's presentation on biomimic infographics, and Dan Saffer's 10-minute "show act", entitled How to Lie with Design Thinking.

Pete Denman: Biomimic Infographics

Pete Denman

Figure 18: Pete Denman during his presentation

Pete Denman (Intel) presented a user interface that he had programmed around so-called "multi leaf data streams". He got the inspiration for this type of infographic from nature, namely from the arrangement of the leaves of a certain plant (see Figures 19-20). Therefore, he called the resulting graph a "biomimic infographic".

Idea for biomimic infographic - a plant Redrawing the plant for biomimic infographuc

Figures 19-20: How Denman got the idea for his biomimic infographic (photos of his slides)

Denman applied his new infographic to medical patients' data, using it to obtain an overview of diabetes patients' health (by depicting various parameters over time – see Figures 21-22). He tested the graphs in a hospital, but did not get much of a reaction with nurses initially. However, he discovered that people higher up the medical care chain – those who need to identify problems rather than treat them – found the graphs useful in comparing the patients' data not only over time but also against each other.

Multi data streams applied to patients' data Multi data streams applied to patients' data

Figures 21-22: Multi data streams applied to patients' data (photos of Denman's slides)

In the future, Denman sees his project moving towards using "beautiful mathematics", be it the golden ratio, Vogel’s model, the Fibonacci spiral, or fractal forms. He also made a point that was fairly common at the conference about designers and coding (see also Löwgren): He had done "some bad coding" to make the prototypes and has become a strong supporter of prototyping in code.

Dan Saffer: How to Lie with Design Thinking

Dan Saffer

Figure 23: Dan Saffer during his 10-minute presentation

Dan Saffer, a former staff member of Adaptive Path and the founder of Syntactice Devices, is also one of the IxDA founders and therefore a well-known figure at the Interaction 2012 conference. He developed the format of the How to Lie with... series of presentations. In Dublin, Design Thinking was on his blacklist and How to Lie with Design Thinking the title of his 10-minute presentation, or "show act", to be more precise. As there is currently a lot of interest and discussion around Design Thinking at SAP, this presentation was a "must" for me – and it seemed as if it was a "must" for nearly everyone else at the conference as well.

Figures 24-27: Photos of Dan Saffer entering the stage high-fiving, greeting the audience, a slide with the already mentioned Post-it® notes, and towards the end of his presentation

Here is a snippet from the johnnyholland blog that nicely captures the spirit of Saffer's presentation:

"Making a superhero entrance sprinting down the aisle and high-fiving, Dan announced his delight at being here amongst his own people: the passive-aggressive alcoholics (that’s IxDers, not the Irish). ... Thanking the organization and conference he founded for giving him a whole ten minutes out of their three-day schedule, Dan proceeded to unleash a gleeful slaughtering of the industry’s holy cows in the form of an interaction design cheat’s manual."

By the way, the superhero, "high-fiving" entrance explains why Saffer appears in the video of his talk out of breath (regrettably, the entrance was not included in the video – see the IxDA resources for the video).

As there were no loud whistles or signs of displeasure – actually, there was a lot of applause after the presentation – either no Design Thinking addicts were present, or they had enough humor to laugh about Saffer's presentation as well. Some people seem to believe that Design Thinking is the cure for everything in the design field. But in my opinion, a single approach to design cannot seriously be considered as a substitute for (and cannot encompasses all this) the richness of methods, approaches, and practices developed in more than 25 years of HCI history.

 

A Few More Remarks on the Conference

Interaction 2012 was a "different" conference in many respects. For example, it was not a conference for presenting research papers. According to the above-mentioned IxDA goal to support design practitioners, it was indeed more of a practitioners' forum, with a few exceptions, of course. I do not know the criteria for being accepted as a presenter at the conference. A colleague told me that potential speakers had to submit a paper as well as a video demonstrating their appearance as speakers. In fact, all speakers were of good to high quality and respected their time constraints, which is rare at conferences.

Secondly, this conference was surprisingly well organized. A Dublin company seems to have organized most of the logistical aspects, and I was able to briefly talk to the lady who was in charge of all this at the Design Awards event (you can find her to the right in Figure 28):

Figure 28: Thank-you ceremony during the conference closing: The lady to the right organized the conference logistics

Good organization meant that food and drinks were available all day, including a dinner meal on two conference days and a "picnic" package on the third day. This service allowed me to stay in the conference building during lunch time and spared me a desperate search for a nearby restaurant or fast-food booth.

All this makes Interaction 2012 look like the ideal conference. So, was anything missing? Yes, a book stand. I like book stands because they quickly help me get an overview of new professional books, and you usually get a bit of a discount when you order books at conferences.

Interaction 2012 Versus DIS 2010 – A Random-Pick of Observations...

At the beginning of my report, I mentioned that Interaction 2012 was my second "IxD" conference in series, after DIS 2010. It was very different from the DIS 2010 conference in many ways. Here is my attempt at a quick-and-dirty comparison between the two conferences:

  • Interaction 2012 was much bigger than DIS 2010 – it had nearly 800 attendees versus about 150 attendees. So it also had a different "feel" to it (INTERACT is somewhere in between, while CHI is typically more than twice the size of Interaction 2012).
  • DIS 2010 focused on research and research paper presentations (although there were some debates about what research is – see RtD), whereas Interaction 2012 focused on interaction design in the industry and had speakers who presented certain topics that were hopefully relevant to the community, not just research results. Of course, there were also some exceptions to this rule.
  • At DIS 2010, the Research through Design (RtD) direction played a prominent role; I found only one mention of this at Interaction 2012 (Fabian Hemmert).
  • At DIS 2010, there was a "DIS discourse" debate each noon and a summary discussion at the end of the conference about the role of designers. At Interaction 2012, there were several presentations that referred to the role of designers, but I did not think the debates were as active as at DIS 2010 – maybe because of the size of the conference. Unfortunately, I missed the "great IxDA" debate, because I had not registered on time.
  • At DIS 2010, there was little interest in the industry and in jobs in the industry (many attendees did not even know SAP). That was quite different at Interaction 2012.
  • Both conferences were much better organized with respect to food and drinks than the CHI conference, for example. The ample sponsoring from industry clearly made a difference at Interaction 2012.
  • And last but not least: At DIS 2010, attendees were greeted two jazz musicians, whereas Interaction 2012 offered Irish folk music, a professional singer accompanied by a harp player, and diverse bands at the evening events (at DIS 2010 there was a disco with rather strange music, but my wife and I tried "hoping around" to it anyway).

 

Final Word

Dublin and Interaction 2012 came as a nice surprise for me. I learned a lot at the conference and really enjoyed it, even though it was a bit strenuous and not particularly focused on UX or related to my work at SAP. I very much enjoyed Dublin as well.

Note: All photos by the author (Ricoh GXR).

 

References and More Photos

See the appendix for information about IxDA, more photos and references.

See also my UI Design Blinks about skyline graphs – a new graph type that I have encountered at the conference:

 

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