• It’s Not Just a Container, It’s Not Just a Screen

    Ever since I got back from the monster IDSA conference and looking towards some of the speakers at Interaction08, I’ve been thinking a lot about the worlds of interaction design and industrial design. Far apart, yet so close. Far apart in that there is still a gulf in that, for the most part, many interaction designers don’t know what industrial designers do and how they do it. And visa versa. From an interaction designer’s perspective, the hardware is just a container for the UI. From the industrial designer’s perspective, the UI is just the screen that gets put in after their design work is done.

    Except this is a horrible way to design products. We’ve all suffered through these kinds of devices for years. Look at the Razr. Awesome industrial design, terrible interaction design. Or take most laptops. Decent interaction design, lousy industrial design. For the best experience design, the hardware and software need to be integrated in profound ways. In the same way interaction and visual designers work together for digital projects, with physical products that have a digital component (which is to say, behavior that a microprocessor affords), industrial and interaction designs should work closely to create the best possible experience for the products’ users.

    Apple realized this years ago, of course, and insisted on control of both the hardware and software–a risky gamble that nearly took the company down, but has yielded some serious dividends in the last decade. And not just profits: some really enviable, desirable, beautiful devices that work well and feel holistic. Devices that, as we know, have changed markets and how we think about devices in general.

    I have heard some amazing statements lately–on both sides of the industrial-interaction design divide–that sound to my ears just painfully ignorant, especially considering the amazing industrial/interaction design devices around now, like the Wii. “So you think industrial designers should work with interface designers?” one industrial designer asked me in all seriousness a few months ago. “Industrial design is just a commodity service,” was a comment I heard just two days ago. The truth is, both disciplines have a gun to the other’s head. “My interface can ruin your form!” “Oh yeah, well, see what happens when I leave out the jog dial, jerk! Let’s see them navigate your menu now!” “If you are going to be that way, I might just forget to put in the controls for your lovely speakers there.” And so it goes. We need to work together or everybody loses.

    The fact is that the division between the digital and the physical is slowly but surely being erased. “One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real. In the future, that will become literally impossible,” noted William Gibson recently. And it’s true. Is your laptop physical or digital? Your mobile phone? Your…house? (Go find it on Google Maps before you answer.)

    We need designers on both sides (and in the middle!) who understand this. We had the “luxury” of having separate design worlds for a while now, which is in fact no luxury at all, as we both could have learned a lot from each other. It’s time to dissolve the artificial barrier. We’re all in this together.

    There are 5 thoughts on this idea

    1. finn mckenty

      dan-

      great post! i did interactive design for years, and through some twists of fate, ended up working in the world of industrial design and product development, where i’ve been for the past two years or so. before that, i didn’t know the first thing about industrial design, and i’ve definitely learned a lot from the experience- including many of the things you mentioned.

      the first thing i’ve seen is that industrial designers definitely think that if they can do 3D design, they can design anything 2D… which is most certainly not the case 🙂 they need to respect other design disciplines and realize that they don’t know everything.

      the other thing i’ve learned is that the industrial design process is more or less superior to the process typically used by graphic and interactive designers. specifically, they do a lot more front end work to understand the problem than is typical in other disciplines: ethnography, competitive audits, etc. part of this is just convention, because for whatever reason, clients seem to be OK with paying for this on industrial design projects, whereas they aren’t in other disciplines (at least in my experience).

      the final thing i’ve learned is that designers of all stripes really need to learn more about business in order to be most effective. a went back to school for a marketing degree a while ago, after being in design for years, and it’s really opened my eyes. designers are starting to get that “seat at the table” that they’ve been asking for for years, and they need to make sure that they’re ready for it. specifically, designers need to think of their work in terms of how much it’s going to move the revenue needle… but that’s a whole other post.

      anyway, great post! this is exactly the kind of discussion that needs to happen more often.

    2. Dory

      This is exactly the type of dicussion that will keep on going for decades and decades. We have to keep in mind that not all companies are as big as Apple and as sad as it may sound, those companies will be obligated to emphasize on either hardware or software design. I am myself a user experience designer and I myself have difficulty explaining what my job is about. But one thing is sure in what we do: the day they find out that their hardware is not being used efficiently, they will come back to us. As luxurious as interaction design may sound to them, our job is to exploit the hardware in favor of a fluid and exciting experience. Whether it is nanotechnology or “God knows what’s smaller than NANO”-technology, the end-point is the interaction. Technology can keep improving forever, the interaction however can reach its best a way earlier…Then, no one will ever perceive the difference between Nano or Micro. It is only then, that hardware designers would realize that all the time they spent on improving technologies will be unseen… Can we actually be bluffed and believe that users care about what technology lies beneath the interface they’re using? The Wii did not revolutionize its graphics engine but it revolutionized, once more, the interaction using very standard technology – and guess what? -It is way more exciting than the PS3.

    3. P R Carter

      As an industrial designer who fell down the rabbit hole of interaction design 17 years ago, I’m not sure that your description of IDs as not caring about what goes on the screen of the hardware is very accurate. Industrial design programs in the US have emphasized graphic design and web design for years, but given the time limits of four-year programs they cannot teach anyone how to design everything. Instead, they teach a design methodology that is essentially user-centered – how to collect requirements (human, technical, business, manufacturing) and organize them to make design decisions, how to generate concepts, test, and iterate – and how to throw away ideas that are not working. All of this can be applied to any type of design, including interaction design. But designers don’t really get to be great at their skill areas without experience and passion.

      Just like any group of humans, industrial designers have a lot of variation in talent, knowledge, and motivation. Many care deeply about all of the related aspects of their design problems, and work hard to master new technologies and ‘invade the other guys turf’ to create better products.

      We’re all struggling to get to great design. It’s harder than it looks, and when we finally do build a simple, powerful, useful thing everyone else looks at it says ‘of course that’s the way it should be – how hard could that be?’…

    4. Interaction design and industrial design | Bees Kn

      […] Dan Saffer commented last December on the lack of appreciation interaction designers and industrial designers have for each other’s disciplines. “While for the best experience design the hardware and software need to be integrated in profound ways”. In reaction to this Finn Mc Kenty wrote that in his experience during the industrial design process a lot more front end work was done to understand certain problems than is typical in other disciplines: ethnography, competitive audits, etc. “And that for whatever reason, clients seem to be OK with paying for this on industrial design projects, whereas they aren’t in other disciplines”. […]

    5. A graphic designer

      Except this is a horrible way to design products. We’ve all suffered through these kinds of devices for years. Look at the Razr. Awesome industrial design, terrible interaction design. Or take most laptops. Decent interaction design, lousy industrial design. For the best experience design, the hardware and software need to be integrated in profound ways.

      It’s rare to see any device that has a perfect blend of these elements. But it beats using rocks and twigs for tools! 🙂

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