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.