Evolving our practice of interaction design —ideas from Interaction 18

I’m back from an intense week at Interaction 18. It was my first time to participate in such a big design conference, made even more special because a) the event was held in Lyon, just two hours from my home in Paris and b) I had the honor of giving a talk to an international audience.

My collaborator Milan Guenther and I shared our ideas and experiences about designing interactions for large-scale dynamic systems: Design to Ignite — Design Sprints for Transformation at Scale, which we were thrilled to deliver to a packed room and enthusiastic response.

Here’s the slide deck.

We had the small room but it was so full that folks were standing in the back. This was perfect since I was a bit freaked out by the size of the main stage… and the lights! the music! 😳😳

The conference alternated between single and parallel tracks, and attendees weaved their own narratives through the three day Micro-Meso-Macro structure, brilliantly curated by the Program team.

All people deserve to live in a well-designed world. — The Montreal Design Declaration

A critical moment occurred as the closing keynote wrapped up, and UNEP Champion of the Earth Leyla Acaroglu asked us to tell our neighbor one action we would take tomorrow, to start triggering change. Many of the actions shared were those that would be taken as citizens of the world (yay, recycling!) and Leyla rightly challenged — what changes will we make as design professionals?

I don’t think we really know, yet. It feels like we’re slowly moving towards accepting that a drastic change is needed and that design has a critical role to play. Not because it can but because it needs to.

Also read my colleague Chris Palmieri’s 2015 essay: A Practice of Ethics — Five questions for designers.

And while I don’t claim to have answers to existential and now what!?
questions, my experience at Interaction helped clarify broad directions that I’m keen to pursue in the days ahead:

  1. Seek wisdom from other disciplines
  2. Embrace how our cultures and histories shape us
  3. Build collective muscle to imagine alternative futures

Seek wisdom from other disciplines

Keynoter Haiyan Zhang’s talk was filled with exciting stories from Microsoft Research’s exploration in Inclusive Design. There was much oohing and ahhing and designer envy of ‘I wish I could design something that makes people burst into tears and call their mom…’. (ref: Project Emma)

However, what was most striking to me was how Haiyan is constantly redefining her understanding of a designer’s role by expanding her skill-set to meet the challenges that come her way. Learning about financially viable manufacturing, finding partnerships to turn ideas into viable businesses etc.

The non-design discipline that was referred to again and again throughout the week was systems thinking. It’s not “just” helpful in figuring out how to build more robust design systems!

Check out Jason Mesut’s My favourite systems related talks from Interaction 18.

It’s been an ongoing focus for me, too. A key motivation for Milan and I to seek stage time had been to highlight the need for holistic and systemic modelling as a parallel activity to designing interactions.

[Left] The spectacular view from Fourvière Hill in Lyon [Right] People clamoring to make sense of it.
[Left] The spectacular view from Fourvière Hill in Lyon [Right] People clamoring to make sense of it.

We need to make sense of the mess in order to plot a way forward. Much of this thinking also draws from the field of enterprise architecture, to which Milan has a long-time association.

Katja Forbes, our fellow speaker in the Organizational Transformation track, talked about what designers can learn from coaching. She introduced methods like appreciative inquiry.

There are plenty of design practitioners with non-design school backgrounds, myself included, but we don’t always actively learn with/from other disciplines. How might we change that?

Embrace how our cultures and histories shape us

The Rhône and Saône rivers run through Lyon so it’s a city of many, many bridges.
The Rhône and Saône rivers run through Lyon so it’s a city of many, many bridges.

Nicolas Nova introduced lessons from the history of French interaction design. Perfect for an international design conference hosted in France. 👊

Farai Madzima — whom I think was universally and well-deservedly regarded as the best storyteller at the conference! — drew upon Erin Mayer’s Culture Map to show one way forward to better know ourselves in relation to others. Read the HBR article or interview, if not the book. People to people interactions.

And just the day before, art director Kenya Hara of Muji fame masterfully weaved concepts from shinto-ism and Japanese culture to talk about simplicity vs emptiness and the art of making things unknown. It was fascinating to see my own culture expressed in the context of our discipline.

While I missed Kadambari Sahu’s short talk of exploring identity and xenophobia through Indian scents from her childhood, we had a nice discussion afterwards about the richness of our cultures and its disconnect from our professional lives.

We are people, designing for people. What of our histories and cultures can be recognized and brought into our design practice?

Build collective muscle to imagine alternative futures

I’ve been feeling for a while that my work is veering too sharply into problem solving. There’s a lack of space that invites leaps in thinking that go beyond the obvious, the logically deduced, the easily validated…

Someone please tell me what this statue is about¹
Someone please tell me what this statue is about¹

My hunch was that a good counterbalance could lie in speculative design — a liberated exploration of perspectives that are neutral of a problem-solution dynamic, expressed as interventions to induce meaningful questions.

It led me to a design fiction workshop by Design Friction’s Bastien Kerspern and Léa Lippera and I wasn’t disappointed! Building worlds to poke and prod at the question, “what if data had funerals?” invited a rich and spirited conversation about human behavior and societal impact around data security, theft, policies etc. I think all of us were amazed at the variety and depth of directions that we found ourselves taking.

This journey continued with stories from Superflux’s Anab Jain, who introduced recent work in prototyping alternative futures to climate change. Their iconic Uninvited Guest was one of the first pieces of design fiction I ever encountered and it was exciting to see them asking new questions (multi-species perspective!?) and evolving as a studio.

And my favorite of the week, if I have to chose just one, was a 15 minute talk by Tatiana Toutikian, which started with a sequence of staged vignettes to showcase provocations from her design activism work. Plenty of presentations and conversations made me think — Tatiana made me dream.

Too often, we are paralyzed by perceived realities or biased towards (or against) someone’s preferred answer. How might we create and hold the space to think together about alternative futures?

Last but not least, because there was plenty in Lyon itself to be inspired by…

From an exhibition about water at Musée Gallo-Romain. Until May 6th.
From an exhibition about water at Musée Gallo-Romain. Until May 6th.

The ancient Romans built four aqueducts for Lugdunum (present day Lyon) and for its longest one, I learned that the beautiful remains we marvel at overground are only 6% of the whole length.

Actually, I thought aqueducts meant water bridges but in fact it’s what the entire system is called…

What are the connections that aren’t always visible, and what are the interactions we can design to have impact towards a well-designed world?

Of course, what’s visible is captivating, too 😆 Here’s the Ampitheatre, which graced us with a bit of sun after a week of grey skies and flurries.
Of course, what’s visible is captivating, too 😆 Here’s the Ampitheatre, which graced us with a bit of sun after a week of grey skies and flurries.

Thank you to the Interaction 18 organizers, volunteers, speakers and EVERYONE I met during this amazing week. Thanks also to The my teammates in Tokyo for the constant encouragement, especially Chris Palmieri for helping with the talk submission and Ryan Ruel for being a great conference buddy. And most of all, thanks to my friend and co-speaker Milan — let’s do that again!

Update: Mystery solved! James shared that this statue is ‘titled “the weight of one’s self” — a very french, existential piece of art’. Beautiful.

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February 17, 2018