Interaction is More than Looking at Screens

Back in the ’90s, forward-thinking designers started playing with HTML. The ones who did might’ve had a sense that the web was going to be a big deal, but it wasn’t a prerequisite for experimenting with design and code. It wasn’t long before the web’s big-dealishness was obvious, and the mood shifted. The web was no longer about experimentation; it was about work. For many designers who began their careers in print, the web was what they did now. Since then, the big conversation has been about making the print-to-web transition. And we’re still having that conversation.

But just like in the ’90s, there is something happening on the fringes today that forward-thinking designers are experimenting with. And if we’re not paying attention, today’s interactive designers could get left behind just like the print designers did 15 years ago.

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We need to start shifting the conversation from “print to web” to something more nuanced and much deeper. It begins with expanding our definition of “interactive” to push beyond work made for the screen. After all, the interactions typical to screen interfaces are hand-guided visual experiences. Until very recently, that meant bridging the gap between our bodies and the screen with a keyboard and a mouse. Even with fancy touchscreens, the glass surfaces offer virtually no tactile experience to our extraordinarily sensitive fingertips.

(And if you want to debate that point, close your eyes and touch the screen of your mobile device of choice. Try to use it. Now compare that to digging into your pocket and feeling the difference between a nickle, dime or quarter. Amazing what our fingers can do, provided they’re given some information to work with, eh?)

We’ve grown accustomed to associating “information” with bits, which is a phenomenal thing in and of itself. But there remains a world of information embedded in physical objects and in the interactions we have with them. Connecting the unseen world of information—the virtual world made manifest on the internet—with the tactile world around us is the next stage of design. We’ve been playing with visualizing this in the form of augmented reality (AR), but that’s going nowhere. AR is unhelpful because we already know that information is all around us. Seeing it on a screen only creates more work for us, forcing us to interpret visual signals on top of everything else, when that’s what technology should be doing for us. Last September I put the dis on AR in my Interaction column in PRINT and called for a focus on “awareness technology.” I said (and yes, I realize it’s questionable to quote yourself):

…if a machine can collect information and deliver it to our eyes, it should also be able to save us the trouble of analyzing and interpreting that data. “Awareness technology” should be doing much more for us than making advertising more ubiquitous. It should be helping us to do more work, more efficiently and more effectively. Rather than trying to enhance how we see reality, we should instead consider augmenting reality for machines. A more aware machine is far more valuable to us than a more crowded visual field.

The good news is that we’re making amazing progress with awareness technology—and it’s not all dystopic surveillance and Skynet. Much of it has been based upon the use of radio-frequency identification, or RFID, a technology that can be minuscule and embedded into objects so software can “see” where those objects are and “feel” how they’re being used. This kind of monitoring and analysis could help us design better systems of all kinds—from “smart” buildings to more efficient roads, transit systems, electrical grids, and much more. The possibilities are very exciting.

But it’s not about building a techno-utopia. For me, a world with more machines is not necessarily a better world. The reality is the problems we face—the crumbling infrastructure, a dwindling supply of natural resources, pollution—have outscaled our cognitive capacity. We’re smart enough to recognize them, and even to propose legitimate solutions to some of them. But we’re not fast enough to get to them all before the damage is too great, and we’re not able to see how they’re interconnected to avoid proposing a solution that might nip one issue in the bud but make another worse. There’s an urgency here that’s just as significant a motivator as exploring a new technology. So, if there’s any hope of a world with a healthy balance of the natural and the technological, we’re going to need to increase the ubiquity of the machine in the short-term. Sure, it’s daunting, but what could be more inspiring than working for a better world? (For more on this, see this piece I did for Print.)

This is the stuff of interactive design. More than websites. More than mobile apps. More than games. More than screens. Remember that scene at the end of The Matrix, when Neo finally sees the matrix for what it is, not the moody ’90s noir world but the undulating rows of code? As soon as the illusion disappeared, the first thing he did was take control and push beyond the code. Hokey? Sure. But what’s inspiring about that metaphor is that while the virtual world is an endless venue for exploring ourselves, it also creates a feedback loop right back to the real world. That’s interaction, and that’s the future of design.

When Grace and I chatted about this topic, she thought a great prompt would be “Why designers and hackers should be friends.” I think this gets at it, but I want to push it. It could just as easily be why designers should be hackers. Or scientists. Or city planners. Or sociologists. You get the point. As the world becomes more and more complex, so does what it means to be a designer.

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