XXIV.5 September - October 2017
Page: 46
Digital Citation

Notes on the future of interaction design

Uday Gajendar

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The following essay is based on a February 2016 lecture at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, hosted by the Department of Art and Design. As an experienced designer visiting from Silicon Valley, I was asked to offer some thoughts on what the future of interaction design might mean. The audience consisted of students and faculty in industrial design.


What is the future of interaction design? That's a rather loaded question for anyone, whether casual observers of the tech industry or experienced HCI-educated and design-focused professionals. This essay offers no bold proclamations. Indeed, it would be quite hubristic for me to do so. Instead, I'd like to talk about what it means to define the future of interaction design.

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While walking around downtown Palo Alto, near University Avenue, I came across the offices of the Institute for the Future. Such a grand name, right? Of course, it's been around for a long time and is quite legendary. With giant windows emblazoned with inspiring quotes about the future, the offices are beautiful. In particular, I noticed one brilliant statement by Buckminster Fuller, who should be well known to most design students and faculty:

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims." Hmm. Indeed, often when we see brash displays of tech novelty, from Google Glass to Oculus VR to even Bitcoin, we're forced to reckon with each entity—semantically, perceptually, behaviorally, culturally. Many perplexing questions arise in our minds to decipher the intent and value of these technologies, and yet we have so little time to engage with them! So perhaps a better quest for us is: How do we go about becoming those architects?

Thus, instead of proclamations, what I offer to help grasp and shape the future of design are strategic frameworks of thought. If we structure our thinking effectively around certain pivotal ideas, then we can increase the probability of defining a future we truly want, responsibly and meaningfully. To define that future, we have to consider how to apply various concepts and methods of interaction design as a liberal art of technological culture, per the philosophies of Richard Buchanan that shaped the Carnegie Mellon (CMU) School of Design in the mid-1990s to early 2000s. This intellectual lineage arose from John Dewey, perhaps the original thinker of "experience" as a pragmatic value of living—as opposed to merely pushing pixels (since there were no pixels to push in Dewey's era). To look to the future of interaction design, we must consider conversations, engagements, and embodiments, not simply slick gestures, mechanics, or tools that sensationalize or romanticize a fantasy notion of interaction.

Conversations are central to what we do: staging necessary and significant dialogues with stakeholders as well as users via the "it" being created—an interface, a device, a robot. As interaction designers, we define behavior and shape meaning. Conversations serve as the vehicle for that to happen, which are mediated by the artifacts and outputs we deliver.

Engagements are the product encounters themselves, the actual using of "it" to act in some way or achieve a goal or perform a task. I use this word engagement in particular because it suggests something deep, committed, profound, and very significant personally. As you play around with a product (or interact with a service or system), teasing out the actions and responses, interpreting what does what and for whatever reason, you are cultivating a relationship.

Embodiments are the manifestations of a designer's ideas into some perceptible form that can be manipulated on various levels, thus enabling the rich storied conversation to happen and hopefully producing a shift in a person's attitudes and behaviors for the better. Without some perceived embodiment, it's quite difficult to have meaningful interaction.

To coordinate that dynamic among conversation, engagement, and embodiment, we should regard the activity of designing as an activity of rhetorical argument, in the original sense of shaping human action through deliberate invention and persuasion. This goes back to Aristotle's triad of ethos/pathos/logos—the core elements in an argument that influence minds and enable productive actions. There is a negotiation between the speaker's intent and the adequate solutions for the audience. For example, the designer creating a sign, an object, a service, or a system that will interact with a certain audience to achieve some relevant outcome— that designer is actually engaging with 2,000-year-old rhetorical concepts bound within the liberal art of design as a means of guiding and shaping technology toward humanistic aims. This requires empathy for the audience (pathos), deep understanding of the logical underpinnings of the output (logos), and a judicious aesthetic sense of character that resonates with the audience (ethos). This is how the ancient arts take hold in our present-day work.

If we structure our thinking effectively around certain pivotal ideas, then we can increase the probability of defining a future we truly want.

But let's go back to the future.

How does all this matter in terms of what's coming next for interaction designers? I suggest we need to apply this type of forethought to what I term the Four Forces of Interaction, which dance and intertwingle (to borrow Peter Morville's lovely phrase) in powerful ways, suggesting opportunities to improve the human condition.

My Four Forces of Interaction are:

  • Domains of impact
  • Technological marvels
  • Business creation
  • Existential value.

Domains of impact. What are some domains of impact for applying the concepts and methods of interaction design, beyond the mainstay of pixel-based screens or personal devices? To pursue a vibrant future of interaction design, we must move out of #FirstWorldProblems toward difficult or unpopular situations and audiences. I suggest there is tremendous untapped value in seeking out domains that arguably represent the best (worst?) wicked problems—situations that are inherently indeterminate and lack clearly defined solutions or stakeholders.

What if we could apply interaction-design mindfulness to enable better policies for insurance and legal claims? How might we make assisted care for the elderly and disabled more humane across an entire journey, elevating quality of life? What about empowering a truly unified sense of community and civic engagement (beyond simply e-voting!) for localized and increasingly globalized citizens (expats living abroad, etc.)? Or pursuing the deep, complex challenges of the developing world in terms of food, water, disease, and refugees. Climate change and highly consequential planetary changes will impact living patterns and cultural norms as well. These are all huge, entangled issues ripe for future thinking!

Technology marvels. No doubt we are living in an era of dazzling and even gratifying technological development that embodies a certain zeal of infinite possibility. There is an enthusiastic optimism for better living through more advanced tech—at least, as I see it coming from Silicon Valley. And this stuff is pretty marvelous! From wearables that quantify our daily movements, to home robotics that assist with chores, to VR headsets with hyper-realistic visuals rivaling 4K cinematic quality, to self-driving cars and drones delivering our goods ... Whew!

But how do these emerging marvels connect in meaningful ways that enrich our lives? How can designers insert themselves into that dialogue effectively with a sense for the long-term consequences?

It is indeed a bold future being suggested—and it's already happening! It's just not evenly distributed, and that's perhaps racing ahead of what ordinary humans can process and/or identify with. How much of this is too much, and what kind of digitally augmented future is driven by the power of smart tech? Some profound questions lie ahead that we must consider, to help define that desirable future.

Business creation. The rise of design thinking and UX in startups and large corporations alike has helped validate the power of design in business contexts, which is great for design grads entering the industry! Do note that there are some increasingly blurred boundaries between UX and product management (indeed, it seems recently that more UX leaders are taking on roles like product director or product VP—an interesting trend). As the popular, successful book Business Model Generation [1] (https://strategyzer.com/) suggests, visual illustrations of business models are compelling to MBA-types. They have also promoted another sense of design into business creation, from a fundamental POV: visualizing the relationship among partners and customers, their mechanics, and outcomes, beyond numerically driven spreadsheets. Value creation via businesses is a critical element in defining future possibilities that is increasingly influenced by design in some big ways—it will continue.

It may be useful to portray these forces (domains of impact, tech marvels, and business creation) as a dynamic Venn diagram, constantly changing shape, rates of change, and, of course, the levels of overlap (Figure 1). Want to know what the future of interaction design is and how that will impact our lives and contexts? Look at the intersections, because therein lies the potential for applying interaction design concepts and methods for influential, hopefully positive effect. That is where the signals and cues lie that we need to seek out and extract.

ins03.gif Figure 1. Dynamic forces of interaction. The overlaps signify future potential.

Indeed, it's also noteworthy to recall a similar Venn diagram from the Eames Office [2], a powerful hand-drawn sketch that embodies the essence of design practice as a mediation of intersections (Figure 2). Of particular relevance are the two notes saying "these areas are not static—they grow and develop as each one influences the others," and that "adding more clients add to the relationship in a positive and constructive way." A hopeful statement of the ecological nature of design situations and the elements therein, not as distracting adversaries but as cooperative engagements. Very inspiring!

ins04.gif Figure 2. The Design Diagram shows how the Eameses viewed the design process as overlapping concerns.

See, too, the part where Eames scribbled, "It is in this area of overlapping interest that the designer can work with conviction and enthusiasm." Hmm. Want to design the future? Then we must understand what it means to be a designer, and this implies the fourth force of impact: the existential value of a designer related to a process and strategy of interaction design.

Existential value. Who is a designer nowadays? And how is that sense of identity that shapes the "conviction and enthusiasm" evolving into the future, given what we have discussed already? I recently wrote an essay on Medium [3] on the core qualities of what I believe constitute a successful, modern, mature digital designer (with a focus on digital product design: software, mobile apps, network services).

A few highlights are relevant here. A mature designer is a person who:

  • Thinks in terms of first principles, daring to ask fundamental questions on the origins, purposes, and values of problems being tackled, eagerly digging deeper at a humanistic level of interpretation and interaction
  • Knows how to nimbly dance with data, either quantitative or qualitative, exercising good judgment in ambiguous and incomplete situations
  • Embodies a highly evolved sense of self-awareness, and thus intuitively considers the materiality, medium, and expression of various digital solutions
  • Designs to an internal compass of doing what's right, necessary, and sufficient to support the original business and design aims. They are driven by a pursuit of ideals (i.e., design integrity) and guided by pragmatic concerns, with sound doses of strategic and tactical awareness of the situation.

This last point about designing to an internal compass with a pursuit of ideals led me to further ponder what that means in terms of the future sense of being a designer. So I wrote another essay [4] proposing the rise of what I term the meta designer, suggesting that designing design itself will become the critical, strategic, humanistic practice as technologies, businesses, and situations change collectively and dramatically (not to mention quickly).

This suggests the profound notion that designers will, in effect, serve as a therapist or philosopher mediating that confluence of intention and outcome via a sense of what is significant and consequential for an audience. Yes, it's about ethics—doing what is right and good—and following some principled compass that guides effective problem solving and decision making. By the way, please note: All of this happens in action—not just during some theoretical thinking! It's ultimately about how we make meaning—the creation of value as a design practice, and leading that discourse with purpose. The designer operating with the conviction Eames spoke of can truly lead such an endeavor.

Designers will, in effect, serve as a therapist or philosopher mediating the confluence of intention and outcome via a sense of what is significant and consequential for an audience.

Now we can see that the diagram of overlapping forces is complete, with the addition of the deeply existential value of being a designer shaping and defining and expressing and mediating and enabling—all those actions that make a designer valuable and influential. Indeed, those intersections pointed out earlier as places for potential now become places for provocation, through the designer acting with purpose. Surfacing something that challenges lazily held assumptions with a sense of improving the human condition. And rooted in this is that scary question of "Why even do this at all?" That lies at the core of the existence of designing. Why design? Answering that, unlocking that secret—which only you can answer as students and professionals—offers a powerful clue as to what the future of interaction design can be.

Maybe Kenya Hara has a clue about unlocking that secret. As the legendary (and very humble) designer for MUJI, Hara recently said in an interview what he regards as the true value of a designer: to visualize and awaken the hidden possibility of an industry. And that hidden possibility is found in the dynamic intersections of forces, which inspire new ways of thinking that are grounded in some desire to do good, to help humanity.

But how do we translate that into something practical in terms of skills, since that's what pays the bills, right?

Recently while perusing Twitter, I came across a breakdown of the top 10 skills for 2020 versus 2015. When I looked at that list, which includes complex problem solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, judgment, and so forth, I kept returning to Buchanan's model of good design based on Aristotle [5]. These are all fundamentally design skills, the core arts and methods of interaction design as a liberal art of technological culture. They are relevant and valuable for making productive, impactful, and, yes, profitable futures.

Now consider another set of design methods and sensibilities. Jane Fulton Suri of IDEO, an anthropologist and deeply profound observer/thinker of human experience, has portrayed an array of skills in an intriguing layout using the yin-and-yang symbol of contrasting balance [6]. Methods are tactical and objective, while sensibilities tend to be more personal or intuitive. As a whole, they shape the identity of the designer and their outlook on the world, in the course of sense-making and so on.

In the end, when I think about the future of interaction design, I think about frameworks to help us make sense of our actual responsibility to be those architects as summoned by Buckminster Fuller and create that future with care and value. I think about a balanced duality of optimism for what's emerging, but also a healthy criticism of what's happening now in our present state of affairs. And to bring to bear upon the various forces affecting that relationship (domains of impact, tech marvels, business creation, and existential value), I realize we need a powerful set of tools to think through those intersections.

To truly become those architects of the future, guided by the concepts and methods of interaction design, we need to apply the following:

  • Critical lenses: Methods and tools that serve as frameworks to interpret trends, changes, and opportunities, and suggest questions to understand and provoke. The focus is on critical—challenge and question with intent!
  • Radical insights: Emergent understandings from the deliberated overlaps of various domains, fields, topics, and spaces, from economics to astrophysics. Provocative yet penetrating insights into beliefs and behaviors. That's what makes it radical.
  • Purposeful actions: Looking and understanding are all good, but to have valid, deep impact—influence that shapes real outcomes—you have to design with a sense of intentional outcomes with significance. Make stuff that matters!

Substantive discussions must begin in earnest around these four forces, requiring engagement with willing partners from other teams unafraid to raise serious questions and possibilities that challenge current thinking or practices. Design must take the lead but can't do it alone. Figure out how to define those critical lenses, and enable radical insights that foster purposeful actions in your own student projects, and as aspirations cultivated as you go out into the "real world." For that is how—indeed perhaps the only way—we can truly become architects of the future via interaction design.

back to top  References

1. Osterwalder, A. and Pineur, Y. Business Model Generator: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers and Challengers. John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, 2010.

2. Eames, C. Charles Eames process diagram. 1969; http://www.eamesoffice.com/the-work/charles-eames-design-process-diagram/

3. Gajendar, U. The Modern mature digital designer: What qualities make for a good designer-today? 2014; https://medium.com/@udanium/the-modern-mature-digital-designer-c00df9e256cf

4. Gajendar, U. Enter the "meta-designer." 2015; https://medium.com/@udanium/enter-the-meta-designer-26c7f2322d8f

5. Buchanan, R. Good design in the digital age. AIGA Journal of Design for the Network Economy 1, 1 (2000), 1–5.

6. Suri, J.F. and Hendrix, R.M. Developing design sensibilities. Rotman Magazine. (Spring, 2010), 58–63.

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Uday Gajendar has been a prolific UX designer and leader for more than 15 years, shipping designs for PayPal, Facebook, Citrix, Adobe, and others. He also enjoys coaching startups on UX fundamentals. udanium@gmail.com

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