Like many of you, I was delighted to find an Amazon Kindle Fire sitting on my desk a few weeks ago, when it was first released. My delight was heightened by the fact that I hadn’t actually bought it. The Fire belonged to another Robert in frog’s New York studio, Robert Curtis, who was more than happy to unbox the product with me so that we could both get a sense of the quality of that crucial “first” user experience with the product. Lest there be any doubt as to whose Fire it was, the screen immediately displayed a personal message: “Hello Robert Curtis. Welcome to Kindle Fire” (even though it was not yet connected to our Wi-Fi network).
Now, I realize that the Fire has been taking a lot of heat since its launch for some major gaffes in the design, with usability guru Jakob Nielsen condemning it as a “disappointingly poor user experience.” This may not be an Apple-quality product yet. But that initial setup experience set a new bar for me. A mere five years ago, critics were falling all over themselves to praise Apple for the revolutionary way that you activated the iPhone–never mind that it took almost a dozen screens, a computer, and a cable. It seemed very smart at the time. But now it seems downright clunky. With the Fire, Amazon has done something few can claim: It has moved past Apple in the consumer market. This is no small feat. It takes a huge amount of work behind the scenes, more than you can imagine, to deliver your device to you, straight off of the shop floor, one to one. The Fire’s “out of box experience” is both magical and incredibly mundane–very easy to take for granted, as I am sure we all will in the coming years.
Technologies like cheap sensors and cloud computing are increasingly being used to augment our daily lives in both magical and mundane ways. Everything we do is an app in the making (a million and counting). But in this environment we are also developing a new sensitivity to the thin line between enrichment and annoyance. Which is why interaction design continues to gain prominence as the discipline with the greatest potential to maintain our sanity in this brave new world of distraction. So it was with high hopes that I joined a gathering of some of the best minds in interaction design today, including Massimo Banzi, Janna DeVylder, Matt Jones, Younghee Jung, Jonas Löwgren, and Helen Walters, to judge the first annual Interaction Design Awards sponsored by the IxDA. Our job was to recognize the best examples from 2011 as well as communicate the critical role of good interaction design in our lives. While I cannot share the winners–yet– this experience was a great moment to reflect on the state of interaction design and what it might hold in the next few years.
The overall work was pretty stunning. We have reached an amazing moment in which interaction paradigms that seemed like sci-fi a few years ago are now being broadly applied in commercial markets. This includes everything from gestural interactions to location-based systems and smart spaces. Interaction paradigms that were the sole province of the MIT Media Lab 10 years ago are now in wide use at companies like Nike and Pepsi. For many of us this is like watching our children grow up. There is something both exhilarating and deeply disappointing about seeing this future arrive in the form of grocery shopping applications. And it creates an interesting challenge for the Interaction Design Awards to recognize ideas after they have already gone mainstream.
The next breakthroughs will be when these rich paradigms are applied to increasingly quotidian and pervasive areas of our daily experience and extended into the physical infrastructure around us. At this point, it is much more interesting to see mobile feedback and data visualization applied to mass transit than to sharing playlists. It is in areas like energy and health care where these interaction models will have the most pull, exposing at the surface level much more fundamental transformations in our basic, physical infrastructure that are sorely needed.
Don’t get distracted by the hype surrounding Google and Apple, Facebook and Twitter, or Android and iPhone. It is time to get out of that game, with technologies like HTML 5 pointing the way. Getting your data onto a single platform is not going to win you any awards. Smart companies are turning their products into services that are broadly distributed, where the value is in the relationship, not a single device. As that continues, we will see the balance of power in innovation shift back to corporations and startups that own these services and away from design agencies that merely extend their reach to the next novel device or platform.
As we switch to a more service-oriented ecosystem, interaction design must extend its reach beyond the screen, beyond interactive media and digital information. One of the most interesting submissions was a set of printed instructions for a personal medical device that was beautifully designed and thoroughly tested with end users. A number of the judges questioned the relevance of this work to interaction design. But in an environment as heavily regulated as glucose meters, the most powerful and meaningful opportunities to improve interaction might not involve any pixels. Instead these opportunities reside in call centers, bank statements, or explanations of benefits.
How do you communicate the impact of interaction design across a distributed set of touch points, some online and some off? I came away from this experience convinced that the most important skill that young interaction designers can develop is in video “sketching.” Video plays a critical role in communicating new service and product concepts across time and place. There is no substitute. And the best interaction designers working today, like Matt Jones at Berg, use video to ask new questions about the role of interaction design in our lives. Video is the only shortcut that we have as designers. So use it!
I hope that you will reflect on these themes–and experiment with them as well–as you review the finalists for the 2011 Interaction Design Awards. The winners will be announced at the IxDA conference Dublin in early February. So please stay tuned and join the discussion on what makes great interaction design.