Post-conference thoughts from Interaction16, Helsinki

IxDA’s Interaction16, held in Helsinki last week, lived up to the expectation of fielding current trends like virtual reality, internet of things, designing with algorithms, artificial intelligence, and driverless cars. And indeed, those topics did take centre stage, but with a different subtext than the ones I’m so used to seeing on my daily feeds. This subtext is about“designing the future for people”, rather than “what is the future enabled by more fancy tech?”. A slight but crucial difference. As I reflect on the conference, I’m reminded by this Don Norman quote,

Technology first, invention second, needs last

As designers, we often can’t invent our way into the future as we rely on the means to get us there. In general, technology arrives to us first as crude and unrefined solutions, and then as diverse forms of adoption, before we ever get to influence its evolution or integration into society. But a lot of that is now here, and we need to get stuck in.

Boston Dynamics robots look scary and sound “inhumane”

The message I heard across the keynotes and presentations is that designers need to get deeply involved in the technological sea change we’ve been talking about for awhile now, rather than remain observers from afar. There are two threads to this: Get more involved designing for the new forms of technology that are starting to permeate society (IoT, robots, artificial intelligence,…), and Build robust and widely adoptable solutions for today’s problems that support tomorrow’s experiences (gov.uk, thick data, designing for refugees,…). The two aren’t necessarily related, but both worthy of our attention.

Designers are already here — just not evenly distributed

In her keynote, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, laments: “where have the designers gone?” Although she’s been running IoT communities and events for a long time, designers are still under-represented. This includes myself, as someone who often organises monthly IxD events around IoT topics.

Another charismatic plea comes from Cameron Sinclair keynote — “Forget Virtual Reality!”, he says, “let’s work on Actual Reality!”. He criticises the fetishisation of digital communities over smart cities (a misnomer), on our need to support scale (to what end?), on our attempts to make our cities more resilient (against what?).

The two keynotes are true in the fact that while interaction design is becoming more widespread, there are still a lot of gaps and tons of work to be done. Leisa Reichelt said in one of the IxD Awards videos — we need to get the basics right first, and then move into the more interesting stuff. At the moment, we’re still at a point where keynote speakers are telling us what machine learning is. We’re still a long way off. And while interaction design has grown considerably, we’re still not distributed well across the areas of need. It reminded me that work doesn’t have to exist in the form of salaried employment all the time, and that we can aspire to Design as a lifelong vocation. We have to take charge if we want to realise the future we deserve (an apt phrase borrowed from this year’s Student Design Challenge)

Existential crisis for Joe, who wasn’t able to join us in Helsinki.

Pause, Reflect, Progress

We no longer come to conferences to debate the definition of interaction design (thank goodness). There are better things to debate, to think through critically, and to resolve. As designers, we continue to use language in new ways, but that’s necessary to solve problems with new mediums, contexts, systems and platforms. Matt Nish Lapidus’ cited Lev Manovich that we are now interfacing with a “culture encoded in digital form” — and that our interfaces are our new tools, rather than the tools we use to create those interfaces. This is a result of the pervasiveness of digitization, and so a reframing of our practice, as Marko explains, shifts from control to emergence.

“We don’t have good models to talk about AI” — Chris Noessel

Hopefully, we’ll be more careful in using terms and labels borrowed from technical domains that may limit our thinking. For example, Chris Noessel articulates that “agentive technology” is new from an experience point of view, as a moniker to frame our understanding of the nature and limits of artificial intelligence-based agency as a phenomenon, agentive behaviour, and our relationship with it.

Taking up arms: The future we deserve

The future may sound look really exciting and interesting (or even scary) on the flashy covers of Wired or on a Fast.co news feed, but I’ve always been skeptical about that packaging — primarily because they lack depth in understanding of the human condition. But I shouldn’t be so hung up about everyone else’s version of the future. I swallowed a huge dose of Finnish pragmatism across the seven days, and Marko Ahtisaari’s opening keynote did make a point that we shouldn’t be futurists anymore. Now is the new Future, and it’s up to us to define it.


My Interaction16 sketchnotes are up on Flickr. Feel free to use, share, and comment under a creative commons license. https://flic.kr/s/aHskw4w7SZ

My Interaction16 sketchnotes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *