Rowena Price
Rowena Price
16th February 2017

The snowstorm

At the beginning of February, a bunch of us Clearleft folk set off for a week in New York City to attend Interaction 17. More than 1,000 design leaders, professionals, and students converged in the Big Apple for IxDA’s 10th annual gathering - six days of events, talks, workshops, and awards. This was my first Interaction conference, so I thought I’d scribble down some takeaways from a newbie’s perspective.

It’s fair to say it’s an interesting time to be visiting (or attempting to visit) the United States right now. I wrote most of this article holed up indoors somewhere in Soho NYC, taking refuge from the physical snowstorm (#snowmageddon) and contemplating the political one.

During the trip, James Box and I took a walk in search of some presents for his kids and happened upon an anti-Trump march along the way. We all spotted political messages in graffiti and on posters, and overheard many political conversations on the subway and on the streets. There was something in the air and no mistake.

At the conference, we listened to dozens of presentations with a through thread of applying design to address ‘real world’ problems and generally just make ‘things’ better. Here’s the lowdown.

All the P’s

Politics, people, power and purpose.

Political overtones were to be a given. One of the speakers, Cennydd Bowles, pointed out a Post-It note from a delegate on a wall outside, which said something along the lines of: “enough of the politics, now”. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. And his response to that was defiant - politics permeates our thinking and actions, whether we like it or not. End of.

People, funnily enough, also featured heavily. Examples of good design being used to help people - particularly those suffering misfortune - were heartening to see. In their ‘Be Like Water’ presentation, Katie McCurdy and Jeremy Beaudry from the University of Vermont Medical Center showed us how they applied a meticulous, research-rooted approach to integrate themselves into the worlds of the staff, patients and families at the hospital. The resulting design solutions made people’s lives easier in a context where it really mattered. No startling revelations or innovations, just well crafted, helpful and practical vehicles for information that were purposely placed in the spaces they were needed.

Side note: there’s a similar read from Katie McCurdy on using design and UX in hospital cultures here: https://medium.com/hsxd-health…

Power was another recurring theme. Chelsea Mauldin set the tone in the opening keynote with the provocation:

In most design contexts, our employers or clients have more power than the humans who use the tools and services we design. How can designers address inequalities of power when power dynamics aren’t in the brief? And what are the social or ethical considerations of designers who want to wield their own power responsibly?

Chelsea Mauldin

Perhaps controversial in the context of challenging the commerce status quo. I’m not sure we have the answers yet, but it’s great that the questions are being asked more openly.

Purpose was, perhaps, the most pertinent of all. Whitney French gave a presentation entitled ‘Shortcut to Chatbot Emotional Intelligence’, exploring how usefulness, helpfulness, flow and cadence, amongst other things, can be leveraged to breathe life into a Chatbot’s conversational capabilities. And she summed up the ‘purpose’ point nicely:

No matter how good your bot is, if it doesn’t have a value to a specific audience, it’s no good.

Whitney French

All the C’s

Creativity, change, conversation - and the list goes on.

There were a lot of recurring C-words. All pre-watershed ones, mind you.

Creativity. Our friend Jon Kolko delivered an energetic and inspiring presentation on ‘Finding Focus in the Midst of Ambiguity’, speaking to every creative mind that’s ever had a foggy, uninspired or mind-boggling moment (which is all of us, I expect). His thought that “rules, unlike constraints, destroy creativity” held particular resonance for me - a good point, succinctly made.

Change. Another friend of Clearleft, Brendan Dawes, did the closing keynote on day one: ‘The Beautiful Inconvenience of Things’. Brendan gave a fun and memorable talk which highlighted the importance of keeping things light, challenging your own perceptions, and giving permission to change your view of the world. He spoke about pencils as UIs, teapots, and light switches. All the good stuff.

You ever thought about light switches? A light switch isn’t just a functional object. It says ‘turn the lights off, if you want to’. So there’s a permission thing going on. And I really like that… (and you might think) Brendan, it’s just a light switch. It’s really boring. But you look at these things with different eyes. You can use this in your work and it changes the view of your world and the things that surround us.

Brendan Dawes

A quirky and memorable reminder to keep our eyes and minds open and agile - and to put things into the world that deserve to exist.

Conversation. In his ‘Conversation is more than Interface’ presentation, Paul Pangaro was also all about the C-words: content, cooperation, and collaboration being key.

The balancing act

As much as I enjoyed the more philosophical stuff, I wondered about the balance of the practical, technical stuff, too. Granted, I’m mainly referring to the talks here, and it may well be that more of the technical nitty gritty appeared in the workshops that took place prior to the main conference.

That being said, there were tech focused nuggets amongst the presentations, particularly those looking at the realms of VR, AR AI, VUI… acronyms aplenty. The general consensus from the Clearleft gang was that this was exciting to see, but perhaps still scratching the surface of these future-focused subject areas. Food for thought, nevertheless, and subject areas we’re all excited to explore in more depth.

But overall, my main takeaway from Interaction 17 was the feeling that the design community really does give a sh*t about purposeful, ethical and responsible design. Which is a very good thing indeed. And, perhaps, the more we all talk about it - learn, and share what we learn - the more it will happen, worldwide.

To be continued…