Do we deny the overall state of the world in order to create things that fit people's immediate lives -- thereby confirming their behavior and point of view -- or do we urge those people to change their behavior so they don't need those things at all?
This is one of the major themes I've seen boil up from my first full day of the Interaction'09 Conference: this consideration (or denial) of fit.
Traditionally, UX and interaction designers have worked to reduce friction and cognitive dissonance when people use products or services, creating opportunities to improve fit. Sometimes, we get to help our clients shape their point of view on what they should make, or not make, for their customers. Sometimes, they're going to make it, market demand be damned, because they need to sell more things to increase their overall revenue. We generally don't influence those choices... though we have many opinions about what our clients should do.
A broad, lifelong challenge was floated in John Thackara's keynote address. John tackled broad issues of sustainability in the experience design professions. He ranged over a number of topics, from how to pitch in and support frameworks that have been built over the past few decades by economists and thinkers to help aid our efforts in ecological change, as well as how we can support trends towards transparency in product creation and reuse of local and national resources.
But what interested me most was his discussion of all of the "peak" issues that are at play. With our world governments being faced the threat of peak oil/energy to peak food to peak climate and so on, we have to back up more than a few steps in how we use design thinking and design making in our profession... right back to our doorsteps.
People all around us in our communities -- most of them non-designers in the traditional sense of the word -- are focusing their time and energy on trying to solve these "peak" issues. If we can individually search out and help these people, then we are harnessing a massive amount of design thought and energy focused on making improvements in our local neighborhoods. Call it: "Think local, design local." In the end, his argument boiled down to a need to question exactly what kind of fit we're trying to create in our work: on the personal, local, national, or global level.
After John's speech, I grumbled a little to others -- and heard some grumbling back -- because his argument was a collection of stubs. Many more questions than answers. But as I thought through his uber-argument, I realized that he felt it was more valuable to provide a roomful of designers -- problem solvers -- with questions rather than answers. It wasn't his job to figure it all out. He's got an audience of 450 brains in a room, just itching for an opportunity to tear these problems apart.
Jared Spool led a panel discussion about where the next generation of interaction designers will come from . The Fortune 2000 companies are beginning to publicly acknowledge the importance of improving UX -- and by extension, fit -- in their interactions with their customers. How will the profession feed the potential increase in demand? There were some good chuckles to some of the questions tossed about the ballroom, but the majority of the questions came down to: People still don't understand what interaction design or user experience really is, there are few cohesive resources for the body of accessible working knowledge as part of our profession, and schools don't know how to integrate interaction design considerations into a "pure" visual design program focused on craft.
Fiona Raby, who was the last keynote speaker for the day, echoed this sentiment in a different way. In her presentation, she pointed out that we should use design for more than just solving problems. Designers can pose questions as problems instead of providing solutions, bringing design into a space that denies or exploits fit in a bold or surreal manner in order to question the viewer's worldview. Fiona showed student work from RCA in London that was fiercely intelligent -- almost in the vein of pure conceptual art. Fiona was very quick to point out, however, that every product design that we saw throughout her presentation was built as a functioning prototype that could be mass produced.