In the following interview highlights, Dan Saffer, Senior Interaction Designer at Adaptive Path, discusses interaction design in the field with Ziba’s Bill DeRouchey.
Dan Saffer [DS]: I am here with Bill DeRouchey, an interaction designer at Ziba Design in Portland, Oregon. Welcome Bill. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself, your background and how did you become an interaction designer?
Bill DeRouchey [BD]: Good morning Dan, thank you. I think like a lot of people, I came to be an interaction designer pretty organically. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve had various positions, whether it’s web master, writer, product marketer, product manager. I’ve done coding on the side, and eventually I moved over to information architecture. I realized that’s what I had been trying to do in my previous four jobs. And the challenge of, “Oh, I’ve got all this information, how do I structure it?”
Then I came onboard at Ziba Design as an information architect to tackle web sites and how to structure online interfaces—not online interface but products interfaces. Eventually that translated over into interaction design.
DS: It’s really only been the last couple years that there’s been the formalized role and especially education programs.
BD: Absolutely. They have some great ones out there, but it’s definitely not critical mass quite yet.
DS: So what then is your role at Ziba as an interaction designer?
BD: We have an interaction design group, there are seven of us, and we’re doing a variety of projects. My role is essentially either being the sole person on a project or leading the interaction design component of a project.
I figure out what the core challenge is: trying to frame the problem, trying to understand how people think about the particular device or problem. What’s the mental model? We’ll go out into the field sometimes and look at what people are doing, assimilate that, and then design a solution around it. Where I commonly come in is around the structure-side of solving the interaction design problem, mostly because my background in information architecture. I think more in terms of structure and flow; I’m not the guy that’s going to give you the beautiful Flash prototype. I can make a nice, crude Flash prototype, but the gorgeous Flash prototype is for other folks. My role is really the flow of the motion, behavior, and the understanding from the user standpoint.
DS: What kind of products have you worked on?
BD: It’s been roughly about two-thirds physical products and the other one-third could be anything from web sites, service design problems. I’ve been involved in naming structure challenges. But as far as consumer or physical products, there’s been satellite radios, consumer printers, home medical devices, security devices, and of course there’s a whole bunch of other really cool stuff that I can’t talk about. But of course, like any good design agency, we get some really fun challenges.
DS: Let’s talk about UX Week 2007. You’re speaking on the fourth day, the theme of which is “Interaction Design in the Field.” What’s the title of your talk and what are you going to be talking about?
BD: The title of my talk is “Learning Interaction Design From Everyday Objects.” I’m taking the notion of looking at other design disciplines: illustration, drawing, sculpture, painting, and even writing. The key focus of several design schools is learning to train your critical eye; looking at other people’s designs; and trying to dissect, deconstruct and figure out how somebody else made that thing. A painter’s going to look at a ton of paintings; a writer’s going to read a ton of books, just to understand the whole medium.
Interaction designers, of course, should be trying to deconstruct everything around them to better train themselves as interaction designers. And the fun thing about that is we’re completely surrounded by examples, it’s all the devices in our daily lives. It’s the cell phones, microwaves, ATM machines, computers, printers, and so on. We’re surrounded by buttons and icons and little blinky lights that can give us examples of how people think about devices and interaction design because there’s one thing that’s definitely true, people don’t approach the product from a void. They’re taking the learnings that they’ve experienced with other products and they apply them to a new product: that’s why you tend to see the same icons over and over that mean the same thing; they have a stock meaning within the language of interaction design. An arrow tilted on its side and pointing to the right means play because it always means play, and because people know it means play when they approach a new device and they see that, they think, “That’s play.” It’s such a simple thing, but it comes down to the core of a visual language that we all share, and I think it’s important to try to deconstruct that language so we know how people are approaching a new product, a new device. So we can make it intuitive and they can tap into what they already know.
DS: I think that’s definitely true, and my talk, which is coming right before yours, is similar. My opinion is that we should be looking towards these mechanical objects (and other analog-world products) for more inspiration.
DS: Do you think you stumbled upon this because you were surrounded by industrial designers at Ziba?
BD: One hundred percent yes. My background is completely in the online space, whether it’s web or software; it was all computer screen keyboard work. And going into an industrial design world is a whole new ballgame, and quite frankly a lot of fun. Industrial designers approach things quite differently than people who are designing for on screen. Just the amount of sketches, comps, and exploration that they do—they take nothing for granted for the first full phase of the project. I definitely think that I came to this approach an industrial design environment. Thinking about things like zoning, hierarchies, and priorities a little bit more.
Those are the things I’ll be presenting, things like zoning. If you look at a remote control, it is going to have key zones of interaction on that device. This is the area where you’re changing channels, controlling the basics such as volume. There are things we can learn from good devices and bad devices, and apply those to a pure on-screen experience. I don’t think a lot of web sites utilize zoning. For example, is there a clear area where I do this or that? It’s kind of loose. I think there are things we can translate back and forth.
DS: You also run a site called the History of the Button. What’s that all about?
BD: History of the Button is one of those things where an idea pops into your head one day and it crystallizes a whole bunch of things that you’ve already been thinking about. No matter how silly it sounds, gosh darn it, you’re going for it and just see what happens. So History of the Button is also related to from my experience as a purely digital person going into an environment like Ziba, where it’s physical products. And as an information architect, I realized that the work I do has almost no overlap at all with the industrial designers, as that’s all about physical form and things like that. All the on-screen work I’ve been doing is really coming from a software angle. It has more to do with time as opposed to static form. Then I quickly realized that the major overlap between our two worlds is our buttons. Industrial designers care about position, about the form. The information architect or the interaction designer cares about what does that button do? How is it labeled, how is it iconed, and so on? And the phrase popped into my head one day, “What is the history of the button?” And then boom, it crystallized in my head from there.
I’m trying to take a look into the past, even before interaction design was actually called interaction design, before there was the web, and look into all the products in the previous decades to understand how people interact with technology. Technology did not come out of the blue the last twenty years; it’s more like a hundred years or even older phenomenon. We’ve interacted with devices in the kitchen, cars, and telephones far a long time. Those devices formed the beginnings of how we interact with digital technology now. I think a lot of the interaction language was formed decades ago, at least the core nuggets. Now it has evolved into where we are today, albeit a far more richer interaction language.
With the tight lens of the push-button, I can look at the history of technology, interaction design, icons, and things like that. I can tease out all these different elements and try to build a story of how people interact with technology. I think this is key as we’re at the cusp where surface computing is about to go mainstream; it’s going to get crazy over the next few years.
DS: Exactly. What happens when there’s no physicality to a button? The button is moving onto our phones, walls, and desks.
BD: There’s a key question for the future: do you even really know what is a button and what is not a button? Is there clarity of what is touchable and what is not touchable? Or I should say interactable and not interactable?
DS: That is some fascinating stuff and I highly recommend everyone go check out your site. This has been great. I want to thank you for talking to me this morning Bill, and I will see you in DC!
BD: Thank you, Dan. I’m looking forward to it; it should be a great week. I’m going to be there all four days because it looks like a fascinating conference.