For those of you at IxDA Interaction ’11 (or those who have been following the stream of tweets coming out of Boulder the last two days) you know the Interaction Designers conference has been a somewhat disconcerting experience in terms of its diverse speaker lineup, polarizing session topics, and the strong opinions hidden within the questions coming from attendees during the panel QA sessions. The subject matter and materials of Interaction Design as a profession, a study, and a field all seem to be up for debate with subjectivity trumping our own empathy for each other.
That said, the state of the union on IxD is not something with which I’m personally concerned. I feel we’re on track as a profession that is evolving — always ever so slightly behind. Not to mention that I’m just too busy with our client work and keeping up with the plethora of screen resolutions and input gestures that come with them to expect anything else other than to humbly be inspired and/or to learn something new while here.
I have observed, however, that the over-arching consensus here at IxDA seems to be that we’re a rapidly growing field made up of a diverse design community struggling to perfect user experience in and at the pace technology is setting. As a complement to the consensus, Rich Buchanan, who gave an inspiring Day 2 keynote, pontificated on a few key notions:
- The materials of interaction design are the purposes and desires of the people we serve.
- This isn’t ass-kissing; this is a deep core empathy.
- Just like any other aspect of design, we are here to support human dignity.
Today is Day 3 and this morning I had the pleasure of attending Josh Clark’s session on complexity — a relevant and ubiquitous topic that comes up for every interaction designer on almost every project. Clark’s packed session was a short (almost too short) lightening round talk on both the misunderstanding of complexity and its latent beauty.
He started off admitting that his talk and his work focuses on complexity through the lens of mobile devices, apps, and the input methods that come with the mobile medium. He struck a strong resonating chord with me when he declared, “People don’t want dumbed down patronizing apps. Nor do they want simplicity either. They want uncomplicated.” The statement, seemingly obvious when first heard — perhaps back in design school or one’s first UX-related job with experienced colleagues at our side — is a good rule of thumb that can easily be forgotten in a 37signals hyped world where features and complex functionality are criticized and left out for the sake of presenting the user with candy coated web2.0 lickable fonts and glossy buttons that give the user a limited amount of options and data. Uncomplicating an app or a screen means to simply abstract the problem of complexity away from the complexity itself.
As an example, Josh presented a hypothetical challenge of operating an airplane for landing and takeoff through a mobile device. The slide he presented as a solution showed the iPhone in landscape mode with all the primary gauges and dials one might expect to see in a normal airplane cockpit. From a designers perspective the interface was obviously intimidating but the resulting feeling was that the challenge has been solved. Josh then made his point about abstracting or reducing complexity with his next slide which showed the same device with two simple buttons labeled ‘Fly’ and ‘Land.’ His point in the second slide, which showed a dramatic reduction of interface, had done away with the intimidating complexity of operating an airplane by simply creating the illusion of simplicity by hiding the complexity of the cockpit dashboard and offering less anxiety producing mechanism to the user of which to make a choice. Granted, the example is a stretch in its hypothetical implementation, but the point is taken.
Clarity trumps density.
Using plenty of humor and an unabashed attitude despite being up on stage in front of 600+ designers, Josh quickly flipped through a variety of slides that depicted examples of simple or complex UIs vs. UIs of both that did a good job of hiding their own complexities. He also made a strong empathetic point that many users actually want more complexity the more comfortable they become with simplicity. Users don’t mind having a conversation with their devices.
Apps that show respect and that avoid patronization can be very successful by serving up information progressively as the user becomes more comfortable. Apps that learn user behaviors and interface adoption rates can more accurately accommodate ‘leveling the user up.’ Apps that allow information to become the interface, albeit avoiding Tufte’s well known ‘Sin of the Pridefully Obvious Presentation,’ are ones that will allow us to clear up a world of administrative debris (buttons, folders, dialog boxes, etc.).
Solar Walk for the iPad is one such app that puts the user in the middle of a complex topic but effortlessly teaches the user and ultimately facilitates the greater experience and purpose of learning.
Josh also pointed out that we don’t have the latency in a lot of mobile touch apps that we have on the web therefore buttons can be optionally eradicated, making room for more relevant content. He said, “…[buttons] are merely the middle man…a work around.” While obvious to mobile and iPad app designers, he reiterated (with passionate humor) what has been known more than it has been learned, “Touch is changing the way we think about our interfaces. Start looking for stories in our data. Provide opportunities to explore.” Here he plugged RunKeeper and the Lose It app as “…productivity apps that are great at providing exploration by telling a story with the data. They’re video games for narcissists. Also, don’t forget about devices that act as ‘Boredom Busters’.” Here he went on a side tangent about how micro-tasking presents a world of opportunity for complexity and humor to intermingle. “Boredom floats an entire industry of moron tests and fart apps. Chaucer started this. When people are bored they are looking for escape, exploration, and another world.”
Josh wrapped up with an anecdotal story about a friend’s daughter Nina who had devised a secret plan to trap her own grandmother in a cage:
“What Nina knows at age 6 is that complex schemes take a lot of forethought. Spend time working out complexity on paper. You won’t get it right the first time. We make mistakes. Keep coming back to it.”
I give props to Josh for presenting a core and relevant topic with a funny, insightful, and subjectively fresh perspective to an audience that seems distracted with itself. Although when you think about it, it’s only fitting that we as a community would struggle with who and what we are when we’re spending all of our time thinking about the users out there.
Jeremy is a user experience designer at EffectiveUI. Questions? Leave a comment here or catch up with him on Twitter: @jgraston.