In interaction design, human understanding is key

4 Feb 2012

The Interaction 12 conference on interaction design was held over the last few days in Dublin, where designers were encouraged to develop a greater level of human understanding when creating user interfaces.

Organised by the Interaction Design Association, the four-day event gathered more than 750 designers from 32 countries at IADT in Dun Laoghaire and the Convention Centre at the IFSC in Dublin. It’s the first time the event has been hosted outside of North America.

Speakers with expertise in interaction design gave talks throughout the event to inspire and educate the community, discussing how better to improve relations between people and the products and services they use.

Dirk Knemeyer, founder of Sprout, Involution Studios and Conquistador Games, said that just as designers developed their coding skills to design user interfaces a decade ago, interaction designers must become experts in human understanding to develop their craft.

He pointed out how the evolution of technology has grown from a novelty to become fully integrated into our lifestyles. He argued that interaction designers should have some understanding of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, endocrinology and economics to take the opportunity to create meaningful interfaces for the future.

Users don’t have goals

Andrew Hinton, principal user experience architect at Macquarium, spoke about how many designers often create interfaces assuming that users have specific tasks or goals in mind, however, this is often not the case.

“Evoking the word ‘goal’ comes with a lot of assumptions and baggage that can misdirect our work as designers,” said Hinton.

“There’s a deep assumption in our profession’s cultural background that our users have explicitly, consciously articulated goals that they are working towards,” he said.

He argued that often, people were treated like another highly rational system when mapping out how they behave when using products and services.

“In user experience design, we like to think that we’re considering all the dimensions of a person and often we really do. But we still tend to focus on these tasks and goals,” said Hinton.

“And more often than not, the goal is actually only the fuzzy, distant possibility in the future that really, nobody even thinks about until you ask them.

“What we know now is that even if you think you have a goal, it’s likely that it’s going to shift and change as you find your way to it because right now, the user is just going to muddle their way through a situation that’s emerged in their life,” he said.

Rethinking user testing

Dana Chisnell, researcher and co-author of the Handbook of Usability Testing, expanded on this concept, pointing out that the traditional user testing method – where one person is put on one computer to see how they run through a program – may not get designers the answers they need, particularly as the web gets more social.

“Usability testing is not telling us what we need to know for social interactions online,” said Chisnell.

“In fact, the techniques that we’re using can only really tell us what we know already. What we know about is how to eliminate frustration. We’re very good at eliminating hindrances and identifying obstacles in interaction.

“We’re not sure how to do user research that’s going to tell us about what we really need to know about relationships,” she said.

She argued that people don’t operate in the real world in the same way as they are asked to act in user research and usability testing. She mentioned how, when booking a hotel, people like to consult with friends, spouses or relatives, which the human/computer model of user testing doesn’t cater for.

She also pointed out that services can get used for purposes beyond what the designers could ever believe they could be used for, mentioning how in the Arab Spring movement, many people sent coded messages through Facebook and eHarmony to arrange protests.

“The human/computer model simply doesn’t work. This model of interaction probably never worked. More and more, it’s human-to-human interaction, mediated by technology. And this might always have been true but it’s more evident now,” she said.

The future of user design

Knemeyer believes that in the future, products will be designed not at scale for mass audiences and demographics, but for individuals, pointing out technologies such as 3D printers. He believes that products will be designed for who we are, even for elements that we don’t talk about or don’t fully understand.

He says that while the technology isn’t quite there yet, consumers are beginning to know what they want and that the technology is aligning for it.

He thinks that when this happens, the concept of the genius designer, such as Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, could be threatened and that designs will cater to the individual needs of people.

He encouraged designers to think of frameworks for understanding people in a much deeper way to truly understand their needs.