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The Future of Visual Interaction Design?

Shannon Ford & Frank M. Marchak

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What is it about the future that we find so fascinating? Our culture has long been captivated by stories of time travel and the other stuff of science fiction. We seem to want to know what will happen to us -- maybe because we feel helpless and want to have some modicum of control over our destinies, or perhaps we would like one day to be referred to as "visionary". Or maybe we just want to stay a few steps ahead of the competition, or to make wise decisions. Whatever the reason, anniversaries like ACM's 50th make us remember the past and wonder about the future.

How much of our attempts to predict the future is sheer folly? The influences on our culture are vast, complex, chaotic. Technology changes too rapidly for us to be able to see much past this year, let alone into the next millennium. The human capacity for adaptation, or for obstinacy, cannot be overestimated. We cannot predict the ways in which people will adopt a technology, or its total impact on the way we live and think.

Who would have predicted that car commercials would include URLs? Who would have guessed that velcro would enable designers to co-design new consumer products with ordinary people? Thomas J. Watson once famously predicted that the world market would only ever support about 5 computers; everyone knows a similar story about wild predictions that never materialized. The world is an unpredictable place, and technology isn't the only influence: futurists in the scenarios business also see social dynamics, economic issues, politics, and environmental issues as important driving forces.

Where does that leave us in our attempt to say something intelligent about the future of visual interaction design? Unfortunately, neither of us has access to a crystal ball, and our local trend watchers were not taking calls. However, two possibilities intrigue us. First, how much of the future is made, rather than predicted? For example, were science fiction writers predicting space travel, or did their writings inspire young scientists, engineers and designers to make the stories come true? If the future is, to some extent, made rather than predicted, how can we as designers influence the future by the choices we make now, in what technologies to pursue, in what systems to make, and in how we consider context when creating artifacts? This implies that value judgments need to be made about what we want for the future and what will take us there; design influencing technology, instead of the other way around.

The second possibility is to begin to recognize and articulate the core of design thinking that pervades all aspects of our profession, indeed our society, to discover what will enable us to conceive, plan, and make the things that contribute to our quality of life, in whatever situations we find ourselves in the future.

It's the same old questions: what is design? And what is a designer? The lively debate on the visual-l list that was taking place as this article was being written attests to the fact that we don't really share a common understanding of the answer to either question; perhaps because of the very nature of design, we never will. Still, there seems to be some core human activity, designing, which takes place across disciplines -- whether you are a scientist, business person, software engineer, writer, or visual designer. Creativity isn't solely the domain of the artist. Thomas and Carroll, in their studies of the psychology of design activities, have concluded that "Activities as diverse as software design, architectural design, naming and letter-writing appear to have much in common".

However, it is just as strongly felt that there are also fundamental differences between design activity and engineering or scientific activity. Buchanan suggests that in part this has to do with the types of problems dealt with by each: design activities are characterized as "wicked" problems, whereas scientific and engineering problems are by definition well-defined. Horst Rittel, a mathematician, designer, and one-time teacher at Ulm was the first to describe wicked problems, which he characterized as a "class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing". (Sound like your last project?)

Buchanan goes on to characterize design problems as indeterminate, meaning that there are no definitive conditions or limits to them. In effect, we define indeterminate problems by the solutions we choose, and that solution is but one of a multitude of possible problem-solution combinations. Engineering problems, on the other hand, are well-defined problems or determinate problems, meaning that they are capable of exhaustive analysis. In determinate situations, a problem can be sufficiently analyzed so that all the elements of the problem are known ("true") and its solution logically follows from the requirements.

The results of several studies of the design process support this type of problem differentiation. For example, Lawson found that designers approached problems by proposing solutions to them, which in turn helped them learn more about the problem and what was an acceptable solution to it. The definition of the problem continually changed and deepened through the process of formulating and testing solution hypotheses or conjectures. Lawson contrasted this approach with that of scientists, who had learned to analyze a problem in an attempt to discover all of its rules before attempting to propose a solution. Darke's study of architects also reported that designers do not, and cannot, possibly analyze all elements of a problem before attempting to find a solution. If design problems are indeed wicked, it would not be possible to know a problem without reference to its proposed solution.

While this comparison of problem-solving styles is interesting, it is not meant to imply that one is better than the other; but if HCI problems are inherently wicked, then we need to use appropriate methods of thinking when engaging them. We could do worse than to find out what core design thinking skills will allow us to adapt to our ill-defined and unpredictable future. How do we stay responsive to changes, in technology and society, and to the role we play as producers of artifacts? What is common to design thinking across different disciplines?

Another interesting inquiry is to look at not only the core of design thinking, or way of approaching the conception, planning, and making of artifacts, but also at what we value in the results of these efforts. Is what makes a good building essentially the same as what makes a good interface? The answer obviously depends on how one defines "good", but a definition with which most could agree might be that a good design effectively and efficiently solves a problem in a particular context for a particular group of users.

While any acceptable building might meet the basic functional needs of its occupants, such as providing shelter from the elements, a well-designed building goes further. It provides an environment that supports the goals and purposes of those who inhabit it, in a manner that allows them to focus on their tasks rather than on the adequacy of the building. This is obviously dependent on the particulars of those goals and purposes. For example, a public building must provide intuitive navigation for users who may be unfamiliar with the facility, while a corporate headquarters might stress a plan that facilities employee interaction.

The same is true of interface design. While the basic functionality required to access a database might be the same, different interaction approaches would be used for an information kiosk and an on-line reference system. In both the buildings and the user interfaces, a good design relies on principles such as ease-of-use and providing functionality that meets real needs. While the focus here is on usability, this in no way denies the aesthetic aspects of design. Few people want a functional, easy-to-use object that fails to meet their emotional and aesthetic needs, no matter how good it might be. A prime example is the AMC Pacer, an automobile that was the product of extensive usability design, but failed to capture the market because it lacked visual appeal. The point is that each design discipline, whether architecture, HCI, or automotive design, succeeds by meeting the functional needs of the user in an aesthetically pleasing manner. There are core design concepts that are independent of domain that we can apply to visual interaction design.

The concept of an overall essence of design is not a new topic, and has been expressed in various forms in previous Visual Interaction Design articles. Maria Wadlow touched on the notion in several of her columns, such as Design as a Way of Life and The Importance of Details. More recently, Brad Weed explored what visual interaction design could learn from Industrial Design. While the idea might not be novel, it seems to provide the best approach in trying to get a handle on what the future may hold.

No doubt many readers have their own notions about the future of visual interaction design and the nature of design in general. After reading our prognostications, these ideas may have been further confirmed or fundamentally challenged. We would like to know your thoughts and encourage you to share them through the visual-l list. As practitioners in this field, we all have a vested interest in how it develops and the directions it takes. By voicing our thoughts and concerns, we can be instrumental in charting its course; perhaps the best way to predict the future of visual interaction design will be to create it.

References

Buchanan, R. (1995). "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking", The Idea of Design, Buchanan and Margolin, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp 3-20

Darke, J. (1984). "The Primary Generator and the Design Process", Developments in Design Methodology, Nigel Cross, ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Originally published 1979.

Lawson, B. (1984). "Cognitive Strategies in Architectural Design", Developments in Design Methodology, Nigel Cross, ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Originally published 1979.

Thomas and Carroll (1984). "The Psychological Study of Design", Developments in Design Methodology, Nigel Cross, ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Originally published 1979.

Wadlow, M. G. (1994). Design as a Way of Life. SIGCHI Bulletin, 26(1), 7-8.

Wadlow, M. G. (1995). The Importance of Details. SIGCHI Bulletin, 27(3), 10-11.

Weed, B. (1996). The Industrial Design of the Software Industry. SIGCHI Bulletin, 28(3), 8-11.

About the Authors

Shannon Ford is a graduate student in Interaction Design at Carnegie Mellon University. Frank M. Marchak is a Principal Human Factors Engineer at TASC.

To contribute information to this column, send email to sf34+@andrew.cmu.edu or
fmmarchak@tasc.com, or write to

Shannon Ford, Department of Design 110 Margaret Morrison Carnegie Mellon University 5000 Forbes Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890 USA

or

Frank M. Marchak, TASC, 55 Walkers Brook Drive, Reading, MA 01867, USA

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