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LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education
June 2003 Number 7

Question 1


Do you see value in explicitly addressing the history of Experience/Interaction Design? What role does history and precedent play in your work today?

As I ponder these questions, I sit on a balcony in a hotel in Palm Springs. Hummingbirds, palm trees, pool, mountains and blue sky conspire to thwart any attempts to focus.
The objects at my fingertips only add to my distraction. Cell phone. Digital camera. Laptop. A coaxial cable wires me to the world, offering at a moment’s notice to deliver the mountain to Mohammed.
It’s hard to worry about history while being absorbed so much in the present. And yet, as an information architect at the Internet Librarian 2002 conference, I'm very concerned about the role the past will play in our future.
       As a community that has long fretted over the preservation of print materials and the slow burn of books exposed to the merciless ravages of light, oxygen and time, we librarians would be insane to ignore the blinding speed with which the world’s largest library is continuously disappearing before our very eyes.
       The Internet, after all, is not a mountain but a river that changes with each dip of the toe. And as we’d expect of such a mighty river, the Internet often defies our attempts to navigate. When it’s so challenging to find what we need in the present, how will we ever rediscover the past?
       Should we explicitly address the history of Experience Design? Yes. Absolutely. And we need to start yesterday. The birth of the Internet as a socially pervasive medium was a once-in-a-lifetime event. It unleashed a burst of energy and creativity we may not see again. And yet, we have already lost many of the digital artifacts and shared stories that could bring this unique period of history to life for our children.
       As would-be curators of the bits and bytes produced by cross-disciplinary experience design, the challenges we face are novel and substantial. Who will do it? Librarians? Designers? Universities? Entrepreneurs? Government? And how can we capture experience as embodied within a particular suite of technologies? Is it sufficient to capture 1994 HTML, or do we also need an early copy of NCSA Mosaic and a 2400 baud modem?
       The questions multiply and overwhelm. Answers require expertise drawn from many disciplines. Early efforts including Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive and Stewart Brand’s 10,000 Year Library inspire us to escape our preoccupation with the present and to truly consider our role in the big here and the long now. I’ll ponder these problems again later, but right now I’m off for a quick dip.

“Why has the term “experience design” evolved from the traditional term “product design”?”

Why has the term “experience design” evolved from the traditional term “product design”? As a social scientist, I would guess that this evolution reflects the change from an industrial economy based upon mass production of standardized commodities to a digital economy based upon the design of information—because if information has value at all it is within the context of experience. All of these terms are problematic, perhaps, but they reflect our collective attempt to understand what information is becoming. In the future they will all sound as transitional as a term like “horseless carriage” sounds now, but for the moment they are helpful because they shape our collective practice.
       In the future all that will exist, perhaps, will be archives of information commodities rather like the fragments of the history of early film or radio or television (other fragile media) from which we try to infer the creative impulses of the artists who were trying to create new genres. In archiving our understanding of our practice we help to archive a record of how a new medium was constructed. This process is experimental at best, but even a null hypothesis can have value in an experimental process. More to the point, we are collectively re-inventing information, and terms like “experience design” are part of that process.

Yes, I definitely see value. By studying the past we can see the changes forced on the design disciplines as a result of various social, political and technological changes. We can then use this knowledge to prepare ourselves, and future designers, for the challenges that lie ahead.
       If design is a continuum of change in response to political, social and technological changes affecting the world around us, then terms like interaction design and experience design represent our attempts to grapple with and make sense of these changes. As we study the history of design we begin to see patterns whereby various areas of niche expertise were necessarily integrated into the design process to solve problems brought on by the change described above. Once the expertise is assimilated into the process, a streamlining occurs and the process returns to its equilibrium of efficiency having been changed forever. Those areas of niche expertise do not disappear but typically go back to their original niche with some expansion in scope. The design process and the designers using it are then changed forever. Examples include cognitive psychology (usability engineering) and anthropology (user research/understanding). The library sciences are now in the spotlight!

“I would be surprised if anyone felt it were possible to record “experience design” without recording some of the experiences themselves with participation and responses from their contemporary audiences...”

I would be surprised if anyone felt it were possible to record “experience design” without recording some of the experiences themselves with participation and responses from their contemporary audiences, since interaction is a central (and indirectly designed) element. In my view, this form of preservation would be more documentary than archival. There are really two separate issues here. One is the preservation of some record of experience, including the designed artifacts and affordances and the essential ingredient of human interaction within the historical context. The other is allowing future students to experience the same designed artifacts from the perspective of their own situated contexts in the future. The first “documentary” exercise is more or less anthropological; the second is historical. The first involves an editorial process whereby a documentary representation is created. We do this with all of the projects created by our graduate students in the Media Design Program at Art Center. The documentary artifact is typically a DVD, website, or videotape, usually accompanied by verbal commentary.
       The historical preservation of “experience design” would necessarily involve, as Peter Morville suggests from his veranda, something like an emulation of 1994 HTML within the technological constraints posed by NCSA Mosaic and a 2400 baud modem. Bruce Damer has curated an astonishingly complete set of early computing devices and interfaces. Many are the only remaining examples of their kind, and he has lovingly kept most of them running. In the late 1970s I worked on an 1802-based computer with 2K of usable RAM and an extremely low-resolution 4-color display, loaded from audio cassette tape. No working model of that system still exists, as far as I know. But those of us who worked on it could probably provide a decent emulation of it. This form of historical preservation involves retrospective recreation of a necessarily antiquated technology and is much more time-consuming than creating a documentary, but it is equally important for future students. As we create interactive technological experiences now, it is important that we carefully document the technological substrate so that it can be selectively recreated to form working examples of historical design.
       I also agree with Challis that the evolution of experience design will be implicit in the authoring processes of the future, but it will take design historians to tease it out. To aid in this analysis, it would seem that making some record of the authoring process—even if it is merely narrative—would be an important responsibility for contemporary experience designers.

“History is...essential to design practice— especially because, in this relatively new discipline, we all remain students.”

History is essential to design education. History provides students a vocabulary. History builds a shared language, a shared experience and a shared context. From that shared language, new ideas can emerge—and it is in that shared context that new ideas are understood and evaluated.
       History is also essential to design practice—especially because, in this relatively new discipline, we all remain students.
       For me, the history of design—including “experience” design or interaction design—has several, interrelated levels:

— a history of ideas:
the development of models and theories that form the basis for experiment and practice
— a history of technology:
the evolution of hardware and software that make works possible (Technology is one of many “shaping” forces and may not deserve prominence over other types of social change.)
— a history of the works themselves:
projects that expand our view of what’s possible
— a history of design methods:
the development of tools for managing design projects and developing design “solutions”—the methods by which works are produced
— a history of interaction techniques and structures:
the development of widgets, affordances, the methods of interaction—the building blocks used to make a work, which are often shared by many works
— a history of visual language:
the evolution of styles which are also shared by many works
       My point is that an archive of web projects would certainly have value, but a true history of “experience” design would also be much more. I believe we need a framework such as above to inform our discussion of archiving and history.

I do think we need to attempt to capture the history of what I would prefer calling interaction design. (Some of us might use the terms “experience design” and “interaction design” interchangeably, but I don’t find it nitpicky to choose one term over another.) However, I feel that we are witnessing the development of a design discipline in its own right, much as we witnessed the development of advertising design, web design, information design and others. Therefore, we need to capture case studies, design guidelines, and methods and processes that define the landscape of interaction design.
       History and precedent both play a role in my work as an interaction designer. Historically, I can refer to how other (artists, performers, animators, designers) designed the conditions for “experience” and made the intention of the creator clear through expressions like books, movies, paintings and artifacts. I can also refer to some of the great writings in design, philosophy and social science to learn how others conceived of “experience” and “having an experience.”
       As an interaction designer, I can contribute to a growing body of knowledge in my discipline by rigorously documenting my own design processes, contributing to and participating in collaborations and conferences with other academics and practitioners, and budgeting time to read, write and develop the knowledge of a discipline still in its infancy.

“The question isn’t the value in addressing the history of Experience Design...The real question is in trying to decide where the history begins.”

The question isn’t the value in addressing the history of Experience Design. Of course understanding the history of any discipline is important. The real question is in trying to decide where the history begins. Since Experience Design is an umbrella approach to a variety of disciplines, it’s difficult to point to the beginning of any one discipline. For example, while interface and interaction designs are relatively new, narrative and theater—two important disciplines to Experience and Interaction Designs—are ancient traditions stretching back millennia. This is where Experience and Interaction Designs start.
Understanding the history of interaction starts way before the emergence of digital experiences. And that’s a lot to learn, but it’s critical nonetheless. The same goes for most other aspects of these fields. If we only look at new, digital design then we can’t really learn much (since these endeavors are much too new)—especially if we hope to understand how they affect people and what people enjoy and need. People haven’t actually changed that much and, to understand them, we need to learn all we can about how people interact, relate to each other and relate to their surroundings. Digital design’s history won’t teach us any of this and not understanding this ensures we won’t be designing anything of much importance to people.
As much as I hate having to stop and continually define things, I think it may be necessary. When I use the term, “Experience Design,” I’m not just using it as a euphemism for “Digital Design.” I mean the deliberate approach to building objects, services, environments, events and experiences with a focus (or, at least, an acknowledgement) of the experience that people have with these things (as opposed to focusing only on the traditional aspects of these solutions). Experience Design applies to non-digital solutions just as easily as digital ones, and it has a long history. If the term equates to “Interaction Design” for people, then they probably mean “Interaction Design for Digital Media” or even just “Digital Media.” There's nothing wrong with media being digital—most is moving that way anyway. We don’t need a fancy term for it and we shouldn’t feel the need to dress it up. Other designers don’t do this with their fields and it makes us appear both disingenuous and ashamed (like “garbage men” passing themselves off as “sanitation engineers,” a different, important profession that already exists).


LOOP June 2003 Number 7