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LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education
April 2001 Number 2

Karen Mahony
 

Introduction


Harry Saddler

Terry Swack

LOOP: We’re interested in how today’s successful practitioners got into the field of interaction design. Given the newness of the enterprise, there seem to be as many routes to the business as there are people. Can you tell us a bit about your career path and what events in your past led you to your current situation? How good of a model would your career path be for someone looking to enter the field today?

KAREN MAHONY: Interaction design is a great place to work because it lets you apply many different interests and skills. When I was at school, I ended up veering between two career choices—physics and sculpture. I started by doing a year at art school,in a pre-degree course,and then worked as a freelance fashion designer for a while. When I did my full degree course, between 1981 and 1984, at the University of Kent, I studied both English and Software Engineering. I was very interested in literature and narrative theory, and, at the time, there were only two universities in the whole of the UK where you could do a combination like that. It was interesting, because I could see overlaps between the two, but in fact, in those days, the two disciplines didn’t really speak to each other. The English department had very little idea of what was going on in the software labs and vice versa.
      In 1984, I went onto the Royal College of Art and began to do research on the semiotics of text on the screen. After this, I went back into the software lab at the University of Kent and did two years’ research, this time on the HCI of hypertext systems. It’s been an interesting journey. I suppose it was at this point that I actually began working as an interaction designer, although it might not have been called that at the time. My title then was "Research Fellow in Computer Science." Broadly speaking, I’ve been working in interaction design ever since.
      Would my career path serve as a model for someone wishing to enter the field? It seems that people nowadays would be less likely to take such a circuitous route, but I’m actually quite glad that I had the experience. I’m very glad to have worked so much in software research. I learned an enormous amount there, and it has continued to be very useful to me, especially in being able to contrast the way software engineers and designers work.
 


Karen Mahony is a founder/director of Xymbio, an all-media consultancy. Karen has extensive experience at a senior level in the new media industry, on both the client and the agency side, and passionately advocates that design focus on real needs, real users, and real-world business models.
      Prior to founding Xymbio, Karen worked for Wolff Olins as Head of interactive media, and for British Telecommunications as Corporate design manager for interactive media.

 

LOOP: Do you find that this combination is still rare today? Is it still unusual to find those doing visual interface design having a lack of understanding of software development?

“I have some problem with the assumption that interaction designers can function with so little knowledge of software engineering.”

KM: Most people calling themselves interaction designers in the UK today come from a graphic design or product design background rather than from a software background. Increasingly, they may have done a post-grad course in something called “interaction design” or “multimedia design.” I have some problem with the assumption that interaction designers can function with so little knowledge of software engineering.

LOOP: Tell us about your transition out of academia and what eventually led you to decide to start your own company.

KM: After leaving the software labs at Kent, I was hired as the first design manager for Interactive Media and Multimedia at BT (British Telecommunications). From there I moved to the corporate identity firm, Wolff Olins. What I found there was that software development was just seen as primarily part of the production department. It wasn’t seen as being creative. There was little understanding of the fact that good software engineering is often what makes the difference between an innovative project and something that is really quite ordinary. So, I left there with the idea of starting my own company—a company that was primarily about interaction design. I didn’t want to start a company that had come from product design or from graphic design or even from the software side—I wanted to start a company that was first and foremost an interaction design company.

LOOP: What year was that?

“ Focusing on interaction is the most powerful channel you have—it’s the most powerful mindset to come in with, because it broadens your perspective on a whole range of issues.”

KM: Between 1995 and 1996. Things have changed a lot since then, but in those days there were very few companies that were coming from an interaction design perspective. This perspective has served us well. We’ve maintained since the beginning that our firm is interested in design for all media—that we are not just limited to being, say, web designers. Focusing on interaction is the most powerful channel you have—it’s the most powerful mindset to come in with, because it broadens your perspective on a whole range of issues.

LOOP: Is this focus reflected in your company? Are you organized around phases of the design process, as opposed to, say, particular media?

KM: Coincidentally, we’ve just recently changed both the name and the structure of the company. Our name has changed from Mahony Associates to Xymbio, and we’ve organized ourselves into four main divisions that reflect our company’s interests.
      The first division is “Channels,” which focuses on concept and content generation that is geared mainly, but not exclusively, toward the television industry. “Channels” behaves a little bit like a television production company.
      “Xymbio IP” is our strategic consulting division, but what really differentiates us from most strategists is that we’re very much grounded in implementation. We are interested in consulting on projects where we know the work will continue all the way through to implementation. We feel this is very important. There’s no point in going into a project and telling people they should do something without supporting them and actually seeing it through.
      Our “Studio” division is about design and production, but what we try to do is to push innovative design across a variety of media while at the same time pushing toward the creation of innovative software. “Studio” is the part of the company divided between London and Prague. The Prague office does a lot of the software work, and some of the print implementation, but we expect it will increasingly involve itself with design over time.
      The fourth area of the company is called “Architecture.” “Architecture” looks at services, systems, and products that rely on a crossover between virtual space and real space. For example, in the design of an intranet for a company, Architecture would be interested in questions related to the complete integration of work-space into that intranet. We find that most office design people put effort into the physical design of an office, and additional effort into the intranet design, but they rarely think about how those two things work together.
      Another emerging feature of our company stems from the fact that we work between two cities, Prague and London. We put a lot of effort into remote collaborative working. This is something that the whole organization is interested in, and we feel that this is going to be more and more applicable to our clients in the future.

LOOP: So you see the experience you gain in this area in-house as something that will feed specifically into your consulting?

KM: Yes. We learn a lot from simply doing it.

“You wouldn’t train someone to become an architect with just a one- or two-year post-graduate course. Similarly, there just isn’t enough time to teach someone how to become a fully qualified interaction designer in the same two-year period.”

LOOP: Let’s get back to the question of design education. You’ve told us about your unusual educational history and the value you’ve gotten from studying in a diverse range of disciplines. We’re wondering if this is still a valid or preferred model for pursuing a career in this field, or is it time to begin establishing particular programs in interaction design? If so, should these programs be built on top of existing courses of study, or set up independently?

KM: This is an interesting one. I think my basic answer to your last question would be yes, the field should be taught as something separate. An analogy I’ve used for years when talking about interaction design is the field of architecture. I think there are lots of parallels between the two fields. You wouldn’t train someone to become an architect with just a one- or two-year post-graduate course. Similarly, there just isn’t enough time to teach someone how to become a fully qualified interaction designer in the same two-year period. There’s an awful lot of value in the sheer diversity you get by combining people from different disciplines such as product design, graphic design, psychology etc. However, it’s important that we begin training people more specifically and for a longer period of time. The ideal would be for students to do a three-year undergraduate course and then go on to do a post-graduate course. That way, you would provide about the same amount of training as that of an architect. This would result in much more confident and much better designers.

LOOP: Are there programs in the UK, or elsewhere, that are structured like this?

KM: Nearly all of the programs in the UK are post-graduate. I know there are a lot of courses now that offer a stream where students can take modules in interaction design, but I don’t really know if there is a whole course in interaction design at undergraduate level. I can’t think of any at the moment.

LOOP: One of the key issues we see facing interaction design education is the sheer breadth of the subject—there are many diverse subject areas that need to be addressed. What are the essential skills that you would like to see graduates of interaction design programs having as they enter the field?

“As for the specific skills that students should get? Students need to understand the basics of typography and information design; they need to understand what branding and identity mean; they need to have basic skills and a foundation in usability and user-oriented design.”

KM: I can only address the situation in the UK, where this is quite a big issue at the moment. In the UK there has been a big movement to open up access to higher education. There are many more people going into further and higher education. I think that’s a great thing—and I entirely support it—but there is a tradeoff in that there is less money available per student, and therefore, much less tutorial time available: people just aren’t seeing enough of their tutors face-to-face. Another issue is that nowadays many students have better equipment at home than the equipment that colleges can provide, so they tend to work at home. They are not really learning anything from their peer group. Because of these factors, many of the basic skills just aren’t being transferred, and obviously this situation is not doing much to develop student’s collaborative skills.
      As for the specific skills that students should get? Students need to understand the basics of typography and information design; they need to understand what branding and identity mean; they need to have basic skills and a foundation in usability and user-oriented design. We’re finding that new graduates very often come to us with some of these skills completely missing. I don’t know if this is the same in the United States, but the situation is pushing a lot of the responsibility for training onto industry. There is a big debate going on in the UK at the moment as to whether this situation is cost-effective, or whether it might not be better to put more money into higher education. Obviously this issue extends beyond just interaction design.

LOOP: Educators seem to face an ever-increasing demand to provide technical training. Technology has always been a part of design education, but the situation seems to be exacerbated by the current dominance of software. How should we think about balancing technical instruction in interaction design with the more academic aspects of the profession, such as history, theory and methodology?

KM: Teaching theory, history and methodology is crucially important, and too often it is treated as just an add-on. There is a second point I’d like to make about this, though, and this gets at what might be a possible confusion when you talk about technical aspects of the curriculum. If, by technical training, you’re talking about teaching the tools—the usual sort of applications such as Photoshop, Director or Flash—this is quite a different issue from teaching the more engineering-oriented aspects of the subject. There isn’t usually enough thought given to the difference between those two. Some students feel that as long as they’re terribly good with Director and Photoshop, everything is fine. It’s important, however, for colleges to put more effort into thinking about some of the other aspects of technology. Understanding technology is not just about understanding technological constraints—it is also about opening yourself up to the enormous opportunities technology can contribute to the design.
      We all hear designers complain that when they design something and specify it to software engineers it just doesn’t get implemented right. The reason for this is because the designers haven’t really been taught about the way software engineers work and communicate—or about what reasonable expectations they should have of the work that they do. All of this ends up compromising the design enormously. I think we should split technical training into the learning of the tools, and the learning of some of the technological underpinnings. This again is a little bit like architecture. The very best architects work very closely with good engineering companies and it is because they work closely, and know how to communicate with them, that they end up doing incredibly innovative architecture. This collaboration allows them to push the design while they are also pushing the engineering.

LOOP: Getting this degree of collaboration and multiplicity of viewpoints is quite a challenge for curriculum design. It’s very difficult to find these diverse perspectives in a single instructor, or to establish classes with diverse student representation. How do we simulate this experience in the studio or create situations in which it can occur?

KM: It is very hard. The best example I’ve seen of this is a course that’s run in Trinity College in Dublin, by Marie Redmond, who used to work at the MIT Media Lab. The course is run out of the Computer Science department, but Marie brings in people like poets, artists and writers—as well as designers. It’s an extraordinary course because, while the students are steeped in a software environment all the time, they are encouraged to do very creative things.
      In most courses it’s easy to make the demand for this kind of breadth, but it’s very difficult to fulfill it. It requires good funding, and good staffing levels. I do think that courses should bring in outside people to talk about their experiences working in design teams on real projects. We should also open up the whole issue of specification. One of the problems software development has at the moment is that specification is not done very well. A lot of specs look mathematically accurate, but when you unfold them, you realize that there are all sorts of things that haven’t been addressed. Designers are very good at visualizing, communicating and prototyping. If we could find some way that they could add that knowledge to the way that specs are produced it would not only make the designers more effective, but it could actually make the software engineering team more effective as well.

LOOP: A lot of what you’ve said points to the need for emphasizing collaboration skills in educational programs. How important is this issue for a curriculum in interaction design?

“Collaborative skills are essential. The interaction design projects that are most interesting to work on are going to be big and complex and are going to involve a lot of people with different skills in the process.”

KM: Collaborative skills are essential. The interaction design projects that are most interesting to work on are going to be big and complex and are going to involve a lot of people with different skills in the process. You’re also going to have large teams of people working on the client’s staff as well—and collaboration with them is equally essential.
      Setting up a situation where students have to work together can be very difficult given how so many students these days want to work at home. One way to do it is to make sure that students are marked in part on how the team does, rather than on how the individual does. To really get students used to collaborating though, a course involving other disciplines would be best.
      On the professional side, our thinking at Xymbio is to gather together a group of people who want to work more and more collaboratively—and who also are interested in working collaboratively with users. We’re interested in working with people who you might not normally think about bringing into a project. We’re very interested in working with people from very different skills and disciplines—and we find we need to do that to come up with interesting innovative ideas and in order to push out on the way we are thinking. I think that if you could get that kind of excitement about working collaboratively across to students, it would go an awfully long way to making them more effective as team members. It would probably make them more creative as well.

LOOP: Interaction design requires a significant amount of logical thinking, detailed planning and project management skill. What does this imply about the role for more intuitive and experimental approaches to designing interactive products? Your background in both design and programming would seem to give you a unique perspective on this question.

“Sometimes what is seen as creative can be a little bit too easy. Often what needs a lot of creativity is taking an idea and working out how to make it do something, how to make it real and how to make it actually applicable.”

KM: This is an issue, but it’s a shame to say that one emphasis should necessarily be viewed in opposition to the other. Software engineering is enormously intuitive, creative and experimental. Project planning, project management skill and organizational skills are, of course, immensely important, but a good designer can be very intuitive and experimental at one stage in a project, and then be more rational and organizational at a later stage. You often meet designers who veer toward intuitive and experimental work and others who veer toward structure, but in a lot of projects you need both—you need to know how to prioritize and decide which approach to apply at any given stage.       Relating this to curriculum design, you have to be very careful how you evaluate student work. I’ve seen situations where instructors have tended to give students higher marks for what they see as very creative and very experimental work. In a more general interaction design course—one that’s trying to touch on every aspect of interaction design—it is important to think very clearly about recognizing organizational and structural skills, as well as the practical matter of making something work for people.
      Sometimes what is seen as creative can be a little bit too easy. Often what needs a lot of creativity is taking an idea and working out how to make it do something, how to make it real and how to make it actually applicable. There’s a good story I once heard about the typographer and educator Anthony Froshaug. When he joined the Royal College to teach graphic design, he observed after a short while of teaching that he went to the college expecting to teach designers how to become stars, but found that instead he was having to teach stars how to become designers! Sometimes we think that being experimental is all about becoming a star, but you have to realize that you need to become a designer too.

LOOP: What about another potentially unglamorous side of interaction design—user testing? Should this also be part of the interaction design student’s experience?

KM: When I was with BT, I worked in the Human Factors department, so I have some personal experience in this area. Usability and user testing may seem unglamorous, but it is a fundamentally important area. In my opinion, many design courses could do a lot more to emphasize how important it is for designers to empathize with their users and their end audience.

LOOP: We know from some of your previous writing that you have a particular interest in the problems facing women in the interaction design industry. You’ve commented in particular on the male-dominated, technophilic ethos of new media firms. Do you still see this as being an issue? Have things improved for women in recent years?

“...the people seen as the ‘stars’ of interaction design have largely been men. The reality, though, is that you have an awful lot of women working in interaction design who are doing some very fundamental and very creative work.”

KM: There was a lot of hope in the early years of this industry that more women would get involved—simply because it was a new subject, drawing from many disciplines. To some extent these expectations have been met. Unfortunately, I think that there is, and has been, a problem because of the fact that the people seen as the "stars" of interaction design have largely been men. The reality, though, is that you have an awful lot of women working in interaction design who are doing some very fundamental and very creative work.
      It’s difficult to talk about this question without slipping into some dangerous clichés—you can end up saying that women are more focused on users, or that they are more collaborative and things like that. If we’re not careful, these images can produce unfortunate stereotypes. I do believe, however, that women tend to work better on teams, and that they are frequently less concerned with stardom than men. They tend to be more concerned with simply getting a good product out the door than they are with writing their name on it.
      On the other hand, if we’re not careful, we end up with a situation that I’ve seen in traditional design studios: where women designers end up taking on organizational, managerial roles—focusing their attention on the users and those kind of things—while the men take on the role of experimental "creators".
      We have to challenge that. In the UK, we’ve still got comparatively few women creative directors at the bigger, more interesting design companies. Many of the design courses are trying very hard to make sure they’ve got sufficient numbers of women teachers, but given the huge shortage of good teachers in this area, they are having particular trouble in finding enough women to teach and act as role models.

LOOP: If we look at the numbers, are more men practicing interactive media design than women now in the UK?

KM: Yes, there are, very much so. And although you see a lot of women in companies, they’re very often in project management roles. There’s a lot of sexism that you run into with respect to attitudes toward users—for example, about the differences between women and male users.
      I do think that there are areas of the field that particularly attract women users. Women are particularly interested in services that focus on communication, especially social communication—things like virtual communities. I don’t think that women are less confident and are less able users though, I just don’t think it’s true.

LOOP: Let’s finish up with one final follow-up question. How have these gender issues surfaced in your work in user-testing? Do you have to bring a particular sensitivity to these issues in that domain?

“It’s not always a question of looking at things because they are technically innovative—maybe it’s not the technology that’s the point—but it’s looking at things that are innovative in terms of social organization and communication.”

KM: We recently did user testing on a new mobile service, which was aimed at users of both short message service (SMS) and WAP. Although we didn’t do enough testing to be able to say statistically that there were gender issues, we did find, in talking with users, that there were gender-related patterns that came out. Women tend to use mobile phones an awful lot. Women are very interested in communication, and we were finding that women use features like SMS quite a lot. What was interesting in this particular instance was that when we first got involved with designing that product, there was a feeling that it would be aimed largely at young men, because the product was seen as something that was technically very innovative. But in fact, as we went thorough the user testing, it become apparent that the product had a great appeal to women. In Japan the advertising of mobiles and mobile phone services tend to be aimed almost exclusively at women. The interesting thing was that women were picking up the service not because they thought it was technically innovative—they weren’t interested in having the latest toy—but simply because they were seeing it as a great communication device. It gave them superior ways of organizing social events.
      I think we can learn quite a lot from that—not only about the way men and women adopt new services, but also about some of the thinking that needs to go on behind the design in the first place. It’s not always a question of looking at things because they are technically innovative—maybe it’s not the technology that’s the point—but it’s looking at things that are innovative in terms of social organization and communication. That’s a whole different way of thinking, and I think a way that will, in the end, come up with much more innovative products.

 

LOOP April 2001 Number 2