Learning from Interactive Design Failures

Learning from Interactive Design Failures

November 11, 2013
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ASTC INTERACTIVES DISCUSSION PPT_Page_3-ThumbI was fortunate enough to participate in a panel session recently entitled “Learning from Interactives that Suck” at the 2013 ASTC conference in Albuquerque, NM.  I felt quite humbled to be onstage with veteran exhibit managers and designers in a frank discussion of the challenges of exhibit design.

It’s a stretch to say I design exhibits.  It’s not a stretch to say that architecture and information systems are deeply concerned with interaction issues.  Interactivity is a field of concerns almost imperceptible to everyday life.  We enter a building.  We peel an apple.  We make a phone call.  These are routine activities, whose constituent components we barely give a second look.  Until the door, the peeler or the phone fail to meet our expectations.

For the last 20 years I have been working at smoothing out these interactions in the increasingly novel everyday experiences we have.  20 years ago, handicapped accessible ramps were hardly ubiquitous.  When they were put in place, they were often hasty and ungainly in appearance.  It was easy to say they met the basic criteria of allowing someone in a wheelchair access to elevated spaces.  It was harder to make those components, and the users of the ramps, feel like they were more than an afterthought. The ramps met part of the human experience, but not all of it.

Buildings are full of these moments.  Handrails and door handles that snag the strap of your bag. Automatic doors that make you wait while they do their thing.  Toilet paper dispensers that require an extra joint between your wrist and elbow.  Hopelessly barren corridors that give you no sense of your direction. Lighting and window systems that completely separate you from daylight cycles.

Similarly, the nascent world of widely available information systems is rife with violations of our expectations and abilities. So much so that it is almost not fair to criticize.  But we must.  The potential is so vast it borders on ethical obligation to remove the barriers from using information systems.

I design both buildings and information systems in my practice.  In buildings, we rarely ask these questions.  We rely heavily on the precedents of other installations to guide and justify our designs.  In the haste of our practice, it is understandable.  But it doesn’t make it better.

In information systems design, we ask these questions all the time – sort of.  It is a given assumption that we are building information systems to make decisions, or learn.  “User friendly,” and “intuitive” are also givens.  By now these terms are spoiled by generalization, overuse and failure to deliver. In fairness, there is a lot of variation on how to accomplish those goals. Complicating matters is the chaotic nature of information systems design practice.  Platforms, legacy integration, iterative design loops, persona tracking, sixteen brand new, and terribly exciting, methods to handle font kerning in browser X, all compete in the requirements stack with the one thing that matters: quality decisions and learning.

I have to credit the information systems world with a very robust inquiry into the subject of interaction design.  I feel like a journeyman.  That will never master the concepts.  As a design practitioner that’s humbling.  I’m grateful to learn that everyone else struggles with it too.  Even the current Grand Masters.

Below is the central slide of my presentation.  PDF editions of the whole presentation are below.  In the last slide is a fast bibliography to further your explorations.

Some ideas from around the world of interaction design.

Some ideas from around the world of interaction design.


This was a damn good conversation.  My colleagues knocked it out of the park.  I’ll add more information about their contributions soon.  Well worth the time and energy.


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