Interaction Design in Ireland

Darren Mealiff, a student from IT Carlow’s Product Design & Innovation Department, conducted an Interview on Interaction Design with our Director of User Experience, Séamus Byrne. Follow Along as Séamus answers some very interesting questions about Interaction Design.

Darren – 

From my experience Ireland seems to be falling behind with regards to design in an international context what are you views on this?

Séamus – 

I think we are getting better. I think Ireland is like a pint of Guinness.  If you take the creamy head, it is all about the culture of music and literature which is what we are known for.  I don’t think we are known for our design side but having said that, if you take that the Guinness analogy, if we go underneath the creamy head into the deep dark depths, there is a lot of bubbling creativity and innovation across lots of design disciplines. I would say there is a lot of talent here and great people doing great things, but I don’t think we are organised and I don’t think we are united and certainly this has a lot to do with the government taking us seriously and providing funding towards design.

If you go to regions like Scandinavia and the Netherlands you will see that there is a lot of support and funding put into design, and not only from a discipline point of view but also that there are designers connected to teams making the decisions, be it in the government, in education, etc.  I think we have our work cut out for us to change that culture, especially in the current economic climate with regards to gaining funding.

There have been some worthwhile ventures – the Pivot Dublin drive to position Dublin as World Design Capital was one. We didn’t win,  but what it did do was help unify the different design disciplines across the country into a short-term design council. We presented a pretty substantial bid document that really captured the history of design in Ireland and the multi-disciplinarian qualities of our community.  That was very successful in bringing us together but there was a backlash from the media who just highlighted the project as a €300,000 failed bid. I really thought they were missing the big picture, that there is a lot more to design in Ireland and this was one of the best initiatives. Of course, in Interaction Design back in 2012 we won a bid for the Interaction 12 Conference to take place here. We put on a very successful conference with over 750 of the world’s leading Interaction Designers from over 32 different countries.  I was screaming to everyone in the government that I knew, or could get connections with, that this was a big deal, but unfortunately I didn’t get much of an uptake from the government or the media, but a couple of years later I’m getting calls from people in the government saying there’s a conference bid, and I say yeah it was 2 years ago. To sum it up, I would say the future is in our own hands. As individual designers, we have to organise and speak with a unified voice.  There are people who have tried before and got burnt out, so I think it’s important that there is some kind of design council. It won’t work until we organise and come together and push for funding etc.

Darren – 

Is there too much of a separation between or a snobbery of design disciplines to allow designers to come together for this to come to fruition?

Séamus – 

It’s hard to say, sometimes I think designers are afraid of peers copying their homework and they may be reluctant to share ideas or show their work.  This can be a big blocker to unifying and organising the design disciplines together.  This perceived design snobbery may in fact be more attributed to shyness or introversion – which is part and parcel of creative folks. Communication and collaboration is such an important part of our work with our clients, so it’s key we practice this with our design peers too.

As designers we can be quite empathic and sensitive. The act of creating things can be challenging and very difficult.  This makes the design area quite an emotive industry. Most folks in the design world have strong opinions and are natural problem solvers, so if you bring us together, there are no shortage of ideas and suggestions.  Often when it comes to designers the problem comes from the non-creative aspects of the business like operations, pulling everything together and project management – we neeed to work on these aspects.

Time may also be an issue when it comes to bridging the divide between designers and between design disciplines. Designers are very busy with their day-to-day projects and with keeping up with the industry, which doesn’t leave much extra time for the macro, extra-curricular initiatives. There are also too many different design organisations and associations, all competing for members. Don’t get me wrong I’m all for innovation and evolution, but the sheer amount of choice can fragment the wider design community into mini-scenes, which may stifles cross-pollination a little. There are exceptions to this, events that seek to break the divide and are inclusive of designers (and non-designers) from all backgrounds like Dublin’s Refresh, Pub Standards and IxDA Dublin’s Defuse (which I helped to start up 5 years ago).

Some design organisations charge membership, which increases the competitiveness to recruit members which further fragments the overall community. I am in favour of not charging for membership and for the last 5 years have been deeply involved with the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) an “unorganisation” with a mission to advance the discipline of Interaction Design across many platforms, including an annual conference, an online forum, and with over a 150 local groups based in cities across the world. These local groups put on free events for their members, and tend to be focused on policies of inclusion and integration with other local design organisations.

IxDA Dublin’s next free event is a redux of the Interaction 14 Conference.

Just because designers in Ireland haven’t successfully organised in a super-macro capacity yet does not mean it can’t happen.  To make it happen, we need the right people from the key design disciplines, government funding and support via a design-specific initiative, and time.

Without these ingredients, it’s not going to happen. As an island our approach has been proactive in attracting international business, but it is a very outside focused approach. We need to better organise and unify the talent we have locally in Ireland and show how serious we are about it by developing a dedicated DESIGN IRELAND hub space – this will help raise Ireland’s profile on the global design map. There are a lot of big technology and business initiatives already doing this, both of which can be vastly improved by including design.

Darren – 

How long have you been involved in Interaction Design and how did you become interested in it?

Séamus – 

My journey with interaction design started with website design and development in 1997. I remember teaching myself HTML on a computer in the library and I began working in this field in the early 00’s. I was mainly doing multimedia and flash animation work, so I was an  *interactive* designer.

I became aware of role and function of interaction designers from working on websites and eLearning applications. Interaction designers would provide us with wireframes and / or storyboards which would tell us what content and choices were made available to the user. Then, I would build the design happen using html, flash, lingo, and a whole slew of other production technologies. There were many times on various projects I conducted activities and tasks that where part of an interaction designer’s toolkit, but I didn’t identify them as such – they were just things i did as part of my multimedia design process.

I didn’t transition into Interaction Design proper until 2006 when I ended up getting a job as Staff at a reputable University in their Interaction Design Department, on the User Interface team.  My focus there was more so on the aesthetics or visual design than the Interaction Design: how can we make the affordances better? how can we make the interface more consistent and simple? how can we tell a better story and use visual hierarchies and cues to increase user delight? I was working with a super smart team of Interaction Designers. Soon their methods and practices started rubbing off on me, and I was turned from an Interactive to an Interaction Designer. They sound like very similar fields but they are not as Interactive Design does not generally deal with software development. Or at least it didn’t then. These days the lines are more blurred as websites , apps and traditional applications continue to converge.

So there is a significant rite of passage to Interaction Design from folks with design agency or multimedia production backgrounds. Others have arrived at the Interaction Design discipline through academic fields such as Human Computer Interaction (HCI); which is connected to psychology, computer science and software development.

All the things I learned in Interactive Design from reading books by Brenda LaurelChris Crawford and many others, helped me grasp and apply Interaction Design. I guess Interactive Design and Interaction Design, both deal with humans, content and technology.

Darren – 

Interaction Design seems to be a very multidisciplinary subject and not very focused on one single area.

Séamus – 

I would have to disagree with you on that. Interaction Design is very focused on the design of behaviour. The nature of the behaviour changes depending on the type and amount of entities that are interacting with one another.  Interaction Design can impact the behaviour between a user and a product, a user and a service, a user and a system, or between users, and many other interactions between different entities.

Industrial Design focuses on form, texture and other attributes of a product, similarly Interaction Design focuses on the behaviour of that product as a user interacts with it. This dialogue between humans and other entities such as systems, services and products can be distilled down to a set of actions and reactions (or behaviours), which can be observed, analysed, and improved upon by refactoring based on principles of design, design patterns and user feedback.

So I would say Interaction design is very focused on behaviour, it’s just the source of whats behaving can change.

Darren – 

So, would you say it’s a reactive based discipline, in that it works on how the user reacts to the products action and vice versa?

Séamus – 

When it comes to designing products Visual Communications folks think of style and composition, Industrial Designers think of form factor and how much space it will occupy, there are many other design disciplines thinking about many other attributes too.

However , I would question how much time or time thought goes into how people (users) interact with products and what this means for the design. When we get into Interaction Design territory we start talking about usefulness, meaningfulness, utility and usability. So a big part of this is accomplished by done observing people, through looking at their behaviour with the actual product or service, so in that way Interaction Design focuses on the actions and reactions. I like to think of them as moments or steps, and at each step there can be “pain-points” that need addressing.

Interactions are based in time as well as space. If you zoom out and look at a user’s journey as they interact and experience a product or system your introduced to different steps. For example if you take a flight, you go to the airport, you check in at the desk, you then go to security and get on the plane. Each of those steps can be identified as different phases within a larger lifecycle.  Within this model we can “drill down” and map out the different moments, and technically we can improve these moments for the users.  My point is that each of those moments require interactions between people, systems and products and within all that framework you can improve each moment.  The basic units of Interaction Design are actions/reactions occurring at different moments.

What I find most unique about the Interaction Designer’s toolbox is that it should always involve research and most importantly, user research.  We are all about context and we seek to see how people use technology how and where they interact with it, and what’s the behaviour between the two, is it good, bad or indifferent.  This is a very important part where we do ethnographic research with field studies and interviews.  Ideally, insight and findings from the research should feature and be incorporated into the design.

So, two things to remember:

  • Ensure your research is always based on real people and not just what your own opinion is.
  • Push to incorporate insight from user research into the design of actual product.

Darren – 

What are your views on design how education in Ireland compares with your experiences abroad?

Séamus – 

Design education here can be quite stringent and quite strict, where as in the States it can be a bit fluffier while still expected to be top quality.  There is more focus on collaboration and a lot more focus on what are these things underpinned with. In Ireland we learn a lot of tools and the role of technology, but there is also why we do this as humans, I have a degree in sociology so I’m always interested in the human factors of things, for me it’s about storytelling, it’s about community and about place, it’s a bigger concept.  I think there needs to be a stronger focus on these key ideas they underpin, all the reasons why we produce technology and why it’s interesting as humans to us. I sometimes think it is haphazard how we put people together in the studio or classroom, we not matching people and their skills up very well. Sometimes you could have a team of 4 designers or 3 programmers and they might do a very good project, but I think it’s very important to be able to measure the success of the learning experience.  I mean if I go into college as a designer and want to learn a little about business or technology I could do a masters project for 2 years but I may not come out of it feeling I’ve developed any new skills.  However there’s a lot of dynamics, and I know it’s not easy but I certainly think we can improve upon that.

Also encouraging people to present, I mean most of the time as a designer we will be presenting concepts or ideas.  What I learned in the states is that it is like a boot camp for presentations, we were encouraged all the time, I think it goes back to the show and tell culture from their high school.

I think sharping the skills of how we work with people who are control freaks or are not contributing and so on, these are the skills that will really help your design in the real world get across the line. Quite often we can be brilliant intellectuals about design, we think it can be really conceptual and intriguing and it may be, but in my opinion it’s not successful unless it’s been used by somebody.  If it stays on your desk and does not get programmed or built or deployed, then it’s not a successful design, because no one is actually using it, it might be conceptualised and might be very strong but it’s not being utilised.

To answer your question I think there’s a lot of programmes in Ireland education wise and some are very good and very strong but some of them aren’t.  I think coming up with certain criteria and standardisation around design is something that we should be encouraging and somewhere all the different design educational institutions can touch base and connect to a frame work that raises the bar and raises the standard, just like they would have in the Netherlands.

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