Design for Interaction (New Riders/AIGA, 2006) is one of the best books yet about contemporary design. Read it!
Dan Saffer, whose online persona is Danny Boy, has crafted the most accessible and instructive book I’ve read about interaction design – and more. Dan deals handily with interaction design, which he characterizes in a Venn diagram as a subset of experience design. There are issues regarding experience design that discussions of interaction design inherently can’t reach, as I’ll discuss later; but having set out primarily to explain interaction design, Dan’s done a superb job. Indicatively, the book is co-published by the AIGA in recognition of the “revolutionary transformation” for “ordinary people to influence and design their own experiences.” Dan's exposition of design thinking is as important as is his fine job of explaining the how-tos of interaction design.
Many recent bestsellers popular in the design community have featured cosmic themes: “the long tail,” “the wisdom of crowds,” “the tipping point,” and so forth. They describe social phenomena that the individual designer can only observe. Designing for Interaction is about things the designer can do to make life better, increasing what we might call the “liveability” quotient. To quote Dan,
Interaction design is the art of facilitating interactions between humans through products and services. It is also, to a lesser extent, about the interactions between humans and those products that have some sort of “awareness” – that is, products with a microprocessor that are able to sense and respond to humans.
(Calling design of any type an “art” – even an “applied art” – is bound to be controversial, especially as science increasingly is applied to the task. This is even more the case with interaction design based on digital technology. But unavoidably, there is an artistic dimension to any discipline in which human beings ultimately are responsible for making decisions.)
Designing for Interaction is practical and action oriented. It provides the reader with a comprehensive history of interaction design, contexts for the application of interaction design, and tools for interaction design. It also contains numerous examples of interaction design and wonderfully informative, personal sidebar interviews on specific topics with leading interaction and experience designers including Brenda Laurel, Marc Rettig, Hugh Dubberly, and others of equal accomplishment and insight. Finally it gets down to the “craft” of interaction design, presenting categories of problems and solutions (with the caveat that the field is still new and all rules for practice are provisional).
Dan’s chapters on “Smart Applications and Clever Devices” and “Service Design” indicate how interaction designers are expanding their field of focus from interactive objects to include customer services and in the future, robots, wearable computers and devices, ubiquitous computing, and digital toolsets.
The 230-page book, small enough to easily tote around, is beautifully designed. The graphics complement the text and convey complex meanings in visually memorable ways. Designing for Interaction also has a dedicated website to continue the interactions between the author and his readers, and among the readers. The only dissonant note is the blurry and iconically unclear front cover. It doesn’t represent the rest of the book and its contents well. Don’t be put off by it. This is a great read.
Dan’s concluding chapter, “The Future of Interaction Design” and his epilogue, “Designing for Good,” extend the discussion into new realms and propose canons for the ethical practice of interaction design. These provocative peeks into a larger realm indicate where interaction design reaches its limit. The goal of interaction design is a better product or service, and who can fault these goals? But experience design, as Dan initially pointed out, is the superset of which interaction design is only a part. What about the environments in which human beings interact with products and services? Who designs these? Or the vast number of experiences that condition how people come into contact with discrete objects and processes, and that determine indirectly, but decisively, how they react?
Of equal significance are experiences that don’t fall under the purview of an interaction designer working for an organization with narrower goals – like the experience of power in the workplace or the sense of security one has, or lacks, in day to day activities. There remains to be written the full story of experience design. But Designing for Interaction goes a long way toward setting the stage for a deeper conversation. He’s described the craft and laid out the tools for an approach to design that can be applied on a larger canvas. You must at least start here.
You can share an interview with Dan in the July 2006 Business Week's Innovation.