|D O O R S O F P E R C E P T I O N 5|
|The interface designer's burden|
|PDF link for printable transcription||Gong Szeto|
I am not Toshio Iwai. But I do want to say that it was a delightful honour to be mistaken for him about seven times yesterday. I only wish in my wildest, wettest dreams that I was him.
Today I'd like to talk about 'today'. Actually, my talk is not about yesterday nor is it really about the future; it's about some of the observations and issues that I run with as an interface designer now for a big company working for big companies. My training is in architecture. I think about colour, space, material, form. In only the last few years, through the practise of interactive design, have I learned anything about business and business processes and economics. Many of the people I work with, and many people in New York city who are working in this field, I think, are all struggling with the same problems: really fast growth, very, very complex technology, very, very oppressive deadlines. And an immense amount of responsibility, which I'll get into in a little bit.
I often wonder whether I'm in the least bit qualified to talk about the stuff I do, but I want to share some of these things with you.
The title of my talk is 'worktoys and playtools in business'. Or on the 'non trivial pursuits of adults in the workplace'. I actually think that adults - like this morning there has been a lot of focus on children, kids, new forms of learning, rethinking education in many ways - I kind of envy this next generation of children that are being engaged with technology in a really positive way. I find that this talk in many ways is kind of representing the poor adults who are now settled with working , making a living and are themselves struggling in these respective environments of change.
When I began my training as a designer, I'd always been fascinated by the tools that different artists use and the forms of the tools and the way they express their function. So my intro into architecture from my former function was a very seamless one. I began being interested in technology while I was in architecture school. I played a lot of MUD's in the computer lab, while I was also learning Autocad, learning how to draw on a computer. So my fascination with the design of tools has translated to the software environment, has not waned.
This image is something that I pulled off the Net but I think it's fairly canonical - the type of workplaces that many, if not all of us work in. There's a desk service and computer monitors and in many ways a very dreary, uncreative environment. It's work after all. So what reminds me is actually the importance of what happens on the computer screen and the way we relate to it and interact with it. There's been a lot of research about 'breaking out of the box', a lot of discussion about computers being more ubiquitous and cases disappearing, and sensors everywhere and so forth. But I don't see that happening really, at least in a global way, for a long time. So we're kind of stuck with the screen environment, so I like to focus on that condition.
This is a diagram from a furniture catalogue I've seen, which is sort of the ideal elements that make up a work place. And it's interesting that the kind of furniture expression and how we're augmented and how we're sort of atomised, to engage in this two-dimensional service which is the screen. It's also pretty amazing to me how much we're all kind of willing or sometimes even forced to confront the screen and interact with it in this very fixed way.
When I started architecture, I studied with Tuious, and three principles that he put forward in the design of good buildings were firmness, commodity and delight. Firmness being a building that was solid and robust, roof didn't leak. Commodity something that was accommodating the various functions of a house or a building. And what's interesting is the third, which is delight. It's something that should please and shouldn't offend. And I think with these three principles, they can also be applied to interface design and software design, in the various context that we experience.
What I've learned actually in the business environment is that everybody is really spoiled. I mean, my working environment is a creative studio, but a lot of the clients that I work for don't really have a fun and rich environment. And I had a sort of predominant attitude about delight, that delight is for sissies. Business is a place where you work. Work is serious. We can learn a lot about our present day workplace by studying the kind of tools that we use. Word processors, spreadsheets and so on and so forth. And the design of software right now is one, I think, that will function as a utilitarianism. Things that help us be productive and more productive and why. I think to make more money or first to continue to do more work in a less amount of time.
But I believe that the design of software expresses the cultural biases of those who sell it and those who use it. I'm very fascinated how Microsoft markets their products as well as many others. Productivity is the mantra of modern commercial software. And in the proclivity of modern software design as one of genericism, one that, if anyone uses Microsoft products, tends to not be creative but then in a particular way, it sort of like accommodates features and more features to have you do more work in an infinite number of different ways.
In a lot of the projects that I do - we're building actually business applications like Internets and extranets, a trading application that I'm working on for a Wall Street company, which is responsible for handling millions of dollars every minute - which is a tremendous responsibility for an interface designer. But I hear a buzzword called 'mission critical' a lot. It's 'mission critical this, mission critical that.' And I really believe that communicates the testosterone-inducing urgency that really means for your failure.
People commission design services, because they don't feel that we add a lot of value because they can do it themselves. We help communicate corporate brands. Utility is often the only latitude that we have. E-commerce, which is a lot of the area that I'm working in right now, is predominantly message and very little artifact. And right now a lot of web design as you probably know is a really congestant, very dense sort of environment.
So presently I feel that interface designer's burden is - and this is words from the client: 'If the customer goes to the website and fails to find the critical piece of information, then the corporation will lose a sale, thus negatively influencing the supply-demand chain. That's affecting our position in the marketplace. Thus tanking our stock price. Thus boosting our competitors stock price. Thus creating an imbalance in trade. Thus creating economic instability, causing the government to intervene. Thus creating a dominating fabric and destroying the very democracy of the free market economy that affords us. The world as we know it will be destroyed.'
So I believe the biggest challenge for innovation in this context is cultural and technological nursery. So where does play fit in? When means become an end in itself, we have play. When they are different we have 'problem solving'.
This morning's session was based upon the merging of the object and the process which becomes a play-process. And I believe as we kind of grow up and have to work as adults, those processes become separated. And the tools that we use aren't toys anymore because they facilitate us yielding results.
I read a really good book last week by Bill Stump where he argues that the airplane flying experience is too contained and is not much about flying. And I think with that, some of the challenges ahead in interface design is to try to humanise and to bring back the experience of play and making and craft.
I'm just really going to close with a new fascination which is in the studio, which is the ability to hack the Windows shell. The following is a series of projects that use the product called Lightstep, which is some shareware to create individual operating system environments. In this sense, someone made the Windows shell resemble the Mac OS, the BeOS. Someone converted and compiled it into an OS. And that sort of goes on and on. And why this really interests me is this sort of ability for people to find the need to express, to chuck away the convention of marketed commercial software and to subvert it and to have it express their own individuality.
This is a User Interface that was probably designed late-16th century for Catholic endotopical biologists.
And of course my favourite, the Star Trek Windows desktop.
And one that really resembles some of 3D fighting games that are very popular.
And one that our studio started to develop.
So I'd like to close on the feature of software design. We move towards a new software design paradigm that re-integrates play with problem solving. And so instead of having productivity tools, that we now move towards is making productivity toys.
Our studio has doubled the last year-and-a-half in re-designing certain types of applications. In this sense we're taking non-forms and kind of injecting new thinking into them. This is a map application that we wrote in Java. We wrote and continued to work on a new e-mail application called Parasite. And you can read more about that in If/Then. It uses some particle physics thinking and algorithms to display conversational threads between gobs and gobs of e-mail. And most recently we wrote a new text browser called Texture, which can be found on the HotWired website.
This one is really interesting: a new toy which I discovered last week, which is sort of interesting. It completely co-opts the keyboard to make it into a construction tool that you can interact with on a screen. I bought one, it works.
And finally: play is dead, long live play.