ISSUE 31  News & opinion |  May 2002 | updated 6/13/03   

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  Design meets usability: report from CHI 2002 conference

About a month ago I was in Minneapolis for the CHI2002 conference (CHI-that's "Computer-Human Interaction" to you). This year AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) joined in with a co-sponsored Experience Design Forum.

As an AIGA member who spent 20 years as a graphic designer and the last 5 as a designer educator focusing on interactive design (that's "Experience Design" to AIGA), I went hoping to gain a better understanding of the "other" side: usability.

Graphic designers are often accused, with some justification, of simply "making things pretty." Or these days, making things "cool." On the Web this translates most often into those infuriating Flash interfaces that take a minute or two to load before you can do anything on the site.

Usability guys, on the other hand, are often lumped in the category staked out and defended by Jakob Nielsen: humorless, artless, "just the facts, ma'am." No fun, no imagination, relentlessly driven by statistics and rules. On the web this means text-heavy, plain and unimaginative sites, like Jakob's.

Well, Jakob was there in person. He doesn't have horns on his head, as some imagine. He admitted to perhaps overemphasizing utility over beauty at his own site. Yet he came across as having a genuine interest in speaking out for the masses of people who use the Internet daily to find information, and who are served poorly by websites which focus more on how they look than how they work. He's got something to say, though his message may be overshadowed by his relentless self-promotion as the "guru of usability." I still recommend his book Designing Web Usability, reviewed here.

When you spend the day with the research-oriented folks at CHI, your vocabulary has to expand a bit. Here are a few terms that were tossed around a lot:

As best I can tell, a heuristic approach starts with a set of commonsense rules or educated guesses and tests something (like a website) against these standards. Everyone at the conference seemed familiar with Jakob's Ten Usability Heuristics.
Map to
People were anxious to talk about how one thing "maps to" another. I had a long conversation with a programmer who wasn't sure how my viewpoint as a designer could possible map to his experience. By the time we each had finished our bottles of beer we had come up with a route we might travel.
Cognitive (mapping, overhead, psychology)
Combination of perception, knowing and reasoning. If we understand better how this process works, we can design better interactive products.

Design is a verb
A highlight of the Experience Design Forum was the Education Panel with Dan Boyarski, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University; Brian Fisher, University of British Columbia; and Keiichi Sato, Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology.

Dan's statement "Design is a verb" reflected much of what I saw and heard in sessions throughout the week. As educators, our focus need to be as much on the process as the product. Many workshops were organized around discussions of how things got designed rather than the specific outcome.

Brian Fisher summed it up like this: "If the problem is properly framed, answering it is easy."

A sidelight: without Post-It notes, the design process might grind to a halt.

Interactive: Italy
If I could study interactive design anywhere in the world, it would be at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, located between Milan and Turin, Italy. This graduate-level program led by Gillian Crampton Smith, formerly head of the outstanding Computer-Related Design program at London's Royal College of Art, has a unique people-centered approach to innovative uses of technology.

Institute Ivrea logoIn an information session at CHI, Ms. Crampton Smith described the Institute as as something of a cross between a monastery and an airport, with a focus on the ways people interact with communications and computers.

The logo, shown here, is an updated version of the Bauhaus logo. Institute Ivrea clearly sees itself as heir to the tradition begun in 1919 by the original Bauhaus: "The building of the future."

In their first term Institute students take courses like "Designing Desire," "Harnessing Technology," and "No Man is an Island." Sound like the typical course catalog? The research and projects that come out of this are similarly unconventional. The methodologies students outlined were both rigorous and humane in their approach.

Projects that students described in their presentation at CHI included "FARAWAY," various objects designed to communicate the connection between individuals in different locations. Each person would have a similar object. When you held yours, the other would light up or warm up, indicating your presence to your loved one.

Another project, "Wearable Dreams," tried to create responsive clothing based on the person's interests and desires. An outdoors-y person might wear a jacket that had strips that lit up to indicate North. In other words, a wearable compass for a person who loved to hike and travel.

Unfortunately the deadline to apply for admission this year just passed (May 20), but there's always next year. In the meantime, visit the Institute's website.

And the winner is...
The winner's of Click! the first annual High School Web Competition sponsored by Cuyahoga Community College-Western are Matt Crowley, Holy Name High School, and Mark Kandra, Strongsville High School. For details visit the Click! website.

This year's competition focused on students only in the Greater Cleveland area. Next year we may open the competition to the world. If you're interested in entering, or are a high school teacher whose students may be, visit the website and sign up for our mailing list.

[ Click! competition website ]

Scandinavia, here we come
In early August I'll be visiting Denmark, Norway & Sweden. I'd love to talk with designers and design educators while I'm there, so if you're one of them and would like to get together for a coffee or beer and conversation, please email me. I'll be in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, plus points in between.

-Al Wasco, May 22, 2002


Hi Al:
I have been going through boxes and found your book of international symbols. If you have missed it, I am sorry. I can send it through the mail.

I'm living six blocks for the Mississippi in the crescent city. Making masks, ignoring technology. It took me eight months and a new girlfriend to hook up a telephone. The South, what can I say.

If you want your book give me your address or come down and get it. If you write back soon give me a little time to respond, I want to send a lagniappe as interest.


CHI 2002 logo








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