Insights from Interaction 16 #IXD

Design as a whole is becoming embedded in business, society and technology. The internet is profoundly changing the way the world conducts business and consumes services, and modern computing is taking interaction design to places which we didn’t dare to dream about before.

A few weeks ago I attended Interaction Design Association's (IxDA) 9th annual Interaction conference in Helsinki, Finland  on March 2-4, 2016.  Nearly 1200 design professionals, leaders, students and volunteers gathered together to enjoy three days of workshops and lectures.

Design, Science, and Music

The opening keynote by Marko Ahtisaari was about the intersection of design, science and music coming together. The Sync Project is his company that aims to understand and decode the personalized therapeutic effect of music; to use music as precision medicine to improve health. He started the keynote with a beautiful recomposed rendition of Vivaldi's Spring by Max Richter.

Key points that he focused on: 

From Enlightenment to Entanglement. We’re becoming increasingly entangled in our machines. We once struggled to give new institutions the power to act on our behalf. Now that we have smart devices surrounding us, we’re have a similar uneasiness when handing over power to computers. 

Systems over objects. The ability to manufacture smart machines is now in the hands of not only large companies but also individuals and small organizations. This calls for supply chains and ecosystems to be more transparent and accessible if we want to foster innovation from smaller players.

Participation over user-centric. These new intelligent systems don’t have a center, so there’s no center to put a user. Instead, we’re seeing the rise of complex, adaptive systems. The role of the designer will be more facilitative–more like a conductor than a producer. How can we co-design with machine intelligence? 

Emergence over authority / control. Lastly, we’ll co-design with artificial intelligence. The studio will be a symbiosis of human and machine, so we’ll need to figure out is best meant for humans and what's best for machines. 


Steve Baty gave a fantastic talk on interaction design across scale. Interaction Design looks at the request-response mechanisms and controls - the microinteractions - that make up the fundamental building blocks of technology. As we increase the scale of our efforts, interaction design shifts in focus from microinteractions to screens and tasks; screens and tasks to activities; activities to services; and services to interconnected systems. At the same time, the toolset and perspective of the interaction designer needs also to shift. Steve Baty talked about change in perspective as we design at different scales of interaction, and the accompanying change in method and skill set needed to successfully navigate between them. 

TLDR; The most successful interaction designers simultaneously operate across scales, balancing high-level thinking with detail, and moving seamlessly between the two.

  1. The Plane of Interaction
    • Task activity focus
    • Interaction handling
    • Labels, micro-copy, error messages
  2. Beyond the Plane
    • Cultural identity
    • Consistency and coherence
    • Persuasion, game mechanics
  3. Across Channels
    • Focus on group activities an dynamics
    • Closed systems are easier to design than open systems
    • Wayfinding
  4. In Systems
    • Step out of problem space, reframe the problem
    • Chaos theory and emergence
    • Urban planning, economics
Sketchnote by  @priscillamok

Sketchnote by @priscillamok

The Dawn of Agentive Technology: The UX of “soft” AI

Chris Noessel's keynote is about the UX of soft AI. "There is a new category of technology that is emerging across the world, in which a system does complex work on behalf of its user. In these agentive systems, a low-level artificial intelligence acts as an agent on a user’s behalf to accomplish some task. It delivers on the promises of user-centered design more than ever before, but will require that businesses, designers, governments, and technologists think of them distinctly and design for them differently. It will require them to master new scenarios and new tools."

Agentive tech is when technologies do things on the users' behalf from robot vacuum cleaner, or a self-driving car to prospero, a farming robot. Agentive tech is the next step from assistive tech. Assistive tech helps, agentive tech acts on your behalf. With agentive technology, users are promoted to managers.

Robot Ethics & the Future of Human-Robot Interaction

Kate Darling was the opener on the second day where she talked about anthropomorphism; the attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being. We treat robots like humans to make judgements about our environment when they are suppose to be tools. We anthropomorphize robots because they’re physical, intentional, and social. The ethics of robotic interactions was an interesting area that she talked about. Even though we are conscious that the robots are not alive and are simply machines, we are often feel empathy for them because of our anthropomorphism and strong response towards eyes. There are also a lot of privacy concerns; would robots make people share more resulting in exploitation? 

People increasingly treat robots like animals which also means we are more empathic but also can be desensitized with violence against robots. How does our interaction with robots influence our interaction with each other? Can we change people's empathy with robots? 

Boston Dynamics' "Spot' dog. 

Boston Dynamics' "Spot' dog. 

Design in a Wiggly World: Of Mirrors, Virtual Reality and Big Data

The last opening keynote of the conference was presented by Tricia Wang, and it was my favourite one  out of all the talks and keynotes. She explores our understanding for 'truth' in visual representations and how we often confuse representation with experience. She starts off by taking us way back to the Renaissance era where Italian painters argued with the Chinese painters over their different understanding of linear and aerial perspective in paintings. Even though we've come a long with with understanding and acknowledging that different perspectives exist, we still have this myth that we can see reality through a single lens and that single perspective is the objective truth. 

3 tools for representation: 

  1. Mirrors
  2. Big Data
  3. Virtual Reality 

The problem with raw data is that it's actually not raw. What we as designers choose to measure and how to analyze it influences the actual data. It's like when we create surveys, what we ask ultimately shapes the answers and the thought process of the users which can create a bias or inaccurate data.  Virtual reality aims to show us the truest reality that we can possible 'live' through...but what's inaccurate is that what's being shown requires a perspective, a well designed storyline which means not everything is shown equally. 

Tricia talks about inclusion and diversity and gives several examples how it's important for us designers to create with more perspective or else mistakes will happen just like when Google Photos  falsely identified some people of color as “gorillas.”  Similarly, Nikon cameras falsely detected blinking in Asian users. The cameras suggested that people in the photo had blinked when their eyes were actually open. These mishaps are called perspective collision which is when the perspective of the designer or creator of the technology clashes with the perspectives of users. 


As part of the conference, there were several design studios in Helsinki that participated in the Open Studios week. I visited Fjord and Nordkapp and got to meet a ton of designers around the world. The best thing about this conference was the coming together of so many passionate designers from all over the world. I had a conversation with a woman who talked about what it was like to first sign up for email and how it took a bit to catch on her for college class. She got to experience the early days of the online world and t's exciting to see where design and technology will be in a few years from now. I'm experiencing the "early days" of virtual reality and artificial intelligence right now so who knows what I'll get to share with the new designers of the next generation!