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Worldchanging Interview: Vinay Venkatraman on Interaction Design
Julia Levitt, 21 Sep 09


Vinay Venkatraman, an interaction designer, is one of a rapidly expanding group of scholars and professionals around the world working to define the way our stuff behaves. Although it's natural for most people to understand the need for interaction with gadgets like software and mobile devices, the field is actually remarkably broad. In an increasingly interactive age, the success of systems, services and even whole corporations and organizations often comes down to an effective interface, created with human behavior in mind.

Venkatraman is a partner at Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design (CIID), an institution that harbors a one-year Masters degree program in interaction design as well as a research center and consultancy. He helped initiate the Institute with Simona Maschi and fellow designers Heather Martin and Alie Rose in 2006. The school's pilot year began in September 2008, in partnership with the Danish Design School (DKDS). Already, he mentioned, students from the venerable institution next door – a school famous for producing portfolios of stylish and functional cutlery, furniture and other hard goods -- have started perking their ears up about this evolving interactive approach to their field.


While in Copenhagen recently, I had the chance to visit CIID and meet a few of its students, who were engrossed in the final phases of developing their thesis projects. The array of creations was wildly diverse: among those I saw were Danish student Sarasiff Kjaergaard's work on an RFID language therapy system for patients suffering the neural disorder aphasia (left, top) and Korean student Mimi Son's collaborative video diary, which she envisioned as a tool for helping her remain a presence in her toddler son's daily life while she was studying in Denmark (left, bottom).

Interaction designers believe it's important to put potential designs in a broader social context – understanding how and why a user will approach, understand and interact with a product. Toward this end, Venkatraman and his colleagues emphasize the use of media and other communication strategies as a key part of product development.

For example, one concept for an Energy Rehab program, designed by CIID students Marcin Ignac and Nina B. Nygaard Christoffersen for industry project partner Intel Digital Home Group, aims to give people tools to help change wasteful energy consumption habits. Because the success of such a product would largely rely on potential users understanding how it worked and why it would benefit them, the designers created this video demonstration:

Energy rehab from Marcin Ignac on Vimeo.

It's easy to see how this kind of holistic thinking can apply to sustainability initiatives. When the success of a strategy depends on a dramatic shift in individual or group behavior, good design, intuitive interfaces and effective communication can make or break public approval. I recently sat down with Venkatraman to discuss this and other parallels between interaction design and building a bright green future.

Julia Levitt: Are there any basic rules that you suggest using to tell stories that can help inspire a product or service user to change his or her behavior?

Vinay Venkatraman: Explaining complex concepts is a growing need for many designers and creative thinkers. As part of our curriculum we teach video prototyping to effectively communicate and gather feedback on their concepts. Some simple principles you could follow are:

1. Create empathy with the audience by choosing a story they can relate to.
2. Weave the design features into a narrative that makes sense in the real world.
3. Use supporting illustrations / animations etc. if the narrative is not strong by itself; but use these judiciously.
4. Do not overload the narrative with too many details. Keep it crisp and simple.

JL: In your pilot year at CIID, your program has already attracted attention from notable companies who want to work with your students. Do you think that there has been a sea change/tipping point in interest surrounding interaction design, and if so, what factors have caused that?

VV: There is definitely more interest and momentum in bridging design and technology thinking in holistic ways. Even large corporations are looking at new ways to apply technology in people's lives. My interpretation is that large companies are now becoming aware that the driving forces behind successful products cannot be mere technological innovations; they must instead be a combination of human needs/wants marrying an appropriate technology solution.

JL: When it comes to designing more sustainable cities, where do you see the most glaring real-world opportunities for interaction designers to make a big difference to catalyze change? Do you have ideas for how it can/should be done?

VV: Cities of today are built on the premise that there will be uninterrupted supply of energy, water and other resources. The reality is that cities will need to reorganize themselves to deal with a constantly changing balance of resources. This requires citizens and governments to think not only about new technologies and infrastructure, but also about new ways of organizing and operating. This demands a big change in behavior, which is comparatively harder to achieve than the physical re-organization.

Designing new behaviors and beautiful experiences are the core of interaction design practice. This could manifest itself in products but also in systemic thinking around services and its various touch points. Thus, interaction designers are well poised to design for behavioral change, which can have profound impact in the near future.

To give an example: some of our students designed a range of product service systems with the theme of "Social Computing for Sustainability" in collaboration with Intel. One of the projects turned into a collaborative review and rating system for apartment blocks with incentives from local government in the form of tax breaks to those having minimal energy/carbon footprint. It involves not only the design of the service concept, but also of the software in the form of web and mobile applications that facilitate such a system. It introduces new behavior and encourages people to change strategies personally while the governments provides support and incentives.

JL: Can you point to an example of great interaction design that has successfully gotten people to switch to a more sustainable way of doing things?

VV: The Wattson energy monitor made by DIYkyoto is one nice example. It's a simple and elegant ambient device that monitors your energy consumption and alerts you to how much you're using by means of a coloured glow that's very easy to interpret. It also shows absolute information like KiloWatts/hour, and can possibly also be configured to show cost. It's an interesting piece of interaction design, as it encourages you to change behavior in a non-intrusive way, yet quantifies the data into real world numbers. It's also a good piece of collobration between interaction and industrial designers, marrying technical capabilities with elegant design.

JL: Creating a more sustainable global society means not only convincing people in developed nations to shift to a new and different way of doing things, but also convincing people in developing nations to bypass problematic strategies entirely and opt instead for new methods that are less familiar. How do you think that designers can address these two different challenges?

VV: You are quite correct, developing nations need to think of alternate strategies to reach their development goals. But being from India, I can tell you that it's quite difficult, if not impossible, to convince the masses to reduce their aspirations. Everyone wants to own a car, have all the amenities at home and live the Western lifestyle popularized by media.

A tragic example is how new office buildings are constructed in cities of India and in many parts of the Middle East. They are mostly big glass towers that need constant air conditioning and energy. The architectural style emulates many Scandinavian buildings and is totally inappropriate for the subtropical climate in India. Thus, it's important for designers to address this issue in a more systemic way. It's not enough to create a sustainable product; we must also create the right image in terms of how its marketed and presented.

Thinking in terms of services instead of products can also contribute to reducing material and energy consumption, and create employment. Designers need to play the role of creators of beautiful and sustainable products, but also become champions and educators of the right approach. This duality in approach could go a long way to inspire a new generation of design thinking.

JL: What information about their audience do interaction designers use to inform their work that is different from what marketers and designers of hard goods use to inform theirs?

VV: We strongly encourage the students we train to gather qualitative understanding of the people they are designing for. Immersing yourself in the way your target audience behaves is very insightful. Market data and statistics do help in painting the larger picture, but gathering firsthand impressions and having empathy for the people you design for is equally important. The starting point for most of our projects is to understand people using a range of methods inspired by ethnography.

JL: What are the go-to resources for learning about interaction design?

VV: Like most other design disciplines, interaction design is more practice based, thus there is not one set of resources which sets the benchmarks. Still there are a few which I like to recommend like Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge, which gives an historic overview of the subject through the thoughts of numerous practitioners and thinkers. Information Appliances and Beyond\ by Eric Bergman is quite thorough with numerous examples and critiques of hallmark interaction design products, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper gives an overview of the design process and common mistakes people make, especially from the view of software development methods.

I draw a lot of inspiration from Wired magazine articles, as they combine trends with evidence and look at technology in a holistic way and Make: magazine for its amazing hands-on approach. Apart from the usual list, I would also highly recommend looking at some related subjects like anthropology journals, electronic hobbiyst magazines, etc.

Front page photo credit: flickr/tobiastoft, Creative Commons license.

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Good thought provoking views by VV. However it would be interesting if he could indicate some concepts of product influencing behavioral change in developing world . especially to reign in say auto/taxi drivers to follow traffic rules

Posted by: Raghunath venkatraman on 19 Sep 09

This was an enlightening interview. People like Venkat lead the way.

Posted by: Dave on 28 Sep 09

agricultural computer long wire required product serious

Posted by: lelenords on 29 Sep 09

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