Conference Review: Interaction09, Vancouver
Published: May 11, 2009
Interaction09 was very exciting, with stimulating presentations blended with a lot of tweeting and great food! With a community comprising over 60 local groups and 10,000 members worldwide, IxDA (Interaction Design Association) certainly needs an international conference. Following the success of the first conference last year, Interaction08, in Savannah, Georgia, USA, IxDA put together another team to organize this year’s conference in Vancouver, BC, Canada, shown in Figures 1 and 2. On February 5–8, nearly 500 people gathered in Vancouver to share their experiences, discuss the future of the discipline of interaction design and the organization itself, and had the opportunity to finally meet the people, from all over the world, who are behind the daily email discussions.
Figure 1—Vancouver is a wonderful mix of city and nature
Figure 2—Vancouver’s public library, steam clock, and Stanley Park
Each of us nurtures the IxDA community by actively participating in it. With a set of goals in mind for the conference, but no specific theme, everyone got a chance to bring up topics for discussion and consider the scope of the discipline. By the end of the conference—with extensive followups in blogs and on Twitter—a clear definition of interaction design had emerged, especially from the keynotes by Robert Fabricant and Kim Goodwin.
When I arrived at the conference, the organizers gave me a warm welcome and were extremely friendly and supportive. At workshops and during the conference, there were organizers present throughout the venues, assuring there was always someone to help. For a young conference, its diversity was notable—18 countries were represented at this conference, including USA, Canada, UK, Singapore, Thailand, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Israel, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, and Switzerland.
One could almost say the conference started in advance, online. By using the CrowdVine platform for the conference Web site, the organizers created a seamless link from the mailing list, to the conference preparation, to the conference itself, and to followups afterward. Participants could connect with each other; read about the speakers, presentations, and attendees’ profiles; organize their own conference calendars, and follow the preparations for the conference in discussions on the conference blog and Twitter. It felt like newcomers were easily integrated into the usual crowd.
Content & Presenters
Before the conference, a day and a half were devoted to fully booked workshops, with a total of 572 attendees. Many people attended multiple workshops, which covered such themes as
- design research
- interaction design for software and hardware
- design for touch screens
- drawing ideas
- how to start a local IxDA community
These workshops, along with evening gatherings, served as the fuel for great discussions throughout the next days. The conference began with six keynote speakers, creating a strong momentum that continued throughout the 28 short talks of the conference and the daily social activities. The 28 short talks were selected from 175 submissions and covered very diverse topics such as
- skills employers are looking for
- design principles
- design for a community of 200,000+ people
- natural interfaces and multi-touch
- interaction design synthesis
- engaging product experiences
- visual complexity
- design theory and methods
- design review
- service design
- game design
Judging from the discussions in the corridors, Twitter messages, and post-conference blog posts, people were pleased with the content. Attendees enjoyed and learned from positive discussions that enriched their professional experience with different points of view. There are always some speakers who are more charismatic than others and topics that aren’t necessarily new for people who actively follow online discussions and read articles on the Web. Nonetheless, the content was rich and loaded with quite a number of different examples, questions, and case studies.
The 28 short talks were selected by the conference organizers, who did a great job. However, one would expect selection through a peer review should the number of submissions increase even more in the future.
The conference featured six keynote speakers, shown in Figure 3:
- John Thackara
- Fiona Raby
- Robert Fabricant
- Dan Saffer
- Marc Rettig
- Kim Goodwin
Figure 3—Keynote speakers
The keynotes started with an overview of environmental problems and the role of design in solving them, then nailed our discipline’s role: “Interaction design is not about computing technology, but the design of behavior.” Kim Goodwin ended the conference by asking each one of us to teach another.
John Thackara: Designing for a Business as Unusual
Thackara, author of the blog Doors of Perception, started the conference, presenting a very interesting talk—albeit one that was not easy to follow at times, with its statistics and economic implications. He discussed the impact society creates on the planet when the following peaks are reached:
- transports and logistics
- protein (food)
- climate change
For instance, did you know that a 200g mobile phone has a footprint of 500 Kg of used materials and waste? New policies for the environment are opportunities for design.
Fiona Raby looked at design beyond problem solving—according to the questions we ask, how we explore them, and discursive activity. Then, she presented projects from the Royal College of Art, in London, by designers and artists exploring these questions, asking the opposite questions, looking at the irrational, looking at things with different perspectives, and using technology to investigate these concepts. Raby went beyond the design of day-to-day projects, stimulating the debate among designers and the public about what’s ethical and how emerging technologies address such issues. Her projects go far into the future, simulating situations to investigate how humans would interact with future technologies instead of a specific technology that exists now. This puts interaction design at a higher level, facilitating the discussion about possible futures for human beings, their interactions, and their relationships with technologies.
Robert Fabricant: Behavior is Our Medium
This was a very important talk, which was widely discussed during the conference and afterward. Fabricant started off with ancient tools for representation and visualization and how they related to social behavior. Then, he presented recent work on sustainability and design for social behavior. Fabricant talked through a case study addressing the HIV problem in Africa and how design changed people’s behavior in regard to HIV testing. This also exemplified the message of his talk: “Interaction design is design for behavior.”
Saffer closed the second day of the conference with a series of quotations, asking for action instead of repeated discussions and reflection. He suggested that we should resist defining our discipline and go for action. Many seemed to love his talk, but it was confusing for others. However, it created excitement among the crowd.
Marc Rettig: How to Change Complicated Stuff
Retting opened the third day with an optimistic talk. He talked about our age of transformation—the great turning—in which values are shifting—for example, I into we, meaning more collaboration. He told a very interesting story in which he framed research as immersion. A group of designers were immersed in the very polluted city of Shanghai, which was packed with traffic jams. Later, in the design studio, they were asked to think of new car models. These designers suggested that we cannot have more cars. Cars weren’t the solution. He started his firm to make a difference and create a better world. What about you?
Kim Goodwin: Each One, Teach One
The closing keynote of the conference was just perfect. The key message was for each one of us to teach another person. Goodwin has compiled all of her experience and knowledge in her book Designing for the Digital Age, which came out in early 2009. Conversely to Saffer’s position that we don’t need a definition, Kim gave the example of going to the hospital for heart surgery and having a general practitioner perform the operation instead of a heart surgeon. More than ever, it is very important that our clients know why they need us and how we can help them. Kim also explained how great design comes from team work, not from individual work. To conclude, Goodwin applied sustainability to our own practice and community—each one, teach one. We need to mentor one another. She specifically asked senior designers to become mentors. She reminded us that mentoring is a reciprocal activity, in which one learns even more by teaching.
Even though there were no printed proceedings, the abstracts of the talks were available before the conference. Thus, participants could choose their preferred topics or speakers ahead of time. And, in case you missed the entire conference or any of the talks, the organizers are making the videos available in the Interaction Design Association Library.
Although the videos are a great and perhaps a more comfortable way of absorbing the content, the videos lack details about the case studies that are relevant for talks about more theoretical work, such as methods, processes, or extensive projects. Moreover, printed proceedings are often easier to scan and faster to read than watching a video. In addition to the videos, printed proceedings would add a lot of value and provide a good reference work for both attendees and broader community.
The conference used two hotels as its venues. They were fairly close to each other—a maximum of a 7-minute walk. Their distance didn’t really present a problem, because there was a break before and after each talk, with enough time to go from one hotel to the other, in case your selected talk was in the other location. A less favorable aspect of the venues was their small room sizes. The rooms were, in some cases, too small for the workshops and talks. There were no large halls for the keynotes, which was a pity, because the audience could not fit in the largest room.
The smaller of the two hotels did not have Wi-Fi Internet access, which meant the presentations in that venue weren’t part of the live Twitter stream happening at the other hotel. This is an important issue for this community, because the value of the conference is not only in its presentations, but the real-time discussions it generates.
Hospitality and Special Events
Vancouver was such a great setting for this conference. Wonderful views over the water. An inspiring city surrounded by mountains and snow, with one of the world’s best places for skiing just a few hours away and quite accessible. In addition to the warm welcome from the conference organizers, the people in this city are also very friendly. For conference attendees who couldn’t afford the conference hotels, there were plenty of other affordable options nearby.
Adding to the hospitality, the conference included several social events, which started off even before the workshops began via Crowdvine and Twitter. On Wednesday evening, February 4, a few dozen people gathered for dinner at Steamworks. It felt like everyone had met before, even though, for many, it was the first time—at least face to face. This is a devoted community, in which people communicate regularly. Twitter is becoming one of the main means of keeping in touch.
On the following day, after the first workshops, there was pub crawling, with two free coupon drinks sponsored by Nitobi, a local Web development studio. Someone just entering the bar wouldn’t have known many of these people had never met before.
The social activities continued throughout the conference. There were a conference reception and other really nice dinners. The food was always wonderful and cheese platters were always available.
Before the conference, attendees connected through the conference Web site. Attendees exchanged messages, planned trips before and after the conference, and contributed to the Interaction09 music playlist. There was plenty of connectivity and interaction even before the conference had started.
Although the IxDA international mailing list is very active, at the conference, the amount of activity online—Twitter especially—was even greater. Face-to-face communications were augmented by online and mobile exchanges of messages to an extent that one could have the sense of being physically present in more than one place at the same time. This is definitely a very well interconnected community.
The social aspect of the conference was very well supported by several screens near the presentation rooms that displayed recent Twitter messages and photos uploaded to Flickr. The conference used technology to support useful connections—all done in an almost invisible way. It just worked.
Despite all this connectivity, I noticed many groups of people were always the same. People knew each other from the previous conference or other events, but I hope this didn’t stop them from meeting new people.
Trivia—Everyone was tweeting. If you weren’t, you missed most of the conversation. And no surprise, the iPhone seemed to be the most common phone among attendees.
For newcomers, the conference provided plenty of opportunities for networking and grasping the hot topics of the discipline. For returning attendees, the conference was a good platform for discussions, getting up to date with old acquaintances, and bringing topics for discussion to the panels. It was an event full of impromptu conversations and extended social activities every night.
There were an exhibition, a company forum, and the much frequented interactive table—based on the Microsoft Surface table.
A suggestion for something I’d like to see added at future conferences is a studio-like area for experimentation, discussion, and exchanging ways of working. A place to co-create concepts, mock them up in paper and digital prototypes, test different tools, and look at and discuss deliverables.
Next year, the conference is going back to Savannah. I look forward to that, but when will this international conference leave North America? Perhaps you, as a reader of this review, might be interested in volunteering with IxDA to organize a conference in your country? Several local groups worldwide are already planning upcoming regional events.
Special thanks to Kim Lenox, my sounding board.