Interaction Design, Generalism, & Missing Pieces

by November 16, 2005

[Editor’s Note] By popular request and with permission, Functioning Form is publishing some of Jim Leftwich’s writings on design.

I graduated with a undergraduate degree in design in 1983. I was trained in generalist design, with an emphasis in product and industrial design. I'd also had some engineering, some programming, and some fine arts and humanities.

My initial experience with the Macintosh set my career's goal - to be a pioneer in human interaction in products, software, and systems, and to approach this as designers in my own tradition had always done. That is to be broadly generalist in their education and interests (math, science, materials, art, psychology, economics and business, anthropology, etc.).

There weren't any HCI programs that I knew of, so I pretty much just started off with the assumption that I was going to develop my own approach to the architecture of usage and functionality. I didn't start using the term "interaction" until about 1988, when I discovered that Bill Moggeridge and Bill Verplank at IDTwo (later partnered with David Kelley Engineering and Matrix Design to become IDEO) were using the term, "Interaction Design".

Since I've been a consultant for all but the last six months of the preceding twenty years and have worked with and hired many people of various levels of education and experience, I understand that it's not education, but experience and results that really show the level of a person's capabilities.

Interestingly enough, the person I've worked with that has the best design, business sense, and strategic capabilities doesn't even have a college degree at all. He was, however, backpacking through China getting his own electronic products manufactured when he was 19, and had those licensed by The Sharper Image and Skymall catalogs.

The point is, the position of "design leadership" (be it Chief Product Officer, Director of Design, etc..) necessarily needs to be one encompassing of much more than simply design skills (product, UX, graphics, and department managerial skills, etc.), but also a broader sense of the marketplace, good business and financial insights, legal and intellectual property experience. Also, such a role demands the necessary experience to understand and control risks when innovating completely new things/paradigms, moving to new platforms/scales, or developing generational leaps like OS9 to OSX.

I normally assume that degree requirements are always in the "preferred" category. After all, we know that there's still no simple way to signify years of broad and innovative experience with the simplicity and succinctness of a degree appendage on one's name. Also, most of us that have worked with and hired people with advanced degrees know full well the variation that exists among that broad category. In reality, there are competent people with the skills to gain major wins in industry with a variety of backgrounds.

When seeking out positions as important as design leadership (in an age where design is more and more being recognized as central to any company's core strategy and success), the smartest companies will look at the whole person, experience, thinking skills, experience (including industry contacts affiliations), and past wins and achievements.

I still think, especially given that advanced education is beyond the reach of many otherwise qualified and brilliant individuals, that apprenticeships, and experience should be given “at least” equal footing.

When I got out of college I was broke and stranded in the Midwest. I would've loved to have gone on to graduate school. As it was, however, I had to get to work, and for me that ended up being on my own and finding my own path and discovering my own truths about interaction design.

As the years went on, especially in the 1990s, as the voices grew around this general field, I felt very isolated and different in my approach. I was not an academic, and the academics and researchers paid little attention to (or just plain slammed the door on) intuitive practitioners such as myself. I reached out many times to researchers and academics, but they were never willing to examine my project documentation and results, let alone the many conceptual models I'd created, beginning back in the 1980s. Academics and researchers need to understand what they're missing out on and blind to.

I believe that the designer's job is to get the rubber to meet the road. In the end, it's our REAL WORLD work that matters. No amount of reductionist thinking, abstract research, or bits and pieces of psychology will ever be able to be reassembled “whole” into solutions for the rest of humanity without a missing bit of creative soul that designers and architects have understood for millennia - the personal.

Coming from the traditional design and architecture fields, I've always been amazed at how the field of IxD, UX, IA, and all the rest, have evolved to be so incredibly analytical, with so little attention paid to the risks and lessons learned by wide ranges of practitioners. I come from a farming background, and as my father and grandfather taught me, "You can't learn farming from a book!" Sure, there are facts and knowledge that are important, but in our field, that's about ALL you hear. This is why I stopped going to BayCHI. I hardly ever found any reflection of my own experiences and values.

If our field is to grow and develop beyond the theoretical, there will have to be many more pioneers willing to go beyond not only the challenges in the business and technology worlds, but also transcend the dogma that's become a wall in our own field.

Doing my retrospective brought about some important changes in my own life and career. I've now been able to move past my own experiences, lessons, and struggles, to begin searching out the stories, struggles, and triumphs of others in this field.

If you are in IxD, IA, UX or other fields, and feel as though you've taken some unique approaches, or faced particular struggles that you worked to overcome, or feel that your own life and “who you are and where you came from” is an important part of the soul you seek to imbue your design work with, I'd like to hear from you.

I sense that there's a great and growing awareness among both experienced and young practitioners that know that there is much missing from the literature, lectures, and pronouncements from the "experts."

It's about the work. It's about the real-world struggle. It's about risks taken, and vision followed.