Anneli Westerberg

Design in Context: Highlights from Interaction17

In February, more than 1,000 design leaders, professionals and students gathered in New York City for IxDA’s 10th annual Interaction Week to share experiences and reflect on what it means to be an interaction designer today. I was there to present Fjord’s Project First Light, where we’re co-creating digital services with a community in DR Congo, but I was equally excited to attend my first IxDA conference

Image: IxDA.

From new interfaces to designing with social experience in mind, here are some of my favourite insights and talks from Interaction17.

Designing for VR, AR and AI

As expected, there was a lot of focus on new interfaces and the technology powering them. Conversational interfaces (both inside and outside the screen), Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning were hot topics.

One of my personal highlights was Tony Chu from, who gave a crash course in machine learning for designers in Designing in a World Where Machines are Learning. With simple and practical examples, Tony talked about the possibilities and constraints of machine learning and how they affect the user experience. He also gave us a glimpse of some new experiences that are made possible as machine learning tools are maturing.

I also really enjoyed Artefact’s Brad Crane and Jon Mann reflect on how you create new design patterns and experiences where no best practices exist. In their talk, Suspending Disbelief: Building Immersive Designs for the Future, Brad and Jon shared examples of how they use AR and VR to prototype immersive experiences outside the screen, like travelling in and using the interface in a self-driving car.

Design and responsibility

While I wasn’t surprised to see plenty of talks on VR, AI and bots, I was more surprised that the strongest theme throughout the conference was impact, ethics and responsibility. With interaction design getting ever more intertwined with people’s lives, designers now have much greater impact – and therefore responsibility – than before. And while there was and optimistic outlook for the future, many of the speakers acknowledged that just as design can impact people’s lives for the better, it can also do damage – a topic that we touched upon this in this year’s Fjord Trends and Unintended Consequences.

Zachary Jean Paradis from SapientRazorfish talked about the designer’s responsibility in his session Agent vs Agency: Battle for Control in the IoT. As designers, we are no longer just extending the capabilities of the user, we are now also acting on the user’s behalf. Our users have gone from saying “I want you to help me do this” to “I want you to understand what I would have done in this situation and do it for me”. Users now need to trust designers on a whole different level. Personally, I find this equally exciting and daunting.

Collective Health’s Melissa Martin used her short spark talk to bring up something we usually don’t reflect on as designers: death. In Final destination: Creating a Better Afterlife for Our Digital Treasures she reminded us of the need to design for all aspects of our users’ lives and make sure that we have strategy for dealing with death in our digital products and services. Do you let your users decide what happens with their data when they die? What kind of experience do you give a user’s loved ones?

Design with real impact

Reassuringly, it wasn’t just all worries about ethics and responsibility. Throughout the week, we saw some great examples of positive impact and of design being used to tackle big societal issues. These examples of real impact really emphasised that interaction design in 2017 is so much more than just pixels on a screen.

The curated session I was part of, Democratizing Digital Services, consisted of three case studies of design for underserved audiences. I shared the stage with Elena Matsui from Rockefeller Foundation and Oda Scatolini from AeTrapp. Elena talked about using human-centred design methods to understand the needs of rural farmers and Oda presented AeTrapp, a simple low-tech solution that engage citizens in the monitoring of the vectors of the Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya virus.

In Design to Fight Crime and Save Lives, Daniel Yang from Mark 43 talked about the impact they have had on public safety technology and what it is like to design tools for first responders and emergency 911 dispatchers. Mark 43’s platform, COBALT, got some well-deserved recognition at the IxDA awards, winning best in category in the category ‘Connecting’.

The IxDA Awards concluded six days of events, talks, workshops and great discussions, recognising great interaction design across the globe. If you want to see more of what happened in New York, you can find the talks and all the award winners on IxDA’s Vimeo channel. I’m already looking forward to Interaction18 in Lyon next year.

Anneli Westerberg

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