Be Part of the Evolution of Interaction Design

In Fall 2017, the MFA program at CCS is introducing a new studio course called “Interaction Design Evolution.” The course invites students to riff on prior innovations in the history of interaction design and then to invent their own. Seriously.

memex-mid-res

Rendering of Vannevar Bush’s MEMEX concept from 1945

One example from history: Vannevar Bush’s “MEMEX” comes from the 1940’s. Bush conceived it as a desk containing vast amounts of information stored on reels of microfiche (because digital magnetic media didn’t yet exist). Bush imagined retrieval of information based on what we now call tagging, achieved here by visual splotches on the edge of the frames of microfiche. We’ve got tagging in modern, digital web browsers (with vastly greater numbers of tags and vastly greater speed). But Bush also imagined two displays—not one, as we have today. Why?

Because two screens would directly support the cognitive operations of the human operator, such as simultaneously seeing—and therefore easily comparing—both the overview of a topic and its details. Or generally enabling “compare and contrast” across two viewpoints, which is a foundation for critical thinking.

Bush also wanted to preserve journeys through knowledge that could be retrieved and shared. Sounds like browser history, you say? Yes, kind of, but ever try sharing those with a colleague? If you have, you’ll realize that browser designers never thought you’d want to share them—no less to annotate or edit them.

So—while we can do some of what Bush imagined 70 years ago, you have to go through contortions to even close get. Bush’s concepts are valuable but not baked-in. Why not?

One reason is that the history isn’t well known. (In conversations with researchers at famous design labs I’ve been surprised at the limit of shared historical knowledge.) There’s MEMEX, or Ted Nelson‘s “hypertext” from the 1960’s, or even Bill Atkinson‘s “Hypercard” (video) from relatively recently in 1987—heard of those? Know what was new about them? Or what they still have to offer, even today?

Perhaps another reason the history is somewhat lost is that most designers begin from the logic of technology and not from the logic of interaction. Feels backwards to me. These researchers started from what made human sense, and imagined the technology to achieve it.

In sum, the goal of this course in Interaction Design Evolution is to bring those significant inventions back into focus, along with two others: Alan Kay‘s “Dynabook with Message Semantics” and Nicholas Negroponte‘s “Architecture Machine.”

After studying each invention, students reproduce its core insights with a mock-up or prototype that utilizes modern technology. By making a version of it, they more deeply understand it. For the final 5 weeks of the course, they create their own future for interaction design in the form of an unrestricted design of their own imagination. In this way, students become part of the evolution of the practice of interaction design.