What is the Medium of Interaction Design?

Pinocchio MarionetteOver the years I’ve observed and participated in several discussions about what is the medium of interaction design. Full disclosure: I am not formally educated in Design–I’ve just learned from my own studies, interactions with educated designers, and working with and under designers, so take this for what it’s worth. 😉  But I think a person can reason about these things without necessarily having such a formal education.  See what you think.

The argument goes, as I’ve seen it, that as interaction designers, we are focused on understanding and designing for humans, and to some extent that design (no matter what it is) is rhetorical, in a very generic sense–it communicates something to a person and tries to convince her to do something, be that changing an opinion, acting in a social context in some way, or simply using the thing designed in a certain way (i.e., affordances). Further, the argument goes, interaction design can be applied to all sorts of materials, so we can’t say that one of them is our medium, as clay is the medium of potter or paint of a painter (and so on). The conclusion is, then, that what we design–what our medium is–is human behavior.

The fundamental problem with this is that it  posits the designer in the position of Fate, as if we have some superhuman power to conform other humans to our will, to shape their behavior according to our desires, making us more powerful even than many concepts of God. I suppose this could get heady and philosophical pretty quickly, depending on your view of human free will. But let’s just assume, for the sake of keeping the discussion manageable, that human beings do have free will–that they have the capacity to choose between options of their own free accord and, thus, shape their own behavior.

Yes, that behavior is influenced by all sorts of things. People are not disembodied, purely rational entities who make completely free, autonomous, uninfluenced decisions. We have plenty of psychology research to show this is true, and we have our own experience that we can reflect upon. Yet all of these do not destroy free will–the fact remains that we have the capacity to act contrary to the influences upon us. We can creatively choose paths that were not even presented to us.

Given this, it seems at least a little bit dishonest with ourselves to say that we design behavior.  Let me offer an example that might make us shy away from making this claim. Consider the recent events in Aurora. There is a direct, admitted connection between the offender’s behavior and the behavior presented in a designed medium (film). One might say that the Batman films, and those like it, are designed in such a way as to make acting the villain to be glorious and powerful.

Following the logic above, in reverse, one could then say that maybe the films were designed to influence people to act in that way, and further, that if behavior is the medium of design, that the offender’s behavior was designed by the filmmakers (ergo, it is the designers of the films, not the individuals acting, who are responsible for the tragedy). But I doubt many of us would admit this. We can argue that such films influence people to behave in certain ways (and that maybe they shouldn’t), but to say that they designed the behavior of the villain of Aurora is, surely, going too far.  Thus, we see that the claim that we designers design behavior is fundamentally flawed.  If people are not free to act of their own accord, they cannot be held responsible for their actions.

So, then, what is the medium of design and, specifically, interaction design–it is whatever materials that we do have control over, to shape according to our vision and will. For most interaction designers, this is software–the application behavior and the interfaces presented to people. Do we use these to influence behavior? Absolutely. When we design, we have certain human desires and behaviors in mind, and we either try to accomodate them or instruct them in order to effectively engage with the software. We could be a little more precise, even, and say it is only the artifacts that the designer herself creates (usually designers are not the ones actually developing the software itself).  In that sense, the media we design are varied, depending on the needs of the team, the app, and our own familiarity with the tools of interaction design. Concretely, the media are things like personas, storyboards, wireframes, interactive prototypes, and other artifacts used to discover and communicate the design of the software.

So let’s stop fooling ourselves into thinking that we are actually designing human behavior. It’s kind of arrogant and presumptuous to say so, when you really think about it. Let’s keep it real. Yes, we are on a mission to (hopefully) better humankind through what we design–the digital and analog worlds are increasingly merging. Yes, we want to influence behavior to greater or lesser degrees (depending on the context), but in the end, what we design is the interface and behavior of software (more generally, some digitally-integrated artifact).