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Speaker Spotlight: Nathan Shedroff on Sci-fi Interfaces and Tangible Design

First, could you please introduce yourself to those not familiar with your work?

I’ve been in Interaction Design since before there was a term for it. I started as an industrial designer, learned and practiced information design early (in the mid-80s), grew up professionally in interaction and interface design in a variety of media, and have been more of a business and experience strategist for over a decade.

These days, I run an innovative MBA program that combines the latest tools, processes, and approaches to business and leadership, design and integrative thinking, and sustainability and systems thinking: the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts.

While I’m technically a full time academic, I still write non-academic books and work on a variety of projects so I keep a foot in both domains. I have four books coming out this year (with any luck) but the one most interesting to this conference’s audience is the one I’ll be presenting on next month.

Your talk at Big Design 2011 is titled “Make It So: Learning From Sci-Fi Interfaces.” How did you first get the idea to explore the relationship between design and science fiction?

This is an idea I had back in 1988 but only started to work on seriously in 2007 when I teamed-up with my friend Chris Noessel. It had always occurred to me that interesting interfaces were depicted in SciFi films and television but it wasn’t until Star Trek: The Next Generation that I saw regular and thoughtful explorations into more than the arrangement of buttons on a panel. Each week there were interesting new ideas that build on several decades of foundation and, in the film world, interfaces were becoming similarly more considered and original.

We always suspect interesting examples but neither of us expected the deep explorations and practical lessons that would emerge from the survey.

What will people get from your talk that they won’t get anywhere else?

Aside from some thoughtful (and fun) examples, developers will come away with a framework for how SciFi and Design are influencing each other. There isn’t enough time in an hour to cover all of the lessons we’ve uncovered but I will share a few of the most interesting. SciFi turns-out to be a legitimate process for designing and developing, one that even the Pentagon uses, not to mention many corporations. As frivolous as it might seem at first, this is because it turns-out that all of Design is fiction already, as is much of business development.

Career development is a big theme at the conference this year so let’s talk a little bit about that. When you finished college, how did you decide where to go next?

I don’t think I had a plan. I just followed my interests. I think that’s more appropriate at the undergrad level anyway. I loved automobile design but I didn’t want to move to Detroit and jobs in the Southern California studios were difficult. In addition, I really didn’t like the compartmentalization in the auto industry and I had other interests, namely information design and futurism. I interned at TheUnderstandingBusiness while at school so I took a job there (and started two days after graduation). It’s there that I explored information design, a mostly new field at the time, as well as the rapidly developing field of interface design (later, interaction design). I worked in print, at first (this was 1988), but quickly started exploring digital media (remember, this was before “multimedia” and even CD-ROMs).

Nowadays, and especially at the graduate level, I think it’s important to think further ahead than merely following your interests. At the same time, the most interesting jobs people have don’t have job openings (and never did). By this, I mean that all of the people I know with those “dream jobs” that everyone wishes they had, didn’t get hired to do those things. Instead, the took some other role in an organization and built that role out of what they started with. These dream jobs (like design strategist or chief innovation officer, or cool hunter) didn’t have job descriptions and most organizations didn’t know they needed this. The people who have these jobs started in something more conventional, such as senior designer or design researcher, and over time evolved their role into these great areas.

So, students need to think about what jobs they can mutate over time in an organization into what will be ideal for them, not what organizations are offering at the moment. In addition, many should think not about the job they’re applying for now (though they still need to do the appropriate work when they do) but how that could set them up for the next job.

Your background in industrial design, in tangible objects, is an area that seems under-represented in many UX discussions. Why do you think that is? What could web and software designers learn from industrial design?

Tangible objects (and spaces) are often more difficult because they involve a lot of transformation of physical materials. This includes often more complex prototyping, definitely manufacturing, higher impacts of these material streams, as well as more complex distribution and recovery of material (or disposal). Moving around bits is much easier and can involve fewer resources, fewer team members, and less coordination. In addition, all products require services, so just working on services alone (which most digital solutions are), by nature, is less work. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t important or complex services but the costs and coordination are often much less for the number of people served as well as the value that can be created.

Great interaction designers practice and are taught design research techniques to better understand their audiences, but these were pioneered and developed in the industrial design profession first. In addition, industrial design often places a higher value on the sophistication of form than a lot of interaction design (and digital services) do. Lastly, industrial design (and architecture) have traditionally required solutions to balance a lot of competing forces (including physical materials, the laws of physics themselves, manufacturing processes and limitations, cost and procurement limitations, etc.) that the print and interface industries traditionally haven’t had to (on top of the constraints that technology and people create for all of these fields). In addition, the economic constraints are often much more challenging for physical solutions than virtual ones.

So, industrial designers and architects have often learned to deal with more complex challenges and create solutions that work with more complex situations. This isn’t to say that digital services aren’t complex or present difficult challenges but many interaction designers and developers haven’t dealt with the level of complexity and challenges many physical designers have.

You revealed your “Concorde thing” in Core77 and described how the Concorde was a symbol of Wonder and Accomplishment. What items being designed today do you see as having  a similar Wondrous and Accomplished quality?

The iPad definitely triggers Wonder for many.

Part of the challenge in designing meaningful experiences is that the triggers for Meaning aren’t the same for everyone. While many people share the priorities and expressions for core meanings, not everyone shares everything. A BMW might be a symbol of Accomplishment to some but not for others, for example. I’m not sure if objects, in general, hold the same allure that they did in the past. I think that the experience itself may be more important. As such, a dinner at a renowned restaurant may hold more value for some, in terms of Accomplishment, than a watch or car.

One last question… Your website is pretty psychedelic, man. What’s up with that?

I’m not sure what you mean. There’s no tie dye or anything. There’s a lot of color because I think we live in a colorful world but I think the pages are actually pretty constrained below the navigation.


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