Interview with Nathan Shedroff


Interviewer: Holly Coleman, Research Project Manager, supported by Mark Vanderbeeken.

Nathan Shedroff is an interaction design consultant, based in California. He is also an author of several books and an Explorer of Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.

interview-1018332_640HC: What is interaction design?

NS: . That’s a big category. Interaction design has to do with defining behaviours and relationships between people and other people, people and devices, people and environments, and to some extent even devices and devices.

HC: What would you say is a great example of really good interaction design? What is a product or a service lately that you have come across that you would say really does it well?

NS: Any kind of performance, especially if you have been to Cirque du Soleil or other interactive theatre. This tends to be an incredibly engaging experience, more so than just watching. There is a troupe in New York called De La Guarda that creates participatory theatrical experiences that use a narrative, are full-sensory, use space, etc. They’re quite extraordinary.

HC: Do they use technology?

NS: They use very little technology, or certainly not what we would call high technology. But the experience is well-rounded, interesting, and engaging. It is all the things that we talk about when we say ‘experience design’. Another simpler example would be a good dinner party or a good party in general. You know how much work goes into planning a wedding, or planning certain kinds of events in our lives, and how elaborate they can be. Sometimes the elaboration doesn’t have a big impact on the quality-certainly not a positive impact. But you know when you’ve been to a good party, and you’ve had a good time, so those are good models for us to figure out what would be a successful relationship with a device or an environment.

HC: What projects are you working on right now?

NS: I always have a million little personal projects. I am working on about seven or eight books. I am also writing a piece of meeting coordination software for small businesses. My projects range from redesigning the Periodical Table of Elements (to help it express different kinds of relationships and information) to looking at sustainable labelling systems that allow consumers to make more informed decisions at the point of purchase based on social or ecological issues.

HC: Can you tell us what some of your books are about?

NS: Some of the books are follow-ups to the ‘Experience Design 1’ book. For instance, Experience Design 2 deals with a set of deeper topics, like anthropomorphism, persuasion and seduction. Because the first book was ‘wide’-about setting a foundation, the next book is ‘deep’. The third book after that is all about processes and methodologies for making experiences. One of the other books is about what we can learn as designers-specifically interface or interaction designers-from science fiction movies and what can they tell us about what’s left to explore. One is a series of travel guides, based on experiences.

HC: How would you describe the difference, if there is one, between experience and interaction design?

NS: As this school defines interaction design, there really is no difference between experience design and interaction design. When people talk about interaction here in Ivrea, they are considering the full-sensory opportunities, 3D spatial environmental issues, issues of time and behaviour, and social issues such as privacy. All of those things are addressed here, whereas, traditionally, interaction design just describes the behaviour of an interface-its behavioural systems. The way it is used here, there is no difference, and I am happy for that.

HC: What are you involved with here at Interaction-Ivrea? What are you doing here now?

NS: I am here as a combination of an Explorer (an advisor) and a visiting professor. As a visiting advisor, I have been working with the second-year students on their thesis projects, and I continue to work with a handful of them, and advise them about the process, and provoke them as well. I am working with a few others, in an unofficial capacity as a secondary advisor. I have started to meet with the first-year students too, and I think I will be teaching a class next term.

“As a designer, you have to feel comfortable never knowing enough and never feeling completely comfortable in every subject, but somehow being the nexus point where all of knowledge areas relate to each other and develop.”

HC: What’s the name?

NS: Connected communities. We are now defining the detailed content. It will be hands-on working with the first-year students directly-not just to advise and to provoke, but also to help them through projects and ideas.

HC: If there was one dream class or dream project that you could do with the Institute, what would that be?

NS: I don’t think I could pick just one. I think it would be interesting to get involved with a communication site, like the Bluhaus project, where the goal is to make it easy for people to communicate remotely, but still work closely and feel like they are a connected part of what’s going on here. This challenge will probably never be solved to everyone’s liking-it will be an ongoing project. I think anything to do with connecting people, and allowing them to share their thoughts, is what I am most interested in here.

MV: I understand that you are interested in bringing people together through technology. In the Institute we have three research areas: ‘personal technologies’, which is technology on the body and in the home, ‘connected communities’, and finally service design or ‘tomorrow’s services’ as we call it. Where does your interest in the connected communities area come from? Is it because of work that you have done before or is it a personal ethical motivation?

NS: Of course I am interested in all of the areas and they all relate, so you can never look at one in isolation. My personal interest lies more in connected communities, chiefly because it is about people interacting together. We’re certainly well versed in technology. Technology is actually an easy thing to learn, study, work with and become a master of. What’s more interesting to me, and what is harder to understand, is how people are people, how they relate to each other and how they relate to themselves. Certainly as a designer, that’s the least amount of my training, and so I find that the most interesting area. People are infinitely more interesting, variable and chaotic than any technology we have ever developed. It seems a deeper, more difficult subject to dive into and learn more from.

MV: The website of the Institute is still a mostly static, written overview of what is going on here, and always lags a little bit behind, because it takes time to write things. Now there is a plan to make the site much more lively, much more interactive and much more participatory, and you have been involved in developing ideas for that. Can you tell us a bit about that?

NS: There are a million different ways that the site could evolve. The overall governing factors are two: one is how much work it takes not only to make things happen, but to maintain some of these technologies or some of these ideas. There are only so many people here. I learnt a long time ago in design school that it is very easy to design solutions that are all-encompassing ultimate solutions, because you don’t have to take into account things like the price to build it, budgets, how much work it takes to make, and how realistic it is. It’s very easy to develop lots of wonderful ideas about what this site could be. The reality is: there are only so many people here and so much money and time to put towards that, so that brings in the second point, which is: what is important, what is salient about these kinds of communications, and what is the highest priority? I think a lot of design is about prioritising possibilities in order to determine what can get done. I see this website changing and evolving for its entire life but it will always be governed by what, at any moment, can be completed, what makes sense, and what actually provides value.

HC: What do you think are the most challenging issues facing students and practitioners of interaction design?

NS: The biggest challenge is trying to integrate so many different, often competing needs of a project and trying to juggle them all at once. To do interaction design or experience design well, you need to become somewhat of an expert in terms of the design process, visual communication, auditory communication, and working with all of the senses. You also have to become an expert in an ever-increasing list of technologies, and you also have to understand people, social issues, business, strategy and financial considerations. As a designer, you are constantly juggling these many issues, in order to feel comfortable, you almost need to have a degree in psychology, sociology, and maybe some anthropology, various forms of designs, and one in business, and maybe one in economics, etc. That’s too much to ask of anyone. As a designer, you have to feel comfortable never knowing enough and never feeling completely comfortable in every subject, but somehow being the nexus point where all of those relate to each other and develop.

HC: What books are you reading now?

NS: Actually, I am reading a lot of books about the future: a book called ‘The Next Fifty Years’, which is all essays from various scientists in their fields talking about what to expect in the next fifty years and why; Bruce Sterling’s book ‘Tomorrow Now’, which is his personal view of the future. A lot of opinions in these books aren’t necessarily optimistic, but they are looking forward as opposed to looking back.

MV: What do you get from these books?

NS: It’s not so much that I am reading them for a clear view of what to expect in fifty years or even twenty years. What I am trying to do, is learn where the cutting edge ideas are and where the new thinking is within all of these fields so that I can somehow integrate them into my knowledge and my expectations. I read them to find information that I can use as tools in my work today.

HC: Who are your heroes or people you draw inspiration from?

NS: I am sure I will give an incomplete list. Charles and Ray Eames, are a special case. They certainly had amazing opportunities that very few designers ever get, but they also created a lot of these opportunities. What I admire about them was that they worked in multiple media, and that this was critical to them. They didn’t just work in furniture, or in product design, or in film. They worked in print and environment and all sort of things. The second thing is that they always had fun doing what they did. They took their work seriously, but they never let it affect their life in a negative way. My old boss, Richard Saul Wurman taught me a great deal, and I think there is still a lot to learn from him.

HC: Are there people that you watch, what they are doing, in terms of the field?

NS: Not so much in my field. But out there in the rest of the world: Roger Schank and his ideas about learning has taught me a great deal. I have a page on my website that lists some of inspirations. Brenda Laurel, of course, who is not only a friend, but also someone who continues to teach me about narrative, identity and people, and many issues that are somewhat new to me as an industrial designer. Others include Phillipe Starck, Mark Meadows, Issey Miyake, Giorgetto Giugiaro and many more.

HC: Is there an industry in particular that is ahead in terms of using the concepts of interaction design, and then on the flipside, is there one that is desperately in need of it, but not using it?

NS: I don’t think any one industry has been very good about looking at interaction design in its whole. Every industry has its piece that it excels in, so if you look at the entertainment industry, you find a good development in the narrative piece or in the media piece, but you don’t find much interactivity or participation. To some extent, theme parks have been very good about mixing all these elements well, but still lack a lot of participation and dealing with other interaction issues, such as audience/participant creativity and productivity. Product design has come a long way, but it’s still so mired in its traditions, that it’s hard to get most industrial designers to even consider behaviour. I think interface design and online design are probably the closest at integrating all of these things. But it’s such a small industry still, and it’s not part of the development process of so many other things that we still have too many terribly designed products that are hard to use-not because interface design or interaction design principles and techniques don’t exist or aren’t well developed, but because they are not actually employed in the process. So all of the industries have a long way to go, and each industry has its focus of development to look to for inspiration.

MV: What industries are you working with at the moment?

NS: I try to keep my eye on a lot of the industries that I just mentioned. The industries that I work for at this particular moment are the software industry, academia and maybe, packaging or retail design. But that changes all the time.

HC: What’s the worst experience with interaction that you have had arriving in Italy, in Ivrea or at the Institute?

NS: I think my hardest experience is not so much the school, but where the school is located. As a typical American, I don’t speak Italian, I hardly speak any languages other than English, so I lack confidence doing even simple things like ordering in a restaurant. I certainly can’t carry on a conversation with someone in Italian. Part of the language problem is having too few opportunities back home, but mostly it is about anxiety about communication. I think one of the great things about the Institute, is that there are so many different people from so many different cultural backgrounds, all trying to figure out how to work well together. That’s one of its strengths: it’s the ideal melting pot. Obviously, there are lots of little things that could be improved here, just like anywhere else-from not having access 24 hours to the building, or having to register my network card before I can get onto the wireless network-but those are inconsequential in the end. Maybe a better answer to you questions is that I would like even more opportunities to mix with the students or have critical conversations about interesting topics outside of the provocation of a class, an event or a lecture.

MV: If we wanted more of that, how would we need to go about that? What would be your suggestions to improve this non-structured discourse at the Institute?

NS: I think that this discourse can happen in a lot of different ways. So the solution is multi-media. Having the opportunity to bring things up in an online discussion group or via an email list is a start. The solution is cultural and not technological: finding enough time in people’s schedules so they can take time to have a conversation, helping people feel comfortable bringing up controversial topics and having a forum to discuss them. Those are about people design and culture design and creation, not necessarily about devices and objects.

Nathan’s favourites:

People I draw inspiration from
1. Charles and Ray Eames
2. Brenda Laurel
3. Roger Schank
4. Giorgetto Giugiaro
5. Richard Saul Wurman

Favourite books
1. “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond
2. “The Alphabet versus The Goddess” by Leonard Shlain
3. “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson
4. “Babel-17: Empire Star” by Samuel R. Delany
5. “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture” by Douglas Coupland