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The Future of Interaction Design

The Future of Interaction Design

A Story by alimurtaza

To postulate where I think the interaction design industry will be in the future I need to think and talk about the trends we are currently witnessing, as well as what “concepts” are being presented for the future of technology.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that interaction designers will be some of the most sought after professionals of the next few decades. I not only agree with that, but would welcome any developments that lead to such a situation. My problem, however, is with what is currently being presented as interaction design; and how that is affecting the way we think about the future of the field, as well as technology in general.

Wikipedia defines interaction design as, “the practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems, and services”. The popularity of this definition, and its likes, in my view sums up the problems I want to address.

To begin with, equating interaction design to computer-human interaction would be like equating graphic design to logo design, or fine art with painting. All three parent fields include the later, but are in no way restricted to it. And I don’t mention this flawed definition just because I disagree with it (I could change it of course, since it is Wikipedia), but because this is what seems to have become the general understanding of the field of interaction design, as well as the future of technology in general. And not only are laypeople or prospective students making this mistake, but even major corporations seem to be interpreting the future of all technology in light of current trends based on this restrictive understanding. At this point my claims may seem far fetched, but if you watch these rather beautifully made future concept videos from Corning Glass and Microsoft (even if you have seen the, before I would like you to watch it again), I would be able to explain my case much more easily:


Corning Glass:


So assuming you have now seen the videos, I can go on to explaining the issues I see in this prediction of the future:



Possibly my greatest issue with these concepts, and some others like these, is the way people are shown to be interacting with technology. Throughout both videos you see various glass surfaces acting as tools to accomplish a wide variety of tasks, but how is each task accomplished? Usually with the touch of a finger, or less often with the swipe of a hand.

Now think about how you use your hands every minute of every day. Just think of the remarkably complex ways in which the many muscles of your hand have to move in precisely orchestrated ways to complete tasks as seemingly simple as opening a PET bottle’s cap, or typing any random sequence of alphabets on a keyboard. I don’t mean to say that working on touch screens in the future should also require as much movement as either, but rather pointing out how much more our bodies, the greatest tools we will ever have, are capable of than tapping an index finger.

In other words, these technologies make the crucial design mistake of completely ignoring the capabilities of their users, existing instead in their own world, where the user is a stylus instead of a human. And this not only means that our bodies are basically treated as vehicles to get us from one screen to another, but also implies an exponential increase in all the problems we have recently been facing with regards to personal technology devices. I for one do not want massively decreased attention spans, further diminishing connections with the physical world, and more obesity. It would seem the creators of these concept videos, and designers who support such developments haven’t seen the prophetic Pixar masterpiece that is Wall-E!

Furthermore, going back to the flaws pointed in the initial definition of interaction design, we can see that the computer-human interaction shown in both videos takes no consideration of our interaction with the physical world. While I have already alluded to the folly of ignoring the physical attributes of users, just as important is the fact that no inspiration seems to have been taken from how they perceive and experience the world around them.

When I do something as simple as take a sip of tea from a cup, I experience the textures of the cup handle and lip, weight of the cup, of the tea inside, the taste, smell and temperature of tea, while also being able to figure out how much of it I just sipped. All this information is taken from interacting with a cup of tea, using the various interfaces I have available to me. And to think that technologies of the future are predicted to only be treated as texture-less machines whose only interface is a generic feedback of touch.


Perhaps most disappointingly, the technologies postulated are basically the same technologies we have today, with presumably faster processors, disappearing bezels, and cheaper, more accessible, and transparent (in what world do transparent screens make sense, anyway?) touch screens. So they’re not only futures with troubling implementation of technologies, but without much innovation. Being a designer, that seems to me to be an even more disappointing outcome. Moreover, the least one would expect from “concept” videos or designs is new concepts!

To summarize these points, I think these videos, and other predictions of the future that postulate similar worlds filled with touch-screens completely ignore the user, physically and mentally; ignore the world they live in; while also providing absolutely no new ideas. And I firmly believe that a lot of these mistakes are being made because of our flawed understanding of what designing interactions ought to mean. If we keep to this current understanding, the world 20 (if not 15) years from now, in the most developed cities, will probably look fairly close to what is presented in these videos. But if that happens, it would have been a major failure on part of the planners, designers, engineers, technologists �" the creators �" of today.



A world where we are slightly less detached from reality, and make more use of our bodies and environments may be one where wearable technologies become the norm. Of course these have the potential to cordon us off into our private worlds even more than omni-present touch screens, but applied thoughtfully, these could well be the less obstructive route.

Ironically, this may have to be done by each person’s gadget of choice augmenting their reality to them, but I do see practical as well as sociological advantages to well designed wearable technology. For starters, to design this technology well enough for it to become ubiquitous, designers will have to take the user into consideration. That alone ensures much more diverse possibilities for our interaction with technology, as well as with the physical world through technology, than touch screens could ever offer. Moreover, I feel that for anything wearable �" whether it be clothes, hats or computers on our wrists �" to become popularly adapted they need to not only fit onto our bodies, but also be applicable to the world around us. And for that to happen, the future of interaction design will have to be about our physical attributes, and our place in this world, rather than about projecting today’s technology into the future.

If this does happen to be the future of interaction design, it would also mean that we would be simultaneously rethinking physical interfaces around us. For instance, would we need to rethink how supermarket isles are laid out, now that all of us are wearing computers that are able to augment our reality to our needs? Would the act of cooking be redesigned? What about working out in the gym? I contend that to effectively involve these new technologies in our lives, some of these physical interactions would also need to evolve, if not be redesigned completely �" pointing at a more wider role for interaction designers of the future. And I would be much happier to be one in this world.





One of the versions of the future that seems to me to be most obvious is the long sought after “internet of things”. What it implies is that everything in our lives would be connected to and syncing with each other through the internet using relatively simple technologies like radio-frequency identification (RFIDs), near-field communication (NFC) or even QR codes.

In such a world, which may not be very far away, interaction designers would again have to rethink how we interact with a lot more than just computers. If every device in our lives has a system to connect to everything else, we will almost certainly be using these devices very differently from how we use them now. What about the interfaces that don’t really need to be “smart”, like tables and chairs? Would they be used any differently? I contend that in some ways they would. And it would be the interaction designer’s job to figure out how to optimize their use in such a world.

Perhaps most importantly, this version of the future seems very plausible, since we are already somewhat in it, with all the mobile devices continuously connected to the internet. And an interesting way of looking at this was presented by Kevin Kelly in a 2008 lecture, when he talked about the internet as a machine itself. He asserted that the internet wasn’t only a platform where all the internet-enabled devices connected, but was the physical collection of all these devices. That interpretation of the internet means that the internet of things isn’t just plausible, but is a massive, physical thing itself that already exists!



Some of the most exciting work on the future of computer-human interaction is being done at MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Bits department, led by the brilliant Professor Hiroshi Ishii. Their goal is to find a middle ground between the virtual and physical worlds �" somewhere for pixels and atoms to meet. I feel like whether they succeed in producing practical solutions directly from their work or not, I agree with the direction they are trying to lead computer-human interaction to.

I also feel that we would have found some ways of making this merger of the two worlds possible within the next 15 to 25 years, even if those technologies take even longer to become ubiquitous.



One of the more far-fetched, extreme implementations of “wearable” technology could happen in the field of biomedical engineering. Scientists and cybernetic engineers like Kevin Warwick have been studying the possibility of letting artificial systems of intelligence like computers interact directly with the human nervous system. One of the ways this has been tested so far is by imbedding physical micro-chips under the skin for it to link up with the physical function of that limb.

An even more direct and deeper implementation being researched in the field is to combine human cells with nano-electric wiring; a successful sample of which was created at Harvard University last year.

These methods of interaction however seem to still be a few decades away from being anywhere close to being commercially viable. But these fields on a whole may still be where a lot of the interaction design work may be conducted in the future. That timeline may depend on how soon we are able to overcome the current problems with limitations of processing power in today’s computers. If for example, quantum computing becomes commercially viable in the next 10 years, a world starting to fill with cyborg humans could very well be a reality in 25 or so years.




I will start this by admitting that I have almost completely ignored the question I was supposed to address. But my reason for doing so is this: I simply don’t know what an interaction designer will be doing in 5 years, let alone 15 or 25. So I decided to instead look deeper into the possible paths the field of interaction design could take, based on our current understanding, existing predictions, current trends and cutting-edge research. I feel that studying these in further detail, and then deciding what one is interested in most could be the most viable way for interaction designers of today to shape their careers in the industry, as well the world around them.

© 2013 alimurtaza

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Added on September 24, 2013
Last Updated on September 24, 2013
Tags: computers, interaction, design, microsoft, concept, technology, future



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