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Design Wed Dec 02 2009

Styling Information, Technology: An Interview with Nick Disabato

Nick Disabato is writing a style guide for interaction design. This was not a sudden thing: Nick's interest in making things work and look better intertwined with computers early on. Growing up in a self-described "really wired household", he was exposed to technology and the internet at a young age. Born in Park Ridge, Nick earned his master's in Human-Computer Interaction at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before returning to Chicago. He currently resides in Logan Square, and works as a user experience designer at I had the opportunity to talk with Nick about his book, Cadence & Slang, the process and ideas behind it, and how he's using Kickstarter to make it a reality.

How do you define interaction design?

Interaction design is the art and craft of making technology easier to use. It ranges from basic usability concerns - putting things in the right places, making sites easier to skim -- to improving the performance and behavior of programs, how they respond to users' input.

What sparked your interest in interaction design in the first place? Is this a recent interest, or something that goes way back? Did you make prototypes with blocks and an Etch-a-Sketch?

I think my interest was less in prototyping new products than it was my saying -- at the age of four, mind -- "this doesn't work right, it could be different." I don't think that the process is terribly rigorous when you're a little kid; you aren't going to start banging out a persona or UML diagram. But the concern was definitely there, and it was consciously thought for many years.

What or who has influenced your research and methodology? Are there any particular experiences that cemented how you do things, how you think of them?

Writers and designers both. I mention Christopher Alexander, an architect, and Robert Bringhurst, a poet and typographer, in my Kickstarter project's video. I'd also throw Edward Tufte, a statistician, in there too. All three of them inform the structure, approach, and design of my book.

On the designer front, I'm tremendously inspired by Alan Cooper, who designed Visual Basic at Microsoft a long time ago; a colleague of his, Kim Goodwin, who wrote a 700-page tome that summarizes a goodly chunk of our profession; and Donald Norman, whose book The Design of Everyday Things was wildly influential among industrial designers.

cadenceslang.jpgWhat made you want to write a book about it?

Cadence & Slang is the book that I'd have wanted back in graduate school, when I was a lot more impressionable and wanted something more taut and concise. I've spent a few years looking at all the interaction design books out there, and discovered that I wanted to write something different from them.

But in the past few years, I realized that an awful lot of people didn't quite believe in good design, or they believed in the idea of good design but didn't know how to execute it well. When I started writing, I wanted a good summary of design. Now I want to change peoples' attitudes, hopefully making design more broadly accepted.

What's your book about? What do you think it will bring to the field?

I wrote about this for another blog recently, but it's worth repeating here: Cadence & Slang is a style guide for good interactions. A huge part of interaction design is coming up with creative solutions to unique situations. But at this point, the majority of it is about ensuring sensible, conventional solutions that are easy for people to understand, and useful once they're adopted.

For better or worse, only a handful of significant interaction models have really gained traction in the past few decades. For example, in my daily life, I usually use just two: the keyboard-and-mouse of my computers, and the touchscreen on my phone. And while these models may change in the long term -- I don't expect people to use mice forever -- they're around for long enough, with enough products written for them, that conventions arise and rules can be codified. Fitts's law, for example, is at its most useful when designing any interfaces that are controlled by a mouse.

But I don't expect any guidelines to be distilled into black & white issues. All rules exist to be bent and broken by those sensitive enough to understand the trade-offs in doing so. But by having these written down someplace, they may provide a framework, a starting point, for more humane, useful products. That's my hope, at least.

I wrote an outline of the book here, which summarizes things nicely.

Why should someone who doesn't know much about interaction design read it?

Because the recent popularity of well-designed things, both in and out of technology, affects everybody. If you've enjoyed an iPod or Wii in the past decade, you've worked with good interaction design. And if you've bought anything from Ikea or Muji, you've enjoyed (mostly) good industrial design.

With Cadence & Slang, I hope to write about what makes these products all good, in a way that's not overly technical or unapproachable. At the very least, if you work in technology this concerns you; good interactions affect every part of software and hardware.

But, returning to my previous writing, Cadence & Slang isn't only for designers. It doesn't talk in any lingo specific to our field; it's not born of a scene that celebrates itself. Making good design a reality is about everyone adopting the right attitudes, no matter their job title. As Panic Inc.'s Steven Frank recently noted, good experiences run the entire way down the software stack. They require good performance and reliability; these problems concern the left-brained and the right-brained equally.

Why did you choose Kickstarter to fund the book?

I never considered going through traditional publishing. Half because of the recession, half because I don't really have a huge name in my field, and half because the idea of Kickstarter really intrigued me. Plus, farming my manuscript out to editors -- and potentially having changes made in the book -- seemed like more administrative hassle than it was worth. At least the administrative hassles that I have chosen to take on won't result in a substantially altered product.

What's an excellent example of interaction design? Product, website, label -- anything.

The iPod and iPhone are the most public examples of great interaction design. Both of them are ridiculously easy to use, and combined with their industrial design they're some of the most iconic and popular devices of our time.

For completely different reasons, I'd add the Nintendo Wii and Flip Video camcorder. The Wii has an entirely new interaction model and it works insanely well. The Flip Video is good for taking high-quality video and getting it onto your computer super fast -- it only really has one button that you ever need to worry about when shooting, and its connector is built into the device.

The Flip sold millions of units with threadbare advertising, and the Wii was sold out for two consecutive holiday seasons. Both of them are examples that good design sells well.

An excerpt from Cadence & Slang:

"People don't think about what makes technology work. They see a product and say "it helps me deal with this problem I have." More to the point, though: users think 'I need to send an email,' not 'I need to click these buttons in order to send an email.'

Most of our field considers goal-oriented design these days, instead of user-oriented design. (This can also be called task-oriented design, depending on who you ask.) Interaction designers frame a lot of their research in terms of goals. For instance, use cases dictate the tasks that users should go through to complete a specific goal, and the flowcharts that we sometimes make are oriented around that."

Nick recently reached his Kickstarter goal, but more support never hurts: donate and learn more about Cadence & Slang here.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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