NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 40

Face to Face

Designing for People; Face to Face with LukeW, Product Director at Google

Amin Nasr

Luke Wroblewski, known as LukeW, is an internationally recognized interaction designer and digital product leader. He is the author of three popular Web design books (1). His most prominent book “Mobile First” is one of the key resources for modern web design, and made him a significant figure in the UX field. Luke is currently a Product Director at Google. Before Google, he was the CEO and co-founder of Polar (acquired by Google in 2014) and the Chief Product Officer and co-Founder of Bagcheck (acquired by Twitter in 2011). Prior to founding start-ups, Luke was an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at Benchmark Capital, the Chief Design Architect (VP) at Yahoo!, lead user interface designer at eBay, and a senior interface designer at NCSA. He is a consistently top-rated speaker at conferences and companies around the world, and the co-founder and former board member of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).
Since the first iPhone was introduced by Steve Jobs in 2007, smartphones have achieved mainstream popularity. I decided to approach LukeW and talk to him about interaction design in general by focusing on mobile.

With the rise of Wearables, VR, Internet-of-things and even Insertable, It seems you are still a big advocate of mobile? Why mobile?
It’s been 10 years since smartphones were introduced (by mass media), and they are super powerful since we all are carrying a super computer in our pocket connected to all of humanity. The possibilities are endless! In the future other things will absolutely happen. But based on where we are and the imminent future, mobile is still an empowering type of device.

It’s obvious that interaction designers endeavor to design creative and aesthetically appealing solutions, however, it seems those are not always well received among users. How we can make sure that our design works for people?
Watch people try to use it! That’s the way. It’s surprising, because this discipline has both matured so much over the past 20–30 years and also has pretty much the same issues. I hired a designer not too long ago who made beautiful and amazing things. My comment to him was, “This is so lovely I want to put it on my wall, but it needs a button!” As interaction designers, we need to understand what to do with it — and if you are not considering that side of it you are not really making software. I think of hardware and software as human superpowers or augmentation; for me it boils down to considering how this is an extension of a human, so you have to consider all the parts that make us Human like emotions, the size of our fingers and hands, what they can and can’t do, and our ability to perceive information. So we have to think about all of that in order to enhance the human experience, and that’s where the gist of interaction design comes in. Many people say that’s about the design of behavior, but I think that’s selling it a little short. It’s more than behavior, right? There is certainly behavior associated with it. This is the reason that I’m so excited about NUI (natural user interface) compare to GUI (graphical user interface). Natural user interface is something like voice or touch where you use a lifetime of what you’ve learned about the world to interact with digital things, as opposed to learning a whole digital interface (which is what GUI is). GUI is a representation on top of digital stuff that has its own language, structure and format. For example, to make Apple AirPods play, you just put them in your ear. There is certainly an interaction design but it’s not like a graphical user interface. It’s a closer connection to your physicality and your capabilities, as opposed to layers of distraction that build up in a graphical interface. With something like voice, you can talk as you normally do — by reducing all layers of distraction down to make the interaction natural. I think to build things that enhance the human experience and “augment human beings”, we must become more natural with the way that interfaces work and react with the body and its environment.

Considering the way that command line interface (CLI) has been replaced with graphical user interface (GUI), do you think we may pass the world of graphical user interface completely, or maybe GUI will be only a subset of natural user interfaces at some point?
No, no! Visual information that accesses your brain is extremely powerful and we should absolutely be taking advantage of that. One of the issues with voice recognition today is that it ignores all visual aspects. If you ever hear somebody read a slide on a PowerPoint presentation, you know how bad voice interfaces would be. The more we understand what people are good at and what capabilities we have, the more we can build appropriate experiences with this stuff.

Sometime we see a conflict between visual design trends and users’ mental model. For instance, the whole idea of Flat Design led to less accessible websites and sometimes user couldn’t find buttons simply because they were not similar to actual buttons in the real world. How can designers design creative solutions without compromising users’ mental model?
That depends on what we are trying to do! If we are making a car that needs to work on the road with someone driving it, we can’t say, “I’m going to put the gas pedal on the steering wheel,” or, “I’m going to make the brake look like a turn signal” — you’d kill people! But, if your purpose is to push people to think differently about things and force them to interact in new ways (in appropriate situations), then by all means, pushing those conventions is a good thing. Interaction designers sometimes feel like that these established conventions are dragging down their creativity. I look at it as the opposite. I look at it as, “OK! We are growing the baseline of knowledge that’s out there, or a baseline of things that you can build on top of.” The human history of knowledge is like this: It’s not, “I have an idea that’s perfectly unique!” — It’s, “I saw this, somebody did this, and somebody did that” and we are much better off learning from all that and building on it. Similarly in the world of interface design, when you try to go from point A to point Z, you probably miss out on all the opportunity to build on top of this base knowledge. So I see it as a benefit and not a detriment.

User experience designers believe that we need to immerse ourselves in the life of the user in order to come up with the right solution. Do you think this is doable in the real world? 
I think unless you are the only user, you should know the user, right? If you are building something that is trying to fix a problem for a user, you must be a great user of it. I personally believe that most problems occur from the distance between users and makers. The more you become caught up in processes, the farther away you get from the actual customer. You see all sorts of organizational hierarchies and “who is in charge of this and that” — none of that has anything to do with users! So instead of wasting time for things that don’t matter, we should focus on users and things that actually matter. On my team for example, we put our weekly iteration in front of customers, showing everything we are designing. This weekly feedback does not determine what we do, but it keeps us informed. It keeps us honest, and it gives us an alternative perspective other than our own. It’s  always something that stays on top of our minds and reminds us what we are actually doing for who.

My next question is about user testing. As you have mentioned, observing users and watching how they interact with the design is essential. However, conducting a professional user testing session requires special equipment and a high-level of expertise. Do you think user testing is an essential skill that each interaction designer needs to develop?
No, but I think anytime you collect insights from a user (either simply by observing an individual or conducting a professional user testing session) it is valuable. If you have no idea how people in India get around, and you try to build a system for them, you’ll have a severe disadvantage compared to somebody who has knowledge about this matter. You may have a naive idea, but in general having a deep knowledge about the current status of users elevates the way you design for people. So, I think every designer should be open to and embrace user insights. However, each interaction designer does not necessarily have to run tests by themselves. This information is usually collected and analyzed by user-research professionals.

You’ve done a lot of research around accessibility and obviously Google is trying to make the whole World Wide Web accessible for everyone around the world. What do you think about accessibility: is it a “nice to have” or is it essential? 
If you consider what the web is good at, it is good at accessing! If you build a plain HTML webpage, it will render in every device in the world that has a browser on it, which is billions of devices (unless you do something that stop it from doing that). The web is made for accessibility, and by default is completely accessible to voice, every size of screen, you name it! So the real question is: how much do we break it? The whole point of making something for the web is to reach this global audience and if we are restricting it, why we are making web pages?

As an interaction designer how we can get better and improve our design?
I’m big believer of this concept of the virtuous feedback loop. I’m a big believer in constant learning, and that I would advocate to most people. Always be in a state of constant learning when you are designing. When you feel that you’ve learned everything there is to know about what you’re doing you get into trouble, and eventually you feel left behind. My friend Bill Scott has a good way of phrasing this. He says, “You should always look for the opportunities that give you a race in the heart and a peak in stomach,” — so you are excited and nervous as you push yourself into doing something uncomfortable. That resonates with me. If feel like I’m too comfortable, it’s probably time to do something else. That’s always helped me push myself out of comfort zones.

Do you have any advice for people considering entering the interaction design field?
My personal belief about UX design is that each day more and more of our lives will have a digital component. The exciting thing about making software and digital services is that over time this makes the human race difficult, complicated and fun. Since we are now modeling everything digitally, like social relationships, healthcare, trade, and almost all human activities — I think my advice would be that while it’s super exciting, fun and full of potential, it also comes with a huge responsibility. You must consider the big picture and make sure you are doing things in a way that reflects some kind of moral compass; you have to have a humane lens. If you want some inspiration on this, there is a fantastic little book called “Shaping Things” by Bruce Sterling who is a science fiction author and a professor of design. He articulates how the role of design can and should be in the future and it’s both really inspiring and also has implications of what it means to have that potential.

Thanks again Luke, for this face-to-face opportunity with Neshan magazine.

(1) Mobile First, Web Form Design & Site-Seeing: A Visual Approach to Web Usability

Amin Nasr

began his professional career in 2002 in the design and advertising field as an art director and visual artist. After many years of working as an independent design consultant and also working with different advertising agencies he founded withit in 2010, a human-centred design studio located in Toronto, Canada. He has worked for technology companies and as a UX consultant and Interaction Designer, developing projects all around the world and for a diverse portfolio of clients in the industrial, commercial, and publication. He holds a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and his MA. Des. in visual art and he is a member of Interaction Design Foundation (IDF).

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