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05 September, 2006

Checking my pulse

Dan Saffer just wrote an interesting piece on why someone might want to be an interaction designer. To be honest, this was probably only interesting because I am an interaction designer. To anyone else, it might seem a little dull, if not totally pointless.

In fact, you might even be asking yourself, so what’s an interaction designer when it’s all at home? Well, an interaction designer is the person who tries to understand how you would best be able to work with a piece of software (a website, say, or a word processor, or that database application you use at work) and then works with you and the software folk to come up with the optimal design. Ever heard the word ‘usability’? Well, we’re the people who try to achieve it.

Anyway, the interesting thing was that the reasons he gave for being one of these (an interest in human psychology, lots of variety in the work, lots of problem-solving, it's fun playing with cool new technologies all the time, and, of course, wanting to make the world a better place) are essentially the reasons that motivated me all those years ago when I first got into this game. And it begs the question, are these the reasons I’m still at it, twenty-five years later?

Certainly, you don’t do this job to get rich. Although really good interaction designers are as rare as hens’ teeth and despite the fact that their impact on a project can be enormous and have huge financial benefits, they don’t get paid much more than a halfway-decent Java programmer – which are ten-a-penny and often wear really nerdy T-shirts.

You also don’t do it for the respect of your peers. Most people – including your management, the IT team, even the end-users you work with – don’t quite understand why you’re on the project. ‘Surely we could just let the programmers design the screens,’ they say. ‘No, we can’t afford to spend so much time understanding our users and the tasks they do,’ they say. ‘And why would you want to test the product with the people who are supposed to use it? The people who built it find it easy enough to understand.’ To get good work is an uphill struggle, all the time. Most of the people who buy or build IT systems just assume they will be ‘user friendly’. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times they are obviously and patently proven wrong.

Yet interaction design has given me a comfortable living for a quarter of a century now and that’s not a bad thing. (My English working-class background has instilled in me the absolute imperative to be a steady, consistent wage-earner and to abhor the idea of unemployment. So, keeping me off the dole queue is something for which I’m grateful to my chosen career.)

And, although the sceptics on the IT team may not see the point, on those rare days when I’m running a user requirements workshop, or working with users in their workplace to understand exactly what their job is and how to support it, and one of them says, ‘I’m really glad someone is actually listening to us at last,’ months of rejection and struggle are blown away and I actually feel my life is worthwhile.

So I guess that, deep down, below all those years of cynicism and all the other defences against a world that doesn’t understand or appreciate what I do, it is the chance of doing something that will make a real difference to people’s lives that keeps me logging on in the morning. I hope that enthusiastic youngsters like Dan can say the same thing a couple of decades from now.


Dan said...

Let's hope so!

Dan said...

Let's hope so!

Dan said...

Let's hope so!

xman said...

In my experience, any programmer who builds anything will create a poor interface. They design the poor thing based on nothing more than a good idea and then 4 times as much scope creep. And whats with those primary colours?

Its the curse of the programming fraternity, that while they make fantastic and mostly invisible code, they are often the only people able to ever use that monster child thing they spawn..

Of course, anyone unable to use their 'baby' is a complete idiot.

Conversely a true artist will want to spend countless unbillable months in crisis over the awful rectilinear conformity of the design they want to be recognised for, as breaking through the average, away from the mundane, to reach the very stars.... er, sorry, ehem - where was I?

So back to the User.. who? says the coder.... "My Public!" exclaims the artist whistfully..

And more than the user, the Champion of the user - That noble one, the usability interaction IA person, who just wants to get right in there and pull these clowns heads in, pool all that talent, and make it USEFUL and ultimately worthwhile to all the people who will actually pay hard earned for it!

The average user salutes you and your profession Graham :-)

Hip Hip..

graywave said...

Hmmm, xman, it sounds like you're in the business yourself. Obviously not a programmer or a graphic designer though!! :-)

In fact, I have huge respect for software developers - they're just being asked to do the wrong job. If you're really, really keen to hear my views on this, I have another blog
where I've just posted a summary of a paper I've written on why no-one values user interface design.

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