Interactionary FAQ

Interactionary FAQ

By Scott Berkun, March 2005

What is the purpose of Interactionary?

The goal is to create an alternative way to teach designers, usability engineers and project managers about the process of design. It is an exploration into alternative ways to demonstrate collaborative design technique, and for presenting design concepts in a conference forum.

The little goal is: how can you use 90 minutes and a stage to teach people about design? The big goal is: how can you redefine a conference to provide better design/usability education?

How can I run my own interactionary competition?

Read the Interactionary guidebook, available on this website. As long as you refer back to this website, and let me know what you’re up to, I’m happy to have you use this format for design training.

How did the idea come about?

At an HCI conference in 99′ I found myself thinking about how restrictive the typical paper/panel/workshop format could be. For a field as creative as web/UI design, most conferences provide the same basic formats and structures. I considered how my best lessons in design came from participation with, and observance of, those that knew more than I did. So I started thinking about how to expose the skill of master designers working on a real problem, within the constraints of an academic/industry conference setting. Then I asked Chris, Debbie and Sarah to help run this thing, and they agreed.

How does this format teach design?

At least four aspects of design and teamwork are exposed:

  1. Training for the event forces teams to improve their understanding of their process. Most teams train for the event and discuss how to break their current process down into something that could work in 10 minutes. It forces several important discussions to occur. 1) What is our current process? 2) How do we break up the work across our team? 3) How can we scale it down to work under these new constraints? These questions are useful at any time, on any project. The exercise of Interactionary forces these issues, and requires teams to ask questions about how they do their work.
  2. In practicing for the competition, teams run through design exercises that simulate the event. In these run-throughs, the team is forced to exercise their extemporaneous and impromptu skills in the context of teamwork, with a specific goal. Since the context is not directly work related, and is instead about a “game”, it can be much easier for teammates to offer suggestions or constructive criticisms of each other. Those skills of taking and giving feedback continue to develop after the competition, and are easiliy applied to actual work situations.
  3. The audience benefits from observing actual design – not an artifact or description of what took place somewhere else. Instead it happens live on stage, and they witness to the work of four different teams of designers. By watching each team, with different philosophies, processes, and ideas, they can make comparisons about which techniques are valuable, and which team dynamics might be useful. At a minimum, it provides the basis for discussion and conversation about why certain teams were successful, and how much can design thinking can be accomplished in ten minutes.
  4. An expert jury offers commentary on everything the audience observes. This is the opportunity to place everything into a context that can be interpreted and digested by a large audience. The quality of the jury can offset many weaknesses, and emphasize successes, of the participating teams.

What doesn’t Interactionary teach?

This is not a replacement for a design education. It is not an actual process for designing production quality websites, software, vending machines or automobiles. No specific usability evaluation or engineering technique is presented or advocated. Instead a set of design experiences are constructed, with real designers and problems, that can be easily observed.

Unlike a paper session or a lesson plan, the format is organic and dynamic. The burden is on the observer (with help from commentary by the expert panelists) to digest and interpret the value of what is seen. Contradictions are everywhere, as different teams will make different assumptions, and proceed in different directions. It could be argued that Interactionary doesn’t teach any specific lesson – instead it gives the viewer an opportunity to watch something that is rarely seen: designers in the act of designing.

Does this format devalue the role of designers or minimize the difficulty of design?

As long as it is made clear that design in this format is different from what professional design teams are likely to confront in their daily work, no devaluing takes place (While extemperaneous design exploration and challenges offer occur, it is rarely the central focus of what a designer does in their job). On the contrary, in observing teams working on stage, it becomes clear how difficult a task design is, especially under the given constraints. We made sure to introduce the proper context in the sessions as well as the documentation in the proceedings.

What about the importance of careful consideration and evaluation? How can that happen in ten minutes?

I agree that much of design is exploration and introspection, but these aspects could not be presented in an interesting way on stage that didn’t replicate common paper or panel sessions. The same goes for work in Photoshop, or prototyping an idea in HTML or Flash. An additional challenge of education, particularly in a conference setting, is the requirement of maintaining attention. Education does not work if the students or observers have lost interest, or are hoping for the session to end (Which unfortunately is the general case in many conferences and educational forums).

Why was a scoring system necessary?

We discussed this issue with each set of teams at CHI 2000 and CHI 2001, and they all agreed that the competitive, scoring based format made the session more fun and interesting to them. Interactionary could be done without it, but it may have less audience appeal (which could be beneficial if attendance is not a concern). The scoring provided a clear framework for the audience to follow, and gave the organizers a model to work from in timing and staging the event.

The results in 2000 and 2001 suffered in degrees from audience focus on the scoring system and results, instead of the substance of what was observed. In part, we encouraged a liberal attitude among the audience through our behavior on stage, and given the general context of professional conferences, they were happy to get a bit carried away.

However, these audiences also gave us very high scores for educational value at both CHI 2000 and CHI 2001 . So there is strong evidence that making a session entertaining does not prevent it from being educationally valid or worthwhile.

Who created it and where did it come from?

I came up with the initial idea, and wrote the CHI 2000 proposal. Sarah Zuberec, Debbie Cargile, and Chris Konrad co-developed all of the details and format specifics, which took considerable time. Other live design formats have been done at CHI before, but most were not this elaborate.

Who else has done an Interactionary? If I want to run one, will someone help me?

Since the initial public event at CHI 2000, I’ve had many emails from people who have tried the format inside their companies or schools. and SIGCHI.NL have written reports on their own events. If you have a write up, or comments, please write in. Advice on running one can be found in the Interactionary guidebook .

What is the future of Interactionary?

Part of my work is developing formats for design, usability and teamwork training. This website will list anything I do that has appeared at a conference or is public material. The last major interactionary was CHI 2003.

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