FW: IDML Update: "Language!" (on behalf of CD Evans)

22 Apr 2004 - 10:44am
849 reads
Dave Malouf

-------- Interaction Design Meeting London 01 ---- Late Event Notes

mrettig at well.com

(Ok, special Thanks to Kevin Cheng for the quotes form Mark and Edgar Aromin
for his linked sketches, both taken on the fly at the meeting.
Sorry for the lack of a rush in getting this out, here goes nothing

We settled in quite nicely to a crowded yet modern space offered by the BBC
right on the street that rounds the buildings at Aldwich. Everyone was
reasonably on time, and so we got started pretty easily with individual
introductions, stating people's interests and backgrounds.
Mark then opened the evening with his talk on Interaction Design is Language
Design and his Case Study of the medical software.

Part one, Mark started by examining everyday objects and the 'languages'
that they contain. He explained his views on TV Remotes, Roadway Signs and
the process involved in Boiling A Kettle. Mark talked about the 'literacy'
of these interactions and he described the notion of language within signs
and symbols and how we learn these languages.
He went on to explain that we don't often think about the intuitive process
of recognition that we use to navigate through these interactions, such as
knowing when to yield to thoroughfare traffic.

Mark said, as quoted by Kevin Cheng, "When you design an interactive
product, you are creating the setting for thousands of conversations.
You are creating the language which will be spoken between product and
person." This idea was further developed in Mark's construction of a medical
imaging interface, where the amount of data involved meant creating an
interface that 'spoke the same language' as the practitioner using the
equipment. In a situation like this, where the data can overwhelm the user
to the point of jeopardization, it is critical that the interface displays
the most likely information needed, and provides extremely intuitive input.

This is where Mark's theory of design language really steps in, "A design
language defines a set of lexical elements which tie a symbol in surface
structure to a representation of meaning in deep structure.
Elements are assembled into valid and meaningful constructs according to the
rules of a syntax. In turn, constructs may be assembled into compositions,
which make up a complete whole." It is the possibility of misrepresentation
within this complex whole that could make the difference between ease of
interpretation and, in this case, the wrong prognosis.

Mark went on to ask the question: "Why is this important?". His reply was,
"We all seem to be winging it.". He said, "It's important to look for a
theoretical framework which can ground our methods and practices in what it
really means to be human... and we are, almost above all, meaning makers and

This is the thought that really takes the conversation onto another level,
into the realm of character, rhetoric and narrative. He says that "almost
all speech has at least two layers: semantic (transfer of
meaning) and social (shaping relationships)" and "if you get the deep and
surface structures of the essential speech acts right, and you have a good
framework for generating compositions."

It is this concept of 'speech acts' which really struck me, and perhaps
others, as this seems to tie in really well with the process flows or story
boards in the process of interaction design. As Mark said in his description
for the talk, "This isn't a metaphor, it's really what's going on. Building
on this linguistic point of view, (Mark) suggests how this might effect our
process and tools." And that's quite something, thanks a lot Mark.

Part two, the floor was then opened up to comments and criticism on the idea
of an open source design language, of sorts. Priya and I figured this topic
was of a similar stature because it too breaks down design into
'language-like' components. We talked about types of interactions and how
possible it would be to categorize them into easily describable modules. A
few people in the crowd we're convinced that there was no real need and some
figured that it would likely take 5 years or so before this sort of thing
would be possible. Whatever the case, the topic of 'Design Patterns'
therefore begs the following questions to be asked, 'What is the point?,
and, 'How would it be possible?'

A few commented on how helpful patterns or modules would be in their own
workplace, as this could be a definable system from which to support design
decisions. This irked a few ears, as module patterns could be used as a
potential strengthening for design decisions which otherwise become very
political. I offered the idea of a deck of UI Cards, which allow the team to
compare combinations of elements to see who has the 'better hand'.

We also went on to discuss interaction needs when interacting with a laundry
machine, as an example, and how patterns might not apply as well to such a
real world device. The ideas at play were mostly that the machine either has
a dial or a bunch of buttons, and usually both.
Because of this, integrating another design model, even if it works well
elsewhere, is likely to fail based on people's lack of comfort with new
interface elements.

Time ran short and so this concluded our OSD talk and moved us into the pub,
where the conversations drifted from the incredibly practical to the usual
london banter and everywhere in-between. We talked and drank for quite some
time, and so the night must have ended in a bit of a blur for a good bunch
of us. :-)

All in all it was a splendid evening and we hope you can make it out to our
second meet coming soon to an interaction area near you.


CD Evans - cd at iagency.biz
Priya Prakash - priya.prakash at bbc.co.uk

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