September + October 2008
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Jon: A lot of the discourse that surrounds interaction design speaks to the large, cultural change
it can afford. When I used to teach, my students
would become enamored with the possibilities of
design and would make grandiose and unintentionally trivializing statements like “World hunger?
It’s just a design problem; we could solve it, if only
we had the right model…” This issue of interactions
presents a number of these types of problems:
homelessness, sustainability, and memory impairment. Do you feel that we actually can solve these
wicked cultural problems through design?
Richard: Design can play an important role. As
we suggest in our introduction to this issue, design
is changing in ways that should increase the role it
can play. And increased adoption of “design thinking” by others—as we’ve referenced in previous
Interaction Cafes—will help as well.
But let’s take care not to treat design as if it were
a religion or a savior. Agile development methodologies with more than a few fanatical followers are, in
some cases, justifiably decried as little more than
an excuse not to document code. The OLPC hasn’t
had, and is unlikely to have, much of an impact on
children’s education in developing nations.
Jon: The two examples you give share an interesting commonality. Both the hardware and software of OLPC have been debated and critiqued
from an aesthetic and experiential point of view.
But the truly exciting part of the project is how
it exemplifies “shifting the placements,” to quote
Richard Buchanan, in order to tackle the wicked
problem of hunger by providing intellectual self-sufficiency. Agile development has been adopted
in a dogmatic style or rejected in an equally abrupt
fashion, yet it too is a drastic approach to solving an obvious and painful problem; instead of
rethinking specification writing, it turns coding
on its side by questioning a lot of established paradigms.
Richard: I admire the thinking underlying both
OLPC and agile development, just as I admire the
thinking underlying the concept of open access
to intellectual content, as discussed by Elizabeth
Churchill and Mark Vanderbeekenin this issue.
But just as OLPC and agile development have their
limits, so, too, does open access. Indeed, I don’t see
it as appropriate for interactions magazine, at least
Jon: The first two ideas are nonobvious attempts
at solving obvious problems. The third—open
access—might be a novel idea to a nonissue. It
could be argued that interactions magazine should
cost money because the content in it is worth
something: The content has value. I suppose it
could also be argued that the magazine should be
free so that value can be shared by the masses. To
which argument do you subscribe?
Richard: Neither. The content in interactions is
worth something—it has great value, but that
alone doesn’t mean that the magazine should
cost money. And though you and I are working to
broaden the scope and readership of the magazine, it isn’t intended for the masses, and it can be
argued that we can extend the reach of the magazine more effectively if it does cost money.
Open access to interactions content might become
appropriate. Indeed, we’ve already begun to
increase access in a couple of ways. My point is
that wicked problems don’t have simple solutions,
an argument Don Norman makes in this issue.
Jon: I agree; one might even argue that truly
wicked problems don’t have solutions at all—they
only have appeasements, and the best we can do
is temper the symptoms.
I don’t take that point of view, however. I think
we can best these problems, specifically because
we’ve created them. The massive phenomena discussed in this issue are all human, and it’s with
a human and humane mind that we can both
explain and, ultimately, fix the problems that
exist in our culture and society. Design modeling,
divergent thinking, and empathetic approaches to
life offer the answers to these difficulties, and free
content or not, it’s the implicit goal of this magazine to bring these issues—and the attempts to
best them—to light.
—Richard Anderson and Jon Kolko