What a difference a word makes

If you have any particular investment in the field of interaction design, Andrew Otwell’s review of Bill Moggridge’s would-be juggernaut Designing Interactions is a must-read.

I haven’t myself bought Designing Interactions yet, curiously enough because my superficial scan of the cover led me to the same conclusion that Andrew arrives at in the course of a reasoned and judicious review: that the talent assembled in this book seems like little more than a roster of Bill M.’s buds and IDEO stalwarts. (As the owner of two of IDEO’s previous forays into published self-promotion, not to mention a pretty but fairly pointless deck of Method Cards, I figured I’d give this one a pass.)

But Andrew also turns up a deeper reason to resist, or at least question, the Moggridge book, which is the paternalism that he sees encapsulated in the book’s very title. There is, after all, a certain arrogance in presuming that one can “design” an interaction; the review contrasts this to the “humility” implied in Dan Saffer‘s fine Designing for Interaction, which sets limits on what a designer can achieve, regardless of his or her ambition. (Full disclosure: I’m one of Saffer’s interviewees.)

As Andrew notes, the distinction is crucial, and it’s all in that little word “for.” I’m not sure it’s fair to impart this stance to all of Moggridge’s subjects – after all, they presumably had less than no say in what the book would be entitled – but it’s telling that they all do seem to belong to the generation of the Apple Lisa and the original Palm Pilot.

There seem to be other serious problems with the book’s interview-driven approach, but I’ll let Andrew speak to them; it wouldn’t be proper for me to do so, not having read it myself. And given that one of my main complaints about the discipline of user experience is its (OK: our) ahistoricity and marked tendency to reinvent the wheel, I’m glad that this book exists as a record of subjective experience, whatever its other flaws – in many ways, it sounds like the Studs Terkel take on user-centered design, v1.0, and that’s not at all a bad thing.

Along the lines of my longstanding contention that experience cannot be designed, though, I would hope that we’ve learned by now that there are real limits on the power of a designer to shape and influence interactions. Judging, again, solely from Andrew’s review, this isn’t a note I hear sounded in the Moggridge book, and that’s really too bad.

One response to “What a difference a word makes”

  1. Andrew says :

    I also learned that Jeff Howard picked up on the “for” distinction well before I did.

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