Design by fire 2011 closing party

Friday October 14 the fifth edition of the Design by Fire conference took place. Like in other years, the conference offered a nice mix of talks giving an insight of contemporary topics that are important for the interaction design community. Not a lot of surprises were presented, but it is still a nice source of inspiration to pinpoint some trends.

Design with the context. The first speaker of the day, Didier Hilhorst of Flipboard pleaded for looking beyond the input box as main start for interaction. To underline this he showed the app into_now where the sound of a tv serie is the start of a social service. Comparable with Shazam, but with a different goal: to share and have a second-screen experience.
Design the context is the most important trigger for use. “Create a context for interaction and the use will follow”. Social is a standard part of new services and a trigger for usage. is a good example, but his statement that the essence of Flipboard is to be a social too, can be questioned: the most appealing content of that service is the social stuff itself of course.

Talking context. Jamin Hegeman introduced the concept of service design to the audience. Not so excited for long lasting service design-minded folks like we are, but once again it stressed the importance of designing for more than the touchpoint for those who were not aware of that yet.
Seeing his talk I was again convinced that a common danger for designers is to go for a full design, godlike experience. Designing the complete context is not the aim of service design, and impossible also. Designing the fundaments and rules for the use is the name of the game.

Design for tangible experiences is another theme that is getting hot. Since a major part of the user experience designer community has a background in industrial design engineering, the Internet of Things is always of special interest. In his talk, Jordi Parra focused on our need to design for this tangible experiences. He quoted Hiroshii Ishii: “the digital world is not using all the richness of our senses”. Something Didier Hilhorst was talking about earlier when he explored the different interaction means like sound. The Teague radio showed how different interactions can make exiting products.
Jordi was openly searching for the product and service focus, and showed with his Spotify Radiohow you can make an online service with tangible interactions. In the end his talks remained a bit on the surface. There is a difference in a tangible product that contains the service and a real tangible experience of a service.

In the little game that was played with all the people in the audience we had to work on an upgrade for the Dutch OV Chip card: how to make this an appealing service. We used some techniques from gamestorming, which was fun. The case did especially combine some of the aspects like thinking on the total context and making a virtual service tangible (or the other way round). Putting the chip in the shoe laces as one of the presented solutions did, or like our group; adding a game layer where a collecting game of virtual animals was added to the journey experience. The animals where a means to make that experience tangible. Using hidden gesture check-in moves for extra animals, dating with other animals in the coupe and adding animal sounds to the check-in points.
It would be a great exercise to see if this little game layer really adds meaning to the service, helping passengers not to forget to check out for instance.

This makes a bridge to the design for social responsibility, another theme of the day. It started of with Nynke Tromp, with her design for social dilemmas. The metaphor of the gun was nicely chosen; is a gun responsible for killing a man? Or is it the man using it?

You can ask the same question as a designer. Are you the one that can take responsibility for the way people make use of your designs? Or are you the facilitator of good behavior? If you want to increase social behavior, you need to stimulate solidarity. An example to design this solidarity is the experimental project Solidshare in the Afrikaanderwijk in Rotterdam. In this project, people were stimulated to get in touch with their neighbours by introducing a sharing service for domestic tools. It creates a context for possible social behavior, without garanteeing that it change the behavior in depth of course.
Nynke stated that designers are the new politicans, that you have a responsibilty by making choices. Something Eric Reiss reflected on a lot in his finalising talk. He made a interesting case for the political role.

In his statement, he used the talk of Matt Sheret as counter point. If you play with the data, use will emerge, Matt said. Or as Eric put it: finding uses of the data drop out of a service is like playing with your own shit. An interesting point, but too easy. Matt Sheret had a very solid talk on the way youdesign with data. He is a so-called data griot and looks to the uses of the data within the Last.fmservice. He presented three elements that are important to his work: reveal the human input, create playful data and set a new tone of voice with the data. Always create stories, because you need stories to make date accessable.

A story is something the guys of Catalogtree had in mind for sure when they designed the Money & Speed app on the flashcrash. An appealing app, but not the most interesting of the work they showed. The research of New York diplomats parking tickets and the way they made the collected data accessable, showed the true craftmanship of Daniel Gross and Joris Maltha. Important is also that their approach is not to design the visualisation only, but to attempt to create the tool to visualise this.

After all, the Design by Fire conference showed a great mix of topics that count now in our design field. With a important role for the power of big data as design material, and the starting point of big design for context. And with a clear message to us all: don’t forget your responsibilty as designer for shaping meaning.
It is a pity Yohan Creemers and his team decided that this was the last edition of this conference. They did a wonderful job in composing some inspiring conferences.

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I am a design director at Structural. I curate and organize ThingsCon Netherlands and I am chairman of the Cities of Things Foundation. Before I was innovation and strategy director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting researcher and lab director at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab.

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