Interview with Bill Moggridge, by Susie Wise, January 2007
The social importance of narratives has long been acknowledged as a shaper of cultures, providing us not only with the shape of our past but also with cues to our future. Bill Moggridge, a man who probably has plenty of great stories to tell from his roles in designing the first laptop and co-founding the legendary design firm IDEO, is pondering the way storytelling can reconcile the elastic nature of design thinking with academic exactness. A United Kingdom native, Moggridge wrote Designing Interactions (http://www.designinginteractions.com), which was published last fall. In the book he interweaves the stories of interaction design pioneers from Douglas Engelbart to Will Wright with discussions of his own approach to understanding people and prototypes.
WISE: What's your sense of young design in America.
MOGGRIDGE: I think if you look at America versus the rest of the world in design, it's just incredible how little organizational extra support there is, there's no design council. I'm chairing Connecting '07, which is a big international congress, in October this year. And I compare what we're trying to achieve with other countries. I just came back from Hong Kong where they had a business and design week with a 50-person design council supporting it, incredible funding from industry, from Gold Peak and everybody, really luxurious and useful publications, and tons of staff. And then we're trying to pull a similar kind of event, but on a much bigger scale and with a small staff of a professional organization. So you know, most of these countries have their equivalent of IDSA and professional organizations, but they also have the government-supported organizations. And then they have press, which has got lots of arms. So if you go to London you have Design Week, a weekly about design. And then you have various design magazines like Blueprints and some that have come and gone but just a rich selection.
And if you compare that to here, it seems that there is just much more interest and support in design. I think it's not just design though. It's like an American thing...that you minimize your bureaucracies, which I'm sure are particularly dreadful, and everything done by private enterprise. And so in America there's no organizational support in a general sense—or very minimal. You get charitable things, which are quite well supported through private funding. But anything that sort of falls between being an obvious charity and a government bureaucracy that's essential seems to fall through the cracks.
WISE: Thinking about doing research, I’ve realized that the only way that big scale projects are funded are through the National Science Foundation. So they have to be tied specifically to engineering, math, science, or technology. And so you can kind of achieve a little bit on the design front on the technology side of things. And interaction design obviously falls in there, but if you want to step back look at design more fully—the funding kind of falls away.
MOGGRIDGE: Also I think, just like academia and universities—it's all about explicit knowledge. And design, by definition—along with the other arts like poetry or writing—is mostly not so explicit. It's mostly tacit knowledge. It has to do with people's intuitions and harnessing the subconscious part of the mind rather than just the conscious. And the result is if you try and couch the respectability of a professor or some form of research grant in terms that are normal for science, then it looks very weak. And so you have to have a different attitude, really, in order to see the strength that it could offer or the value that it could offer. And that's a big difficulty both in academia and in terms of foundations.
WISE: Can you talk about your view of design thinking?
MOGGRIDGE: [In the book] I used the analogy of the iceberg. If you think about the structure of the mind, there just seems to be a small amount that is above the water—equivalent to an iceberg—which is the explicit part...And most academic subjects are designed to live in that explicit part that sticks out of the water. If you can find a way to harness, towards a productive goal, the rest of it, the subconscious [understanding], the tacit knowledge, the behavior—just doing it and the intuition—all those, then you can bring in the rest of the iceberg. And that is hugely valuable.
And I think the reason that design thinking is a buzzword is that it is recognized in terms of its result. And what’s not recognized is how to achieve it. Because most people achieve it and say, "Oh, well I did this and then I did this." And so there’s very little in terms of research that kind of justifies or explains or makes explicit the un-explicit or subjective kind of behaviors. But we all know it. I mean every scientist is an intuitive person, and most "ahas" come from intuition anyway. And we all know that we fall in love with things and that we're interested in subjective qualitative values. It's just whether you recognize it as having something that you can use in a respective environment or a respectable sense.
And I think, therefore, we can kind of find ways of, first, using the rest of the iceberg in a process sense—which is the obviously easy way to do it—but then eventually probably try to help explain it as well. So that's why design research needs to step into the forefront and become effective, to a point where we can say, "Okay, well we know this works. We proved it. We did it. Look how we did it. Here's the process. But now let's try and figure out why and how it really happens in your world, in the explicit world."
WISE: What do you think are the most important "agenda items" for design research?
MOGGRIDGE: Making design process better understood...and, hence, more respectable. It's the same as how poetry professors in universities are usually poetry critics rather than great poets. So you do need poetry critics as well as great poets, and in design we've just got great designers and we haven't got many design critics. So research can help us be good design critics as well. And that helps explain us to the rest of the academic world.
WISE: People speak of you and you speak of yourself as having three phases in your career, the middle one being about helping designers. How have you done that?
MOGGRIDGE: I think that the secret to IDEO and the reason that it's so relevant to the Stanford d.school—and that's why David Kelley has really wanted to bring it back in my opinion—is that we've always tried to stay at the forefront of the more complicated problems.
If you think of the traditional designer as the sort of well known designer who's great at doing something like a chair or a light or something, for that single individual who can get their head around an interesting problem and solve it—it's perfect. And so you do look for talent in the same kind of way that's always been the tradition of design, and there’s still tons of room in the world for that kind of skill and I'm sure there always will be. But once you move into a more complicated problem set or context, then you need to have more than one person. And that's where the interdisciplinary team—team stuff—comes into play. It's easy to characterize what's the nature of those problems. Can you solve it with an individual? If the answer is no, who do you need? And then you can see you need to put a team of interdisciplinary people together and have them work effectively so that the shared mind is more powerful than the individual mind. And the result allows us to solve problems using design thinking in the context of a group of people. So that's exactly what the d.school is about. It's about bringing that collaboration into the university situation rather than just practicing it at IDEO or similar organizations.
So for me it’s a matter of moving from thinking of myself just a designer, equivalent to somebody who designs a light or a relatively simple problem, towards trying to design things where it really hurts my head—problems I couldn't solve on my own—and therefore putting a team together and then helping the team to solve the problem and realizing how those tools and techniques were used in order to solve these more complicated problems. That led to my thinking of myself more as manager of design teams or of process, which would enable that kind of thing.
WISE: And really, almost all of the designers that you interview in the book are doing that. They may have been working on single disciplinary teams to begin with, but immediately their work has gone out and been part of the shared process.
MOGGRIDGE: I'm glad you say that because I don't think that comes across very clearly. You know, when I interview the individuals, they tell their own stories. And it makes them sound more individualistic than they really are. And then if you look underneath, you see, "Oh, it was a team. They were working together with other people.” And it was particularly interesting and clear when I interviewed more than one person who'd been on the same project. You know, like Larry Tesler and Bill Atkinson. And they both had points of view that were clearly individual, but at the same time it was also clear that if they hadn't been working together they wouldn't have achieved the same results. And that applies in the larger teams most of the time.
... And it's also interesting with Larry Tesler's story that's on the video, for example, where he talks about Bill Atkinson having come up with the drop-down menus in one night. And you know, when you show that in a conference room presentation that people would say, "Well, of course. You know, he's a genius. He could just do it all on his own in one night." And really, of course, it wouldn't have been possible if they hadn't been seeped in the content for years and if they hadn't been actually working together on a 24-hour cycle for weeks. The "aha" would never have happened. But that doesn't come across very clearly unless you explain it.
WISE: Can you say a little bit about the importance of telling stories about design? What are the kinds of stories that we need to be able to tell about design?
MOGGRIDGE: I think that what I did in the book was really story type stories. I wanted to make it about people, about the people who'd made contributions, and then to just be more like a journalist in the sense that I try to tell their story, help them get across that point of view so that they as individual people and the way they achieved success is communicated. And for that reason I wanted the style to have good flow. A lot of design books, you know, you look at the pictures, and the words just are captions really. But I wanted to sort of try and make a style that helps what would otherwise have been just an interview flow in terms of story: a basic story-telling about the people who've done things and their motivations so that you sort of get a sense of how it happened.
I think the other sort of story that needs telling about design is the one we were talking about earlier, which is about explaining design. And that was a different thing. I think the style of the book implies this but doesn't explain it very directly. And research, that one hopes to see in the next decade or so, should probably explain it directly as well.
WISE: Through stories in the book, you describe many techniques for doing interaction design, e.g. the IDEO based techniques, method cards, experience prototyping. What are the roles of those techniques and is there more development to do there, or is it more important to be developing on the critical side?
MOGGRIDGE: [While preparing the book] I realized the more people I talked to the more often it came up that this combination of really understanding people and different kinds of prototyping was sort of crucial to the success stories. And the absence of either of those factors was obviously failure stories. I called the last chapter "People and Prototypes" because the theme seemed to come up time and time again. And it was very reassuring for me, as a founder of IDEO, that that really jives perfectly with the things that we've evolved. And I can't say we've really evolved them consciously. We just evolved them over the years and tried to develop things that seemed to work. But if you had to sum up the success of IDEO, you'd also use those two words I think. You'd use some study of people and prototyping techniques.
And so that was actually quite a relief really. If the models had all been different and spread around the map and contradictory...I would have probably been less secure rather than more secure in what IDEO is doing. So that was quite reassuring.
But again, I think that's different in terms of the research aspects. Because if the research is going to explain it, it's not good enough to just tell the stories. And I don't think I've gotten very far on that.
WISE: What would you say are the key things design research should explain?
MOGGRIDGE: The reason design research is difficult, and the reason it hasn't happened so far, I think, is because anything to do with the intuition or subconscious is actually really difficult to explain because the tools you use to explain it are different from the tools that you use to practice it. So if you say, "Okay, give me an analysis of why a poem is poetic or a painting is beautiful, or a painting is shocking,"
people have spent a lot of time trying to research that unsuccessfully. Well, we may be successful, but not in the way that we understand in an everyday sense. It becomes instantly very esoteric and somewhat abstract and difficult to grasp—just because there's such a removal between those two halves of our brain, between the two worlds. So by definition it's difficult. And I expect that's why there are very few intellectuals who have sort of succeeded in denting it really. It's just it's hard, it's a hard project.
...And I really don't think you're going to understand design and art until you understand intelligence [and how the brain works]. So you can dent it, you can sort of make things so there are interesting insights and will help people, and you can explain process, but you can't really, truly expect to explain design unless you explain intelligence. And it seems we're still a far distance from that; although, AI guys are probably going to contradict that.
WISE: What was your process of writing the book? What had you wanted it to be? How do you feel it's turned out now that it's in the world?
MOGGRIDGE: I think the thing I'm most interested in is people in general. And so when it came to the design I was really interested in the people who've been successful in terms of interaction design, who’ve made some sort of contribution. Not necessarily business success, although that's definitely one of the things, but also influential and interesting success. I wanted to find out as much as I could about what motivated them rather than just what they did. And I thought that the interview format would be a good way of doing that. So the idea emerged of making the book more a collection of interviews strung together as stories. And the other thing I'm really interested in is the relationship between media. Because it seems to me if you look at any of the individual medium, the new media tend to threaten us a little bit. If you look at newspapers, their share of advertising is shrinking as craigslist takes it, and circulation is going down as more people read it online. I've always been interested in new media and the nature of presentation of content in different varied media. So I thought, "Well, it would be nice to have a rule of thumb, which is about having more than one medium." ... So that's why I decided I wanted to do something that had both video stuff and book stuff and a Website. It could have been other media, and I just happened to choose those three. But I knew that would be a difficult sell for publishers. So I used my standard process of trying samples and prototyping, and I made a miniature version of the book, after I’d done my first six interviews. So this was probably in late 2001. And I made this into a nice looking little book, although it wasn't so nicely designed as the final thing, and then put the six interviews edited down onto a videotape. And I sent that package to six publishers, three in Europe and three in America and waited to see if any of them were willing to do what I wanted, which was to do a full-color book plus a DVD and then the Website could be thrown in. And MIT Press was the only one who said they wanted to. When it came to the point, they wanted to pull back from the DVD because they felt it would be quite appropriate just to use online for the video. And you can argue that case. But I was glad that they were willing to go through with it in the end.
... The point is that each of them have, you know, like a different quality. So initially I thought it would be great if the content and the stories were really parallel so you could be reading in the book and then you could change to the video to see what the person was like when they were telling the same story exactly and then come back to the book. You know, flip-flop between the media. And it became completely clear quite soon that the nature of the content needed to be presented quite differently -- and therefore, this content shook itself out in a different way. And so you do get different impressions from the two media or three media. And I think that adds richness because, you know, it's more interesting. So those were the two guiding things, multiple media plus the stories about design told by real people.
WISE: What's your sense of how people are using the book, especially people within the field or within academic circles.
MOGGRIDGE: I think the big audience really is technical people. Because, you know, so much of the history of interaction design so far has really been more computer scientists, computers engineers, and HCI people. So it's more Terry Winograd's class than the d.school. And it is not that the d.school people are not as interested--it's just there are so many less of them in a small community in comparison. And I think one of the reasons that it's been successful from the MIT Press point of view is that there are a lot of people who have an uncle or an aunt or somebody who's in computers. And when they saw it as a nicely produced book in a bookstore and they flipped through it and saw all these nice photographs, nicely designed, then they thought, "Oh, I bet, you know, my computer science uncle would be interested in this." So it became a pretty good gift. And I think that probably increased the popularity. That may not last, you know. That might just be a one-off because of the season and the fact that it’s new.
...One hopes that people who are just interested in design as a process or creativity or innovation would have some interest in it. And in that sense the stories are powerful and people like Engelbart are of interest to a lot of people and Google, you know, but those are the headline ones, right? And those are sort of the obvious success stories. I can't imagine people, you know, who are not interested in business or design or success or technology would really want it. You know what I mean? It's a bit of a stretch to go beyond that group.
WISE: Is interaction design only about technology?
MOGGRIDGE: You can read the subject that way. Every design is interactive. I mean you can't design a glass without thinking about the interaction. So any design worth its salt is interaction design in a sense. But I tried to be careful at the beginning to declare that this particular version of it was about the technology. So for the more engineering audience I say it's everything digital. But for the lay audience I say it's everything that's got electronic technology in it.
WISE: You said when you were describing the book and the focus on the story that you wanted to get at people's motivations. Can you talk a little bit about why that's important and what you feel like you've found about the role of motivation in design?
MOGGRIDGE: Well I think it's important because it gets under the skin a little bit. It's gets deeper than the party line. It's also interesting to people. They're all interested in other people. So it's much more interesting to hear why someone does something and what made them tick and try and understand that than it is to just hear the account of what happened. I’m not sure that I could generalize what I discovered because there were pretty varied sorts of underlying motivations. So what I'm hoping is that the medium itself allows you to understand it more as a reader or viewer. And actually the video's really good for that because you can read the story on the page and you don't get the sense of the personality to the same degree. And then you look at the little clip, and you say, "Aha! Yeah. I see. I get it." Because you can see what really makes them tick a little bit more. Not that you get really deep under the skin, but you get a lot further.
WISE: What are you hopeful about?
MOGGRIDGE: Well, I think I am more hopeful that things like the Dunne and Raby point of view come into play. Because you know, I think as soon as we admit that we are moving into a consumer world, then subjective and qualitative values become a tremendous driver in every sense and become necessary; and it's causing success. If you look at games or Will Wright stuff or when you look at Apple, they're obviously sort of moving away ahead of the crowd because they're successful in that regard. But that doesn't mean that all those really interesting values that we’ve spotted -- you know, the sort of things that are not obvious, the sort of underlying qualities -- Gillian talks about that quite beautifully in her foreword as well-- the sort of things which make design about beauty and aesthetics aren't powerful things that affects everybody. So that comes to the fore, and that's just very exciting to a designer particularly -- but I think should be for everyone. Because everybody can enjoy the results if it's really done well. The marriage between that and simplicity in functionality is always a difficult one. And that's why I think we have a lot to learn from games, actually. Will Wright describes this cycle of learning that you have when you buy a new game. You have to make the user understand the controls in the first five seconds and do something successful in 25 seconds -- and it leads all the way up to a hobby and that takes weeks to do. So if we get that kind of skill in design or interactive stuff we can make it easy and enjoyable to acquire in the way that games do and beautiful and pandering to a bad side of us in the way that Dunne and Raby talk about. Then the future's going to be much more fun.
WISE: Another theme interweaving in the book is the theme of the development of technology allowing things to be much more responsive to us, instead of so driven by explicit commands. Can you talk about how you see that theme functioning and where you want to see the role of interaction design in helping to shape those kinds of experiences?
MOGGRIDGE: When I was in college, if somebody had told me that I'd walk into a public washroom and the taps would turn on when I put my hands underneath them and the toilet would flush when I walked away -- I'd have been pretty surprised, but it's completely accepted now. So that stuff is really here already. And I think in design terms the implication of that is more to do with the movement from object or interactive device to total experience. Because those sensors and effectors can be part of the experience, and then we can think about what people do in a context, which is much more holistic. And then we can think of trying to design what happens in a way that includes approach and leaving, what happens before and after. The whole journey, as Fran says. So trying to think about experience design. And then that leads you to some of these new tools and that enactment for experience prototyping and so on.
WISE: How important is it for interaction design to be a discipline?
MOGGRIDGE: However, as the technology embeds itself in everything we do, that's no longer necessarily always the case. So that you find that, you know, everybody in engineering is using stamp chips as a prototype, and everybody in industrial design thinks of a screen as part of their opportunity and their problem. And as soon as they're fluent enough with the sort of context in which it operates, the technology context -- they have the tools, the have the way of thinking. Then it doesn't need to be a separate discipline. And I think we will see it re-integrate and gradually become, you know, sort of not necessarily very separate. And certainly it's going to be included in everything else. However, I do feel that it's likely to need to continue to be a separate discipline in the sense that there's some advanced thinking that probably will not want to be separated, you know, that uses of conceptual models and metaphors are pretty good example perhaps of that. You can't -- you know -- unless you're sort of really thinking hard about that stuff, you're not probably going to push that state of the art very far forward. So in a way maybe it will still usefully remain a separate discipline. But I wouldn't be sure about that. I think it might find itself more integrated in the future.
However, as the technology embeds itself in everything we do, that's no longer necessarily always the case as more designers will become familiar with the knowledge and skills that are required. And as soon as a design discipline is fluent enough with the sort of new technology context in which it operates, learning the ways of thinking and having the design tools, then it doesn't need to be a separate discipline. I think that there will continue to be a need for a separate discipline on the leading edge, as there will always be new technologies and new challenges emerging that will stretch the design space. Perhaps deep understanding of conceptual models and metaphors are good examples of that. Unless you're used to thinking hard about that stuff, you're probably not going to be able to push the state of the art very far forward. Maybe it will still usefully remain a separate discipline, but I’m not sure.
WISE: To this specific question of the future of interaction design -- is that the answer?
MOGGRIDGE: I think it could be the answer. It's a kind of divergent answer, isn't it? So there's one part of it that will be more integrated, another part of it which will be more sophisticated -- if not integrated. I think you want people to think about how to provide tools and ways of thinking about the more challenging new things that come out. Terry talks about the way that the Internet has been read-only medium, and therefore the locomotion metaphor was entirely appropriate. But as the Internet includes more opportunity for interactivity rather than read-only, then we'll need manipulation there. And as it gains more of a sense of community, then you'll need conversation there. So he says that the Internet's going to have all three of these metaphors -- conversation, manipulation, and locomotion. And so he sees a future where those things are coming together. You need somebody like to Terry to tell you that I think -- that interaction design needs to be working on those kinds of things. And you need somebody like Dunne and Raby to be pushing at bio and nano and saying, "Well, what are the social implications of this, and what happens when we look at it from an artist's perspective rather than a business perspective and think about it kind of the other way around?" If you haven't got specialists thinking about those sorts of things the discipline dries up. So I think in a way that a separate discipline is needed to push at the edges.
WISE: What do you want your role in the future of interaction design to be?
MOGGRIDGE: Nothing particular. I mean I'm interested in explaining design, in just trying to tell stories about design in general, and in having more people understand a little bit about how it works and why people do it and where it's useful and so on. I think there'll be different challenges as time goes by as interactive technology is increasingly changing everything that we experience, so I think there will be plenty of opportunities to help people understand more about it.
WISE: Can you say how your experience with interaction design informs that for you?
MOGGRIDGE: When interaction design was just a new challenge posed by the times and in the experience of finding that interactive technology was changing everything that we experience. And I think there'll be different ones as time goes by. But I'm actually most interested in just trying to tell stories about design in a more general way, and have more people understand a little bit about how it works and why people do it and where it's useful and so on.
WISE: Looking towards the future, who are the most important people to hear those stories?
MOGGRIDGE: Everybody! The thing is, so few people seem to realize that everything's designed. And until we get some good people telling the story, that's probably going to continue to be the case. So I'd love it if there was a consciousness in the public mind that mathematics and reading and writing is not enough — you also need to learn how to do design. Because everything is designed, and the way our world exists around us depends on how well it's designed.
WISE: I think of the historical piece of the book and the moving forward of the book really did that so nicely. Because you get to that place of, "Oh, a mouse." So many people, right? -- have always a mouse just was part of the computer somehow. And so to actually hear the story and recognize that -- I think those kinds of stories are really, really important because they help say that.
MOGGRIDGE: Well, it's interesting. A lot of people think it's just a history book. I think that’s mainly because when you send a book to the press they read the first chapter. And they're not diligent like you.
Copyright 2007 Ambidextrous