Went to a full day course today here in NYC given by Edward Tufte; a legend in the field of information visualization. I've always enjoyed reading Tufte's work. His historical odysseys, writing style, thoughtfulness, and carefully crafted books should be required reading for everyone from business schools MBA-ers to CS to the arts to social sciences to journalists to design educations. His books are that good and that important. For me, the central theme in Tufte's work has been the integration of text and visuals, content and form, which has been an important source of inspiration for my own work.
I'm not sure what I had in mind for a one day course and I did enjoy most of it, but I left feeling a little short changed. Perhaps the course is mostly meant as a basic introduction to his work and not a deepening of it? His presentation style is also slow, quite likely knowingly so—deeply rooted in the 'old american male professor' genre—but still slow. I like that he's not using Powerpoint slides but instead builds up a story (slowly) around a couple of key images that he zooms in and out of (although to be honest some of his pictures looked a lot like slides!) I also really liked that he just jumped right into it, on the hour, without even the shortest "hello and welcome." Refreshing!
Tufte's work is hence utterly relevant to so many different areas and has impact and implications for even more fields. Yet, one of the areas I feel his work is relevant to but he hasn't quite grasped is my field—interaction design. He's hovering over a host of relevant topics here, for sure, but doesn't quite get the details right, which unfortunately for him is exactly what he keeps calling out other people on, so...
First of all, his thinking in this space seems a bit old. For instance, Tufte kept referring to some Dell laptop where the scrollbars apparently covered 11% of the screen real estate. That's a relevant anecdote if the year is 2003, but not really in 2016. In a world of smartphone apps, retina displays, tablets, hamburger menus, world wild west, notifications, creative online typography, etc. etc., it would seem that there are so many other more recent examples of the same idea (i.e. badly designed interface elements that hide rather than promote content) that this rather archaic anecdote more serves to confuse than enlighten. There were a few others like this as well, including web designers confusing the short term memory magic number 7 +/-2 theory. I'm sure this has happened, but probably not in the last decade and certainly not a common occurrence anymore, if it ever was.
There are so many examples of Tufte's work that are still so relevant for today's web and app designers, so why not talk about these instead? He mentioned one in passing: that many sites today are conceived and designed to be responsive, i.e. aiming at providing an 'optimal reading experience' regardless of what device/resolution you use—in effect separating content from layout and function. I think it's fair to say that Tufte's collected works can be seen as a critique of this very relevant and timely design idea. So why not spend time on massacring this? I would.
Tufte also mentioned that he was one of maybe 10 people in the world who thinks theoretically about these issues. Again, he's been at it for a while and this was maybe, even probably, true at some point, but I also think it's a bit negligent towards what has happened in the field in the last 20-30 years. Folks from all kinds of (academic) disciplines are doing it now: such as Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), interaction design, philosophy of technology, and design research, as well as a host of non-academic thinkers utilizing blogs, internet-based magazines, professional conferences and workshops, etc.
Third, Tufte's only substantial idea (at least in the way it was framed at this talk) about interaction design echoed the Heideggerian notion of "not letting the interface get in the front of the content". This idea was popularized in HCI and interaction design by Winograd & Flores back in 1987 and even earlier than that in the philosophical field called philosophy of technology. This idea is one that I've drawn on heavily in my own work, among several other researchers and practitioners in interaction design.
Yet, the problem here seems to be the distinction between form and content. In all his work, Tufte shows that these go best together if they are considered hand in hand.
Let's look at this in a bit more detail. One of Tufte's recurring rhetorical refrains is that you now have better tools at your disposal in your smartphone than those that you use at work and that we should all rise up and demand at least equally good tools for 'work'. That's fair, but what Tufte misses here is that this also means that there is a substantial overlap between "work" and "leisure"—or whatever we want to call it, i.e. when we're not actually 'working'. I think one of the fundamental shifts in interaction design over the last 15 years or so is that the computer now just isn't something we think about as a machine for work. It's so much more than that. We use our PCs, laptops, and smartphones to mindlessly scroll through Facebook, play games, pass time, buy stock, watch movies, find plumbers, stalk coworkers on LinkedIn, read a text, write novels, keep swiping left and only occasionally right, anonymously rant on online fora just because you can, check out new music, do some work stuff (mostly emails), create graphs for our kid's soccer team, pass time before I can get out of here, plan the holiday in Cape Cod, and so on and on and on. All using the same magical machine.
With this in mind, I think Tufte's explicit notion that the primary role of interaction design is to make the interface disappear in favor of content is still a relevant perspective in many ways. However, it also implicitly suggests a rather old-school, work oriented perspective lurking underneath—which is that the user's only goal of using a computer or a smartphone is to get to the 'content' that their interfaces are hiding. It often is, but not always. Such a view is not enough to understand what interaction design is today. In what I have called the 'third wave of HCI', we see for instance web sites and apps where the interface is knowingly designed to be unclear and fuzzy and it is the user's task (or fun, to be more precise) to figure it out. Here, the interface and the content blend into one—they become the same thing. The interaction itself becomes valuable and meaningful, not just the so-called 'content' that it is supposed to hide or show. Computer games have always had an element of this. What makes Flappy Birds irresistible is the interaction, not the content.
At the end of the day, literally, I left Tufte's talk not bedazzled but yet hopeful. Tufte's thinking is still relevant for interaction design, it might just require someone with more detailed knowledge about the area to be able to interpret, see, and further develop its significance. One potential path is the current interest in digital assistants such as Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and 'Ok Google'. Applying Tufte's information visualization principles to these would probably reveal quite a few design obstacles to overcome in the next couple of years.
That said, I ended up taking a lot of notes and did get to doodle a bit too. This one, for instance, I call "A Bear with Many Faces" (yes, of course I name my doodles!)