Kim, Suzy and I just got back from the annual conference of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), interaction 09 in Vancouver, BC. Four days packed with ideas, insight, meeting new friends, and catching up with old friends; the program offered some intriguing speakers and provocative topics, and I'll highlight a couple here.

The keynote speakers played to packed houses.

Taking on big problems

Talk of sustainability often came up during the keynotes and the smaller sessions, and it seemed to be on the minds of many in attendance. Like other disciplines, interaction design is wrestling with the ways in which we, as a profession and as individuals, can do more than simply design more disposable crap. How can we design stuff that lasts, stuff that helps, stuff that addresses real problems? [Cooper took a shot at approaching these questions recently].

The opening keynote, by John Thackera of the Doors of Perception conference, took a sobering look at our prospects: (1) How quickly is the world going to hell in a handbasket? Answer: Very quickly. (2) Is this descent reversable? Answer: Not really. Current efforts are so far from being equal to the task. The focus of our efforts should be in finding ways to bring people together, to encourage and facilitate collective approaches to solving big problems.

Saturday's opening keynote by Robert Fabricant of frog explored recent work in sustainable design, pulling examples from the recent Greener Gadgets competition. He also talked through a case study of Project Masiluleke, a public health program addressing HIV testing in South Africa. The country hardest hit by AIDS, South Africa had experienced difficulty in establishing systems that appeared safe and confidential for testing. The project wove together a variety of interesting design elements — ethnographic research into the cultural forces at work, simple ways of using cheap mobile technology, and a distributed network of manufacturing testing kits.

Fabricant ended his talk with a very nice series of equations, and I'm paraphrasing here:
Our medium = behavior
Sustainability = a problem of behavior
Sustainability = our problem
Update: Fabricant's thesis — that our medium is behavior rather than technology — seemed a self-evident truth to me, but it spawned a bit of a tempest (in the tweet-pot). Fabricant posted some thoughts on the disagreement on frog's blog, Design Mind. Or, you can check out the slides themselves and form your own opinion.

Working together

Another recurrent theme was around collaboration — finding new ways to leverage the knowledge of a larger group without bogging down the design process. Leisa Reichelt put the free social web to work during the redesign, using tools like Flickr, Twitter, and her blog to stay engaged with an active and involved group of stakeholders. Leisa wrote more about this on her blog.

Chauncey Wilson discussed ways to kick start collaboration in brainstorming by using metaphors, a topic that Alan would have appreciated. I particularly enjoyed the fact that he introduced me to a social psychology term for the inertial effect of too-large brainstorming sessions —social loafing. Also, thanks to Nathan Moody of Stimulant, who introduced me to "previz," an appropriately sci-fi-ish term used in the film industry, to better describe the kind of storyboarding that is useful for interaction.

Kim Goodwin delivering her keynote, "Each one, teach one."

Our own Kim Goodwin gave the closing keynote, an appeal to all interaction designers to do what they can to make more of us. She applied Anders Ericsson's 10,000-hour rule to interaction design, positing that it takes roughly 5 years of diligent work before a person attains mastery of a craft, and that academic programs, while necessary, are not sufficient to the task of creating the next generation of interaction designers. The experts among us need to make a conscious effort to mentor our junior colleagues, and in return for that effort, become even better at what we do.

At the end, I was exhausted, but I also wish I'd been able to see each and every talk. (I also wish I'd slept more. But I guess I'll have plenty of time to do that before next year's edition, interaction 10 in Savannah, Georgia). Thanks to the IxDA for another impressive installment.