IxDA 2013 Recap

Below are a few quick thoughts from my trip to the IxDA conference in Toronto last week.

Who owns our social graph?

Jer Thorp of NYU (TED talk here) gave a compelling presentation full of beautiful data visualizations using his personal data collected from Twitter, Foursquare and a variety of other sources. Thorp’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion later in the day on big data: who owns it, what are companies doing with it, what happens to it after we’re gone? As is his wont, Jared Spool took to the mic to ask if all this data lead to increased knowledge, or wisdom, or is it just noise?

The next morning Paul Adams of Facebook (and author of Grouped) gave some tips on designing effective socially-enabled experiences. Social relationships, he argued, are about many, many lightweight interactions over time. This is counter to how brands often seek to design “immersive” social experiences. People don’t want to be immersed; they want something that’s part of their everyday lives.

And that leads to a tension that ran throughout the conference: we know we can design better experiences using the social graph, but what responsibility do we have with the data we’re using?

Lean on Me

The influence of “lean UX,” inspired by Eric Reis’ The Lean Startup, could be seen everywhere. Designers are discussing ways to get the “minimum viable product” out the door more quickly. While you might be concerned that this rush to market inhibits the ability for user research, Josh Seiden argued it’s actually quite the opposite. “Lean” practitioners believe in getting something in the market very quickly, and talking to customers to validate their assumptions and test their hypothesis. In other words, it’s prototyping but with a real product and real customers. Paul Adams went so far as to say it’s impossible to design social software without real users using it. He noted that Facebook deploys code twice a day to its billion users.

So where does interaction design fit in the corporate hierarchy? Johanna Kollmann and Martina Schell discussed how they help startups realize their vision. Cindy Chastain of R/GA made the case that UX is in large part change management, and UX’ers need to think of themselves as business consultants.


Speaking of lean, there were several presentation that touched on the limitations of wireframes as a communication tool. Derek Vaz made the case for interactive prototypes, while Peter Stahl gave an interesting talk (older version here) on the need to consider rhythm and flow in our designs. He said we should think like musicians, with a beat in our heads, as we design the flow from screen to screen. If we aren’t defining these rhythms, someone else will define them for us.

Beyond the screen / Internet of Things

Kate Chapman, IxD board member and OCAD professor (TED talk here), showed some whimsical student projects from her “wearable computing lab.” One was an internet-connected skirt made of earthquake debris that vibrates when an earthquake occurs anywhere in the world. Carla Diana’s presentation on IoT contained more great examples than I can list here; I’ll be sure to send out the deck when it’s available (in the meantime, there’s an older version of the deck here).

Learning from Marketing

We may dismiss traditional marketing, but marketers can teach us something. Cliff Kuang from Fast Company suggested that interaction designers lack the storytelling and emotional tricks of brand gurus, and we could become more influential if we improved our storytelling chops when trying to sell our ideas.

On a similar note, Matt Walsh of CP+B presented on the need for tension in design. Tension can create drama or humor. Interaction design is often obsessed with removing tension from UI, but sometimes tension can be used creatively to deepen emotional engagement and create interest. For example, the self checkout at the grocery creates tension by transferring control to the shopper. Create a fear of missing out (FOMO!) by showing other people having fun.

The Social Impact of Design

The theme of the conference was “social impact.” There were sessions on Design for America, designing for “distressed interactions” at the Mayo Clinic, and a project to redesign a school lunchroom. Robert Fabricant of Frog suggested a couple of times that it was time for interaction designers to take on bigger problems, like health care and transportation.

IxDA Awards

On that note, the awards this year recognized some obvious products – Nike Fuel, the Obama for America Apps – along with some non-traditional choices like 21 Baloncoires and Studio H: Bertie County.

Design Process

It wouldn’t be a conference without a little navel-gazing about process! Jason Ulaszek and Brian Winters from Manifest Digital laid out their discovery process in a solid talk. Stakeholder interviews? check. User research? check. Personas and mental models? check and check. Yeah, we got that. Dan Saffer pimped his new book, Microinteractions.

One note I wrote down, which I can’t recall where I heard it: grest digital companies are built around one or two core user interactions, which they polish obsessively.


Gamification came up several times, but the most interesting was from HUGE’s Kunal Patel, who called badges the “backup quarterbacks of game design”: useful, but only when paired with the right team. Think about how gamification can solve your problems. For example, Stack Exchange rewards pro users with advanced features, not gimmicks. This incentivizes better behavior on the discussion threads, which makes the site more useful for everyone.

Did you attend IxDA? What were your favorite sessions?