IxDA 2017

Last month we were excited to attend IxDA’s Interaction ’17 conference in New York City. The conference is a place for practitioners to discuss the design of interactive experiences—both on & off screen. This year, the topics that stood out the most included Virtual/Augmented/Mixed Reality; the Internet of Things & Smart Homes; Chatbots & Conversational UI; Autonomous Vehicles & Artificial Intelligence; and Service Design & Designing for Change.



Virtual worlds ripe for exploration, computers that can carry their end of a conversation and assist us in every-day tasks, cars that can drive themselves, homes that anticipate our habits—all once childhood dreams that are quickly becoming actualized by the speakers and attendees of Interaction ‘17. And beyond reading about these concepts and advances in the news, it was invigorating to listen to experts discuss how they are building these futuristic vision today.

Regarding virtual and augmented reality, I learned from one speaker about how we can use proprioception and one’s own body’s range of motion to tell us if we are touching a virtual object when we otherwise lack haptic feedback. Another speaker spoke about the challenges of directing a user’s attention in a 360° environment by, for example, limiting that field of view. These talks, in addition to demonstrations of various prototyping tools for 3D made me see how people were actively designing for VR and AR and exposed some of the new challenges that arise as a result.

I was also inspired by a talk about how smart objects are evolving from gadgets that have agency—the ability to execute a task on our behalf—to agents in their own right—devices that recognize patterns in our behavior and act as we would act in a given situation without a direct command. This tied very closely with discussions about how to deal with the increasing presence of artificial in our lives. One speaker made the point that we have to make sure that these AI-based experiences are designed in such a way to build trust, despite not being able to see or understand all the calculations the AI is making. Another talk insisted that we must confront the ethical challenges of having intelligent cars, cameras, and a myriad other devices now, while the field is still nascent.

Overall, I was excited to see people making real products using the latest technologies and can’t wait to take part in this futuristic present.



There were a number of themes at this year’s IXDA conference. Some lectures spoke of the idea of unplugging. Others talked about the ethical challenges designers now face with AI and automation. For me, though, the most poignant messages came from those who questioned what kinds of experiences we take on and the difference that thinking can make.

Case in point was Mark43. If you’ve not heard of them, don’t worry; before this conference, I hadn’t either. Over the past few years they’ve taken on the extraordinarily daunting task of redesigning the software that police departments use every day. Prior to their work, officers were using programs built decades ago without flow or intuitive interaction design in mind.

What Mark43 showed was very helpful to the precincts that use it and this point I think is often lost on our industry. We talk about products, disruption, and the good kind of failure as if that’s all we’re striving for, but we forget that we are, at our core, designers. And to be a designer is to be useful. Mark43 took the time to do a comprehensive research process and leveraged that research to create something that was extremely implementable and most importantly, useful!

It didn’t just stop at them either. When I saw on the schedule that a UX director from Planned Parenthood was going to speak about misinformation, being a political junkie, I jumped at the chance. However, when she began with a warning that she wouldn’t be discussing the results of the election, I quickly grew disappointed. But then she started to explain that she meant misinformation within women’s health and things changed.

What she found was that since birth control interrupts the normal menstrual cycle, applications that track women’s cycles were ignoring women taking the pill. However if a women missed a pill one day, depending on which day in the cycle this was could have an impact on whether additional forms of contraception would be needed. They realized that an app that had an added level of complexity such as this would be helpful to a large user base.

This led her to create Planned Parenthood’s own app. One that took these additional factors into account. The fact that other apps weren’t helping women here, contributed to a culture of misinformation and could cause unwanted pregnancies or worse.

In addition, she spoke about the problem of false information regarding sex in underdeveloped countries around the world. She said PP had to come up with an SEO strategy to combat this. If a woman is searching for information on combatting certain sexually transmitted diseases, she could find a whole variety of opinions on the internet. All of which may contradict one another. By taking this context into account, she was able to not only put the right information out there, but also ensure that women would find it and trust it.

These two products not only solved a problem, but serve to as efficiently as possible solve a need with empathy for their users. If we remember that we can be useful and seek out to solve the kinds of problems that really need us, then we may not have to worry as much about keeping up with the next digital frontier. There’s still a lot of work to be done in our own backyard!


As we start designing for these new technologies or bring design into new spaces, the main lesson we heard repeated at the conference was “People First”. Don’t just design a car that can drive itself, make sure that its passengers feel safe and trust its decisions. Design a tool for first responders that take their needs and workflow into account and not only make the users happy, but also saves lives. Perhaps create an environment where children can learn to explore more than what is in the classroom by combining virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and voice recognition. Whatever the technology, whatever we’re designing, the people who are going to be affected by it should be the primary focus.