Simulation: the catalyst for IA & IxD?

In the “Linkosophy” talk I gave on Monday, I suggested that a helpful distinction between the practices of IxD & IA might be that IxD’s central concern is within a given context (a screen, device, room, etc) while IA’s central concern is how to connect contexts, and even which contexts are necessary to begin with (though that last bit is likely more a research/meta concern that all UX practices deal with).

But one nagging question on a lot of people’s minds seems to be “where did these come from? haven’t we been doing all this already but with older technology?”

I think we have, and we haven’t.

Both of these practices build on earlier knowledge & techniques that emerged from practices that came before. Card sorting & mental models were around before the IA community coalesced around the challenges of infospace, and people were designing devices & industrial products with their users’ interactions in mind long before anybody was in a community that called itself “Interaction Designers.” That is, there were many techniques, methods, tools and principles already in the world from earlier practice … but what happened that sparked the emergence of these newer practice identities?

The key catalyst for both, it seems to me, was the advent of digital simulation.

For IA, the digital simulation is networked “spaces” … infospace that’s made of bits and not atoms, where people cognitively experience one context’s connection to another as moving through space, even though it’s not physical. We had information, and we had physical architecture, but they weren’t the same thing … the Web (and all web-like things) changed that.

For IxD, the digital simulation is with devices. Before digital simulation, devices were just devices — anything from a deck chair to an umbrella, or a power drill to a jackhammer, were three-dimensional, real industrially made products that had real switches, real handles, real feedback. We didn’t think of them as “interactive” or having “interfaces” — because three-dimensional reality is *always* interactive, and it needs no “interface” to translate human action into non-physical effects. Designing these things is “Industrial Design” — and it’s been around for quite a while (though, frankly, only a couple of generations).

The original folks who quite consciously organized around the collective banner of “interaction designer” are digital-technology-centric designers. Not to say that they’ve never worked on anything else … but they’re leaders in that practitioner community.

Now, this is just a comment on origins … I’m not saying they’re necessarily stuck there.

But, with the digital-simulation layer soaking into everything around us, is it really so limiting to say that’s the origin and the primary milieu for these practices?

Of course, I’m not trying to build silos here — only clarify for collective self-awareness purposes. It’s helpful, I believe, to have shared understanding of the stories that make up the “history of learning and making” that forms our practices. It helps us have healthier conversations as we go forward.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at

5 thoughts on “Simulation: the catalyst for IA & IxD?”

  1. From the origin perspective, the parsing between space and devices makes sense to me, particularly in how those two concepts align with the way I interpret the labels IA and IxD. I agree, history rocks, it’s more than just a reminder not to doom oneself to repetition.

    But I do wonder if extending the segmentation is appropriate. In the talk you made excellent use of (real, physical) architecture as examples, looking at the use of space and thoughts of transition. I can see arguing that IA is the space, IxD is the way between. And then my gut argues there shouldn’t be a separation; maybe there’s a mutant offspring in the works.

  2. I agree that the digital simulation layer is a key turning point.

    But this is fuzzy. Post some slides to illustrate so more people can talk about it and disagree.

    I want to hear the disagreements.

  3. I thought you made some great observations in the talk and it pointed to the fact that an amalgamation of the two disciplines would give rise to the better, more holistic, expert.

    I feel the that as we are designers of information, conceptually and physically, we need to make sure we give an equal focus on the importance of these skills. IA as a label is useful for the board room, they get it so lets not throw it away. However, internally we need to review our outlook and collaborate with more people in other ‘disciplines’.

    The iPhone is a great example of how IA and IxD work together seamlessly and that shows us where we need to get to as a discipline. We need to push things on, the ‘digital layer’ will be where our discipline will be defined over the next few years.

    Lets also try to get more business people involved, persuasion architecture and SEO were barely mentioned during the summit and yet it defines our success in many environments.

  4. I’d like to offer a different perspective.

    Digital forms of information gave us several news ways of adding value to information (hypertext, multimedia and networking). These ways of adding value to information existed before, but not in such an easy and powerful form.

    A key element of all design disciplines is incorporating information into technical artefects (such as ‘meaning’ into buildings, or allowing an operator to ‘input commands’ into a machine).

    Historically, publishers also added value to information; by making it easy to transport and consume.

    IA practice as to deal with the new ways of adding value to information, and to engage with the practice of publishing (as well as the ‘traditional’ information science tasks of storage and retrieval).

    Interaction design has a more continuity across the digital revolution (with both graphic design and industrial design providing precedents). Interaction design will tend to be more focussed on particular contexts and users; whereas Information Architects will focus on adding value to information – perhaps over a broad range of current and future contexts.

    By concentrating on information as an artefact (rather than as a signal within communication) we can clarify the impact of the digital revolution and the roles of the new specialists arising from it.

  5. The post ranked really high on a google search for ixd and value.

    Do remember, while an IA is very capable of connecting contexts, an IA’s sole medium is within the chrome of the web browser. You won’t find too many IA’s being able to connect contexts within a server or desktop application or even an embedded device as effectively as they do on a website much less cross connect information between different mediums such as the web, mobile phone or a living entertainment center.

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