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.