Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sustainablilty in Good HCI

Sustainability is a simple concept to understand. It is easy to realize that we cannot continue the trends that have been established in the past century regarding manufacturing, consumption and waste. On this, I think everyone agrees. The role that interface design plays in sustainability, however, is more ambiguous. In his paper, Eli Blevis defines design as “an act of choosing among or informing choices of future ways of being”. This definition is quite different than what most would think of when asked to define the word. Yet, it blends the traditional definition with the new trend of sustainable and forward thinking. Tom Fischer, Dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, adds to this idea: “good design involves exhaustive research into the repercussions of our actions”. Without a doubt, this is a very accurate assessment. However, in practice this often fails; many designs do not look at repercussions or consider the future.

At first, the entire notion that interaction design affected sustainability in any way struck me as odd. Indeed, the interface is a largely abstract (though crucial) part of any design, and many other aspects of besides it play a role in how effective and sustainable a design is. As I was thinking about this for a bit, I realized that a great example of this is the iPhone. The interface on it when it was introduced was, and still is to an extent, revolutionary. Nearly three years later, it is still as usable as it was the first day, and has spawned dozens of imitators. The iPhone has gone through two slight hardware changes, though there is little practical difference between the three generations; yes improvements have been made, but each generation can do nearly the same things. This leads to users hanging on their devices longer, and once they feel the need to upgrade, selling their device to someone looking to get into the iPhone ecosystem. This is largely because the underlying OS interface has not changed much, and users get (nearly) the same experience regardless of the hardware. In turn, Apple’s interface design has hit several of Blevis’ ‘heuristics’ on sustainability, primarily reuse as is, achieving longevity of use, finding wholesome alternatives to use and perhaps to some, achieving heirloom status.

That last ‘heuristic’, achieving heirloom status, is a very interesting one. Some categories of things are just ill suited for such a stature. For example, I feel that it is nearly impossible for computers achieve this standing. No matter how classy or unique the design (take the iMac as an example), the long lived appeal for computers is rather slim compared to other things. Cars on the other hand, have a much easier time being classified as heirlooms, and often times it is due to unique and elegant design.

Software, and more specifically interaction design, fits in very differently within the rubric proposed by Blevis, and is even harder to place than technology in general. The above iPhone example shows how a good interface meets some of rubric criteria, but only through the vessel of the innovative hardware that backs it. Blevis suggests to look at software (and the corresponding interaction that it creates) a little differently than we normally would. While it’s true that bits and bytes don’t have physical properties, the hardware that runs it is directly tied to it. Thus, thinking of hardware as the physical representation of software is one way to look at it from an interaction perspective: the software we design, with its different capabilities, directs hardware design. Therefore, the forward thinking that happens needs to analyze not just present needs, but also address future possibilities and anticipate them with hardware design.

Following this process though, one might conclude that in order to be future proof, a device must have many capabilities so that it is not quickly outdated. This, in turn, would likely drive the price of the hardware up, as more and more technology is crammed into one device. On the one hand, that may be true. To bring up the iPhone again, it debuted with an astronomically (for the time) high price. It packed many things into one, however, and people overlooked the price and bought it by the millions. To me, this shows that people will pay for good design, especially when you consider that free phones offer many of the same functionality albeit with shoddy hardware and software. There is more to this than just a pretty interface though. What the iPhone did that truly helped it succeed, I believe, was the seamless combination of several gadgets into one. This promotes sustainability enormously, as now instead of needing a phone, GPS, MP3 player, and laptop on you, you now can combine these four devices into one that does the functions of all well. This trend will only continue, as phones get more and more powerful (they are set to break the 1GHz barrier by years end) the consumer will be able to get more done on them, eliminating the need of further gadgets.

The backbone of why cell phones are able to provide all this power is also what’s driving sustainability in many other areas. The high speed networks that have been developed, both wireless and wired, are driving innovation in every aspect of our lives. Solid media will see a great decrease in use as nearly everything spawns an option for digital delivery. A good example of this is Steam, a computer game ecosystem. Instead of buying games at stores and having a CD of the game, you can download the game straight from the internet. The system works beautifully and removes the need to have disks and paper manuals. As an added benefit, the system knows what games you’ve bought so you no longer worry about lost disks. An even better example is Netflix. Their first innovation of delivering DVDs straight to your home over preexisting mail routes surely saved the environment the damage from millions of people driving to their Blockbusters. They took it to the next level however, when they introduced high quality movie streaming over the internet. This is another step to decreasing the need for physical media and who knows how many tons of Netflix’s distinctive red envelopes. These are just two examples of interaction design creating a more sustainable environment. These developments, and the overall idea will surely be receiving more attention in the near future as the world seeks ways to increase the sustainability of our ways. I suspect many will be surprised at the improvements that can be made from careful interaction design and HCI.

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