An Interview with Bill Verplank

Thursday, 16th Dec 2010

By Steve Baty for

Bill Moggridge’s Metaphors for Computers diagram

Back in the late 1980s, Bill Verplank, when working at what would become IDEO, stopped calling what he did ‘user-interface design’, and instead coined a new term: ‘interaction design’. His work over the years has included Xerox Parc, IDTwo/IDEO, and collaborations with design schools such as the RCA, MIT and Carnegie Mellon. Steve Baty talked with him about interaction design.

You’ve been working as an interaction designer for three decades: how has your approach to your work changed over that time?

After my PhD from MIT in “Man-Machine Systems”, I went to Xerox and spent three years testing systems that had taken ten years to invent; then after the Xerox Star was introduced, we spent five years refining and extending it. So in my first decade, I did “human factors” testing and “user interface design”. This is also the decade that ACM started SIGCHI and I started teaching “graphical user-interface design”. (‘70s ‘80s)

In the next decade, I was hired by Bill Moggridge at IDTwo to move the insights from computers to products of all sorts. We called what we did “Interaction Design” and saw what we were doing as the key to modernizing “Industrial Design”. As consultants, we were dependent on clients, so for me it was a scramble to keep up with the variety of problems. When IDTwo merged with David Kelly Design and Matrix to become IDEO, we had established a new kind of multi-disciplinary design consultancy. (‘80s ‘90s)

In the third decade I have returned to invention and teaching. At Interval Research, we enjoyed the freedom to develop technologies (e.g. haptics) and methods (e.g. “body storming”). Also, we encouraged educational programs at RCA, MIT, NYU, Stanford and finally at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII). My favorite post-graduate program now is a spin-off of IDII: the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID). Also, at Stanford, I have been teaching Computer Science and Computer Music with a focus on the tangible aspects of interaction. (‘90s ‘00s)

Over that same period, how has the practice of interaction design changed generally?

What do we think a “computer” is? I like to contrast three dominant metaphors or paradigms: PERSON, TOOL, MEDIA.

In the ‘50s, we called computers “electronic brains” and many were motivated to make them intelligent, language processors. There are still people pursuing these “anthropomorphisms”; they call it “artificial intelligence” or “robotics”. Interaction is a verbal dialog. A computer is an “agent” or “assistant” – autonomous and intelligent. Think of the computer as a “PERSON”.

In the ‘70s, rather than replicating or replacing people, Englebart proposed “augmenting intelligence” – thinking of the computer as a “TOOL” which extends and empowers us. We became “users” not just programmers or operators. Anyone who asks “Who is the user?” and “What is the task?” is very much in the business of “interaction design”. Good interaction is useful and efficient.

In the ‘90s, with ubiquitous networks, mobile, graphical and dynamic interfaces, computers are “MEDIA”. Televisions, phones, games are all computers that we watch, connect, play and mostly enjoy. A good interaction is engaging, immersive and persuasive.

PERSON, TOOL and MEDIA are sufficiently established as metaphors, we can call them paradigms; they define our business, schools and conferences. What will the next paradigms be? What will we call what we do?

Here’s a sketch I did in 2000 on Metaphors for Computers: PERSON, TOOL, MEDIA – each one a robust “paradigm”. Beyond those three, I predict LIFE, VEHICLE, FASHION.

In your “Interaction Design Sketchbook” you write: Interaction design is a profession that will mature in the 21st century. Where do you think interaction design is currently immature, or is this more a reference to the emergence of embedded and ubiquitous computers? Implicit in that section of the IxD Sketchbook is the idea that interaction design concerns itself with computers and computer-driven interactions. Do you see a place for the practice of interaction design in non-computing environments such as services?

Interaction Design in the 21st century will be a challenge because almost everything (and everybody) we interact with will have computers in it or on it. Services and systems will be autonomous and only ask for guidance (think of automated cars and guideways); tools will be augmented and powerful; even the most mundane artifact might have far-flung connections and consequences; media will be interactive and engaging and we will all become fashion designers.

We’ve recently seen the principles of interaction design applied to situations where the aim is to shift individual or group behavior in social, economic or environmental activities. Do you see this a logical extension of the work you were doing in the 80s and 90s or a shift away from interaction design’s foundations?

Interaction Design as I practiced it, is very much in the “TOOL” paradigm; the principles were “consistent conceptual models, direct manipulation and WYSIWYG”. If the “aim is to shift individual or group behavior” then use the “MEDIA” paradigm. Advertising, education, persuasion, are at the core of ancient practices. Making media more interactive may or may not get your message across. Media can mystify and intrigue. All I know about media is that “the medium is the message” – a technocrat’s rant.

You’ll be speaking to nearly 600 interaction designers in February at the Interaction conference in Boulder. What is the one thing you’d like them to take away from your lecture?

I would like them to take away my enthusiasm for metaphors and engage in the search for metaphors that help us organize the various paradigms of professional practice.

What will the next metaphor be in your practice? Is your design motivated and organized as a form of LIFE? Or as infrastructure or VEHICLE? Or as the latest FASHION?