August: My name is August de los Reyes and I'm a designer. I'm also a professor of design at the University of Washington. I work for an independent design studio in Seattle called Artefact-I just joined them two months ago-and before that I worked for Microsoft for the preceding seven and a half years.
Slo-tech: In your talk you mentioned that you worked on the windows button?
August: Oh, the windows button? I love telling these stories. So, just to repeat all of them for this. During the Vista time frame, I was in a part of Windows called the Hardware Innovation Group, and it's about making hardware that works better with Windows. And my boss, he was-he's an industrial designer and he remembers the first time they designed the Windows key. And so he thought, for Vista, “Let's update the key, let's do a new key.” Cause there's a lot of new Windows key combinations coming out at the same time. And then he said, “I need you to design the spec for the new key.” Then I said, “One key? No problem.” And I thought, “Oh, this will take three days, four days.” But it actually ended up taking six months.
Slo-tech: Six months for one button?
August: For the spec, yes, for one button. Here is why. This is the kind of design problem that I actually joined Microsoft to do. Because what I didn't know at the time was: when we were writing the spec for the key, we had to consider every single kind of keyboard and every single kind of configuration and we had to think about the engineering and safety and environmental standards for pretty much every market on the planet.
Slo-tech: So, what are the most interesting examples of those keyboards?
August: Well, the one that stands out the most is that apparently in Germany, there is the safety standard for the amount of light that can be reflected off of the keyboard into your eyes. So, we had to determine the finish of the Windows key, so that the amount of light that was being reflected was safe. Cause if we met that standard, then we could sell them to EU. But I think that's the most interesting example. I was a little surprised that such a standard even exists.
Slo-tech: So, did you do field testing? How did you go about designing the key?
August: I worked with a few outside agencies to do a lot of the researches. Again, on a really huge scale. So, I was working on both of research and design, in terms of doing an audit of all the potential kinds of keyboards, and then we talked to a few of keyboard manufacturers, and we talked to people who actually-we had a task to see if they even knew what the Windows key did…and ways to highlight it even more as a very thorough, very robust investigation. And it's exciting to see that there are online groups, who are enthusiasts about Windows key combinations. Even I don't know all the combinations with the Windows key, but I think it's the sign of the kind of success of making one little feature that people don't even really think about more salient.I forgot if I ever mentioned in the talk that when I travel a lot, and I travel a lot internationally, and sometimes when a border guard sees on my card that I'm a designer, he says, “What kind of a designer are you?” Sometimes I look at his keyboard and if there is the Windows key, I point out the key and say, “I designed that key.” And they usually laugh and let me through, ha-ha.
Slo-tech: Going from the Windows key, which is like an old-school touch interface on the keyboard, you talked about NUI, natural user interfaces. How do you see the transition going? Today we have touch interfaces, like iPad or touch phones, going to Kinect and similar projects. So, how do you see the transition, the future, of these input devices?
August: Well, I'd say that, there aren't, from my standpoint, there are no big surprises. For example, when we were at Surface, our research team looked at the kind of challenges that people faced when the mouse was first introduced, and graphical user interface was first introduced, and the head of our research team was actually a researcher when the mouse was introduced twenty, thirty years ago. And he said that the problems are exactly the same, it's just a different technology. It's similar to the challenges where people's immediate inclination is to try to create software for the old system, but just use the new input. So, even with the first GUIs: they were essentially command-line interfaces where you just moved the cursor, the character cursor, with your mouse. And so we're seeing that today with touch as well. People are merely trying to create GUIs and use fingers as a proxy for a mouse; I'd say that the big difference between the early 80s and now is that we're learning our lessons a lot more quickly. The other point I want to raise is that these new input methods and things like natural user interface are not there to replace GUIs. That is just another way that people can interact with systems. In the same way that today the command line is alive and well. And it's just that there are different input methods that are best for some things and worst for something else. And I think we're just starting to discover the best uses of touch, like… You wouldn't write your novel using a gestural interface. Well, at least not now. But who knows what the future can bring.
Slo-tech: What are your thoughts on project Natal, or Kinect, as you see it now?
August: I'm really excited. I had no direct relationship with the Natal group, with the Kinect group, but I know that it just got released in the United States, because my Twitterfeed and my Facebook wall are full of my friends who are lined up to get one. And it's really exciting; I think it's an exciting time. The excitement is literal now, but the thing that I'm more excited about is when we start applying this technology to areas outside of games.
Slo-tech: How do you see the transition from a gaming interface where my hand can be a tennis racket, towards more serious usage?
August: Well, I tend to be a bit more conservative about applying the technologies just for the sake of a new technology. What I'd be really excited about, is understanding the most appropriate use of this kind of input method in either a laptop or a desktop or even the living room. And I'm all for it as long as it's self evident that it's meeting a need.
Slo-tech: Basically, giving developers the tools to use this technology and see what comes up.
August: Well, I forgot one of the strengths that Microsoft has always had. Which is: we just create the… Well, I can't say “we”, I'm not on Microsoft anymore. I'm trying to break, you know, seven years of habit. But I'd say one of the strengths of Microsoft is it's partnership with the developer community. That we (“we”!)…that Microsoft makes the tools, makes the platform and creates as many possible ways to help developers create these new experiences. So, it's an exciting time.
Slo-tech: Have you seen any interesting additional input, like… In the talk, you haven't touched on the voice input. Did we stop talking to computers?
August: Well, I think voice technology is one of the things that will be… Right now, I think people underestimate voice technology, but it's actually a pretty robust area. And I think it's just an input method that's waiting for its killer app. If I could speculate intelligently about the killer app for voice, I'd probably do it myself. But I really have no idea. I do think that it will probably be a combination of several input methods where voice will be an element. Well, I think Kinect-correct me if I'm wrong-but I think the Kinect input also uses voice input.
Slo-Tech: It's a limited language.
August: Yes, exactly, exactly. So, in a way, it's kind of just a baby step.
Slo-tech: So, talking about killer apps… In your experience of working with touch technologies, what are the big killer apps for touch?
August: I don't know about the specific killer app, but it's the killer characteristic that actually got me very excited. And looking at touch… It's that a lot of people that I didn't expect to interact with a computer do so easily. Particularly with young children and seniors. With young children, it's kind of magical when they play with Surface and…if they're playing with a water app or a paint application where they check to see if their hands are wet. And that's interesting. And I think, with seniors, an example is when my mom came to visit me at Microsoft, and there's this Surface at my office, and she just started playing with it, and I know my mom is of a generation where she's very intimidated by computing technology. And I think what's interesting about this-it's not a killer app, but it's a killer characteristic, as she didn't think about the obstacle of technology when she started interacting with it. It just felt like a kind of harmless activity.
Slo-tech: Okay. So, it seems that touch is here to stay with us. It's not like tablets are the future. So, many of our readers are also developers. How do you, when you talk to developers… How do you advise them to start working with touch interfaces? I mean, the students. Is there like, a path you recommend them to go down?
August: No. I mean, I'm going to be really selfish with this advice and I'd say that one of the best things developers can do is to partner with design and user research early on. And I've seen this in traditional product development environments where the earlier a developer and a tester start working with a designer and a user researcher, the end result is way more effective than if either of the parties brings in the other one later on in the process.
Slo-tech: So, usability expert in every developer group...
August: Well, I said “user researcher”, so… ... Well, I wanted to qualify that, but I don't think user research is only usability. I think usability is just a small part of user research, and in my own experience in developing for touch, user research actually contributes a lot in the early exploratory phase of the product development. So, I guess, in a very typical sort of way, user research tends to be brought in at the end, to test the usability. But I think that's not maximizing the benefit of the relationship between a developer and a user researcher or a designer if they're brought in at the usability stage.
Slo-tech: In your words, what are the roles of a user-research person?
August: I think that user research falls into three categories. The first is what I call “exploratory”, where we're not even sure what the design or the development problem is. And they would help articulate the specific problem or need. The second one I'd call “generative”, in a sense that they can help generate some of the features or interactions in the product. An example from Surface is: we'd show users two screens, just print-outs of screens. They looked like our table screens, and the user researcher would say, “If this is ‘before' and this is ‘after', what would you do with your hands to make the ‘before' go like ‘after'?” And so, in that way, they would generate this kind of intuitions that users would have. And what was great about that: the designers and the developers, we were all watching the user research at the time. And the third aspect of user research is the value of it. It's the usability. So, I think those are the three aspects of user research.
Slo-tech: You went back to the grad school after working on the hard problems. So, how do you see today's education? Is it good enough? What are the challenges of education, in terms of rapidly changing technology, new approaches?
August: I have a strong opinion about design education in particular, which is-I think, the designers should be much more capable from a technological development perspective. And it's not to say that designers should try to be developers, but there should be ways of understanding the development and code and programming that's appropriate for designers. That's not trying to duplicate what a developer does. And in the same respect, I think that there needs to be a certain level of design literacy that technologists of traditional engineering backgrounds should adopt as well. I think that-at least in my experience or my perception of American education-we specialize far too quickly. And when we do, we almost isolate ourselves from other disciplines. And I even see this in design education, specifically when we look at product designers, which is graphic designers versus interaction designers. I'm of the believe that there's just “design” and the principles are universal and these other distinctions are just technique. And I'm finding more and more that the techniques aren't unique to any one field of design. It's all starting to blur.
Slo-tech: So… Somebody who wants to build great products and who is finishing high school or college and looking towards… You know, young people, they often don't know what they want to do, but they can code a bit, they can design a bit…. What would you recommend them? How should they structure the education so that when they finish in a couple of years' time, they can actually do great things?
August: I don't think it's about structuring the education as much as having the education system in power. Young people teach us, too, to follow through on their ideas. I'd say what's so exciting about design and development today, is that the barrier of entry to actually launching a product or an application is lower than ever before in history. We see the contemporary phenomena of TIY, we see community-driven development, we see distributed manufacturing…. I'd say that these are just baby steps to a broader future. So, yeah, to sum up, I think it's just about young people just realizing that-not just young people, but anyone can actually develop a product without requiring millions and millions of dollars.
August: So, about interactive things… I think that one nightmare scenario is that everything is interactive. That's a good example of what happens when it's just technology for technology's sake. And I'd say one of the most valuable things that comes out of the partnership between design and development is to apply technology in an appropriate way. But I take a very optimistic stance, in a sense that even if things start becoming interactive in an appropriate way, what that will do is the same kind of objects that are not interactive will be valued and treasured even more.
Slo-tech: Can you imagine interacting with your home appliances through Twitter, Facebook? You know, having their own IP and doing things?
August: I think it's possible, but just because someone can do something does not mean someone should do something.
Slo-tech: You think that they “shouldn't”-
August: No, no, no, I'm not in the “should” or “shouldn't”; I'm in the “appropriate”. I believe that the best technologies are the ones that are appropriate for the human experience and not the other way around.
Slo-tech: Is there something you would like to add? A message to the current community of people, living and breathing IT, from your point of view of technology in the world today?
August: Oh, sure. I think that right now it's the most exciting time to be in technology, for several reasons, especially the ones that I talked about earlier. And the availability of technology, kind of communities, either real or virtual, the amount of knowledge sharing and learning is the most than any other point in human history. So, I think it's an exciting time and I'm very excited for the future.
Slo-tech: We would like to thank August de los Reyes for the interview.
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