Respons to Saffer, “Designing for Interaction”

Interactive designer Don Saffer artfully captures both the practical and the theoretical aspects of his profession in his 2006 book Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications for Clever Devices. From its title, Saffer’s book may sound like a simple “how-to” guide to creating web apps with interactivity. Yet while it is certainly that to an extent, the book is more broadly a treatise and exploration of the ideology and terminology behind interactive design.

Saffer sets out to answer seemingly simple questions such as “What is interaction design?” and “What is the value of interaction design?” with thoughtful, reflective analyses. The principle purpose of interaction design, he argues, is “its application to real problems” and its ability to “solve specific problems under a specific set of circumstances” (5). As such, interaction design is inherently attached to the physical world, and is “by its nature contextual,” changing and evolving in its definition over the course of time and space (4). Paradoxically, however, Saffer argues that the core principles of good interaction design are “technologically agnostic,” and don’t change along with ebbs and flows of technological innovation: “Since technology frequently changes, good interaction design doesn’t align itself to any one technology or medium in particular” (7). How can Saffer simultaneoulsy assert that interaction design is tethered to its particular context in time, while in the same breath arguing that it remains unchanging in its core values? Don’t the two statements on some level contradict one another? Saffer would likely respond by saying that only the “principles” behind interaction design – helping people communicate with one another and, to a lesser degree, with computers – remain constant amid technological upheaval. But this view verges on downplaying the power of future technological change to fundamentally alter every known aspect of the way we communicate. What if, in ten years, a technology comes along that automates communication in such a way that leads to a paradigmatic shift in the role of the interaction designer? Although Saffer is correct in his assertion that even the rise of the Internet has not so far altered the core principles of interaction design, that doesn’t mean that such constancy will always be the case.