Interaction Design

Doug Powell working with students during an Interaction Design workshop. Photo by Stan Strembicki.

Applications in health and well-being

Posted by Tanya Yatzeck March 20, 2014

"Interaction Design is the creation of a dialogue between a person and a product, service, or system. This dialogue is usually nearly invisible and found in the minutiae of daily life—the way someone may hold his knife and fork while cutting into a steak or the way another person may automatically switch windows to check her Facebook every few minutes or so." —Jon Kolko, Thoughts on Interaction Design, Second Edition, 2011


In fall 2012, the Sam Fox School launched its Interaction Design Initiative, led by associate professor Heather Corcoran and coordinated by senior lecturer Enrique Von Rohr. The series of workshops, open to all WUSTL students, introduced this interdisciplinary practice of understanding human behaviors as part of the design process through hands-on assignments.

To date, a number of noted interaction design practitioners—Jon Kolko, vice president of product, innovation, and design at MyEdu and the founder and director of Austin Center for Design; Ian Curry, product designer for FiftyThree; Callie Neylan, senior designer at Microsoft; and Rachel Hinman, thought leader in the mobile user experience field—have led workshops and delivered public lectures as part of the initiative.

With a focus on health care, the 2013 series consisted of two primary Interaction Design workshops, as well as a special one-day workshop for Master of Landscape Architecture students. Adjunct lecturer Doug Powell, design studio lead at IBM Design, facilitated the workshops. Presenters included Erica Kochi, named to Time magazine’s 100 “World’s Most Influential People” list for her work as co-founder of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit; Maggie Breslin, who pioneered the role of designer/researcher at Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation; and Gaby Brink, founder and chief designer of Tomorrow Partners.

Capturing the interdisciplinary spirit that is a key part of interaction design, the primary workshops included students from all four of WUSTL’s undergraduate schools. Patrick Buggy (Business, 2014) decided to participate because as a non-artist, he thought it would be helpful to look at design through a "user-focused lens."

"We spent the first part of the course learning basic principles of interaction design like design research, ethnography, concept development, and prototyping," Buggy says. "A lot of the beginning stuff helped to get us in the proper mindset for doing this type of work. You have to be incredibly open-minded, be comfortable with failing, and always be able to shift gears and try new ideas."

For their final design challenge, students were asked to address the problem of providing patients better access to health care, using human-centered design methodology to first understand patients' obstacles, then explore and identify how to design solutions. Thanks to a partnership with BJC HealthCare, students were able to interact with BJC HealthCare patients and their social workers directly, so they could better understand and empathize with the users of their future solutions.

"It's not a sexy problem. It's not 'the next Apple store.' It's get sick people to the hospital," says Powell, BFA88. "This is a dense problem. As soon as the students sat down with the users, that changed. It turned it from a stuffy problem into a human-rich, juicy problem."

Powell insists that this approach, which focuses on user experience, is crucial for an education in design. "This is an ambiguous and iterative process," he says. "How do you do that in an academic environment that tends to be very linear? But this is an opportunity not to be missed. It is imperative that we begin addressing design at this level."

The participation of experts in the field created an important bridge between classroom learning and real-world relevance. During one of the sessions, Brink consistently delivered business-focused insights as students explained their thought processes. One team was struggling with the idea of a "wearable technology" solution, like a watch, that could assist patients with making appointments and remembering to line up transportation. After a discussion of the prohibitive cost of new technology for this solution, Brink offered some advice: "You don't have to give up on the wearable idea. Make a business case for how the solution will save this much money, and propose using existing iPod technology."

"It's fun to work with young people on design problems in this way," Brink says. "As designers we borrow the concept of ethnography from anthropology, where they are embedded in the culture for a long time. This is a finite amount of time, but rich details emerge. We spend time getting to the underlying root causes that we might not see as outside observers."

Powell's expectation is that the outcome of this effort will be different from that of a traditional design workshop.

Buggy's experience with the workshop reinforces Powell's intent. "I think the most valuable thing that I learned is that human-centered design is applicable to everything," Buggy says. "We are all 'users' in everyday life, and all of our experiences, everything we interact with, has been designed in some way. It could be a restaurant, a piece of mail we receive, a mobile app, the controls in our car, or the way you position handles on a door. Everything can be designed well. It excites me because, while I don't think I'll end up as a designer down the road, I can take these design principles and this user-focused skill set to any business setting."

To view students' final projects from the workshop Designing for Interaction II: Applications in Health and Well-being, click here.