Interaction Design – Students Designing A Better Future For Us All

A hand holding a lighted stylus that is programmed by a computer
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Whether you’re checking out with your credit card, navigating Netflix, getting an Uber, or asking Alexa to order from Amazon; Interaction Design (IxD) permeates our world.  This technology has also brought an explosion of job opportunities.

Steve Vincent, Vice President at Music & Soundtracks for Disney Channel Worldwide, “The Interaction Design field has evolved so quickly, even the tech industry can barely keep up with its growth – the shortage of skilled interaction designers is just overwhelming. We need these graduates to continue our symbiotic relationship with the economy of Los Angeles and California.”

Toward that end Santa Monica College was chosen to be part of California Governor Jerry Brown’s revolutionary pilot program to address critical workforce shortage in areas not offered by Cal State and California University System.

One of IxD’s most enduring effects may be on the way business is done worldwide.  By its “democratic” nature of operating, IxD is less of a top-down male-dominated field than others usually associated with technology.  This equality is not enforced but encouraged; designing for all ages and sexes with this democratic demographic is a distinct advantage.

But to succeed in Interaction Design (IxD), one must first learn about what humans prefer; for me, this was the most surprising aspect of Santa Monica College’s IXD Bachelor’s Program. Having a background in Psychology, I was surprised at the depth the human psyche is plumbed.

Nicole Chan

Interaction Design is learning how to be and see things through different people’s eyes, so it’s human-centered,” says Nicole Chan, Faculty Lead at SMC’s IxD Program. The study of how humans react to everything from shapes to colors is not exactly new; it has been a principle in marketing for decades. But with what has now become a one-touch or one-click world, the demands on interactive designers have reached new heights.

Picture of The first graduates of SMC's IxD Bachelors Program
The first graduates of SMC’s IxD Bachelors Program

Maxim Safioulline, one of the core instructors of the program, elaborates, “The one aspect of interaction design that is often overlooked is its firm stance in both technology and human factors. This knowledge of both worlds is what allows them to bridge the gap between the engineers who build machines and the users who have to work the interfaces of those machines.”

Maxim Safioulline

Marc Fischer, CEO and Co-Founder of Dogtown Media, a mobile app development company(whose clients include Red Bull and Lexus), certainly agrees: Fischer knew all the coding prowess in the world would not matter if the product did not resonate with its audience on a human level. “Ultimately, design is simply a question of pleasing the user. And I knew my mobile app endeavors hinged on me answering this question correctly.”

Picture of Marc Fischer, CEO and Co-Founder of Dogtown Media, a mobile app development company 
Marc Fischer of Dogtown Media

Fischer is a former professor at Santa Monica College, where he taught Mobile App Design.

The “human factor” is never more obvious than in the depth of interaction that is achieved by breaking students down into smaller groups, called cohorts, to design and finish projects. The surprising fact is how often their projects are centered around improving our quality of life.

Student Kathleen Hwang showing Luke Johnson solutions for riders who have trouble using “bird” scooters.

This “ethic of empathy” was in evidence when SMC IXD student Kathleen Hwang, recently took center stage at The 2019 Interaction Design Conference as one of 9 finalist selected from around the globe. The challenge for the contestants was to “Craft an experience that unlocks empathy.”  Having survived brain cancer that left Kathleen disabled, she had overcome tremendous odds just to get there. 

A passionate advocate for those with disabilities Kathleen has fought to relearn and regain the function of her hands, arms and legs so she can avail herself of the technology that is so necessary for her occupation. Kathleen is currently applying her design skills to a number of design projects that can be viewed on her site

Students who face special life or physical challenges bring a special vision to these types of challenges, as graduate Ojen Shammasian points out.

Graduate Ojen Shammasian front and center

“During my time in this one-of-a-kind IxD program, perhaps my biggest surprise was that of belonging. Though I knew I like to create websites and to design; the choices I made to go forward with this program, were made unconsciously. That is, how I discovered who I always wanted to be, where and what I wanted to do.”

“Since I was little, I have always tried to make things better, easier, and intuitive because I am a paraplegic, but I came to understand and realize that this mindset does actually exist as a skill set. I am proud and honored to have been able to discover with the right toolsets for human-centered design, the world can be more intuitive and inclusive.”

Graduate Amanda Sanchez created an app that helps families cope with long-term illness: “Inspired by my mother-in-law, I created RUOK. RUOK is an app that makes it easy for patients and their support networks to ask for, offer, and coordinate help.”

Amanda Sanchez

The “magic” created in the first group of cohorts has already resulted in the employment of individual graduates as well as the creation of new companies helmed by former students as well.

Whether it is humans interfacing with an app or a machine, the students must understand how to program with a variety of tools.“We use a set of tools and practices to prepare them for this aspect of their future occupation.” Maxim Safioulline explained.  “Industry-standard tools, like GitHub – platforms for digital creatives to share and discover code and collaborate on projects, and Slack – an intra-office communication platform – are standard tools for the students as well. Well-acclaimed tools, like Arduino – a platform for experimentation with physical computing and design of smart objects, and Processing – an environment for generative graphic and visual design, are an integral part of the curriculum. This prepares them to hit the ground running when they join a design studio or start their own,” It is not only learning these apps but also using them in new and unique ways to solve problems and create new opportunities and solutions.

One of the things that drive this creativity is the varied nature of SMC’s IxD faculty like Luke Johnson, who has worked his interactive magic at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Riot Games.

Luke Johnson

Other faculty has led Interactive Design projects at Benetton, Unilever, City National Bank, as well as delving into the art of intersection between humans and technology.

Costing less than a quarter of Bachelors Programs in the University of California System; SMC’s Bachelor’s Program provides access to many students who would not be able to enter the IxD marketplace.

I asked Josh Tickell, who authored The Revolution Generation , if this new way of interacting and learning is changing how things are done, or is it being spearheaded by the millennial generation, which has grown up on iPhones and Uber.  “I think the message is that young people are changing the workplace, probably not the other way around,” Josh explained.

Whoever started it, SMC’s IxD program is being catalyzed by imagination, compassion and the love of innovative solutions created by students of all ages and generations.

All images and videos courtesy of Santa Monica College unless otherwise indicated

About Bob Hershon 10 Articles
Multimedia lab specialist at a College. Photographer and journalist mainly for Jazz Magazines in the 90's. Wrote about soundtracks and did press releases for Verve Gitanes after that. Worked at the Menlo Park VA (1969-1970 same one Ken Kesey was at earlier. He's older. It was a cuckoo's nest. My first day they kept me in locked ward to show me who was boss. They fed vets mellaril (thioridazine) which turned them into Walking Dead with tremors (pseudoparkinsonism, extrapyramidal symptoms), There is a warning now that says must only be used if nothing else works. God then reached out his hand and moved me to Palo Alto VA (under the best scientist I've ever met, Leo Hollister)1971-1974. Part of the group were two other geniuses Hamp Gillespie and Jared Tinklenberg, M.D. I was just a research assistant on my way to screwing up a doctorate. Burt Center Residential Treatment Center for Autistic and traumatized children and young adults 71-74 under Mary Burt who pioneered treament of Autism. Family Service Agency of SF before recovering my sanity at Canada College Music School. John Kreiger and Phillip Ienni guided me to the light and polytonality and pandiatonicism. To stay sane I played guitar for 40 years. The picture was taken years ago. I have gone gray and old.

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