Intentional Interactions is a master's level module that gives students a practical foundation in Interaction Design for the physical and digital worlds by having them bring a robot arm to life, and collaborating on a large electromechanical installation. The course was first delivered as a full time, three week intensive module for students at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London on the MA/MSc Global Innovation Design course, and visiting students from Tsinghua University.
The demands of designers today require them to think in terms of interaction and behavior regardless of whether they are working on products, services, or systems. The aim of this module was to empower students with the confidence, design thinking, and hands on coding and mechanical skills to do interaction design work in both digital and physical worlds, despite having no prior coding experience.
To empower students, they were required to complete solo projects, providing the ownership that can be lacking in technical group projects, where the most proficient students tend to take on the technical duties.
Students were given the creative constraint of a simple servo-powered robot arm mechanism, which they had to give meaning by imbuing it with behavior. They learned to use industry standard tools Unity and Arduino, so that their knowledge would transfer to tools they could use in their professional careers. This constraint led to an explosion of creativity, with students creating interactive lamps, physical games, dancing birds, interactive sculptures, and a physical iPhone Spotify DJ.
Unity was used to create a simulation of the robot arm, and provide a rich control system that could communicate with the physical robot arm. Sensor components could optionally be used to send information back to the simulation, creating a feedback loop, needed for behavior such as a shy lamp that avoids human touch.
The course provided context to their work, with a lecture on the history of Interaction Design, how Interaction Design is used in the industry today, and the areas of design that it will be crucial to in the future. Additionally, the students were given a guest lecture from Interaction Design luminary Durrell Bishop.
In the school end of year survey, Intentional Interactions was ranked as one of the best modules of the academic year.
Why physical + digital Interaction Design?
The value of Designers' work has shifted from the physical form of objects to the experiences they provide. Phones are no longer bought solely for their form factor, or the kinesthetic experience they provide fingers, but rather for the apps they allow us the use and the networks they connect us to. As a result, digital interactions are often at the core of design students' concerns, even within the more traditional disciplines such as industrial design and architecture. Education is still catching up to this interest.
While physical prototyping skills can be acquired after an induction in a wood workshop, the barrier of entry to digital prototyping tools (e.g. coding) discourages many. Prototyping tools have emerged to bridge that gap, but they tend to focus on existing, limited interaction systems (e.g. phone apps, UX wireframing tools) rather than allowing students to imagine new ones. This makes designing interactions a growing source of frustration for most students, who feel limited both in their thinking and in what they can create.
Without addressing this situation at the design teaching level, it is unlikely to change when the students begin their careers. It may lead to frustration and misunderstanding in day-to-day interactions with engineers, and could result in strategic design decisions being made without designer input. The design of social media platforms engagement mechanisms is a good example of what happens when the user is only considered as an attention time metric to feed an algorithm.
We wanted to achieve the following through our Intentional Interactions module:
1. Give a general understanding of the discipline:
Interaction Design is relatively young, and yet it is quite vast and interrelated with most Design disciplines. As a result, what Interaction Design entails, and how to approach it, are often misunderstood. Students feel overwhelmed by the number of related job titles which seem to call for early specialization (UX Designer, UI Designer, Experience Designer, Product Designer, Digital Designer etc.). Our first goal was to give a coherent overview of this constantly evolving discipline, in order to empower the students to own their role as Designers, readying them for a future where interactions drive everything, everywhere.
2. Provide a starting point
From the outside, the world of coding seems intimidating, and many students do not know where to start. We designed a hands-on module to provide a simple entry point for them to dig into something which can seem complex and daunting.
3. Expand students' horizons
With our multidisciplinary approach to Design, we have a strong belief in thinking through making. The ultimate goal of this module is to stimulate students in their thinking and allow them to generate new types of ideas.
The primary stakeholders for the module were the two universities that offer the Global Innovation Design MA/MSc course, and the students themselves.
For the students, we felt we could provide the greatest value by objectively increasing their technical skills, with the underlying aim of increasing their emotional well-being as well. The environment of graduate-level design education is an environment that can all too easily foster insecurity, a sense of inferiority, and "imposter syndrome". With a broad range of student backgrounds and skill levels, and high academic expectations, many students may feel intimidated by what they do not know. This is especially true of technical skills, where the bar is continuously rising. This is why we taught fundamental and transferable skills, using industry standard tools, without any sugar coating, and required students to create work individually. Students worked in an open environment, with time dedicated to peer review and support, in order to help them feel comfortable learning together, and being honest about the learning they still needed. We also wanted to mimic a full design project for the students: not only creating the work, but documenting it and presenting it to the world, ultimately creating something worthy of their portfolios.
This required a high number of teaching hours, and individual work (and so the physical materials required) meant careful budget planning for our other stakeholders: the universities. In addition to working within the available budget for the module, we wanted to provide a teaching experience that was normally out of reach for these universities. Typically, teaching of these types of skills are taught in short one-on-one tutorials, spread over a number of weeks, often because of the expert's limited availability. Instead, we opted for an intensive approach, using a standard set of tools that the universities could build further teaching upon.
Tools and Materials
We created a list of criteria for the tools we would teach, they had to be:
- Used in the industry
- Available and affordable
- Provide transferable skills
After mapping different routes – such as asking students to design a digital product, a digital installation, or a service – we decided to focus on tangible interactions. They are easier to grasp without prior coding knowledge.
We quickly realized that we were facing two main challenges:
1. Our module would have to be approachable for students without prior coding experience, while being stimulating for those with more advanced knowledge.
2. We needed a common thread to assess everyone's progress and make sure basic principles were understood, but the module would have to encourage bifurcations and creativity.
After considering all of this, custom robot arms felt natural. With anthropomorphism and the uniquely human ability to transpose life into the most simple objects, we felt this concept could turn simple motions into delightful emotions.
After a few wood-and-glue-gun iterations to test the concept and determine dimensions, we hired two final year students to design a laser-cuttable kit of parts for under £10 per unit, to be given to each student on the first day of the module, forming the basis of a series of very hands-on workshops: moving the robot head up and down, side to side, and creating long exposure light drawings using drawing using an LED.
On the software side of things, we easily settled on the Arduino platform, and Unity. As well as being cheap, or free to use for educational purposes, both tools use similar programming languages: C++ and C# respectively. These code based tools were chosen specifically because knowledge of the languages themselves is valuable and transferable, whereas non-code programming tools (like TouchDesigner or Max) tend to rely on intermediate user interface layers which, for the sake of flattening the learning curve, offer less flexibility and little transferable skills. Unity in particular was very effective for design students, because of its ability to work with visual 3D assets that can easily be exported from tools that designers are familiar with, making it a great pairing with Arduino for designing physical + digital interactions.
As the course progressed, students were encouraged to personalize and repurpose their robot, leading up to a final one-week solo project to be presented to the class and our guest lecturer.
On the last day, as a final surprise, we had the students disassemble, clean and reassemble the 30 robots as part of a collaboratively created light installation; a non-metaphorical introduction to the complexity of scaling up a concept with a tight deadline.
The module was successful in having both a tangible and intangible impact on the students. Each student added two projects to their portfolio, along with the full sense of ownership that can be lacking in technical projects completed in a group. While this benefits them more immediately as they search for near-term employment, the longer lasting impact is having the confidence to tackle complex technical projects, and truly think about products as interactive systems. Feedback from students was excellent, and the confidence boost in interaction thinking was seen in the students without technical backgrounds, who went on to create technology based thesis projects that were recognized by Sir Jony Ive, Yves Béhar, Gerry McGovern, and the Helen Hamlyn Centre. The module has been requested by the Head of Program to be repeated in future years.
It's going to change those students' lives.
- Durrell Bishop (Designer, Guest Lecturer)
Intentional Interactions has been my favourite module in GID so far. I got a lot out of it and gained some new skills and perspectives to carry with me in future projects.
- Robert P. (Student)
You gave me a lot of confidence and support in solving and debugging complex technical problems.
- Wenwen F. (Student)
This module definitely push[ed] me out of my comfort zone, a new way of thinking and working!
I like the way you arranged the module, from spoon feeding, group/self experiment, to final work, and also the guest speaker talk!
And thank you for doing many overtimes to help us!
- Juncheng W. (Student)
Thank you, Arthur and Guillaume! I enjoyed this module very much! I felt like this was the first module in GID so far that I could work on something wthat I've been really passionate about.