Of Mice and Multimedia

When Bill Moggridge bought a digital watch for his son in 1983, it took him “20 minutes of concentrated effort” to set the alarm so his boy wouldn’t miss his paper route. Then daylight savings time came and the younger Moggridge gave up his early mornings. Dad was enlisted to cancel the alarm and reset the time, but of course the instructions were long gone. You’d think Moggridge, who designed the first-ever laptop computer in 1980 (the GRiD Compass ), would be able to figure out how to reset the time on a dinky watch with only four buttons. You’d be wrong.

Today Moggridge, who has since founded the influential Silicon Valley-based design firm IDEO, holds the watch up as an unshining example of bad industrial design. In his new book, “Designing Interactions,” Moggridge conducts 40 interviews with industry pioneers who do the job right. Ever wonder why Google is the dominant search engine or how the mouse on your desktop came into being? This accessible book endeavors to answer those questions and more. Moggridge recently spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Brian Braiker. Excerpts:

Bill Moggridge: I’m afraid I’ve picked up a cold so please forgive me if I’m slow of wit.

NEWSWEEK: I am sure slow of wit for you is still light years ahead of us. What is interaction design?

I think it’s really the design of everything that includes electronic technology. That is the broad definition, which the book encompasses. There is a narrower one, which is where I came to it from, which is more like a design discipline.

You’re talking about designing user interfaces?

In the broad sense. The whole community that’s included from Doug Engelbart [inventor of the mouse] forward to computer science people and human computer interaction people and designers—they’re all part of this world of trying to design the technologies.

Making it intuitive and attractive at the same time. Why are so many people so bad at this? Is it very hard to do?

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it’s very young. These things take a long time to evolve. I really agree with [venture capitalist] David Liddle and his three phases of the adoption of technology. He talks about the first stage being the enthusiasts [who adopt a new technology] and the next being the professionals and the next being the consumer. The early 35 mm cameras, which were used by the astronauts when they went up to space first, took almost a Ph.D. to operate. In the professional phase everything started to sort itself, so the way of adjusting the aperture and focus were roughly similar across the range of all makes. They weren’t easy to use, you had to be a professional and get a lot of expertise in order to understand how to be good. It’s only when they moved into the consumer phase that everything became automated, so you had automatic focus, automatic exposure, automatic wind so that almost anybody could take a pretty good photograph—you just point and shoot.

I was fascinated by the evolution of the mouse—how intuitive it is today and, of course, how much work went into that, how many prototypes and stages of evolution there were.

I think if you look at those early tests, there were huge varieties. The things that Doug Engelbart was testing in the beginning included something you’d wear on your head and something you operated with your knee, as well as various devices that were on the desk. In that sense the diversity, before they did the testing with people on prototypes, was as wide as anything could have been. Much to their surprise, it turned out that the mouse was the best performing device.

Do you see yourself as on a mission to get computer people to use better design?

I suppose if I have a mission, it’s about trying to explain design. The first part of my life was being a designer. The next chunk was helping other people design in teams as IDEO got bigger. Now that we have younger people looking after IDEO, I feel free to try to tell stories about design. The stories I’d like to tell are the ones that make it a little bit easier for people to understand how design operates.

And why it’s relevant. It’s interesting how hard it is to design an interface that is so intuitive. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. We actually have a lot to learn from games. The evolution is so much more dramatic there and the people who don’t succeed in making a game instantly attractive and easy to use and enjoyable, the game doesn’t exist—it gets taken off the shelves within a week. Computer games are actually a very good lesson. I was really interested in the interview with [“Sims” creator] Will Wright because he’s very articulate about the way that games work. He talks about these loops of engagement where the first thing is that your design allows people to understand the control device within a few seconds and then gives them something to do that they can understand within about a half a minute. And if you go gradually through these loops of interactivity, you can get to the point where you’re doing something that takes weeks to do in a very hobbyist game like the Sims.

Another product that has been successful along these terms has been the iPod. Why has no one been able to touch the iPod in terms of competition?

The thing that became really clear with the interview with [software designer] Paul Mercer is that it’s a systemic solution. Apple bought a company that had the iTunes music technology first and then did the Apple magic of making it beautiful to look at and easy to use. They did that several years before the iPod was designed. Only when the ability to manipulate your music on your computer was well established did they introduce the iTunes music store, which was a way of buying it online and an answer to Napster that people could feel it was reasonable to pay a dollar for a song. Only when those two things were in place did they actually make a physical product. In all cases those designs are excellent. You have to give design a lot of credit for the advantage that Apple has. But I believe you have to have both excellent design that people like or fall in love with, and you also have to have the systemic approach that looks at the entire experience.

What’s next in terms of interaction design?

The thing that was surprising about the Internet was that suddenly you move from dragging and dropping a file into a folder to the idea of a locomotion interface, where you go someplace. People started to think of files being located on Web sites in space where you went to visit them. In the early days of the Internet that was very appropriate, to be able to feel you were going somewhere and moving through this virtual geography. What’s happening now I believe, and we will see increasing in the future, is that [Web] 2.0 is coming along. It’s allowing us not just to go to a Web site and look at it, but to go to a Web site and then do something. So we’re getting to the point where you have a locomotion that takes us there and manipulation when we arrive, and also community things like YouTube and MySpace. That will mean that we will have more conversations when we get there. That’s the future of the Internet itself and it seems that’s very close.

What struck you the most in doing these interviews for the book?

The stories of success where people tried a lot of prototype ideas and tested them with people. I found that very reassuring. That’s part of IDEO’s methodology. To find from my research so many people who achieved great results in the past had used a similar technique was very reassuring.

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