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Interview with Patrick Baudisch, by Doantam Pham, October 2005

Doantam: What makes a good interaction designer?

Patrick: This is a tricky question, because interaction design can be looked at from different perspectives. Like many researchers in this field I am wearing two hats.

When working on a project with concrete existing users I often need to adopt techniques from usability engineering. Here user centered design is the key component and the relevant skills are rapid prototyping and evaluation. While a good amount of intuition can go a long way, I think what makes an outstanding interaction designer is the ability to successfully design for a target audience that one is not part of. This requires knowing the limits of ones intuition.

Here is an example. Many of us can fairly reliably distinguish a usable web page from a less usable one. That's because we can use the intuition we gained from being web users ourselves. When designing for a target audience we are not part of, on the other hand, this intuition often fails. When designing a customized application for a group of medical doctors, for example, as good interaction designers we realize that the needs of these people might be different from what we think. Consequently, we hold back our personal intuition, and instead apply formalized methods, such as prototyping and evaluation.

When working on my research projects, on the other hand, things are often different. Now the perspective is 5-10 years out, which means that I am trying to envision what _future_ users will need. Many of user centered design techniques require talking to actual users, but I obviously cannot go out and interview future users because they don't exist yet. Take wall-size displays, for example. Yes, there are a handful of users today, but these tend to be expert users, working with very specialized applications. When I am envisioning a general purpose user interface for a future where people use wall-size displays casually, I consequently find myself in the room of speculation. I apply user centered design techniques where possible, but basic research methodology and intuition tend to play a bigger role here.

Doantam: How did you get started working on human-computer interaction?

Patrick: Without knowing it. I was a Ph.D. student in Darmstadt, Germany and worked on user interfaces for information filtering systems. A friend of mine saw my work and said "oh, I did not know you were in HCI, too".

That was the first time I heard of that field.

Doantam: What's your current research area?

Patrick: The first of my two main research areas is to envision a future where users have access to very large personal displays. I tend to think of them as high-resolution wall-size displays, but in many cases multi-monitor setups, as they are already in use today bring up the same questions and afford similar solutions. My first project in this space was focus-plus-context screens: a large projection-based display into which I seamlessly embedded a high-res LCD display. This resulting display imitates the structure of the human eye with its low-res periphery and hi-res fovea.

Since then, I have focused mostly on helping users interact with different types of displays. I have worked on a series of techniques to extend the mouse to work with very large displaysurfaces. The projects I enjoy working on most are techniques for reaching distant display content on wall-size touch screens. While previous work suggested extending the users' reach, we propose the opposite approach, i.e., bringing content to the users instead. Our user studies show that our approach is not only faster, but also more accurate and less tiresome, because our approach allows users to interact with content within their natural arms reach. If you are curious, you can try out prototypes of "drag-and-pop" and "tablecloth" on my homepage (www.PatrickBaudisch.com).

My second main research area is small screens. Currently I am focusing on visualization techniques that help users view large documents, such as maps or web pages on the small screens. A recent project is "summary thumbnails". We display web pages as miniature versions that are just wide enough to fit the width of the screen. Unlike techniques proposed by other researchers, our thumbnails are readable because we delete text fragments instead of shrinking fonts into unreadability. What makes me passionate about phones is the huge yet still growing impact they have on people worldwide. We start seeing more and more tasks that we used to perform on PCs now covered by phones, things like checking email, driving directions, or shopping. I believe that this trend will continue and I am wondering how far it will go. In the not so distant future, we will look back and we will find it surprising that we used to log into a PC to do this. New visualization and interaction techniques will make a tremendous contribution here.

Doantam: How do you select a particular project to work on? What's the design process you take? How long do you usually work on a project? How many projects do you work on at a time? At what point do you consider a project finished?

Patrick: I always have a large number of projects I work on at the same time. Somewhere is the range of, say, three to eight. Then, when I am getting closer to a deadline, such as a paper deadline, I narrow this down to 1-3 projects that I can actually get done in time. The others go back into the pool. I may pick them up later--or not.

The core motivation behind my approach is that it helps me let go of a bad project idea. Not all ideas can be "good", and sometimes an idea that looked promising in the beginning turns out not to be novel, not applicable, or simply "not that great". By simultaneously pursuing multiple ideas, letting go of a bad idea is much less painful. As a result, I paint myself into a corner less often then I used to do, when I put all my eggs in one basket.

Having a rich pool of ideas to choose from is crucial for my approach. To make sure I don't forget ideas I always record them right away, typically using the voice recorder in my phone. Sometimes I take voicenotes late at night and it is quite challenging to decipher my mumblings the next morning. While many of my ideas are in my field of interaction and visualization techniques, I keep a log of ideas for pretty much everything--from information filtering to what I think might be an easier to use umbrella.

Doantam: What are the other challenges in interaction design (other than what you are currently working on)?

Patrick:The space of interaction design and human-computer interaction is full of exciting challenges. While the underlying hardware of our systems still advances at a dramatic rate, the capabilities of users do not.

Enhancing this "bottleneck" is therefore as important as never before. Cell phones and other small screen devices offer a host of interesting challenges way beyond the visualization questions I am working on today.

To just pick one example, I would love to see multimodal interface researchers join forces with interaction designers to design eyes-free interfaces. Such a system might allow me to query my calendar while I am on the phone. Phones in particular also have the potential of reaching a much wider audience worldwide than PCs ever have or will. Rural computing will be a particularly rewarding field to study.

In the wider space of computer science/design I feel that technology around online communities had brought up questions we have not been able to answer so far. The copyright question around file sharing, is an example that could benefit from our attention. Ten years ago, engineers talked about the "information highway" and all the technical challenges that would need to be solved in order to deliver video to the homes.

Today, the technical part is more than solved by file sharing systems. Even the question about micro payments, a big question still a couple of years ago, has made a huge step forward with the broad acceptance of online payment systems, such as PayPal. But downloading video content, it turned out, is foremost not a technical challenge--it is a legal question. Today, a lot of work is done on enforcing copyright using digital rights management software. Can we go beyond that--can we come up with a system that creates value from the existing infrastructure rather than limiting it?

Copyright 2005 Ambidextrous Magazine, Inc.



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