“The way that I like to think about what we do at IDEO is two part: we're looking to design the right thing, and then we're looking to design the thing right.”
—Chris Nyffeler, IDEO Executive Design Director
Chris Nyffeler is an Executive Design Director at IDEO, leading IDEO's community of interaction, visual, and user experience designers. He is also the instructor of our new class, Prototyping for Digital Experiences. As a design practitioner himself, Chris has led and worked alongside Fortune 100 executives, entrepreneurs, and IDEO teams. He's led programs to design experiences for everything from ATMs to smartphones to connected home devices. As a faculty member in the undergraduate and graduate programs in Interaction Design at the California College of the Arts, Chris and his students together look for new ways to combine human-centered design with emerging technology platforms. We caught up with Chris leading up to the launch of Prototyping for Digital Experiences to chat about his experience at IDEO, his journey to interaction design, and advice for others in the field.
What does your role look like at IDEO? How has it evolved?
I've been at IDEO for almost 14 years. My title is Executive Design Director, and I focus on our community of interaction designers, user experience designers, digital product designers, creative coders, UX engineers, motion designers, and visual designers. The industry uses a broad range of titles for specific skills, but at IDEO we just all call ourselves interaction designers.
Interaction design is the largest discipline at IDEO. When I started it was a separate practice, but now interaction design is a part of every bit of our work, and that reflects the way the world and the industry have moved—it's a part of everything that we're doing. Technology inevitably is going to touch your business in some way, and it's going to touch us as users in some way.
My role is focused on how we think about the craft of interaction design, do excellent work, and make sure we are at the forefront of the discipline.
How did you get started in interaction design?
I was 10 or 11 years old when I discovered this concept of design, and I knew at that point that's what I wanted to do, and I haven't wavered from that. It's the perfect combination of creative thinking, artistic expression, and real-world problem-solving. At the time, there wasn't something called interaction design, so I went to school for graphic design.
I paid my way through school through building websites when the web was new to most of us. I thought I was going to get my degree and be a print designer, but by the time I graduated, I realized it was much more interesting and much more fun to be working in a more dynamic living medium.
After college, I worked for a magazine in Atlanta doing editorial design and print design. I didn't realize how disconnected I would feel from the design and creative process to the output. Print designers do the design and then it goes to press and it becomes something else. Whereas, when I was working on screen-based digital designs, I was actually the one that was the creator and the producer. It felt so real and immediate and direct, and I just loved that as the process.
Can you share a story about a creative team you were part of? What helped that team thrive?
A couple of years ago we did a collaboration between IDEO, Google, and Levi’s to build an interactive jacket. Google had developed technology to weave conductive threads into any textile and effectively make it an interactive piece of fabric. The question was, “What are people actually going to do with this, and how should people think about this as a value-add to their lives?”
During that project, we had fashion designers, software engineers, and IDEO folks around the table together. We had different language for things, different processes for things, and were trying to figure out how to work together for the first time.
I observed that we were most effective when we could take an actual artifact, a prototype, and instead of talking in the abstract about something, or (reviewing a presentation) we put that on the table and all speak to it. IDEO Partner Dennis Boyle says “never go to a meeting without a prototype.” I saw that in action on this project. The prototype enabled us to start to build a shared vocabulary about what we thought this thing should be and do.
For example, one of the challenges we had was if you have an interactive jacket you're going to have to plug it in. Going home at the end of the day and instead of hanging up your jacket having to plug it into the wall is a really strange concept. We wanted to find a way to externalize as many of the electronic components as possible to be able to remove them from the jacket. The Levi's team looked at old 20th-century trench coat designs with removable tags on the cuffs. A lot of what they were able to come up with from their deep experience and expertise in fashion design actually drove the design of a technology product, which was really inspiring.
What are some of the most common challenges or pitfalls that you see when designing for digital experiences?
Falling in love with a solution too early is a common pitfall—assuming that there's one way to do it. One of the things that I love to do if I'm running a design sprint is when we're at that moment of sketching possible solutions I cut designers off at a certain point. They get to a solution and then I have them stop, go back, and do it again—and maybe do it again after that and find a different angle. It's important to realize that it’s not always the first solution that's going to be the best or the most interesting. You have to do the exercise to get it out there and weed out the pretty good ideas from the awesome ideas.
How can you overcome or prevent getting wedded to an early idea?
When it comes to digital experiences, anthropomorphizing them is a way to find other angles. Let's say you're designing a financial service app, and you know it needs to feel reliable, friendly, and fast.
Early on in the process when you're prototyping, define the boundaries of what that thing should be by exploring the extremes of those qualities. How friendly can we comfortably make this feel? How fast can we comfortably make this feel? How reliable can we comfortably make this feel? Make three prototypes out of those things, and put that character into them.
What would an insanely friendly financial service look like? Let's put it out there and see—maybe we can learn something from that prototype. What would it mean if it were insanely fast? At some point, it might feel too fast because it’s managing your money and that could feel less secure. Once you can start to triangulate those qualities, you get an idea for what's going to feel right.
Why is creativity more important now than ever before?
We're at a place where people have very high expectations for their digital experiences, and they're more exposed to them all the time. Now we're wearing screens on our wrists, and everyone has one in their pocket or on them for hours a day, and we get twitchy when we don't have them. So there’s a high bar for designing great digital experiences, and creativity helps us do that.
The way that I like to think about what we do at IDEO is two part: we're looking to design the right thing, and then we're looking to design the thing right. Creativity is involved in both of those. I think a lot of people think it's just the second part—the final expression, look, and feel of a thing. But creativity in product design is a lot more than putting that final sheen on a product. It helps us get to the first step of determining what deserves to be out in the world in the first place. What is actually going to serve people’s needs and do it in the right way?
Creativity is a great tool for answering that question because it's about seeing something from a new angle and using the process of prototyping to get things out there and refine your ideas.
Learn more about using approachable, low-fidelity prototyping methods to generate and iterate your ideas for digital products and services in our new on-demand online class, Prototyping for Digital Experiences.