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Keynote Interview: Claire Rowland

Claire Rowland, user experience guru, will be a featured keynote speaker at this summer's Desktop Summit 2011 in Berlin.

Claire is Head of Research for Fjord London, an international digital service design agency and has worked extensively in user experience research and design. Recently her focus has been on a shift in user experience from the desktop toward services delivered through multiple platforms of widely differing form factors and the cloud. Her research and recommendations relate to what this shift means for what users expect from their devices, and what effective design, across platforms and the cloud, looks like. It also addresses what users increasingly care about the most, and what this might mean for Operating System design.

Claire Rowland

William Carlson talked with Claire to find out more about her and her work.

"We still need good desktops for all our devices. But the desktop role is changing," says Ms. Claire Rowland ahead of her keynote talk at this summer's Desktop Summit 2011 in Berlin.

As a strong believer that there should be well-designed, open alternatives, Rowland should know. She is Head of Research at Fjord London, an international digital service design agency. She has worked for 13 years in user experience research and design field, with companies such as Flow Interactive, Razorfish, Credit Suisse and the Press Association.

Rowland's keynote is about designing for cross-platform and cloud experiences. "This won't be about detailed device usability, but about what makes a usable service, why that's what users increasingly care about the most."

William: So, what do you research? And what brought you to this field?

Claire: I conduct research (well mostly these days I manage other people conducting research) into how people use digital devices and services. This helps us understand what kind of services (and devices, but mainly services) they need, what they need from them, and how we should design them to make them useful, usable and enjoyable to use. Most of what I focus on these days is services that are delivered across multiple devices: mobiles, tablets, TVs, PCs and increasingly other form factors, some without screens.

I have a doof recruiter and an excellent boss to thank for bringing me into this field. I had a degree in psychology and philosophy, and a Masters in interactive media, with no clear plan on what to do next. A recruiter put me forward for a software developer job requiring 2 years of Unix experience despite me insisting I couldn't do anything more complicated than log in and change my password. Thankfully the manager who saw my CV thought I might be useful for something anyway, and hired me with the remit to figure out what that was. I was quickly drawn to the then nascent field of user experience design and research, and that's where I stayed.

William: What makes a good interface in your opinion?

Claire: Hah, that's a huge question :)

In general, a good interface should be useful, usable and engaging. Useful means it allows users to do the things they care about the most in whatever context that is. Usable means (amongst other things) that it's easy and efficient for the target user group to use it, and that it enables them to feel in control at all times. Engaging means it has appropriate emotional pull. That doesn't mean spurious animations and overly flashy graphics, it means appealing visuals, interaction language and tone of voice as appropriate to support users' goals, not get in the way of them.

Of course, it depends what sort of interface it is. Not all interfaces are GUIs. In different contexts, you might make use of voice, sound, physical controls or tactile feedback instead of or as well as visual elements. The main criteria is that the interface is appropriate to the person using it, the task that they are carrying out, the device they are using, and the context in which they are using it. Imagine a casual music fan using their phone as an MP3 player whilst driving a car, then imagine a music geek at home browsing their collection on a tablet or desktop. The ideal interfaces for those are very different.

William: What is it that inspires you in your work?

Claire: Wondering how people and cultures will change in the future in response to changes in society and technology. I've tried very hard to overcome this, but I have only a limited interest in cutting edge technology for its own sake; I want to know how we can use technology to improve people's lives, make them smarter, happier, healthier and all sorts of other good things. Oh dear, that sounds really worthy, doesn't it... I like to think there's some fun and subversion involved too.

William: Do you have any favorite publications?

Claire: Can I dodge that one for now? :) I have enormous information overload and massive guilt for all the things I'm not reading. Two things I feel guilty about not reading regularly enough are Psyblog (proper psychology made accessible) and Bruce Sterling's blog on Wired. And I dip into ReadWriteWeb for tech and Johnny Holland for UX when I can. Other than that I dart around on Twitter, being easily distracted across lots of sources...

William: What are the top 3 things you're excited about right now?

Claire: Idea-wise, the top one would be the internet of things, if that still counts? ... I'm one of those people who really hoped that the 90s ubicomp dream of calm computing would have happened by now. Finally, we're seeing computing power becoming distributed into a multitude of devices at a mass scale, and those devices becoming connected. We don't yet really know what the human impact of this will be (though on past evidence of new technology, it's unlikely to be calm...), but there are lots of big questions thrown up: our control of our data, designing devices and services that adapt to context, the extent to which digital business models might start being applied to physical objects, and the sheer usability of being able to get everything working.

I'm also really keen to see what role the mobile device takes in this, and what we're going to do with all the data we're able to collect. At the moment, the internet of things has a reputation is a bit of a DIY thing, but there are massive commercial implementations happening too. China is pretty committed to it--the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has been quoted as saying "internet plus internet of things = wisdom of the earth"--and is able to implement systems on a massive scale--just last week, the Chinese announced a smart navigation system by which all major waterways and ships are equipped with sensors.

On a more granular level, in the next year we should see NFC (near field communication) going mass market, and I'm interested in the kinds of mobile interaction and service opportunities that might spin off from that. It will start with payment, but we'll see other types of proximity-enabled services spinning off from this too. NFC is an interesting enabler that will shift the role of the mobile in the minds of the mass market.

William: I think that's all the time we have for now. Thanks a lot Claire. See you in Berlin! You can catch Claire's keynote talk on Sunday, August 7 at 11:20.

If you would like to see leading members of the KDE and GNOME communities speak in person in Berlin, register today (Registration is free)

In addition to Claire, the Desktop Summit will also feature keynote talks by Thomas Thwaite (interview) and Dirk Hohndel (read an interview with him next week).