Interaction Design, MetroCard Art: Q&A With Nina Boesch

Rani Molla
Written 2 years ago
in Storytelling

Nina Boesch was designing and writing what looked like code before she got her first computer — and she was the first kid in her class in Bremen, Germany, to have one.

These days, the 33-year-old has her sights on much more complex design aided by much more complex technology. Specializing in interaction design, Boesch essentially makes digital devices play well with humans. Her work goes a long way into making websites more engaging and to make offline computer projects appear ripe for Web 5.0.

When she is not using a computer, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate collects Metro cards from the floors of New York City subways for collages whose materials are intrinsically tied to their subject matter.

Boesch has received numerous awards for her work, including distinctions by the Art Directors Club, AIGA and Adobe. She is currently a senior interaction designer at New York’s Ralph Appelbaum Associates. We talked with Boesch about the the present and future of interaction design.

What are the tenets of good interaction design?
I believe that good interaction design is reflected in an intuitive, easy-to-understand user experience that leaves no room for confusion. The more self-explanatory an experience is, the more successful the interaction design is.

Are there any current trends in interaction design that you particularly like or dislike?
Like: Like most people, I am a big fan of the Apple interface. They just get it right. Sure, there are some occasional hiccups as with the recent launch of the maps app, but in general the iOS is pure genius.

Dislike: I cannot get used to QR codes as an interface. They are the opposite of instant gratification, as they are certainly not instant and hardly ever gratifying. If I need not only a camera and a third-party app but also a steady hand and good lighting conditions, then the application has simply failed. It’s like the Word paperclip, fun and cute when you first see it but the second time around you just want it to go away.

Do you have a favorite or go-to technology?
Every project is so unique in its application that it’s hard to have a go-to technology. I like reliable touchscreens, iPhones and tablets and I like to stay away from interactive IR projections and touch foils, but that’s about it. Of course it’s hardly ever realistic to limit yourself to touchscreens. For example, Ralph Appelbaum Associates recently opened a museum in Moscow (The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center), which includes an interactive star-shaped table with a diameter of about 15 feet. Obviously, there are no giant star-shaped touch-screens, so we used touch-foils to enable user interaction.
 

Your designs frequently bring online solutions to bear the real world. For example, your interactive model of lower Manhattan uses lights to highlight different sections of a 3-D model of lower Manhattan; the Digital Cheder book made an ancient text interactive. If you could make one thing in real life more like online, what would it be?

Shortcuts to our human operating system. Imagine, we could use Command+Z to undo real-life actions. Or Command+delete to get rid of a bad memory or event in your life. And if you are looking for your keys or wallet, Command+F will find it for you. I could go on and on about this, but I think you get the idea.

As far as going the other way, do you feel there’s a place anymore for skeuomorphism (the practice of using real-world ideas and elements in digital interfaces)?

I have never been a big fan of skeuomorphism in everyday digital applications, like the compasses, clock or bookshelves on smartphones and tablets. These apps are cute for kids to learn the different apps and what they represent in real life, but otherwise they are a little tacky.

I do think though, that there is a place for skeuomorphism in digital application, especially for cultural institutions. For example, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, we included a gallery that allows visitors to browse through a digital Torah. Just like in real life, our Torah had an old paper texture, consisted of one long scroll and it was only to be interacted with via a yad – not with fingers.

Do you have any favorite pieces of interactive design/favorite interactive designers?
I get excited about interactive infographics. There is just something appealing about graphics that take time and engagement to understand. To me, nicely designed infographics are artworks – they may provide the most banal content, but I still enjoy looking at them. (I don’t have a single designer or a single application that I can consider my absolute favorite. I can fall in love with a student’s work and I may be bored to death by an interactive NYTimes infographic… even though they are usually great.)

Women still make up a small percentage of coders/interaction designers. Why?
It’s true, every single programmer I work with or have ever worked with is male. But why? I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter much to me whether I work with men or women. It seems like in the creative world – and I consider programmers creatives – the respect and acceptance is not based on gender but on people skills, one’s sense for design and the ability to communicate.

While at Pentagram (2006-2009), I worked under Lisa Strausfeld, who is an amazing strategist and an infographics rockstar. She even won the prestigious National Design Award in 2010. Maybe it’s her influence in my career which made me not care too much about the imbalance of women and men in the field. Women may be the minority, but their impact is just as great.

Q: Your MetroCard Collages are such a divergence from your other work. How does your analog/physical work fit in with your digital work?

My collages made from cut-up used and expired MetroCards are my escape from the digital world. I used to do a lot of freelance website work on the side, but I realized that even though I like pushing pixels on a screen, I like it better to not do that in my spare time.

I may not look like it, but I’ve always had an artsy side. From painting and pottery to book making and letterpress printing, I’ve done everything that allows me to be creative without the need for a computer screen.

In a way, my collages are still pixel-based, since I am using mostly square pieces of cut up MetroCards. The effect is the same: When you view my collages up close you can see the individual MetroCard pieces/the pixels, but from far away, you see the overall image, not the individual pieces. A major difference between my digital work and my collages is of course the fact that I can set my own rules in my collages – my physical MetroCard pieces don’t need to follow a horizontal/vertical grid, and I can make them whatever size I want. I think it’s this freedom in the analog arts, that makes me enjoy it so much.

What does the future hold for interaction design?
It’s impossible to speculate what future interfaces will look like, because we don’t know what kind of technology we will have in let’s say 10 years from now. Personally I am a big believer in transparent screens. There have been some prototypes but they are not 100% convincing yet. But yes, I’m sure if I should re-read this comment in a few years I may laugh about the fact that back then in 2012, we didn’t have transparent screens.

I think we will soon laugh about computer screens that have a 72 dpi resolution. And the fact that we currently have to wait a few seconds for a program or app to open will be a problem of the past very soon. Mobile devices will replace desktop computers, they will get lighter and their batteries will last weeks instead of hours. All of these technological improvements will direct the interaction design. We will no longer have to worry if a program will load fast enough just because we decided to use a 3D structure as navigation. We will have to make less and less compromises in the design and performance of an application, because we will no longer be limited by technology.

Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.