Helsingfors Series XV: 7 questions to an IxDer

Roope Rainisto is a Senior UI design specialist working at Nokia Finland. He is one of the key interaction designers behind the UI concepts of the Maemo 5 UI, used in Nokia N900.

Terve Roope!

Juan Leal (J.L.)
Please, give us a short description about yourself.

Roope Rainisto (R.R.)
I was born in Lahti, Finland, and moved to Helsinki in 1998 to start my studies at Helsinki University of technology. I studied at the Information Networks degree programme, majoring in Human centered information systems, while really having a quite multi-disciplinary approach to studies at the same time. I finally graduated in 2007. Nowadays most of my time gets split between work, composing and playing music, photography and whatever else I might want to try my hands on. I’m great at starting new hobby projects, and not so good at finishing them.

When did you start working as an IxD?

I got my first job in 1998 as a web designer. Saying exactly when the page layout / web design work turned into an understanding of interaction design is a bit tricky; perhaps sometimes around 2000-2001. At that time I distinctly remember growing uneasy with doing “web site design” in so far as doing the graphical layouts to an information architecture that just got handed down to me.

The graphics and the layout are of course very important as a part of the overall experience, but in the worst case it is like Barack Obama quoted: Putting lipstick on a pig. I’ve always been very much interested in psychology, the cognitive skills and mental models that humans have and exhibit. People are willing to use visually ugly services if they either have good interaction and user flows, or they give compelling benefits for the users: basically if no better solutions are available.

We know what are the good things about this job but, what´s the worst thing about what you do?

Perhaps I’m bit of a pragmatist, but I don’t personally mind all the “extra IxD tasks” that I have to do, be them the endless discussions or review meetings or airings of grievances that anybody might have. The user experience is usually strong as its weakest link. I’m not a fan of any designer being in an ivory tower, drawing “the perfect user experience” in isolation and then not worrying about the problems and pragmatic issues of getting the experience implemented and realized.

I think much of the real talent of an Ix Designer comes from his skills of being able to persuade and rationalize and explain the design solutions, to find out the best possible compromises within the available time, capabilities and resources. Just as much as you cannot draw the perfect car or airplane on a piece of paper and then complain if people are unable to deliver vision, you shouldn’t settle on working on a design without a chance of this design turning into something real. Naturally all of this takes much time from “the real work” that we are supposed to do. Real work naturally makes me the happiest, but it is like the cake part of the work: eating cake every day would just make you sick and disconnected from the real world.

Then again, to try to answer the original question: the worst things are usually related to politics and decisions made by people who do not have the knowledge or competencies to make such decisions. Democracy, power distribution and managerial hierarchy are deadly towards delivering focused and powerful user experiences.

Regarding your profession, what are the main differences about what you do here in Finland and the rest of Europe?

This particular question might be a bit hard for me to answer, seeing that my work experience is limited to working in Finland. I guess my past years within Nokia can count for “the rest of the world” experience.

Finnish companies are a lot of affected by the culture of working and leadership within Finland: things tend to be fairly democratic, individualistic and non-bureaucratic. Naturally there are weaknesses also with a homogenic culture, but it tends quite often to utilize resources effectively and to find fairly good solutions in a cost-effective manner. Then again, Finnish companies have a really hard time “scaling up”, going international and delivering global solutions. For IxD it is hard to find examples of Finnish companies that would really utilize user centric design processes in a holistic manner… But then again, things have certainly improved a lot in 10 years.

Processes are a mixed blessing: they decrease innovation, but they allow scaling up. Many international companies have a far longer experience in doing products for consumers, with consumers, in an organized and systematic manner.

How do you see the future of this profession?

It is a good question. There will always be the need for somebody to do the detailed work for all areas of a product, be it graphics, interaction flows, software, possibly hardware design etc. For me personally I think the role of an Ix Designer should branch out, go horizontal: calling it the User Experience Designer would in many terms be better than calling it the Interaction Designer.

For a large product there are many experts in their own fields working for the product. The risk that the sum of the parts of the product does not add up is very high. It is very easy to do designs that would work great in their own context, but when adding them all up to a product they do not form a cohesive whole. There is always more than one good solution to any problem. The way to achieve cohesion is to work within all the parties, from the start to the finish, trying to make sure that the sum of the solutions adds up.

It is very easy for an expert in an individual area to stop seeing the forest from his/her trees, to focus too much on an individual detail while not realizing the value or the risk that the solution creates. It is also very easy for an organization to create a role for “user experience manager” and have that person far too much outside the actual design work to play a meaningful role in actually making sure that user experience is not the first item that can be compromised.

Additionally, it is very hard to be responsible for delivering a great user experience without the power to make decisions, especially without the power to say no to something. Saying no is much harder and far more important than saying yes. It is better to do a few things very well than trying to do a little bit of everything.

Tell us about a colleague that did have an impact on you.

There are many colleagues, but I’ll pick a few of the chief UI designers from Nokia I’ve had the opportunity to work with: Martin Schuele and Panu Korhonen. Although they have somewhat differences personalities, they both exhibit much of the same skills in being able to see the big picture, to make tough decisions and explain their decisions in an understandable manner. It takes a special set of skills in being able to lead UX design successfully, especially inside as hectic a company like Nokia.

Oh, and I have to mention Lauri Svan. You want answers and solutions? You’ll get answers and solutions.

What’s your most valuable reading on your profession?

I guess I should quote the standard answers of Nielsen/Norman/Reimann/Cooper, but I imagine most people having already read these books. I would say the better answer is: read the web, read the blogs, read and hear what people are talking about. Observe users, especially lead users. Arrange usability tests for your solutions, go and observe them. Try to let go of your designer ego, try to prove yourself wrong before anybody else gets the chance to do so. Try to think about how you see people using their devices right now. Know the solutions that are already out there, study competitor solutions and know the design patterns that are being utilized right now.

Innovation and creativity from my perspective is much more about utilizing known patterns and methods in new ways and combinations instead of coming up with something completely different. The word “intuitive” really often means the same as “previously known”. People are not blank tabula rasa for you to impose your designs on; they already have a wide array of knowledge and previously learned mental patterns. If you do not know what the users already know of, if you do not know what tends to work and what does not, then you’re in many ways working in the dark.

Don’t break the rules before you know them. When you know them, and you understand why those are the common set of rules, please then try to break them in order to make them better.