Q&A: Heather Corcoran on health, wellness and interaction design

"Human behavior is the starting point"

There is programming capacity, and then there are the ways people process information. As anyone still convalescing from a software update might tell you, these are not necessarily the same things.

Stepping into the breach is “interaction design,” an emerging field that emphasizes the importance of user experience in new products, systems, environments and services. This fall, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts will host “Designing for Interaction,” a series of hands-on, for-credit workshops open to all WUSTL students and featuring guest lecturers from around the country.

We sat down to discuss interaction design with Heather Corcoran, associate professor of communication design. She coordinates the series with Enrique Von Rohr, senior lecturer in communication design and director of research and technology for the Sam Fox School.


Interaction design is still something of an emerging discipline. Can you describe the concept?

Well, at this point I think it’s pretty clearly emerged! [Laughs.] Basically, interaction design takes human behavior as the starting point. How do people really live? How can we make their experiences better? It’s working in a user-centered way.

As opposed to focusing on particular objects or capabilities one might wish to create.

That’s right. It does not start with the artifact, but with the challenge or struggle you’re looking to solve. So in a hospital setting, the end result might be a new app or digital tool, but it also might be a poster, or redesigning the nurses’ station, or instituting a new procedure or behavior.

I’m thinking of The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, the physician and writer for The New Yorker

I have that book on my desk right now!

Gawande proposes a startlingly simple tactic for reducing surgeon error. In your estimation, would something as low-tech as Gawande’s checklist count as interaction design?

Absolutely. Graphic designers and programmers obviously have roles to play in the conversation — as do people in architecture, psychology, or the digital humanities — but it all depends on the need. Interaction design isn’t about the product; it’s about anticipating human behaviors and rethinking the ways we approach problems.

That said, from an educational standpoint, I still believe there is real value in focusing on particular skills and capacities. A lot of learning happens when students are responsible for making something.

The theme for the fall workshops is health and wellness. Why did you choose that?

Well, partly because the health-care industry is undergoing huge changes right now, and partly because I think there are lots of issues within it that interaction design can help address. And of course, health and medicine are real strengths at Washington University. Lots of people on campus are already working on these issues.

How do you organize the workshops? Should participants arrive with a sense of the problems they’d like to tackle?

No, not necessarily. The first four weeks are very exercise-based. Students will learn general strategies for gathering information and exploring new ideas. We’ll then spend a few weeks looking at health care before choosing specific problems to work on.

How do you overcome the intimidation factor for, let’s say, a designer who wants to create an iPhone app but lacks programming experience — or conversely, for a programmer with no design background?

For the past two years, I’ve led a group of seniors who have done some work on exactly this problem, which we’ll be presenting at a conference later this fall. We’ve all had that fifth-grade experience in which one person gets stuck doing most of the work. Those dynamics continue to exist in adult life.

So, structuring how teams are formed is critical. You have to know the students and their diverse skills well enough to be able to determine who should be working with whom.

So, in establishing the working groups, there will be a certain level of matchmaking.

Yes. I think creating environments in which people can productively collaborate is an important part of the learning experience.

“Designing for Interaction” begins Friday, Aug. 30, with guest lecturer Erica Kochi, co-founder of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit and one of Time magazine’s 100 “World’s Most Influential People.”

Subsequent facilitators will include Maggie Breslin, founder of Smaller Sanities Design & Research in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Gaby Brink, founder of Tomorrow Partners in Berkeley, Calif.; and Doug Powell, a WUSTL alumnus and past national president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, who recently joined IBM as design studio lead and educator.

For more information, visit the Sam Fox School website.

MyCycle, an interaction design project created in 2012 by WUSTL students Don McCurdy, Kyle Newton, Sarah Rubin and Amanda Zuckerman.