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Designing for Interaction

I recently accompanied my husband to our local hospital emergency room. When the situation had been stabilized, we were left to wait for the doctor in a small room with a bed, a chair and medical machines. He was laying on the bed and was I sitting beside him. I quickly found myself noticing that the room was perfectly equipped for the medics, but ill equipped for patients that had to endure literally hours of waiting with absolutely nothing to do but worry and ponder about the uncertain future. The room had beeping machines, blank white walls, grey smooth ceilings, and frosted glass doors. I looked up at the ceiling and wondered out loud why hospitals don’t typically design rooms, especially in ER, to include something to look at that is distracting or entertaining, to ease the stress of patients and their loved ones while they wait.

That discussion stayed with me and I thought of how as a child I would stare at the textures on the ceiling above my bed, looking for faces or animals, like one does with cloud formations. What if the ceiling in hospitals had such textures instead of the plain white square panels? What if actual images were debossed onto the panels creating visual stories that might capture your imagination? These solutions are subdued and do not create a big distraction, only a subtle one for those that are there long enough to notice it. Why not add a touch of soft color on some of the walls to improve the feeling of the space—an important factor to consider when thinking about what people are experiencing in the ER room. It is highly stressful to be admitted to the ER and extremely boring to have to wait for hours. Thinking about the design of the space from the patient’s perspective, and not just from a technical perspective (in this case, what the medics need in the room to save your life), is at the heart of human-centered design. IDEO, a California design agency, says it best:

Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem solving. One that starts with people and ends with innovative solutions tailored to meet their needs. When you understand the people you are trying to reach and then design from their perspective, not only will you arrive at unexpected answers, but you’ll come up with ideas that they’ll embrace.
IDEO’s Approach

There are many ways in which human-centered designers influence the world we live in—the processes, objects and spaces that affect our daily lives. In my job as Designer and Creative Lead at the World Economic Forum, I think about the spaces that participants interact in at our events, and how these spaces can be designed to improve participant experience, enhance their learning and increase their interaction. Our events consist of session rooms as well as networking areas, lounges, meeting rooms and exhibitions. When we design for these spaces we not only think about the needs for the physical space in terms of interaction objective (passive learning, working groups, in-depth discussions, discovery of cutting-edge research, mingling opportunities, bilateral discussions, etc) but also in terms of the participant journey—what individuals are experiencing as they navigate the congress center throughout the duration of the event. We begin by ensuring that the basic needs are met: easy access to food and water, comfortable temperatures, clear signage to help with orientation, smooth passage regardless of crowds, staff in key areas to help answer questions. To best anticipate what we need to put into place, we imagine ourselves to be in the participants’ shoes. What does it feel like? What does it look like? What does it sound like? How can we improve the experience?

When it comes to spacial design of session rooms or exhibitions, where we want to enhance interaction and learning, we apply design thinking to ensure that we have arrived at the best design solution for the identified outcome. There are different variations for how design thinking can be applied, but at it’s core there are 4 main steps: understand the problem from the perspective of the user, generate ideas, build and test prototypes, validate and implement design. The design thinking process is not finite, it is ongoing because there are always opportunities to improve on a design solution. If it is not working, start again and improve.

If it is not working, start again and improve.

At our global events, we have a session format called “IdeasLab” which involves 4 speakers who present an idea for 5 minutes each and then the room breaks out into discussion groups. For years we designed the room to have chairs on wheels so that the breakouts could be easily formed, and we had large whiteboards on wheels that could be used to capture insights, and also to help divide the room. The room was primarily blue, grey and white, our corporate colors. By reviewing data, we began to notice that people were not staying for the duration of the session. They would leave after the presentations and miss the breakouts—a key part of the session, so we decided to start from scratch by working through the design thinking process. The result was a complete redesign of the room and changes in the session format. Instead of chairs and white boards on wheels required for creating breakout groups, we introduced high tables with stools and different colored note cards on each table. The groups were already formed from the beginning of the session, thereby making a smooth transition when it came to discussion. Sitting around a table facing each other also allowed for participants to connect in ways that were not possible previously when they were sitting next to each other in rows. We also introduced colors and textures to create a more welcoming and pleasant environment. The result was immediate: a higher percentage of participants stayed for the duration of the session and also looked like they were enjoying themselves.

At our events, interaction is at the heart of how we design. In addition to designing rooms and spaces, we also curate exhibitions with invited artists, scientists and technologists. The objective is not only to showcase something thought-provoking, but also to encourage participants to engage in ways that they normally do not get a chance to in session rooms, meetings or lounges. With exhibitions, we create spaces for one-on-one learning and small-group interaction—opportunities for surprise and spontaneity. The design of these spaces takes into account the needs of the exhibitor, but also our objective of expanding participant’s minds by helping them think outside the box. If you don’t have an interaction of ideas you can’t create impact, and without impact, you can’t influence change.

We want to enable people to feel comfortable, nudging them to be more open to being taken somewhere, to new experiences, to changing their perspective on something or learning something unexpected. We want to influence change. To achieve that, getting the spatial design right is essential and it is all about being clear about interaction objectives, being familiar with human behavior and applying design thinking.

Additional reading

Design Thinking
Design Thinking 101 (Nielsen Norman Group)
Design Thinking Comes of Age (Harvard Business Review)

Human-Centered Design
What is Human-Centered Design? (IDEO’s Design Kit)
Why Human-Centered Design Matters (Wired)

Spatial Design
Collection of Spatial Design Images

Experience Design
Experience Design: When Innovation Isn’t Enough (Wired)

Behavioral Science and Design
The New Science of Designing for Humans (Stanford Social Innovation Review)

Creative Leadership
Creative Leadership articles (THNK)


Mara Sandoval

Mara Sandoval is a designer and creative lead at the World Economic Forum, an International Organisation for Public-Private Cooperation based in Geneva, Switzerland. She has a degree in social and cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley as well as a degree in graphic design and packaging from Art Center College of Design. She is a firm believer that design thinking is a state of mind and that understanding human behavior is key to improving user experience.