Six Questions from Kicker: Liz Bacon

In honor of Device Design Day 2011, we’ve partnered with Core 77 to profile our exciting line up of speakers, and ask them our  Six Questions. For our fourth interview of the series, we’ve talked with interaction designer Elizabeth Bacon.

Liz began her career at Cooper, where she got her “post-grad” education in interaction design while working across a variety of domains. She then was a “Human Factors Design Engineer” for over five years in the Cardiac Rhythm Management Division of St. Jude Medical, a Fortune 100 company. She designed multiple products around the clinical systems that handle implanted pacemakers and defibrillators, and formalized a process that blended interaction design methods with traditional human factors engineering approaches. Liz has been running her own design consultancy, Devise, for the past several years. She’s also a Director Emeritus of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). On the personal side, she loves to draw, write poetry and race cars, although not usually at the same time.

She’ll be speaking at D3 about the collaborative design process and considerations in designing medical devices.

1. What is the most cherished product in your life? Why?

My life’s most cherished product is a 3,018 pound one: my 2006 Porsche Cayman S. This beautiful Arctic Silver Metallic piece of design & engineering magnificence brings me more joy than anything else in my life that doesn’t have a beating heart. At times, I sometimes imagine that she really does have a heart, and once she became mine (about a year ago now) I quickly gave her a name, Cherie. I’ve always loved driving for the simultaneous involvement and release of the experience, but only started practicing the competitive performance driving sport of autocross about 7 years ago. I had made a vow to myself when I was 9 years old that I would drive a Porsche some day, so Cherie’s arrival into my life was truly the fulfillment of a life-long dream. I started going to the race track with her in 2010 for non-competitive driving events, where the increased speeds added a new level of development to my already intense focus on improving my car handling skills. When the tach needle is pushing into the red at 120+ miles per hour in the back straight at Portland International Raceway and I’m approaching the zone for hard braking & heel-and-toe downshifting coming in a few seconds, I’m wholly existing in a flow state where few memories are formed but I feel completely in touch with every atom of the car sliding through space…that is a cherished feeling unlike any other in my life.

2. What’s the one product you wish you’d designed, and why?

I wish I’d designed the Livescribe Pulse smartpen. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a pen with a built-in microphone & speaker that also has a camera in its tip; when used with specially-coded paper it allows for the synchronization of your written marks and recorded audio so that it can play back the sound associated in time with your written marks. All that data is synced to your computer, becoming a text-string searchable record of written notes, plus the sessions can be shared with other people either privately or publicly.

The out-of-box experience of this tool was a sheer delight. The onboarding process resulted, at one point, in this almost psychedelic little video playing across the small LED panel that’s on the side of the pen. It’s a pure genius product. It also has some amazing little features. For example, if you draw a set of nine lines and then box them in, the pen recognizes the shape as a piano keyboard and you can tap the rectangles to play notes on it.

However, I also wish that I’d designed this product because I would have done some things differently. The first-gen model that I have is completely round, and it’s fallen off tables more often than I can count. (At least it has kept on ticking!) And the desktop software is overly modal and hard to navigate and the sharing features feel like they were shoe-horned in at the last minute. So in essence, it’s a brilliant tool that could have been designed just that much better for pure user experience delight.

3. What excites you about being a designer? Why do you keep doing it?

I love working at the intersection of human and technology concerns that are the territory of an interaction design practitioner. Being able to meet and trying to understand people from all walks of life (whether they’re a nurse, cable technician, or low-income single mother who wants her kindergartener to head to college) is a thrill and motivates me to do my best work. Interaction design is not the place for a hungry ego: we don’t design for ourselves (almost never, at least) but rather the target users of the product or service at hand. And we rarely get any recognition for the depth and breadth of our efforts, so that really can’t be a strong motivating factor in this field.

Then, solving wicked problems is where I get the bulk of my designer jollies. When I’m in the middle of a conceptual design phase and the issues that need to be addressed only seem to multiply the more I study the matter, my subconscious gets involved to the point where I might have dreams that I’m a digital object moving through fields of data. The flow states and mental breakthroughs in this working space provide me with a kind of rush that helps keep me motivated and coming back for more.

4. When do you first remember thinking of yourself as a designer?

All my childhood, I loved tinker toys, Capsela sets, legos and problem-solving type of activities. But I had no clue there was a professional path as a designer beckoning. When I was a junior at Stanford University, I studied literature at the Nouvelle Sorbonne in Paris and got involved with a sculptor with whom I invented a novel triangular binder system for which we received a French Design Patent. But I still didn’t realize I was a designer! It wasn’t until a couple years after college that I was considering pursuing a PhD in philosophy or going to art school that the lightning bolt struck me: I could unite my analytical & creative sides in the practice of design.

This major epiphany was when I fully embraced my destiny as a designer, although I didn’t know what field I wanted to specialize in. It would be another 18 months before the field of interaction design materialized on my horizon when I got a call from a recruiter about this firm called Cooper Interaction Design. And then I drank the kool-aid, and thus verily it was writ….

5. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned, and who taught it to you?

This one’s a deep question and at this moment in time I’m not inclined to make it totally designer-centric. What comes to mind for me is that only you can make yourself happy. And I’ve only learned this lesson after repeated encounters with the thought; it’s been presented to me by people I’ve encountered all through my life: From my amazing 5th grade teacher in Beijing, China, Mr. Ogilvy to my first boyfriend back in high school, my excellent boss at St. Jude Medical who couldn’t protect the group from a really bad reorg to the Buddhist meditator Tara Brach who wrote Radical Acceptance.

It’s a lesson I suppose is applicable to designers because all too often we don’t practice our craft in the ultimate, ideal work situation that’s going to deliver a smooth and unblemished path towards the perfect product release. Projects are cross-disciplinary, many decisions are compromises and we need to evangelize and advocate for our efforts at many steps along the way. Our validation cannot be expected to come from outside. Happiness is only achievable through an inner strength and equilibrium that can manifest joy in the face of whatever obstacles may present themselves. As a friend put it to me recently with credit to his grandmother: “You need to turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones.”

6. What are 5 things all designers should know?

My vision of what unites the fields of user experience design and the practices of all the fields that lie under this rubric are that they’re arranged around a spectrum of three key skills: understanding, definition and communication. All designers need strong abilities to understand the world, truly getting their heads around people and technology and domains and constraints. All designers need strong abilities to define solutions, whether that involves creating models, scenarios, frameworks, hierarchies, architectures or all of the above. All designers need strong abilities to communicate their understandings and solutions, involving visual and written artifacts as well as spoken exchanges, from in-person dialogs all the way to public speaking & presenting.

Beyond these three core skills, all designers should have empathy for their fellow humans. Sure, you can be a crank or misanthrope in your heart of hearts but when it comes time to practice your craft, you have to care about other people. Finally, all designers should know how to refill their internal well of creativity with activities that sustain the mind, body and soul—whether that’s racing cars, cooking, running, reading to your children or what-have-you.

Don’t miss Liz’s presentation Extraordinary Design Considerations for Medical Devices at Device Design Day,  August 5th in San Francisco.