The Human Interface (or: Products are People, Too!)

Session Title

The Human Interface (or: Products are People, Too!)


Christopher Fahey, Behavior Design

Session Type: Presentation

In the half-century since the first transistor was invented we’ve seen radical changes in how humans interact with computers and digital systems: We’ve gone from punch cards to text commands, from mouse pointers to touchscreen gestures, from menus to voice recognition.

What all of these user experience innovations have in common is an inexorable movement towards interfaces that behave more and more like the way real humans have interacted with one another for millenia.

Our interactions with systems increasingly feel like interactions with real people because our systems are increasingly designed to sound, look, and behave just like humans do. We’re interacting with web sites and software on a conversational, physical, and emotional level. In a way, our interfaces are actually becoming more human.

We can no longer ask users to think like machines just to be able to use software. Instead, our systems must act more like people. User experience designers, in turn, need to stop thinking about interfaces as dumb control panels for manipulating machines and data and start thinking about them (in many ways literally!) as human beings.

This talk will explore diverse areas of non-digital human experience – including language and theater, neurology and sociology – in order to frame and showcase some of the most exciting current and emerging user experience design practices, both on the web and in other media such as video games and the arts. The objective is quite simply to inspire designers to humanize their interfaces. This new way of understanding user experience design crosses many disciplines, from branding and content strategy (your product’s voice and personality) to interaction design and information architecture (your product’s behavior and motivations), and has many practical applications at every point in current and future design scenarios.

More importantly, this kind of thinking can be framed as part of a longer term trend in interaction design generally: Looking even further ahead – but probably sooner than many of us might imagine – future UX designers will almost certainly be moving from designing screens to designing actual personalities, for example artificial intelligences, virtual characters, and even human-like androids. We’ll peek a little further out and look at what the next generation of human interfaces will be and discuss what skills future interaction designers will need to have.”


Christopher Fahey is a founding partner and user experience director at Behavior, an award-winning New York web design consultancy focused on building compelling and elegant user experiences for business and culture.

At Behavior, Chris has led the IA and UXD strategies for clients and projects in many industries, including BusinessWeek, The National Geographic Channel, UNICEF, HBO, The Smithsonian Institution, McGraw-Hill, JPMorgan Chase, XM Satellite Radio, AARP, the AIGA, and The Onion. In his 14+ years as a professional interaction designer and manager, Chris’s projects have covered everything from business- critical web applications to sci-fi adventure games and artificial intelligence chatbots.

Chris is an active speaker on user experience design, with recent events including SXSW, An Event Apart, the ASIS&T IA Summit, Euro IA, The Society for Technical Communications Summit, and the O’Reilly Web 2.0 Expo NYC.

He will teach at the School of Visual Arts’ new interaction design MFA program in 2009, and has also taught at FIT, Brooklyn College, and the City College of New York. His internet artwork has been featured in the Whitney and the New Museum. Chris also blogs about design, technology, culture, and whatever else he’s interested in at


  1. Posted September 15, 2009 at 1:58 am

    Hmm – on first read I’m not 100% sure I agree with how absolute this position is. Certainly, the lines between narrative/character design and interaction design will blur, and there are skills all interaction designers will need in that realm – but I’m uneasy about how far one could go in making an argument like this. That said, that only makes me want to hear this talk more. :)

  2. Posted September 17, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Rest assured that this is not an absolute position: While I do predict that a century from now three user interface design paradigms will dominate (AI, cybernetics, and agents), the real interesting terrain is what comes in between now and then, i.e., in the very near future: How will AI design gradually begin to fall into the interaction designer’s domain? How will understanding human body language become essential to making natural gestural and eventual cybernetic interfaces? How does copywriting’s “voice” make a product more compatible with a user? The theory that interfaces have personalities and that machines are people is, for now, a metaphorical framework, but one that is already relevant to a great deal of practical interaction design challenges.

  3. Posted September 22, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    I wouldn’t miss this for anything.

  4. Posted September 25, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    The degree of thought and care that Chris has put into his proposal is a clear indication of the depth of his forward thinking.

    Too many of us think of interaction design as restricted to the digital realm. The proposed talk shows that interaction design is all around us in multiple spheres and is about the human experience, not the electronic one.

    The risk we often run into at industry conferences is developing tunnel vision and echoing one another. Chris’s approach – to look beyond the digital and beyond our own field to learn from others – is essential if we are to grow, learn and innovate (yes, I wrote “innovate”).

    The premise of products as people is a compelling metaphor. I am certain that Chris has a few surprises for us that will not only shift our thinking but also inspire us to achieve the goal of creating the great experiences that we all desire.


  5. Bob Baxley
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Hey Chris — it sounds like a great talk but given that your asking for input, one thing that might be worth considering is the relative efficacy of humans as interaction devices. In other words, if we were going to design machines to help us better understand and explore, is the human to human interface necessarily the most useful?

    When you consider the amount of confusion and ambiguity that tends to accompany human communication, I’m not at all convinced that “people” are that compelling of an interface — so to speak.

    I think history would show that humans and their tools have co-evolved to form sympathetic relationships that support them both. For example, the automobile and the camera are both tools so powerful, useful, and compelling that we have literally altered ourselves and our physical world to fit their needs as much as we’ve changed them to fit ours.

    I read your premise as stating that we should look to the real world object of “the human” as a sort of foundational model for human/computer interaction but again, I wonder if there’s more of a middle path where we adapt both our behavior and that of the machine in order to arrive at a unique and modern interactive experience.

  6. Posted September 27, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Looks like there are some parallels between your talk and some of Don Norman’s thinking around Sociable Design: Probably worth reviewing/referencing if you haven’t already.

  7. Posted September 28, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Chris, this is fascinating! I hope I get a chance to see/hear it.

    Just one bit of feedback – try sharpening up the main point and leading with that. (I thought “The objective is quite simply to inspire designers to humanize their interfaces.” felt like a contender — but then needs to get concrete, as you do in some of the paragraphs).

    Forward-thinking, less-settled concepts are always harder to get into descriptions like this, no doubt.

  8. Posted October 1, 2009 at 6:19 am

    @Bob: Really excellent points. In fact, we are already frequently adapting our behaviors to the way computers work instead of the other way around (witness the quasi-lingual way we structure Google queries, or the stunted way we speak when we know a machine is listening). Your thoughts tell me that this is not (at least not always) an issue of making interfaces that are more like humans, but making interfaces that best use the limitations our biological interfaces permit us to have. My contention, still, however, is that a lot of the time the best interface will very much resemble another human. Or at least it should — I would hate to have to meet the machines halfway, and end up in a world where we converse with both machines and other humans in the same lowest common denominator language, in a robotic, rigid, de-cultured kind of “newspeak” — instead of insisting that the machines learn to understand how *we* talk and how *we* want to listen.

    @Joshua: Thanks for the referral, that one is new to me. Norman has been dancing around these ideas for a *long* time.

    @Andrew: Thanks, that’s a really good idea. I’ll think about a better lead-in. Hmmm…