Reread the classics, what is IxD, UX, and HCI? A designer’s perspective

Recently I reread some classic books about Interaction design, User experience, and Human-computer Interaction.

After four years’ undergraduate study in Information Design, I want to take a step backward and re-understand my major.

First I reviewed my major courses:

My major courses in Information Design

Some courses are unlisted because they did not have much impact on my professional study. We can see that in an art academy a student majored in Information design would take courses most about design practice. I took some online programming courses to compensate my technical background knowledge.


What is Interaction design?

In the first chapter of Interaction Design — Beyond Human Computer Interaction, it means:

Designing interactive products to support the way people communicate and interact in their everyday working lives.

According to, Interaction Design (IxD)

defines the structure and behavior of interactive systems. Interaction Designers strive to create meaningful relationships between people and the products and services that they use, from computers to mobile devices to appliances and beyond.

The two definitions are similar, IxD focuses on interactivity and user behavior. Design should concern not only whether users can understand the product, but their responses and how the product react on the basis of users’ behavior.

What is User experience design (UX)?

The definition on Wiki: User experience design (UX, UXD, UED or XD) is the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product.

If IxD depends on designers’ design thinking and creativity, UX is more objective, and it always requires designers to keep users in mind. The final target is not to design a fancy product but a product that can generate positive emotions through product interactions.

What is Human-computer interaction (HCI)?

According to ACM’s definition, HCI is a discipline that concerned with design, evaluation, and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them. It researches the design and use of computer of technology, focusing on the interface between user and computer. Researchers observe both the way in which human interact with computers and design technology that human interact in a novel way.

Compared with IxD and UX, HCI is more an academic field that separates from Computer Science. However, in my opinion, the machine side (Computer graphic, Operating system, Programming language) and the human side (Communication theory, Industrial design, Social science, Cognitive psychology, Human factors) should be equally important. Because HCI itself is comprised of some part of various disciplines, rather than a discipline such as CS as a dominant part.

To me, it should have three parts: Human, Computer, and Interaction.

Human, Computer and Interaction

IxD and other disciplines

Recently a lot of designers in other fields, industrial design, graphic design, architecture change their career to IxD. I think it is quite reasonable because of the huge demand for employment.

Industrial design versus IxD?

In traditional Industrial design, designers focus on the design of static form instead of interactivity, such as a cup, a kettle, or a chair. The traditional discipline does not have a language with which to discuss the design of rich, dynamic behavior and changing user interfaces. Chairs would not respond to people’s behavior unless it breaks when someone sits on it.

Now lots of Industrial designers have attempted to design digital products, such as a laptop, smart phones, Bluetooth earphones, etc. As the intelligence of devices grows, the interaction between users and devices would be increasingly complicated. For example, an automobile designer joined a multidisciplinary team working on self-driving vehicles. He needs to study users’ behaviors in cars when talking to intelligent systems or switching to manual override. I think he can be considered as Interaction designer.

There are five dimensions in IxD: Text, Visual presentation, Physical object or spaces, Time, Behavior. (What is Interaction Design?)

Image from Interaction Design Foundation

IxD is more than interactions on a 2D screen but in a physical world. Interaction can happen with physical objects, sounds, gesture, body movement, even eye contact.

And IxD is such a broad area that concerned with a huge number of disciplines, practices, and approaches. As the picture below shows:

Image from Human Computer Interaction — brief intro

It provides some insights for people in other fields who want to change their career: audio engineer, developer, psychologist, cognitive scientist. To be honest, as well as you have basic knowledge in CS, Human factor or Design, and you have passion in digital staff, you can learn and become an interaction designer.

One reason that IxD attracts is that I can meet people from variant background and work in a multidisciplinary team, which would always give me inspiration.

Is IxD the same with UX?

In many companies, UX designers have overlapping working process with interaction designer due to the organization of an organization. If we jump out of the box, we can find they still have something different.

Designers’ output

In industry, the process of product design is similar: Research → Analysis → Design → Develop → Test → Iterate.

As far as I know, interaction designers would focus on design work, or create the prototype. UX designers do more on research and analysis.

I have worked as an Interaction designer in a start-up team. My job included producing interaction flow, making prototype, and UI design. Later I joined in a multidisciplinary team in an R&D department of an engineering company as a UX designer. I interviewed users, collected and analyzed qualitative data, made the prototype and tested it. For me as an interaction designer, I need to give as many details about the product as possible. I spent most of my time on designing the specific user interface and writing interaction documentation. While as a UX designer, I do more research work, prototype and test.

So I think in industry IxD works more on creating something new, while UX has a longer view of the product, especially after it becomes mature.

The process of Product Design

Art and Science

Interaction designer can be more like an artist, they can create novel and pioneering interaction approaches without paying too much attention to user experience. While UX designer should be more like a scientist, they are ought to be as objective as possible, respecting data and considering from the perspective of users.

For example, my graduation project is a Kinect interaction game. This project was derived from my passion for exploring novel interaction approaches instead of user demand. The work was the result of an artist’s creativity, but I still regard myself as an interaction designer. If I want to develop it as a mature commercial product, I will focus on UX.

Interaction designer can be more like an artist, UX designer should be more like a scientist

UX of digital products

In About Face, the author explained the reason that he chose the term Interaction Design instead of User Experience. Because UX does not directly address the core concern of interaction design: How specifically to design the behavior of complex systems. UX is more similar to the process of verifying something but not creating a brand new one.

One cannot design a user experience, only design for a user experience.

But in the industry, especially the design of digital products, IxD and UX do not have much difference.

There are many cases where a design project requires careful attention to the orchestration of a number of design principles to achieve an appropriate user experience. (About Face, Introduction)
Modified from the image in About Face

What is the difference between IxD and HCI?

Generally speaking, HCI is an academic area of universal study on human and technology, while IxD and UX are its practice.

One image above illustrates the relationship between IxD and HCI. According to the definition in Interaction Design — Beyond HCI, IxD is much broader than HCI, because it includes all means of technology, system, and products, while HCI concerns interactive computing system.

But actually, HCI also has some aspects not included in IxD, such as Social Computing, Computer Graphics, Interactive technology, etc.

In this book, Gitta Salomon states that (p. 33)

“interaction design is a design discipline.”

I quite agree with this statement.

As a designer who will study for a Ph.D. degree in HCI, I am always thinking about my role in this academic area. My undergraduate education emphasized design thinking and creative thinking, one has a clear framework, the other encourages us to free our mind.

To some extent, the conflict between sense and sensibility always exists. The challenge is how to balance it.

As Terry Winograd indicated in his interview:

I think what the designer is trying to do is to envision things for users that the users can’t yet envision. The hard part is not fixing little problems, but designing things that are both innovative and that work.

Design is innovative, even though I have passion in HCI research, which should be precise, I still remember that I am a designer and a creator. As I said before, the three areas in HCI should be equally important, which means there should be more space for design and creative things.

As the author of this article criticized:

It makes sense to talk about aesthetic qualities of interaction, even though we lack an adequate language as yet to do so. But the language of HCI is not the best place to look for inspiration.

To conclude, I just reviewed my undergraduate study in Information Design and re-defined the meaning of IxD, UX, and HCI through rereading the classic books. I want to be an emotional researcher, who sees the world through the lens of beauty, concerns how others feel, and emphasizes others’ sufferings. I also hope more innovative thinking from designers’ perspectives can be brought into HCI to come up with novel research ideas.

The opinions in this article come from my personal experience, which may be partial and narrow. I am happy to discuss with other researchers and practitioners in these fields.