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Interaction Designer: a Misunderstood Profession

Happy World Interaction Design Day 2018!

I’ve written two articles about Interaction Design in this publication, from academic’s (responding to Cameron Tonkinwise) and practitioner’s (responding to Jon Kolko) point of view. Here is the third one, because Interaction Design is an important discipline that has been misunderstood, undermined, and put into a small corner that reduces its influence in improving the design of interactive products and services.

Thanks for reading.

1. Interaction Design is a Design Discipline

How to distinguish Design from Engineering? Design is about the human (qualitative) and subjective, while Engineering is about the technical (quantitative) and the objective. We can tell about this difference when we observe a designer and an engineer having a discussion about the product they’re developing together. The late Bill Moggridge, an industrial designer and co-founder of IDEO, wrote in his book “Designing Interactions” (2007) about the position of Interaction Design as a new discipline of Design.

Source: “Designing Interactions” book by Bill Moggridge

The Design discipline is inherently human-centered. Like Engineering, Design is about the artificial (not the natural) world, but unlike Engineering that solves problem in parts and between parts of the artificial world, Design solves problem between humans and the artificial world. Moggridge defined in his book that Interaction Design is “The design of subjective and qualitative aspect of everything that is both digital and interactive”, but also more broadly, “The design of everything that is both digital and interactive.” This broader definition is intended to include HCI professionals.

HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) is a discipline very close to Interaction Design. Yvonne Rogers, Helen Sharp, and Jenny Preece, all of them HCI professors, wrote a book “Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction”. It’s one of my favorite books that I have recommended for teachers and students of Computer Sciences. The book is a combination of the ways of Design and the methods for human understanding borrowed from Social Sciences (appropriate for academic learning, but a great foundation for practitioners).

“both digital and interactive”

We can say that Interaction Design is the digital version of Industrial Design. More recently founded Industrial Design schools are usually stronger in the digital than in the physical. Older Art&Design schools are catching up. It’s inevitable, because many industrial products these days are digital, and the improvement cycle of fully digital products (software) is faster and cheaper than that of physical products. When Moggridge visited Royal College of Art in London in 2002, he was surprised that the students produced both digital and physical objects. They included electronically enabled behavior in the objects they designed. It shows the development of a designer in adopting new technology.

Now choose your flavor. Are you coming from Design, the subjective and qualitative, or are you coming from HCI, the mix of subjective, qualitative, and technical? Both are Interaction Design, and make sure you choose your flavor based on your strengths. If you’re very good in e.g. analyzing technical constraints and what-ifs, then you’re the Computing counterpart. If you’re very good in e.g. synthesizing qualitative data to concept, then you’re the Design counterpart.

2. Interaction Design is a Convergence of Disciplines

The ACM (association of computing machinery) founded SIGCHI (Special Interest Group in Computer-Human Interaction) in 1982, as an academic association of HCI. Its first conference in 1983 included papers on user interface design principles, system design and user evaluation, and various software interface evaluation tools.

Bill Verplank, a HCI researcher who worked on Xerox user interfaces, decided to call “User Interface Design” differently, which is “Interaction Design”. At that time (1986–1992), Verplank worked together with Moggridge at IDEO, where they consulted on how to bring software user interfaces into digital product design. The name “Interaction Design” started to be heard more by Computing professionals.

Alan Cooper, the father of Visual Basic (a graphical tool for computer programming), published a book titled “About Face” in 1995. The subtitle was “The Essentials of User Interface Design”, which has changed into “The Essentials of Interaction Design” since the 2nd edition in 2003. What is the reason behind the change from HCI and UI Design to Interaction Design? Cooper explains that people who studied HCI has a primary expertise of testing products already in existence by observing how well the users perform, while Design is about envisioning a product that doesn’t exist yet. HCI’s primary tool is usability testing, which can be done on the early prototypes of the product. Cooper invented “Goal-Directed Design” to call the process, but HCI professionals tend to understand it as collecting list of features desired by users and implement them all. In order to answer the question “how can we know what users want?” Cooper proposed personas in 1998, a concept that had been used by marketers and social scientists.

In order to embrace the new discipline that needs to be given clear boundaries, a professional association of Interaction Design was founded in 2005 . This association, called IxDA, held Interaction Awards every year since 2010, and you can see the 2012 finalists to get an idea of what interaction design is. Some winners are non-digital (but still interactive) systems like social interaction (2014) and service interaction (2018).

IxDA also provides a description on their website:

“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.”

People from both the Computing and the Design disciplines now gather in both SIGCHI and IxDA conferences. The academia ones gather at CHI, and the industry ones gather at IxDA. There is no differences on which original disciplines the attendants are coming from. All of them may call themselves Interaction Designers. The line between Computing and Design has indeed been dissolved in Interaction Design.

3. Interaction Design has been Narrowed Down

It’s clear that Interaction Design is about interaction with human, and digital products are not only software, but any objects that have an electronic behavior in them. However, in 2002 we saw Jesse James Garret’s widely-circulated diagram Elements of User Experience (UX) that describes Interaction Design as an element of UX.

Jesse James Garret’s Element of User Experience as in his book 2002.

As a former web developer, Garret came from Computing, the technical and the objective. In his diagram, Interaction Design only exists on the left part, where web is a software interface, and doesn’t exist on the right part, where web is a hypertext system. For a information-heavy website, the counterpart of an Interaction Designer is an Information Architect, and Garret himself was then an Information Architect.

The diagram by Garret is very much referenced by practitioners of the web industry, and more and more products and services are fully software (web only), with Silicon Valley as the global trend setter. This perpetuates the narrowed down definition of Interaction Design as Garret proposed:

development of application flows to facilitate user tasks, defining how the user interacts with the site functionality

“Application flows” is taught in HCI as “task flow”, where software UI designers illustrate how an application works using a flowchart of tasks. Since the awareness of interaction design, “user flow” (a flowchart of user scenarios) is more frequently used. It’s also used by Google, the 2nd biggest beast (after Apple) in Silicon Valley, a fully software-based service, to describe Interaction Designer profile more clearly (Google Design job page):

“collaboration with teams of designers, researchers, engineers, and product managers throughout the design process — from creating user flows and wireframes to building user-interface mockups and prototypes”

What are user flows, wireframes, and mockups? The following illustration gives an example to explain the differences among them.

User Flow → Wireframe (1st screen) → Mockup (image source)

If we see only the output of an Interaction Designer, we think their job is only creating User Flow, Wireframes, and Mockups. There’s a whole lot of process before the output. Among others, they have to collaborate with product managers, researchers, and engineers, in order to understand business goals, user needs, and technical feasibility (respectively).

After all, like any designers, an Interaction Designer needs to be the ambassador of the subjective and the qualitative. Therefore, they need to really understand the human side by validating their design with users. User-testing is a means of risk mitigation or quality control. Google doesn’t list the actual tasks of an Interaction Designer, but in one of their job ads it includes participating in usability testing with UX Researchers.

4. Interaction Design has been Misunderstood

Post “Elements of UX” diagram, the UX definition took a silly twist. As the biggest beast in Silicon Valley, Apple played a role by introducing iPhone in 2008, which began the era of pretty screens. Web technology also became more robust for richer interactivity. What happened to Interaction Design?

Dan Saffer’s book titled “Microinteractions” came in the right moment in the era of advanced visual and scripting technology. I bet he carefully added the “micro” in front of “interaction”, because he intended to propose an idea on detailed interactions. It’s very much human-centered, because the concepts of Trigger, Rules, Feedback, Loops & Modes need a deep understanding of human’s cognitive system. An example of how microinteractions impact UX is described by a study conducted by Ericsson (2016), which found that mobile connection delay (lack of feedback) causes a similar stress to that of watching a horror movie!

Again, the practitioners of the web industry see only the output not the process. Instead of trying to understand trigger, rules, feedback, loops & modes, they only look at the pretty visuals and the rich animation/motion. The human factors are thrown out of the window. Many articles on Medium and LinkedIn written between 2014 and 2017 describes an Interaction Designer as exactly the person who does animation/motion design.

Silicon Valley, known as the land of “move fast and break things”, is very innovative with job titles, so inspiring as if for every format of technology there needs to be a new name. A recent article in 2018 helps me understand that the new definition of Interaction Design has also been caused by this “innovativeness” culture. Quoted from that article:

“We turned our attention to animation to convey expressive user flows through interaction design.”

In addition, countless articles try to make sense of where an Interaction Designer fits without studying the history of Interaction Design by IxDA or Bill Moggridge or Alan Cooper, which perpetuates the narrow definition. For example, this article is trying to help recruiters hire designers by putting designers on a spectrum, but the author allocated Interaction Designer only for prototyping and design, even smaller scope than what a UI Designer does! Not only is it narrower than the definition by Garret in 2002, it is also giving the wrong message to UX job recruiters about the main skill of an Interaction Designer.

I put “Motion/Animation Designer“ on what was previously “Interaction Designer”, put “Interaction Designer” on what was previously “UX Designer”, and put “UX Designer” together with “UX Team Of One”. The original picture can be found in the article.

Glad that Google is setting a good example by calling them Motion Designer. Adobe, another big beast of Silicon Valley, calls the UI-enhancing movement as Animation Design. Yes, it’s Motion or Animation Design! If you’re a Graphic or Multimedia Designer, this is where you can participate in (micro) Interaction Design. There’s an awesome publication on Medium about it!

5. Putting Interaction Design Back to its Place

Due to the narrowing down and misunderstanding of Interaction Design, more and more people stopped talking about Interaction Design. Google Trend data shows in the graph below. Cooper was disappointed by this fading away.

“interaction design” is declining steadily, while “user experience” is increasing steadily, and “ux design” is inclining crazily since 2009 thanks to the “move fast and break things and don’t learn from the people before us” culture of silicon valley (tongue in cheek).

Interaction Design deserves its position back: the broad spectrum, human-centered (subjective and qualitative) Design discipline who meets HCI and the digital industry.

A group of Danish people founded Interaction Design Foundation in 2002. In 2009 they really took off by inviting as many experts as possible to create a free encyclopedia. Check the international team behind it, but most importantly read the very first encyclopedia entry: Interaction Design, before you learn further. Quoted:

“Interaction design is about shaping digital things for people’s use”

We need people understanding in order to make it possible for the things to be used by people. People understanding means that Research is part of Design.

I’d rather use the process name “research” than the output name like “persona” because personas are also used in marketing. To explain to people who see research and design as two separate entities, read evidence-based design by Erika Hall (or read her book “Just Enough Research”).

By having all designers responsible in doing the people understanding activity (plenty of ways to not call it “research”), project teams can reduce communication time. No need to schedule problem discovery projects and research dissemination activities, because the designers are equipped with enough people insights to support their design activities. Like any designers, Interaction Designers are the ambassador of people.

6. Who is an Interaction Designer?

This articled could have been titled “Interaction Design: a Misunderstood Discipline”, but I’d like to focus on the profession, the people who are trained in Interaction Design and perform as designers. Now, how to pinpoint the differences between an Interaction Design and other types of designers?

UI Designers (like traditional HCI professionals) perform human-centered product design by evaluating existing products, while Interaction Designers do it by understanding user needs in order to come up with new products. Interaction designers may do UI design, too.

Visual Designers and Animation/Motion Designers perform human-centered product design by focusing on the usability of animations/motions on a visual user interface, while Interaction Designers do it by focusing on whether the digital product meets the user needs. Interaction designers may do visual and animation/motion design, too.

User/UX Researchers support human-centered product design activities by evaluating existing products, while Interaction Designers use the result of evaluation in order to improve the products. Interaction designers may do user research, too.

Design Researchers support human-centered product design activities by discovering user needs and turn it into product concept, while Interaction Designers turn the product concept into digital product design. Interaction designers may do design research, too.

There are many things that you can help realize in order to make this world a better place. You may begin from designing digital and interactive products and services. There are various ways to be an Interaction Designer!

“You know how someone says, ‘Why’d you become a nurse or doctor?’ And they say, ‘I want to help people’?” asks Castillo. “Wouldn’t it be cool if someone says, ‘Why’d you become an engineer or a product designer?’ And you say, ‘I want to help people.’“ (source)

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