Getting Smart on Interaction Design hand lettering by Enrique González

Getting Smart on Interaction Design

At the end of summer I wrapped up a project with gravitytank in Chicago, packed my things, and moved to Seattle. When the dust settled I gifted myself time to work on personal projects, and do a bit of reflection. A few days after settling into my new digs, I struck up a casual conversation with a stranger that inspired me to question everything I knew about interaction design.

He asked me what I did for a living, and I told him that I was an interaction designer. He didn’t know what interaction design was, so I explained it—sort of. I don’t remember my exact response, but I do remember struggling through it. He politely smiled and nodded, but I could tell that he was confused. The conversation was just in passing, but the situation really bugged me. I should be able to explain what I do for a living in a clear and concise way, but I couldn’t. It was a humbling experience, and I was determined to never go through it again. That evening I decided to gather my thoughts and write this article. I sat down, opened my notebook, picked up a pen, and immediately hit a wall.

Eventually, after multiple drafts, I settled on describing interaction design as a design practice that defines how people and computer interfaces behave when they interact with each other. This wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t adequately represent my work, and it wouldn’t make small talk any easier. The good news is, that I had a starting point. A start that needed serious refinement, so I did what any designer would do. I researched better explanations, and asked a bunch of smart people for help.

Getting Smart

Explaining interaction design felt like I was piecing together a puzzle. To fill in the gaps I revisited my books, read new articles, reached out to some great interaction designers, and contacted friends who had little-to-no experience with interaction design as a practice.

The interaction designers I asked for help are friends, people I’ve worked with, connections I made in the design community, and professors at respected Interaction Design and Human Computer Interaction programs from around the world. I emailed them, explained my desire to understand interaction design, included my statement: interaction design defines how people and computer interfaces behave when they interact with each other, and asked for their reaction.

Most of them confirmed that my statement was too narrow in scope for interaction design. Now things were getting less fuzzy, but the big reveal happened when a pattern in their reactions exposed the words define and computer interfaces as the problems in my statement. I’ve synthesized several enlightening conversations to show why these words don’t work.

We don’t and can’t define human behavior; however, we do influence it by studying how people intend to use something based on their perception, experience, need, and desire. Then we use what we learn to inform how that something behaves and responds to people.

Interfaces are not limited to computers or devices with screens. Interaction design spans across services, products, systems, and engineering; It’s a highly collaborative and messy process. Examples of classic and contemporary interaction design outside of computers include this roll of electrical tape, the Ford Model T, hotel towel use, door knobs, and even the checkout line at Whole Foods.

This basic research exercise gave me a better understanding of interaction design, now my challenge is to translate this newly found clarity into words that anyone could relate to.

Talking Smart

While interaction designers evaluated my initial definition, I asked non-designers to do the same. I sent the statement to friends who didn’t have much exposure to the interaction design process. I asked them to read it and tell me if it helped them understand what interaction designers do. If they didn’t understand I asked them to explain why.

After reading my words, no one felt like they understood interaction design. They said things like “I don’t speak that language,” “Huh?,” “You shouldn’t use the word interact to describe interaction design,” “I’m too drunk to answer this,” and “be more straightforward.”

I interpreted their feedback as: give examples, and speak in common terms. Their feedback and the wisdom gained from my research helped me create this version:

Interaction design means working with a well-rounded team of user experience, business, and engineering professionals to shape experiences, services, and products that behave the way people need them to—so, that they can appreciate using them. For example, in a health club environment, it’s the thinking and work behind greeting guests by name and handing them a fresh towel when they arrive.

I’m more comfortable with this explanation of interaction design, but I know that we can make it better. If you want to help improve it or have a better example, don’t hesitate to reach me on twitter.

Thanks for the Help!

Ezekiel Binion, Daniel Boyarski, Lesley Burr, Arvin Dang, Patrick DiMichele, Jodi Forlizzi, Antonio Garcia, Jason Hong, Anirudha N. Joshi, Alex Killough, Jon Kolko, Seth Mabbot, PJ Macklin, Rick Omanson, Peter Scupelli, John Sorflaten, Linda Wagner, Bill Welense, and John Zeratsky

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