Me + IxD = ?

This post was written for Prof. Molly Steenson’s Interaction and Service Design Concepts seminar, Fall 2016.

I studied writing in undergrad, which probably has a little (or a lot) to do with my reticence when it comes to defining anything from words to my own identity. Words and concepts don’t exist in vacuums. They only mean anything in some kind of context. I resist absolute definitions as much as I resist calling myself any one thing.

Even forgoing my personal hangups, defining interaction design as a discipline is not simple. First, what is design? (Quite nearly, everything.) And what is an interaction? (Again, basically everything.) It’s practically impossible to get away from designed artifacts, most of which facilitate (or attempt to, anyway) some kind of interaction, vaguely, a collision or interfacing between two or more entities in which there is a relationship of influence.

It would be a pretty grave omission here if I didn’t mention just how much I am frustrated by some of the ways we try to break down and categorize design and various design disciplines. It’s one of the biggest reasons that interaction design is hard for people to understand. What exactly does an interaction designer design? Do they designs interactions? Not really, but therein lies some of the confusion. Interaction designers design posters, apps, websites. They design products, services, experiences, and (most often) systems that include any combination of the previous. Interaction designers design for interaction. It’s an approach to design, or rather a collection of approaches. It usually emphasizes the end users and their experiences, or more generally, it tends to be human-centered.

One broad definition of design could be as follows: (1) the observance of a less than desired situation, (2) the creation of an artifact that responds to and ideally improves that situation, and (3) the process that connects those two dots. That, fuzzy and open to interpretation as it is, is what we learn to do when designing for interactions at CMU. This definition is my personal distillation of a year of learning, reading, and thinking about design, as well as engaging in it. This is how I’ve come to define design for myself and for others that ask me. Of course, the beautiful and frustrating thing about design is that you are never quite finished with the work. There will be more to learn, to contemplate, to attempt. More achievements and more failures, both of which are just as valuable. Rather than being a linear process, design often looks more like a cycle. It’s iterative, but it becomes especially so as the problem spaces become more and more complex.

I’ll never be finished defining design for myself, as much as I’ll never be done living and designing the life I choose to live. (That is, until I’m gone.) This reminds me, more than anything else, that design gives me permission to take action. It even demands that of me. As I continue to define design and define myself as designer, not only am I more sensitive to what’s broken in the world, I’m finding myself more compelled to take steps toward creating solutions that respond to these gaps and gaffes and hiccups.

Because many interaction designers understand a systems-based approach, I find they are equipped to design better experiences within “working” systems, break us out of broken or failing systems, and see the intersections and influences between multiple systems. That, for me, is the key to why interaction design can be so important in today’s world, and that’s the kind of holistic view of interaction design that continues to make me want to learn design and to become a better designer/human being.