The Basics of Interaction Design
The terms and titles involved under the umbrella of user experience are varied and squishy. Case in point, five years ago I hired into my current place of employment as an “Interactive Designer.” I’ve considered myself a designer for awhile now, and I’m pretty interactive as these things go, so it seemed like a reasonable fit.
It seems pretty straight-forward to consider someone who designs interactions to be an interaction designer. I suspect the thinking behind the term “interactive designer,” was likely that the team was looking for someone who could also design interactive things: i.e. someone who could write HTML/CSS, which is a big part of what I did.
Regardless of the semantics of “interactive” vs. “interaction,” I consider myself a front-end generalist and a user experience (UX) designer. Within user experience though, what defines the skillset of interaction design?
First, let me break out the various high-level skillsets involved in what I do as I see them.
- Business Analysis
- User Research
- Interaction Design
- Visual Design
- HTML/CSS Development
Interaction design falls smack in the middle of my list of what I do. It falls immediately after finding out the goals and limitations of the business and the users, and it’s the first place where creativity takes place in my process, thus the first time the word design appears in my list.
Interaction design is where wireframes live. The lower the fidelity, the less it steps on the toes of visual design, meaning you’re probably looking for plain boxes and text. You’re looking for why UI elements are in a particular place, labeled a particular term or are particularly prominent.
Is your buy button huge? Is your Sign Up link larger than your Sign In link? Is there an auto-save dialogue that pops up when a change is made? Is it obtrusive or not? Why? These are all answers that belong to interaction design.
So, can you do interaction design without everything on either side? Of course! You can make a wireframe of anything you like right now! Start drawing boxes and input fields and away you go! But should you? Yeah… probably not.
So What Is Interaction Design?
As I thought about this and looked around the web, I was surprised to find in my research (read: random Googling), that various definitions of the skills involved in interaction design involve understanding the users’ motivations, goals and needs in order to craft the appropriate interactions.
The Wikipedia article on interaction design claims it’s, “the practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems, and services.” It further states, “While interaction design has an interest in form (similar to other design fields), its main area of focus rests on behavior.”
IXDA defines interaction design as follows:
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.
Alright, enough Googling. I like what these two definitions are saying, especially IXDA. In fact, I’d be wrong to try to write a more succinct yet meaningful definition.
What I will say though is that interaction design is about defining structures that enable behaviors. And since human behavioral psychology means that our brains are wired to recognize various cues as meaningful, we can encourage or discourage behaviors through all sorts of structure, such as size, weight, shape and relative positioning of elements. This is why interaction design is fundamentally about behavioral psychology.
To be a good interaction designer, you need to know what cues humans use to recognize meaning in symbols. However, to be a good user experience designer, you need to understand what motivates people and what their goals are, and that takes user research.
While interaction design allows you to lead someone down a path, user experience design allows you to lead them down the right path.
For further understanding of behavioral and cognitive psychology and how they pertain to designing screen interfaces, I’d recommend the following books:
100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinschenk
Designing with the Mind in Mind by Jeff Johnson
Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug
For those in the Triangle area of North Carolina with me, keep your eye on the Triangle UXPA Book Club and Triangle UXPA. They’re great resources for continuing to learn about UX and interaction design!