What is an interaction designer?

Dec 19, 2011

Part of my design class was about going over the design fundamentals, roles and process. The design community has often been involved in a lot of navel gazing around defining terms that ultimately don’t matter, and I’m not interested in most of that. But I do think that “you are the change you seek” and how you define your own work will determine how you actually do it and what you aspire to.

So what’s an interaction designer? What do we do for work? I thought back and could not recall any particularly insightful descriptions or definitions. So I myself distilled the critical elements down to this.

Interaction design is the practice of

  • understanding users’ needs and goals
  • designing tools for users to achieve those goals
  • envisioning all states and transitions of the system
  • considering limitations of the user’s environment and technology

Let’s break it down a bit.

Understanding users’ needs and goals. Nothing magical here. We simply need to grasp why we are making a system both from the user’s and businesses perspective. Whether you use formal models like Contextual Inquiry to study this, or Cooper’s personas and goals, or simply notes on napkins, doesn’t matter, as long as the meat of the material is there.

Designing tools to achieve those goals. This is the production and design work that’s typically associated with interaction designers. We do this in the form of various artifacts like concept models, navigation maps, sketches, wireframes, prototypes. Visual mockups and functional products are a natural continuation of the process. So this is the part of actually making things. And I took the “tools” metaphor from one of Bret Victor’s latest rants.

Envisioning all states and transitions of the system. Many interaction designers have a web background where things used to be fairly straightforward. Years ago, you would just construct page layouts, and the user does something, and a new page is loaded. Boom. That was it. There were no meaningful transitions or animations to speak of. Fast forward to today, and many systems we use are now these beautiful living, breathing things, with much greater physicality and richness delivered largely through physical metaphors and state transitions. Also, it’s not about pages anymore. UI-s consist of modules that can be in various states, and sometimes new pages appear and sometimes things happen within the same view, and hopefully the user can configure and customize and personalize all of this in some fun, unforeseen way. In case of devices, it’s all orchestrated by hardware too, not just views in a browser.

It is crazy and wonderful at the same time. This is also what critically distinguishes the role of interaction designer from others. It really is the IxD who gets paid to be on top of all this and tie it all into a coherent composition. It includes simple things like naming all objects in the system consistently, so that the same feature would not be called “Search”, “Find”, “View” and “Browse” in different views. It also means having a complete map of the product in your head, knowing what every corner looks like, and how they interact with each other and the user.

There are new interesting resources available to help with this. See Meaningful Transitions which is Johannes Tonollo’s PhD work about animations in user interface. Among other things, it explicitly showcases the use of Disney animation principles. I wonder how long until knowing the Disney principles will be required from all software interface designers, and building them is second nature to engineers?

Considering limitations of the user’s environment and technology. This means being familiar with the devices, platform guidelines and conventions. In a web world, we had relatively little control over the delivery of the application: we had no idea what browser the user was using, and what size was their screen and window, and all such details. Contrast this with platforms like iOS and Windows Phone 7 where you know the exact screen size and hardware specs, the app always runs in full screen, and you have pretty much complete control over what is going on (modulo the device and network performance, that are also part of this bullet.)

One word I’ve not used here is “user experience.” Yes, I know most Valley companies are looking for “user experience designers.” (Bonus point if it’s a “rockstar” you’re after.) It’s fine to talk about UX of a product, but a position like UX designer does not make any sense. Essentially the job postings talk about interaction designers but for some reason someone somewhere decided that it’s too complex or pedestrian so let’s call it UX. As for why the position “UX designer” does not make any sense, see Justin Maxwell’s talk, I would discuss it the same way he does.