Interaction Design Pt. 1 - A quick introduction

Either you are an interaction designer or you are not really sure what an interaction designer does. Other disciplines of design seem not to have quite the same problem. We understand what an industrial designer, graphic designer, textile designer or architect might do. Even user experience (UX) design (although misunderstood, but that is for another discussion) seems somewhat understood. But if not UX (design of websites), then whatever is interaction design?!

Generally speaking interaction design deals with shaping digital products and services and specifically designing for the use qualities of such products and services. Watch Bill Moggridge, who with Bill Verplank coined the term interaction design, beautifully describe the term in this video

A brief history

As a discipline, interaction design emerged some time during the 80s from the technologically focused field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and the aesthetically focused field of design. HCI has traditionally concerned itself with the usability of technology by humans for their needs in task oriented environments and itself is then a field bounded by Cognitive Psychology and Computer Science. Design on the other hand relates to the creation of two, three or four dimensional forms providing aesthetic and emotional value.

One could say that it all started with The Mother of all Demos in 1968 where Douglas Engelbart essentially demoed all elements of modern personal computing like windows, hypertext, computer mouse, word processing, graphics and collaborative real time editor among others. The event thereafter inspired several projects at Xerox PARC, where all the action was in the 70s, and then later the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows platforms in the 80s and 90s.

As a design-oriented academic field, Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) also played a role in contributing to the birth of interaction design. CSCW is where scientists explore how people work in groups with the enabling technology of computer networking, associated hardware, software and services. As an interdisciplinary field CSCW sees many types of social scientists working together with technologists with the objective of designing adequate computer based technology to support such cooperative work. Collaborative work is the cornerstone of corporate life today. Many of us are familiar with and regularly use such collaborative softwares, think Dropbox, Google Docs, Slack for communication and even softwares used to design these very products of our technological present like Invision, Sketch etc.

Demonstration by Douglas Engelbart of the first prototype of a computer mouse.

Differentiating character

Interaction design then stands somewhere on the intersection of such fields. It explores the semantic connections that live between technology and form, which are brought to life in the use of products. As a simplification, Löwgren differentiates graphic design and industrial design outputs on a product to carry much of their meaning on the surface whereas the output of interaction design on the product hides much of its meaning in virtual “contents” to emerge only in sustained interaction.

Let’s consider an example of the microwave ovens at our studio. They are beautifully designed hi-tech ovens, at least at first glance. But very often people stand and stare at them with food in their hands, not to admire their beauty but bewildered at their inability to open them and then to get them started. The reason is the departure from an interaction pattern that most are familiar with when using such ovens. One needs three different button presses to just start the default heating function which is usually completed by one button press in similar ovens. So the interaction design here has the responsibility of making or breaking the entire experience of use.

Microwave oven - beautiful on the outside yet leaves you frustrated

The embedding of electronics into products has led to a radical shift in the possibilities of design and people’s relationship with objects. This has allowed for the disconnection between a product’s form and its expected behaviour and functionality. The word ‘interaction’ in interaction design then captures this time-based yet also non-linear nature of digital. This is what sets it apart from most other design disciplines. We are now in a time when a microwave oven communicating with a refrigerator is not a cause for alarm. So like other design disciplines, interaction design also concerns with form but unlike other disciplines it first and foremost explores the design of behaviour.

Design of behaviour

Behaviour is the way in which one conducts oneself, especially towards others. It is acquired and presents itself through interactions with the world around, which is inhabited by natural and artificial things. Interactions then also go on to affect future behaviour. We can all, for example, reflect on the profound effect that mobile phones and their consequent development into the smart devices of today has had on human behaviour in the last three decades. Design work is then of function, language and meaning that unfolds over time.

Kolko articulates the expectations of an interaction designer to be an expert on how humans relate to each other and to the world and to the changing nature of technology and business. Over time such relations evolve and thus the design also needs to be a dialogue that continues over time. People’s behaviours evolve as they interact with the object, maybe because of familiarity or embeddedness of the object in their lifestyle, hence a lasting design must be able to have a subtle, continued and intuitive dialogue with the person.

This presents a huge task for a designer while designing the behaviour of complex interactive systems while emphasising the human side of technology. They need to often think in opposites, of large and small, conceptual and pragmatic, human and technical and then find a balance to connect technology, aesthetics and humanity. So interaction design needs to go beyond just the usability of digital products or the design of website or apps. Interaction design must aspire to a futures mindset, the complexity of information architecture, the anthropologic desire to understand humanity, the altruistic nature of usability engineering and the creation of dialogue.

In part 2 we will explore the qualities of interaction design and some of the tools that help a designer in their work.

Works cited

Cooper, A; Reiman, R; Cronin, D; Noessel, C; Csizmadi, J & LeMoine,D. (2014). About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design. Wiley.

Engelbart, D. (1968). Fall Joint Computer Conference. Retrieved from Youtube

Kolko, J. (2010). Thoughts on Interaction Design. Morgan Kaufman.

Löwgren, J. (2007). Pliability As An Experiential Quality: Exploring The Aesthetics Of Interaction Design. Artifact, Volume I, Issue 2

Moggridge, B. (2009). In Objectified. Retrieved from Youtube

Norman, D. (2016). Don Norman: The term “UX”. Retrieved from Youtube

Read more

Interaction Designer - Himanshu Rohilla

Interaction Design Pt. 2 - Qualities of interaction

Interaction Design Pt. 3 - A Future

March 4, 2019
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