What is Interaction Design, really? (toward an ultimate definition)

by Frank Spillers
CEO/CXO @ Experience Dynamics

people’s hands working with pens and mobile design concepts

What is Interaction Design, really??

We often wonder outside our team, how many definitions of Interaction Design are understood by your internal stakeholders? To start, how we define Interaction Design is important because it determines how well you or your team do UX.

If you think Interaction Design(IxD) is wireframing, you’re 50% right. Instead, IxD is about translating user needs, desires, metaphors, and emotions into actionable screen flows. Furthermore, IxD aims to provide an intuitive sequence and a strong ‘call to action’. To be clear, the goal is logical and intuitive (user) experience that steers and guides the behavior of a user, based on their expectations.

For more on ‘UX is not UI’, or why we don’t call it ‘Information Architecture’, keep reading…

Let’s unpack a little history on the term Interaction Design and hear it defined from some UX giants and top authors of a textbook standard in design courses around the world…

1. Origins: Where did ‘Interaction Design’ come from?

Interaction Design comes from the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). HCI as an academic field, sits between Psychology and Computer Science in the multidisciplinary corner called Cognitive Science. “Cog Sci” also leans on “anthropology, computer science, ethology, electrical engineering, linguistics, neurology, neurosciences, philosophy, psychology, and sociology” (UCSD- where Don Norman, grandfather of Human Centerd Design, started and ended his career).

Key point: Interaction Design is about understanding how a user interacts with their goals and tasks, and bringing that context into view with a rapid prototype.

History of the term Interaction Design:

Bill Moggridge (co-founder of IDEO and inventor of the first laptop) who passed away in 2012, and Bill Verplank, are credited with founding the term “Interaction Design” in the mid-80’s (Wikipedia) to extend user interface design into industrial design (physical products). His “Designing Interactions” book offers a historical reflection on the field. His definition:

“ You’d like to create something where the emotional relationship is more satisfying over time…growing a little more fond of things over time” (Moggridge interview).

Note their emphasis on relationship as key to interaction. Moggridge stresses sociability again in Designing Interactions:

“To designing for usability, utility, satisfaction, and communicative qualities, we should add a fifth imperative: designing for sociability. When IT systems fail to support the social aspect of work and leisure, when they dehumanize and de-civilize our relationship with each other, they impoverish the rich social web in which we live and operate, essential for both well-being and efficiency”.

Key point: Context of use, including social interactions and behaviors are critical to IxD. Context includes social, emotional, temporal (time based UX elements), and cultural issues or phenomena.

Interaction Design book cover 3rd edition by Rogers, Sharp and Preece
Interaction Design book cover 3rd edition by Rogers, Sharp and Preece
Interaction Design book cover- Rogers, Sharp, and Preece

The authors (Rogers, Sharp, and Preece) of the popular and probably best text on Interaction Design, called Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction (3rd edition)” noted that HCI focused on design, evaluation, and implementation (basically assessing and correcting usability). Instead, they define Interaction Design as involving four key activities, starting with identifying user needs:

1) Establishing Requirements

2) Designing Alternatives

3) Prototyping

4) Evaluating

2. Why is the term ‘Information Architecture’ no longer widely used?

Around 2005, Interaction Design replaced Information Architecture (IA) as a way to define UX Design. This was because, after the Dot-Com era, IA was seen as too website-focused and did not cover the complexities of Enterprise problems commonly found in Web applications or mobile apps. “UX Design” emerged as a term to mean “all of the above” but is often used to cover the field as much as to mean IxD or Visual Design. These days, people seem to use the term UX Design generically to fit a range of occasions. (Don’t we love to police definitions and invent acronyms?)

Side-story: The term “IA” was created for UX Consulting purposes by Rosenfeld (yes, the UX book publisher) and colleagues who started with their O’Reilly book — Information Architecture — and consulting firm. That admission comes from a former employee who was crucial in shaping the practice beyond the founders. Due to that book and the need for leveraging structure in strategic design, IA was all the craze during the Dot Com era. I was even refused an interview with User Centered Design on my resume: “Change it to Information Architecture, then send it back to me”, said the Silicon Valley recruiter.

The term Interaction Design also scales across technologies, for example, you would not refer to the Information Architecture of Augmented Reality — but you would refer to it as Interaction Design. Similarly, this applies to Voice or Speech Interfaces, IoT, etc. In short, Interaction Design just covers more scenarios, plus it is taught with HCI programs — IA is no longer taught.

So why Interaction Design? Why focus on Interaction and not Experience? Experience covers a much broader range of issues, while Interaction helps focus the design decisions on how to facilitate an ideal interaction experience. Tiny ones are called micro-interactions. Don’t get me wrong, experience as a concept (AKA Experience Design) is great. This term has become “User Experience Design” so it is part of today’s common term “UX Design”.

What is less acknowledged is that you first have to understand, observe and model human experiences, and then use that to create Interactions.

Let’s explore the confusing nature of how Interaction Design gets defined…

3. How is Interaction Design typically thought of?

If you’ve ever been unclear it’s because Interaction Design has been poorly or inconsistently defined, historically. Let’s look at four examples…

  1. Alan Cooper (1999) provided a very loose and broad definition:

“The practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems, and services.”

Alan Cooper: Father of Visual Basic and ‘inventor’ of personas.

Using the term “interactive” confuses things! This is why I don’t think you should never call Interaction Design “Interactive Design”: The reason is, interactions reference human behavior, wherein industry, ‘Interactive’ is a term marketing and ad agencies (interactive agencies) or Graphic Designers once used to describe interactivity on a website, such as the now-dead Flash. Flash? Think too many motion graphics, videos, or animations. Making something ‘interactive’ is not the same as designing deliberate Interactions. Okay, we’re getting into semantics, but if you do this for a living, it’s important.

2. Industry organizations, like the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) provide an equally broad definition:

“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”.

Key point: Many definitions of IxD are so high-level, it’s as if, we as a field, are afraid to commit to any complete definition.

Dan Saffer
Dan Saffer

3. Dan Saffer (formerly Adaptive Path) insisted that Visual Design is equal to IxD (2007):

“Interaction design’s strongest ties are to the discipline of design — not to, say human-computer interaction or cognitive psychology, although it does draw heavily on those fields. Interaction designers are designers, for good or ill.”

Equating IxD to Visual Design diminishes that focus on the often complex task of translating user behavior, needs, and desires into wireframes that compel the right actions. Visual Design is a different discipline that brings aesthetics, branding, and style to a design. A design problem might both involve visual perception, and often does, but the approach of an IxD and a Visual Designer is very different. Rarely do Visual Designers attend field studies, where user pain points, personas, and observation of tasks take place? These are the secret (and essential) weapons in an Interaction Designers tool kit.

Gillian Smith at whiteboard
Gillian Smith at whiteboard

4. Academics like Gillian Smith, who founded the first Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy — now at the Royal Art College in London — provides the broadest defintion: “If I were to sum up interaction design in a sentence, I would say that it’s about shaping our everyday lives through digital artifacts for work, for play and for entertainment” (2002).

In short, we have looked at four definitions from UX consulting, academia, and a leading industry organization. The lack of consistency between definitions gives the impression that Interaction Design is an onion! Keep peeling and more layers come off…;-)

Let’s conclude with a super-definition that hopefully bridges many of these definitions by helping understand the process necessary to create IxD.

3. Toward a concrete definition: How does Interaction Design come together?

interaction design definition illustrating steps
Poster: An ultimate definition of Interaction Design

PDF link to the poster: An ultimate definition of Interaction Design

To begin, let’s consider Interaction Design as our stakeholders would: “It’s UX Design”. We ought to be aligned because we believe “UX Design is not just {insert tool name here eg. Figma}”. UX Design, like Interaction Design is more than just designing. It’s strategic, deliberate, and intended to provide structural (cognitive) support to a task or a user journey.

Also, remember, like UX Design, IxD is “not just a wireframe”. Interaction Design in this ‘ultimate’ definition includes insights from field research and user testing. Good Interaction Design comes with these evidence-based processes tightly attached. To split them out leaves Interaction Design vulnerable to being ‘just a wireframe’, or being ‘UX via PhotoShop/ Figma/ Sketch’.

Where we start

An Interaction Design design starts with referencing Personas & Journeys (A). Personas and Journey Maps are based on your context research (Field Studies) leading up to the Interaction Design phase. To de-couple context of use insights from IxD is risky and problematic. Why?

Context of use (B) frames the constraints and opportunities for anything a user does or expects to do with your product. For example:

The user can’t see your screen, too bright? (environment)

The user under pressure and thinking fast? (attention bandwidth)

The user using a screen reader because they are blind? (accessibility need)

You need to know all constraints and opportunities before any feature or functionality is even feasible from a user’s perspective.

One of the initial steps to deciding anything for users is to zoom out into the ‘problem space’ of the user. Most teams represent this information as Personas and Journey Maps. However, the source of this evidence is vital. That’s why going out into the field to begin a design process is critical.

Now designing Interactions comes easy

With evidence-based Personas and Journeys in hand, making Interaction Design decisions comes easy. Here decisions improve ease of use, ease of learning, and ease of understanding for the user (C). Here Interaction Designers provide mechanisms (UI’s) to support efficiency, error prevention, and decision-making, for example.

Next, we attend to Visual and Cognitive aids (D): Concerns of color or font are not on an IxD’s mind. Instead, user flows are! Does it makes sense to move from A to B?, or, How can a user access a UI element? Importantly, these become the obsession of doing Interaction Design. Of course Visual Design is immensely important, but only after Interaction Design has occurred.

IxD relies on rapid prototyping: For example, ‘wireframes’ are where IxD does its work. Whether whiteboard, PowerPoint, paper, use of improv, or an online mockup, prototypes become the planning tool. Prototypes offer simulations and review of flow, logic and, concepts behind the Interaction Design. Documenting these design decisions is especially crucial for governance, Inclusive Design, and transparency efforts.

Finally, in this ‘ultimate’ definition of IxD, we include stakeholders (E). By stakeholders, I am referring to internal decision-makers. Stakeholders are rarely if ever, included in definitions of design. Yet, Stakeholders can interfere (is kill the better word here?) with the thought process of an Interaction Designer or UX team. Stakeholders are vital to the definition because they can be included early on, for example in a journey mapping workshop.

Speaking of stakeholders, our favorite external stakeholder is the end-user. Validating prototypes with users is paramount to measuring the success of any IxD effort. So let’s not leave it, or users out. After all, isn’t that why we do Interaction Design in the first place?

In conclusion, maybe we should define Interaction Design by the result it ought to produce. Ultimately, the goal is to provide the right experience, for the right user, to support their context of use. To be clear, Interaction Design strives for a positive result for the business and the user, equally.

Frank Spillers CEO Experience Dynamics
Frank Spillers CEO Experience Dynamics

About the author: Frank Spillers, CEO/ CXO of Experience Dynamics, a leading UX consulting firm with Fortune 500 clients worldwide.

For over 20 years, Frank has been a seasoned UX consultant, Researcher, Designer, and Trainer. He is an award-winning expert in improving the design of digital products, services, and experiences. Frank is a Subject Matter Expert in UX Design, UX Management, Accessibility, Emotion Design, Service Design, Localization UX, Lean UX, VR/ AR UX Design. He provides private corporate training and offers courses to the largest online design organization in the world (Interaction Design Foundation). In 2001, Frank founded UX consulting firm Experience Dynamics. He provides deep learning opportunities at UX Inner Circle.

Experience Dynamics, a leading user experience design consultancy that helps high growth companies manage and win with UX/UI excellence.