So you want to be an interaction designer

We get a lot of email from students and usability professionals asking how one goes about becoming an interaction designer, and what background one needs to get into the field. What are good interaction design programs? What real-world skills and experience are required? What, exactly, do interaction designers do on a day-to-day basis?


Pursuing academic training

The first thing to keep in mind is that interaction design is a new discipline that is still being defined in the academic setting. There are only a few institutions in the world offering degree programs specifically in "interaction design," and while their curricula share similarities, they are by no means standardized (which may very well be a good thing). Most of these and other "computer-related," "human-computer interaction," or "new media" design programs are outgrowths of either art schools or technical departments (often architecture or computer science departments) at larger institutions, each of which brings its own history, perspective, and preconceptions to its teaching approach.

There isn’t agreement (though this is happily beginning to change) in the academic community about what the core elements of an interaction design curriculum might be, or how to approach the teaching of that curriculum. Art schools tend to approach interaction design as a means of personal or brand expression rather than as an approach to solving product definition and usability problems; technical departments tend to teach interaction design from the perspective of exploring and implementing technologies rather than discovering and addressing human goals. Programs that emphasize HCI techniques tend to focus on cognitive theory and user research, with less emphasis on design methods and practices (i.e., the craft of design). Many design programs still focus on tools rather than methods, but that too is changing.

How is interaction design different?

It’s easy to understand the confusion, since interaction design as a discipline borrows theory and technique from traditional design, psychology, and technical disciplines. It is a synthesis, however—more than a sum of its parts, with its own unique methods and practices. It is also very much a design discipline, with a different approach than that of scientific and engineering disciplines. In an effort to clarify this, I offer the following definitions for interaction design.

Interaction Design is a design discipline dedicated to:

  • Defining the behavior of artifacts, environments, and systems (i.e., products)

…and therefore concerned with:

  • Defining the form of products as they relate to their behavior and use
  • Anticipating how the use of products will mediate human relationships and affect human understanding
  • Exploring the dialogue between products, people, and contexts (physical, cultural, historical)

Interaction design is also a perspective that approaches the design of products in several different ways:

  • From an understanding of how and why people desire to use them
  • As an advocate for the users and their goals
  • As gestalts, not simply as sets of features and attributes
  • By looking to the future-seeing things as they might be, not necessarily as they currently are

Given these definitions, interaction designers must:

  • Learn new domains quickly
  • Solve problems both analytically and creatively
  • Be able to visualize and simplify complex systems
  • Empathize with users, their needs, and their aspirations
  • Understand the strengths and limitations of both humans and technology
  • Share a passion for making the world a better place through ethical, purposeful, pragmatic, and elegant design solutions

Many academic institutions with new or established interaction design and HCI programs are beginning to develop an understanding of interaction design and the qualities and skills required of interaction designers. Some of the most forward-thinking of these institutions include:

Other paths

But, do you really need a Master’s Degree or Ph.D. to practice interaction design? There are advantages to rigorous studio training combined with adequate breadth courses (in art, business, humanities, and science), to be sure. But some things, as in any discipline, can’t easily be taught. Empathy with users and the ability to conceptualize working solutions (and then refine them ruthlessly) are difficult skills to teach. At Cooper, we look for people with these talents, regardless of their formal education. Some come from traditional design backgrounds (industrial design and graphic design), but most have an eclectic education in the humanities, technology, or both. Many have had significant experience in software development organizations, working as technical writers, project managers, customer or technical support staff, and even programmers, where they created interaction designs out of pure concern for users being ill-served by technology.

If you are considering interaction design as a possible career shift, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Designers seldom code—if you are attached to programming, all power to you: the world needs more design-sensitive programmers. But unless you have complete control over your projects, you will be short-changing your users by trying to design and develop at the same time—it’s a conflict of interest. So, if you can’t stomach the thought of abandoning programming, interaction design may not be for you.
  • Usability research is tremendously important, but it isn’t design. It identifies problems, but doesn’t (except at the most detailed level) suggest solutions. Can you envision and refine broad and detailed solutions, or are you more comfortable extracting facts from known situations? If the latter, then usability may be a better focus for your interests.
  • Temperament is important. The best interaction designers I know are interested in everything, and willing (even eager) to immerse themselves in unfamiliar territories to learn and absorb. They are also very concerned about people as individuals and the human condition in general.
  • Designers all need some basic skills; interaction designers should be able to draw or write well (doing both is rare and valued), and must be able to communicate excellently with both their colleagues and their clients. The toughest skill to acquire is that combination of creative insight and analytical thinking that is the hallmark of a great interaction designer.

If any of this resonates with you, you may be an interaction designer in the making. Good luck in your pursuits!

18 Comments

Alfredo Saavedra
First I want to thank you for such a great article, it really helped understand a little bit better what is an Interaction Designer, I am still gonna research and study more before I jump to it 100%, although I think I have already made my choice. Even though this entry is like 7 years old, it really gives a good summary of what is Interaction Design. Thank You, ~Alfredo Saavedra
A.L.
Thank you for your article. I am interested in moving more into Interaction Design, but I do not have so much academic background in the field. How can I show employers my skills if I have no prior projects?
Fabio Silva
Hi. I am a programmer. And I mostly work with database-driven applications and JQuery for client-side interactions. Regarding database, it's not only "I will store your information and later, when you came back, I will show you". Just like JQuery (javascript library), they are responses to user acts. Isn't that kind of dynamic a behavior of the application? So, since I am intersted in add interaction design context into my future projects on web applications, why a programmer can't be on hands with an interaction designer? Thank you for your article. Fábio Silva.
bob quinn
I've been programming for 30+ years and seen *many* changes in that time. One of the most profound is how the design process occurs. UI used to be an after-thought, but now its the starting point. As a result, I'd encourage any programmer to learn Interactive Design. That said, I fail to understand why/how programming and ID are at odds. They complement each other in web development. Also, although historically it is true that designers did not code, with the need for Flash, Javascript and CSS it is less true everyday. In some cases (small web dev shops), even knowledge of server-side PHP/SQL may be needed. And finally, with the advent of data visualizations being used for navigation (Flash or Progression.org), the distinction between programmer and designer is further blurred. Regards, bob quinn
Fábio Silva
True. If I fail to understand the ID behavior designed for my application, how can I code that? []s Fábio
Jyoti Pandey
Thanks alot for the info.. But it would be better if u could quote an example.. :|
Paul Neave
Interaction Design is still a nacent, misunderstood and oft-overlooked discipline. Great article though - it should really help people better understand what it is to be an Interaction Designer and how to get into the industry.
Michelle Boisson
I'd like to add: New York University's Interactive Telecommunications program http://itp.nyu.edu/ and School of Visual Arts' Interaction Design progra, http://interactiondesign.sva.edu to the list of schools.
Dalila
Thank you for the post, it provides great tools to explain our career to others! I would like to add the User System Interacton program from TU/e in Enindhoven, Netherlands. It is a novel, international, multidisciplinary program that offers a solid background on both: user research and the entire life cycle process from concept, to design (prototyping) and testing. Coming from a Human Factors background I believe it is a great way to enter the ID discipline! Hope this helps some readers considering the same path. Again, thanks for the post! Dali
Josh
One Interaction Design school that is pretty amazing is the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. Check it out! http://ciid.dk/education/
Tomer G.
Hei people you might be interested in reading a recent interview with Bill Verplank. The reason why I am reporting this is that, among the other things, he stated "my favorite post-graduate program now is a spin-off of IDII: the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID)". http://johnnyholland.org/2010/12/15/an-interview-with-bill-verplank/
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[...] Robert Reimann. 2008. Então você quer ser um designer de interação. Tradução disponível em: www.faberludens.com.br/pt-br/node/96 Texto original “So you want to be an interaction designer”, disponível em: http://www.cooper.com/journal/2001/06/so_you_want_to_be_an_interacti.html/ [...]
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[...] So You Want To Be An Interaction Designer (from Cooper) and So You Want to Be an Interaction Designer 2006 (from AdaptivePath). How had I not heard of Interaction Design (commonly abbreviated IxD) before this week? There is just so much in these two articles that resonates with me and calls to something within me. Is this another fleeting passion of my scanner-ness? Who cares, it sounds fascinating, and I think I’m going to spend some time checking it out. Any Interaction Designers have some favorite introductory books they’d like to recommend? [...]
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Jacqueline
Thank you for this article! I am a copywriter, but I love doing interaction design. I don't work as an ID professionaly, but I would definitely love to as I believe the combination of doing both copy (which is basically content-ID) could be a great combination. It's hard however, to find out what exactly I should learn to become an actual ID :-)
Chris Noessel
Jacqueline, if you're not looking for formal training, I penned an article about self-study interaction design that you may be interested in, on this very blog: http://www.cooper.com/journal/2013/01/self-study-interaction-design
xsuii
Thanks for your article, and it makes me more profound understanding of the interaction design. I've actually met the situation meets your point of view that designer seldom code. I'm a computer science undergraduate, but in daily software development work I was so much more care about the software interaction and it's experience design that made my actual development work sucks. Seems interaction design is more attractive to me and I struggling about whether move into interaction design.

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