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!