Tips, tricks, workflow, and how not to get bogged down by it all.

Self-study Interaction Design

In classes and cocktail hours, lots of people ask me either how they can switch careers into interaction design, or how they can improve their self-trained “IxD” chops.

Of course Cooper offers a number of awesome training courses to help folks do just that (but we can’t be everywhere in the world at once) and there are great university courses here in San Francisco Bay Area and around the world (but not everyone can take that kind of time off).

So if you’re a self-starter, unable to attend a training session and can’t take time off for school, or want to be able to speak the language of interaction design, what can you do? How can you make those first steps to getting more familiar with the field?

I recommend reading up on some of the fundamentals, join up with practitioners online, and actually start designing. More on each follows.

Read up on the fundamentals

Get your hands on copies of the following three books and give them a good read. Not a flip through, and not a skim. These are the basic things you need to know. Please note that I’m aware of the conflict of interest of a Practice Lead at Cooper saying that two of three fundamental books are ones published by Cooper, but even after much handwringing and gnashing of teeth over the seeming conflict of interests, these are still my recommendations. They would be if I didn’t work here.


The Inmates Are Running the Asylum
by our own Alan Cooper

“Inmates” details the reasons why designers should lead the charge of software design, and why personas are the primary tool we use to do it.


The Design of Everyday Things
by Donald Norman


Norman plainly lays out the fundamentals of design thinking from cognitive psychology, industrial design, and interaction design standpoints.


About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design
by Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, & David Cronin


AF3 contains best practices for the medium of the human-computer interface.

(If you happen to be a sci-fi fan, I’ll certainly also recommend my own book and blog as a way of applying design thinking to interfaces that appear in that perennially-favorite genre, but it’s hardly considered a fundamental.)


Join conversations

A next thing you can do is to get involved with current conversations by practicing interaction designers. That can be in person, by attending conferences and local groups, or it can be online in forums. However you do it, when you join these conversations, you become familiar with shared vocabulary, ways of discussing, and current concerns of real practitioners.

In person: Attend gatherings

  • IXDA: The most active and relevant to practitioners, IXDA has an annual conference and lots of active, local chapters
  • ACM SIGCHI: More formal and aimed at students and academics, the CHI conferences are where you’ll encounter smart people pushing at the forefront of interaction design knowledge
  • Local Meet-Ups: Meetup.com is a website where you can find folks interested in meeting around particular topics.
  • Cooper Pubs and Parlors: If you’re around the San Francisco Bay Area, a few times a year Cooper hosts Cooper Pub and Cooper Parlor, where we sit around, salon-style, and do a deep dive into tools or topics.

Online: Follow feeds

Cooper Journal: Well, OK, you’re already reading this blog, but there are lots of design blogs and social media feeds each with its own take on the practice. Here are four others, top of mind. Note that almost any other designer will have different answers to this same question.



If you’re the Twittering sort, you can subscribe to some of these same feeds. Or you could trust one of the awesome advanced aggregators like Prismatic, setting up an interaction design topic, and let it do the work for you.

Online (advanced): Use forums

Forums are places where you can read past and current threads (and of course run into trolls and get burned in flame wars, so keep a clear head about yourself.)

  • IXDA’s forums are fairly active with practitioners.
  • Google groups and Yahoo groups: Have a mix of in-person and online groups, but it’s a place.
    The internet is global, of course, and groups in different countries may prefer other sites. (If you know of any, drop ‘em in the comments for other readers!)

Most importantly, start designing

That’s right, start designing. Start today. It doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking. There are lots of problems in the world with existing products, experiences, and services for which the tools of interaction design can help shape an answer. Find them and tackle them using materials at hand. Post them to a blog or use them as material in an online portfolio. Get good at solving design problems well with limited time and on a limited budget, and you’ll be a shoo-in. ☺

As an example of this kind of design, Cooper has for a few years been publishing informal solutions to such problems as The Drawing Board. Watch a few of these to see examples of Cooper designers tackling a problem in a lightweight way. The following is the most recent at the time of publication.

The Drawing Board Episode 10: Lyrical Travel from Cooper on Vimeo.

You can also find a small real world project, like a website for yourself or a friend. Whatever the project, challenge yourself to put into practice everything that you’ve learned in order to demonstrate a deep understanding of the topics. These self-starter projects will give you practice and something to discuss with potential clients or employers.

Branching out from here (brace yourself)

It gets deep quickly, and there are dozens of ways to specialize your knowledge. These are just a few…


More fundamentals: The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, Designing Interfaces, Designing for Interaction

Cognitive Psychology: The Humane Interface, Mind Hacks, The Media Equation, Mental Models

Best Practices: Universal Principles of Design, Universal Methods of Design

User Research: The User is Always Right


Information architecture: Information Architecture for the World Wide Web

Systems thinking: A Pattern Language (and its companion The Timeless Way of Building), Growing Wings on the Way

Visual design (for interaction projects): The Elements of Graphic Design, Making and Breaking the Grid, Thinking with Type, The Art of Color

Usability: Don’t Make Me Think

Content strategy: Content Everywhere

How to program: Design by Numbers (very basics), Processing, HTML5

Search: Ambient Findability, Search Analytics for Your Site

Good consulting: Flawless Consulting, Getting to Yes

Interaction design history: Vannevar Bush, Marshal McLuhan, Richard Wurman (There’s lots more)

Group dynamics: Communities of Practice, Community Building on the Web

Service Design: The Experience Economy, Service Design (out 2013)

More general design and technology blogs: NotCot, FastCompany, Signal vs. Noise, How Design Inspiration, Smashing Magazine, Design Observer

You can also get more interested in future technologies, but as these are always changing, I’ll leave the specifics as an exercise for the student.

Interaction design is a deep, deep pool (that’s part of why I love it) but it’s not inaccessible. Get interested and start following some of these leads, find new ones, and you’ll be thinking like an interaction designer before you know it.

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