Is Interaction Design a dead-end job?

IDEO’s Bill Moggridge made a comment last week after a screening of Objectified that hit close to home. To paraphrase, he said interaction design has become pervasive, that anyone and everyone can be an interaction designer, and so the role of professional interaction designer is (or is becoming) unnecessary.

So, is Interaction Design a dead-end job?

As an expertise, no. But as a discrete service offering or a career path, I say absolutely.

This position has not made me any new friends around the office, but to be clear, I’m not suggesting our profession is akin to flipping burgers at the mall. Instead, it’s that interaction design has reached a point of maturity where growth is constrained. I see three major factors behind this and hope that by acknowledging them we can find a way forward.

1: Developers get it

The practice of “interaction design” grew from the need to present software experiences to users in a way that makes sense, meets their needs, is consistent and coherent and “usable” and ultimately desirable. Other actors in the creation of software, from senior management to product managers to developers, had little exposure to these values nor the abilities to deliver on them.

The landscape is much different today. Developers have a much stronger sense of “good” and “appropriate” interactions. Entire development methodologies revolve around delivering value to users by understanding their needs. There are many developers and development-driven organizations with little or no professional Interaction Design involvement making good software.

Modern development frameworks provide a strong baseline for producing interfaces and interactions that in the past required a skilled interaction designer to realize. On iPhone, for example, while it’s certainly hard to produce great experiences, it’s just as difficult to produce bad UI. On the Web, AJAX libraries offer very usable UI patterns right out of the box and greatly reduce the custom design and coding efforts required to build good online applications.

So from the software side, as the level of interaction design awareness and quality continues to improve throughout development organizations, Interaction Designers are no longer as frequently or as heavily needed to bring a successful product to market.

2: Interaction is not an on-screen activity

Another factor is the emergence of more direct input and feedback mechanisms in today’s software-enabled devices. Interaction designers are vital to help translate between human and computer when interfaces are composed of virtual abstractions with no corresponding physical affordances to aid comprehension. As software manipulation becomes more “natural,” the work of designing appropriate interactions moves from the screen out to the device as a whole.

Design of physical devices has traditionally been the purview of industrial designers, a profession with its own long history of considering context and user needs to design products driven by and responding to user interaction. And industrial design education today can include much of the same user-centered design training familiar to interaction designers.

So from the hardware side, Interaction Designers are encroaching upon an established discipline with deeper roots and a better understanding of physical materials and human ergonomics.

3: Experience is a brand attribute

Risen from the ashes of the advertising industry’s digital agencies is a new type of creative agency that sees as its mission defining a product’s overall experience. They strive to enable “engagement” and to develop the “brand experience.” These agencies typically forge a more strategic relationship with clients and manage a product’s entire ‘interface’ with its users, including physical objects, packaging and supporting materials, online service offerings, personal touchpoints, advertising and marketing campaigns.

So from the marketing side, Interaction Designers are brushing up against savvy brand management professionals with more creative control and the executive buy-in necessary to execute their ideas.

A way forward

But all is not lost. The acknowledgment and appreciation of good interaction design has allowed the practice to evolve to include a broader mandate encompassing product and service strategy throughout the customer relationship lifecycle. We’ve adopted terms like “user experience” or simply “experience design” to express our attention beyond individual interactions with screen-based interfaces. Strategic ‘interaction design’ today considers the total experience a person has with your products, your service, your entire organization, and your brand.

We can build on that as all of these practices converge along with the products and services we’re creating. What’s important to recognize is that in doing so we are not entering virgin territory but treading on ground that is already occupied and whose occupants are blazing similar trails in their quests to understand how it all fits together.

The challenge we face is to determine and capitalize on that part of our expertise that is uniquely valuable while working with other disciplines towards a greater whole.

Tim McCoy

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