Interaction design

Have you ever wanted to learn more about interaction design? In this article, we’ll define the differences between a user experience designer and an interaction designer. We’ll also explore the kinds of projects an interaction designer would work on, and the five dimensions of interaction design.

What is interaction design?

Interaction design is the part of the overall user experience that deals with the connection of a system and its user. Technically, an interaction designer and a user experience designer could work on the same areas of a design. However, if the two roles exist together in a company, an interaction designer would be more focused on how the system and user interact with each other. Let’s dig a little deeper to better understand the difference.

An interaction designer (IxD) defines the structure and behavior of interactive systems to create meaningful relationships between people and the products they use.

A user experience designer (UXD) focuses on the entire experience between a user and the product, not just the interactions. A UX designer is also striving to create meaningful experiences with people and the products they use.

What do interaction designers do?

Now that we have an understanding of the definitions, let’s evaluate this with a real-life example: voice assistants. If both user experience designers and interaction designers were working together on Siri, Alexa, or Cortana, they would both be interested in how the system interacts with a user. But an interaction designer would be focused on the voice itself. Here are some questions an interaction designer might ask:

  • What kind of tone does the assistant have? Happy, sad, serious, quirky?
  • What is the voice of the assistant? Feminine, masculine, robotic?
  • How do you address or talk to the assistant?
  • Does it have a name?
  • How does it respond to answers?
  • Is it encouraging?
  • Does it take sides or is it unbiased?
  • Are a user’s interactions purely voice-based or is there an on-screen component, too?
  • When things go wrong, what happens?
  • Can the device answer a user without an active internet connection?
  • Does this assistant enhance a user’s life?
  • Does this assistant identify itself as an AI to new users?

As you can see, these questions and design decisions are purely focused on the interactions and less about the overall experience of the AI.

A user experience designer on the same project would be focused on similar but more widespread issues:

  • What is the form factor of the device?
  • How does a user set it up?
  • Is there a set of instructions in the box?
  • Does it have a companion app?
  • Is there a status indicator on the device?
  • Are there buttons to interact with?
  • Is there a screen?
  • What happens if a user can’t set up the device properly?
  • What happens without an active internet connection?
  • Can this device pair via wireless and bluetooth?
  • What does this device look like in the space that it lives in?

As you can see, these questions are more about the entire experience of the device and less about the systems. These decisions would have an impact on the system, but aren’t directly tied to the interactions with the system.

Some other systems where interaction design is applied include banking, POS systems, airplane kiosks, learning software, Google Docs, and Microsoft Word.

What are the different dimensions of interaction design?

To get a better understanding of interaction design, there are four areas of focus that were created by interaction design pioneer and author Gillian Crampton Smith. These dimensions, introduced in her book, Designing Interactions, consist of:

  1. Words
  2. Visual representations
  3. Physical objects or space
  4. Time

Kevin Silver from IDEXX Laboratories added a fifth dimension: behavior. Together, all five of these dimensions encapsulate the entire experience: Both the input of a user into the system, and the output of the system that completes the interaction.

Words should be simple and easy to understand. They should communicate necessary information without confusing or disorienting the user.

Visual representations supplement the words. These include anything that’s not text: graphics, images, icons. Like words, visual representations should be helpful but not overwhelming: the catch-all for everything but text.

Physical objects or space refers to the input mechanism or hardware: What is the user physically interacting with? Is it a touchscreen device, mouse and keyboard, or mobile device? What space are they interacting with it in? On their commute? In the office? At a large table? In a stressful environment like the airport? All of these factors play into successful interactions with a user and the hardware.

Time refers to how long a user is interacting with the first three dimensions. A device or check-in process that’s designed to take 30 seconds would have a wildly different approach than a piece of business software that you use for multiple hours a day. Can a user save and/or track their progress? Or does it need to be so intuitive and simple that someone can easily walk up, check in, and walk away with little friction.

Behavior refers to how a user feels or reacts while using the design. What is their behavior while using it? Are they happy, frustrated, excited, or stressed? Did they complete the task successfully or did they fail? All of these put additional context into the design. A designer can construct how a user communicates with the system based on these interactions.

Why the five dimensions of interaction design are important

Products, software, apps, and services are how we designers communicate with our users. The more streamlined and digestible the content, the more satisfied users will be. The five dimensions present a clear visual and graphic framework; consider the space the product is in; and determine how long the product is being used. Armed with this knowledge, designers can be intentional about how they present information.

Solve interaction challenges as a team

Solving interaction problems as a team is a key part of the design workflow, but brainstorming and managing inspiration can be challenging, especially with teams.

Help your team better understand the needs of your users by brainstorming solutions on a digital whiteboard. InVision Freehand and Boards allow your team to collaborate on empathy maps, create wireframes, and gather design inspiration. Sketch out your own thoughts or add your feedback to someone else’s ideas. Either way, you’re working together in real time and pushing your project forward.

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