What’s a “true” interaction designer?

Recently I ran into a former colleague from Oracle while meeting with the Cisco WebEx design team, an informal meet-n-greet session to share and learn about our different projects. After I presented some rather visually bold next-generation UI concepts, she asked me aside who did the compelling visuals. I casually indicated that I did, which prompted a reply of surprise: “Really! I thought you were a true interaction designer, doing only flows, wireframes, diagrams, you know that sort of thing.” To which I responded vaguely, yes well I’m a hybrid I guess, etc…

Yet I knew what she meant really, and I must admit that I’ve always found that somewhat annoying. It’s not her fault of course, but there is a general misperception that interaction designers don’t/can’t/won’t do “beautiful” designs, which are believed to be the province solely of “visual designers”. I don’t want to get into the sources and catalysts for this misguided belief here. (I suspect a slushy cocktail mix of poor HR job descriptions, lots of varying college courses, CHI, Jakob Nielsen, amateur web designers, AIGA’s early attempts at “experience design”, IA vs IxD territoriality, etc.) And I’ve previously stated at length on this blog the value of beauty and aesthetics and why beauty matters for IxD professionals, so I’ll avoid jumping onto that soapbox again ;-)

But my friend’s off-hand comment does make me pause about the broader issue of what it means to be a “true” interaction designer.

To be sure, this is not about a holy war over definitions about “interaction design” vs. “interface design” vs. “experience design”. Ugh! That’s been done ad nauseum elsewhere and just tires me out. No, what’s more crucial is a fundamental existential question, not an epistemological issue, of what it means to BE an interaction designer. It’s not about definition but about action and essence, the act of living and embodying the values of an IxD professional and expressing them in your work and life.

In my personal view (shaped by my own diverse work and academic circumstances) a “true” interaction designer:

– Believes in the human experience and seeks to enrich, enliven, enable the ultimate and highest quality of that experience, however that may manifest: products, interfaces, services, processes, etc.

– Is a champion of aesthetic value: visual, behavioral, sensual, etc. If you don’t give a damn about this (or unwilling to even attempt this), then you’re not a designer (interaction or otherwise), plain and simple. Sorry.

– Leads with a design process, but not beholden to it; willing to try new approaches to discover insights to old problems. Understands that innovation comes from diverse (and often unexpected) sources and starting points. I remember a brainstorm at Involution where the main UI concept came from the client’s CFO of all people!

– Does typical process artifacts like diagrams, flows, wireframes, site maps, system models, but with an eye towards how they shape the screens/widgets/components/behaviors (seeing both forest and trees, and the leaves!). Also is willing to skip ahead or jump back if needed…

– Sketches, draws, visualizes, iterates, prototypes, over and over again, to get better resolution of solutions for well-defined problems. The “spec” does not drive the designing no matter how hard the engineers or product managers throw a tantrum. Designing is a humanistic act of creativity, not rote mechanical documentation. That comes later.

– Takes pride in the craft of making a superb experience, always seeking to make it insanely better but knowing it will never be perfect. It’s not a Sisyphian task (rolling the boulder up a hill for eternity) but more of a zen thing.

– Leverages research (of users, of technology, of business) where appropriate to guide decision-making as needed but again, not beholden to it.

In sum, my view of a “true” interaction designer is really an informed visionary–embodying a perhaps mythical amalgam of talent, ingenuity, knowledge, craft, strategic thinking, trendsetting, and a ferocious will of spirit to command and deliver brilliant solutions.

Holding to that standard, I have a very long way to go! And frankly, so do many others ;-) But that’s ok. That’s what makes being an interaction designer an incredible lifelong journey. You gotta love it… or leave it!

4 comments

  • Uday, I’m going to make this very short … That just sounds like the definition of a designer, no? Any ID, IxD, architecture, etc. school worth its salt is going to say the same thing about their “true” designer.

    I do believe in your gut reaction to that person’s statement however. But I think what you miss is that all of the above is true, except that interaction designers use all the above to design from a particular point of view. Not the shape, or the space, or the look, but the story. What story does the design hold. What is the dialog between all the players, how does its pace manifest itself, etc. That is our focus and holding to that understanding or affinity is what makes us “true” to ourselves.

    (ok, not so short!)

  • I thought I captured the sense of story and such in the phrase “human experience” and when I alluded to doing flows/system models/maps?

    At the end of the day, we’re all just designers! And today every good designer must consider human experience, aesthetics, technology, business models, etc. ie, designing from a perspective of interaction. (in the Dick Buchanan-sense)

  • Uday, I don’t disagree with you. But the title of your piece is a “true” interaction designer.

    it sounds like to me that a “true” interaction designer is just a great designer.

    But I think this misses the point completely about having different types of designers. Yes, there is at the core of all design the things you mention, but what distinguishes a “true” interaction designer from a “true” industrial designer. They both do all the things that you listed above, but what differentiates them? Their craft? Their concentration? Their expertise?

    If you are a true IxD can you really flow into becoming an industrial designer by learning Alias or Rhino? I definitely don’t think so. The foundational learning process that IDs go through is significant and important. I think the opposite is also true, but not as dramatic (yet, though it will be once the education and career path methods get solidified through evolution).

    Basically, what makes us true IxDs is that element that “prevents” the “easy” transition from one medium/discipline of design to the other. What that is is a HUGE conversation.

    — dave

  • hi dave, thanks for the elaboration… ok, so now i see where i might be missing you.

    this post was not intended to carve out the focus of concern for interaction design vs. industrial or graphic or other disciplines of design activity. (ie, it’s not about discipline separation, like what makes each one “true” against each other and the various knowledge bases, skillsets, that one must acquire, and so on)…instead, i think this post is a personal values statement, and was also frankly a subtle rebuke against “amateur” or “poser” (for lack of better word) IxD’s who (again, in my *personal* view) do not embody that which i ostensibly refer to as a “true” IxD. perhaps “authentic” is a better word…

    so then what’s NOT an “authentic” IxD in this light? those who just use tools like flash or photoshop without regard to their purpose and value in context of shaping an engaging product interaction, those who blindly follow supposed gurus of usability (ummm, jakob & don :-) without deeper understanding of the human experiential issues, those who simply follow a 1-2-3 UCD process rotely without regard for the broader dimensions of product innovation, those who take user research at face value blindly without regard to personal vision and serendipitous creativity or don’t get into business and technology discussions, or they just do flows and wireframes and stop there, without going the next step to visuals and even lightweight prototyping (which, as i said in my post, even i need to push myself further on that).

    again, this was more of a high level values statement that yes, i agree could be applied to any designer (graphic, industrial, architecture, automotive, fashion) but more importantly it’s meant to suggest an inspiring benchmark for becoming unique and extraordinary …maybe even heroic, if you will. applied to interaction design, a designer is well set (in my view) to tackle complex interactions, digital products, and so on and perform brilliantly.

    hope that clarifies a little bit.

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