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!