What is “interaction design”?

Oh boy, here we go with design definitions :-) We hate ’em and we love ’em, just admit it! Whenever I see a design definition thread online, I often roll my eyes and rapidly scroll through the commotion, “smiling through the tears”.

Two things about definitions I want to point out:

  • 1. There’s a profound essay by CMU’s Dick Buchanan which I will try to type up verbatim one day in which he masterfully articulates the difference between two types of definitions serving either tactical or strategic purposes. I’ll dig it up and post online soon–it’s well worth the effort, I promise! Everyone should read it and reflect upon their own quest for “the right definition” of design and why it’s such a lively yet frustrating effort. I think you’ll soon discover that almost everyone is at cross-purposes in “defining design” without knowing why.
  • 2. Continuing this stream about tactical vs. strategic, I want to point out the difference between “categories” and “topics” as Buchanan elucidates. It relates to the different types of definitions…

From the rhetorical POV that Buchanan argues, a category is a tightly constrained, narrowly worded definition that is set once and for all, with no room for expansion. It’s “locked down” in a sense for specific purposes. I suspect for immediate application.

In constrast, a topic (from topos, or place, just like topology, the study of spatial structure) is more open to interpretation, used as a tool for conceptual re-thinking of issues, flipping people’s perspectives on something, forcing a new way of looking. It promotes invention of ideas, meanings, and applications. It’s basically a place for exploration and understanding, fostering debate and expansion to new domains or areas of thought. Should facilitate what Peter Senge called a “shift of mind” or metanoia in his popular book The Fifth Discipline (which, if you’re wondering, is “systems thinking”).

(A quick film reference: remember in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ character urged the dutiful timid schoolboys to stand up in class and stand on top of their desks? He wanted them to break their conditioned routine way of thinking and seeing, to experience metanoia, a new field of view and thus hopefully discovery of new possibilities.)

So with that as background, here’s my “definition” of interaction design:

A humanistic activity centered on the conception, planning, and creation of behaviors (ie, the interactions) that shape an engagement between a person and some “other”, an artificial form (ie, web, mobile, physical, hybrid) that connects to the overall experience.

There is nothing inherent to interaction that says it is only digital; indeed designing interaction has been going on for centuries, it’s just no one called it that! For example, when people used things to execute a task or fulfill a goal (ie, hold a hammer to drive a nail), they were interacting with tools or information to act somehow. But given the recent hype over “interactive media”, the popular perception is that this concept of interactivity arose only recently. More commonly, interaction design is often perceived to be just “designing websites”, which is woefully limiting on so many levels. (see my piece on Digital Product Design) The concept of “interaction” has been around, just not consciously, rigorously investigated as such till recently. Also, new insights from “interaction” have started to inform traditional fields like industrial and graphic design. (see job postings by hardware OEMs, identifying interaction designers as part of the team or designers of wayfinding signage asking questions of flow, context, utility)

But to continue further, for me interaction design is a topic (I use that word very deliberately) for rich conceptual exploration of issues central to current and future humanity: choice, control, freedom, beauty, trust, emotion, expression, experience, and so on that lie at the heart of the relationship (engagement or situation–a very powerful concept here as will be described shortly in this blog) between a person and an “other” be it digital, physical, or environmental, etc. It’s an area of rich, liberal possibilities.

So, in sum interaction design (in my view) is a) tactically the articulation of sequence, flow, pacing of behaviors and their consequence (e.g., what happens when I click, twist, turn, move, tap this?) for product execution and b) strategically a force for exploring the possibilities (topics) of shaping technologies to respond to human values. It is also c) pragmatically a set of concepts and methods for thinking through problems concerning the relationship (ie, engagement) between people, technology, and contexts. Interaction design is not limited to only making websites or software or gadgets. For me the key word here is “possibilities”…leading to invention, creativity, and so on for situations beyond a specific medium or technology, such as business processes, social services, organizations, cultures, policies, systems…in short, an evolved set of “orders of design”, as Dick Buchanan explains.

Getting back to this issue of definitions, I just want to quickly quote something he recently said at the Emergence 2007 conference on service design (applicable to interaction, industrial, whatever design):

“Did anyone find a definition of service design? I didn’t find one, and I am not bothered by that. Defining disciplines lacks value. Instead, we should ask ourselves, ‘What is the RESULT of service design? What industries does it touch? What is its deeper purpose?”

from Alexa Andrzejewski on Adaptive Path’s Blog

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