For the uninitiated, interaction design is less a job than a type of architectural practice. It’s been around for quite a while, though often under different job titles. Think hypermedia designer, information architect, GUI designer, front-end engineer or user experience architect. While the titles have changed in relation to the environment, industry or task at hand, the practice has remained fundamentally the same.
Interaction designers look at an organization’s overall needs, observe how users interact with products or concepts and meld the hierarchy of content and activities in a way that engages people. To be successful, they must be conversant in all of the elements – in terms of both design and technology — that will result in the end product.
Put another way, interaction designers observe what’s going on with real human beings, find out what their core needs are, look for insights and start to make things. For example, Maggie Hendrie, chair of Art Center College of Design’s Interaction Design program in Pasadena, Calif., once worked with a car manufacturer that was having trouble getting consumers to divulge their social security numbers for pre-approval on loans. Users seemed more inclined to log off at that request than complete the loan form that led to final customization of their cars. The manufacturer had created a whole online experience, but it wasn’t working.
Through observation of people participating in similar activities and by collecting both physical and technical data about what was happening and when, Hendrie discovered that the company was asking for sensitive information far too early. Before handing over their SSNs, customers wanted to look at samples and decide on things like their vehicle’s color and interior. They wanted to consider general usage, commuting and road trips. They also wanted the ability to send photos of the car to friends and family before making any kind of commitment. As a result of her research, Hendrie designed a new interface and the problem was solved.
So what skills do interaction designers need? First, they must be able to advocate for user experience while understanding the technology needs of both users and the tech team. Having the ability to gather user data and communicate your ideas with a project team and employer is critical, as well.
More companies are using interaction designers, either as full-time employees or through partners or vendors. Among their needs are people who can handle digital project design, service design and physical product design. Investment firms and healthcare organizations in particular are looking for improved, technically smart and human-centered ways to interact with users. “It’s all about the right tool for the right thing,” says Hendrie.
Driving these needs is a lack of differentiation between good and poor design. This lack of attention leads users to be less patient with poorly designed systems, or to avoid online interaction altogether. More companies now believe that using interaction designers early in the development process can change the course of conversations and add considerable value.