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Defining Interaction Design

“[Design] has never cohered into a unified profession, such as law, medicine, or architecture… Instead, design has splintered into ever-greater subdivisions of practice without any overarching concept of organization…”
— John Heskett
:: Toothpicks and Logos

When the founders of this site set out to create what we now know as Boxes and Arrows, they had four things on their mind: information architecture, interaction design, information design, and interface design. Now, only nine months later, Boxes and Arrows stands as one of the preeminent design communities on the Web and is well on its way to fulfilling its mission to be the “definitive source for the complex task of bringing architecture and design to the digital landscape.” With its first birthday a few short months away, it seems an appropriate time to expand the conversation and the community by examining issues outside the traditional scope of information architecture. To wit, I offer the first of a twelve-article, twelve-month series devoted to the field of interaction design.

The focus of this series is on the challenges inherent in the task of translating established product requirements into a browser-based interface. Along the way, we’ll discuss the activity of interaction design as it relates to the Web and the relative advantages and disadvantages of the Web as an interactive medium. In addition, we’ll examine a variety of solutions to common interaction design problems. Although the next eleven articles are already loosely mapped out, if there are particular topics you would like to have covered, please let me know and I’ll do my best to work them in.

And so we’re off. I hope the journey is a fun, useful, and educational one for us all.

We’re in this together

Ours is a world, an economy, and a profession that has embraced the idea of specialization of occupation on a scale heretofore unknown. Where six years ago someone who designed software could readily lay claim to the title “interface designer,” the explosion of the Web and other interactive mediums has split our profession into a variety of increasingly granular specialties.

Although this has sometimes been both necessary and useful, it has also resulted in a cacophony of competing titles, responsibilities, and consulting rates. As a result, even though we all approach our work from the same user-centric orientation, specialists working on one aspect of a design may be ignorant of the issues and compromises being made by other specialists working on other aspects of the design.

In particular, information architecture and interaction design have often been sequestered from one another. Where information architecture has tended to focus on content-centric sites, interaction design has tended to focus on functionality-centric sites. Now however, the two often find themselves in meetings together thanks to the proliferation of websites featuring both large volumes of content and sophisticated functionality.

Therefore, seeing as how we’re going to be in meetings together, it seems only polite to introduce ourselves to one another.

Structure vs. behavior: teasing apart IA and ID

A good place to begin is the definition of information architecture offered up by two of Michigan’s better minds. In their recently published second edition to Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Sirs Rosenfeld and Morville offer a lengthy definition of the field which focuses on four key themes:

  1. Information
  2. Structuring, organizing, and labeling
  3. Finding and managing
  4. Art and science

Other than the fact that “art and science” is endemic to all forms of design, their definition describes a fairly specific universe of design issues and challenges. In contrast, the field of interaction design concentrates on the following:

  1. Human/machine communication - At its most fundamental, interaction design serves to translate the conversation that goes on between the technology and the user. In the role of translator, interaction designers are required to understand the subtleties and colloquialisms of both parties, ensuring that they can readily and efficiently communicate with one another.
  2. Action/Reaction - Not surprisingly, the action/reaction dynamic of interactive media sits at the heart of interaction design. This requires the designer to understand and anticipate how interactions unfold over time, designing for the wide range of permutations that can occur.
  3. State - As part of its role as translator, interaction design is also concerned with ensuring the user understands the current state of the application. In the same way that humans use body language and social situation to govern and predict behavior, interactive systems communicate state so that users will understand what type of operations are possible or appropriate at any given time.
  4. Workflow - In addition to facilitating the completion of discrete tasks such as selecting a payment method, interaction design is also concerned with the completion of multi-task goals such as browsing, selecting, and purchasing an item. Like a film director connecting individual shots into scenes, and scenes into movies, the interaction designer uses individual screen elements to create pages, pages to create complex operations, and operations to create a complete application.
  5. Malfunction - As with all forms of communication, misunderstandings and mistakes occur. Therefore it is also part of the designer’s role to anticipate and mitigate those problems, ensuring that both the user and the system can easily recover.

Well-designed interactive products balance each of these concerns with the respective limitations and capabilities of both people and technology. Such products allow people and technology to carry on a complex and elegant dance relying on multiple, simultaneous forms of communication. The role of the interaction design, therefore, is to choreograph and facilitate the dance in a manner that makes everyone feel like Fred Astaire.

Such choreography, of course, requires an understanding of both the stage and the dancers. As a result, the best interaction designers draw from a variety of disciplines ranging from perceptual psychology to computer science.

Looking ahead

With that brief introduction to the field of interaction design behind us, we can start to examine more specific and thorny topics. Next month’s installment will include a comparison of web applications to traditional content-based sites as well as a consideration of the relative advantages and disadvantages of the Web as an application platform.

This article was originally published on November 11, 2002 in the online journal Boxes and Arrows.