What is an Interaction Designer?

After giving a workshop at Art Center College of Design on Interaction Design in the Enterprise, I had several conversations with students on what companies are expecting from interaction designers. Simply taking a look at interaction design job descriptions from various companies can quickly show the diverse expectations that are out there. Part of the issue I have encountered stems for the raw newness of the field. Its roots lie in graphic design and grew up through web and mobile apps. Job descriptions are often asking for a variety skills that span branding, graphic design, web and/or mobile development, visual UX design, sketch, wire framing, and user research. I have yet to meet a human who I would call an expert at all of these things, but if you are out there please introduce yourself to me because I have a job for you.

I would never ask a developer to do a branding exercise with a customer, but I could imagine the hilarity of the outcome. We would also never ask a developer to design the UX. Developers do not think like users – they think like systems, workflows, services and information. The visual experience a developer would design might look more like a data entry form because it is perceived as efficient. On the other side, we have graphic designers who are skilled on creating beautiful looking UX, but they also do not always think like users. We all have downloaded really cool looking apps that, after using it for a short while, stop using them because they feel clunky and are difficult to use. Of course we all have encountered developers and graphic designers who can think like users, which usually comes from the wisdom associated with building many, many experiences (we love you guys).

So if you do not want to have your app feel like a data entry form, or a beautiful app that no one wants to use, what do you do? This is the space that interaction design fills. This is how we use interaction design:

After a project has been won, features need to be identified. Long gone are those days where features (or for you old timers, requirements) are documented in words. We have learned a long time ago that documents that describe apps quickly become out of date and are difficult to maintain. What is worse is that two people reading the document can have two completely different expectations on what the app will do. That is the best and fastest way to have an unhappy project outcome. So instead of writing documents, we spend most of our time working with various stake holders and listening to their ideas. These are ideas that they have come to us to make real. We facilitate the conversations to draw out the information we need. This is a team effort, and on that team we have an interaction designer. The interaction designer works with the team to crystalize the features, sketch concepts, and facilitate the conversations with the stakeholders. The sketches and storyboards that emerge are created by the interaction designer and then discussed with the stakeholders for validation, and course corrections are made with the pencil (not in code). Feeding the sketches is the wisdom of designing dozens (if not hundreds) of apps across many different industries.

Should the project warrant it, the interaction designer can organize and execute on user testing to validate the early concepts. When does a project need user testing? This is a common question. The truth is that even though you are creating a new app, it might be so familiar that the user is well understood simply because of past experiences. But when the user is not understood, user testing is necessary to maximize your chances of getting the app right the first time. With user testing, feedback is collected and concepts are modified. We use sketches during this to have people focus on the features of the app, and not, for example, on how well the branding is integrated into the app. Transitions and animations can also be important parts to help users understand the app. In this case, the interaction designer can create simulated but guided experiences to allow the user to more deeply experience the app. Depending on the user population and how much energy the customer wants to put into user research, a fully branded simulated experience can be created by the interaction designer.

All of this is to solicit quality feedback before software development actually begins. A quality estimate can be produced because the features have been thoroughly analyzed. Expectations have been managed because the customer has seen the app before it was developed. With this process, we can produce an accurate build schedule and estimate to complete the work.

Once app construction begins, the interaction designer works closely with the graphic designer so that the design can be productionalize into art assets that the developers can use. Typically our graphic designers have more technical expertise than the interaction designer because they are more focused on the pixels and what the target platform can and cannot do. The graphic designer will create static visual comps of the app that are appropriately layered so that the development team can pull out the pieces to be integrated into the app. The production work that goes into building the art assets is extremely tedious and requires detail oriented people, right down to each pixel. Everything is positioned based to the pixel. All colors are defined in hex. Detail after detail, and nothing is left subject to interpretation by the development teams.

Once the app is constructed, it must go through a finalization and usability stage. There are things in design that simply cannot be addressed until the app is constructed. These might be subtle animations to cue the user, or how a list of items responds to a touch gesture, or how one view of the app animates to the next view. You just cannot plan for these things until the app is running and you can see everything in context. Issues can arise from data dependencies and latencies that came about that were unplanned. The interaction designer works with the team to guide final usability modifications to complete the experience.

Even before a project is won, interaction design can be used to echo back early concept conversations to show customers that you are interested in the work, invested in its success, and want to understand more about what needs to be accomplished. This is done with the power of the pencil in sketch. For a customer seeking solutions, nothing is more powerful than seeing an idea come to life in a simple sketch. This quickly builds a level of trust that we would not have otherwise been able to achieve. Interaction design can help you win the work.

I’m hoping that this post has provided some clarity to companies seeking interaction designers and what they should expect from them. Interaction designers are filling a huge hole in many companies. The appropriate use will lead to more successful projects time and time again. With interaction design you can expect that your projects can be more accurately scoped and your customers’ expectations much better managed.