Interaction design can be an ambiguous concept. It is defined in many ways, by many people, and is a continuous dialogue of refining not only what exactly it is but how exactly to explain it to someone. I do not assert that I have the answer but, at the very least, I have thoughts and insight worth adding to the dialogue.
Often interaction design is attached to new and emerging technologies. Quite frankly, it is pretty clear why. People like tangible things. Technology is ubiquitous, moves rapidly, and is very good at getting attention. Most important, people have a lot of trouble with technology. When I tell someone that an interaction designer makes your cellphone easier to use, it’s a concrete example and it makes sense to them – interaction design makes technology easier for people to use.
While that example may be concrete and easy to understand, it does little to set boundaries and actually define the field of interaction design. Being that interaction design is in the realm of design, there is a request for tangibility. But, using the example above, the cellphone is designed by the industrial designer. What then did the interaction designer do?
Defining interaction design is so troubling because it seems to occupy a space that does not exist, an invisible space. This is not an easy concept to grasp. How would I explain to my Grandma that I design invisible stuff? And, quite honestly, what would she think of her grandson then?
Fundamentally, interaction design deals with people. While all design does in some way, because it populates space in peoples’ lives, interaction design is unique in that the designer becomes a learner of how people act. An interaction designer is much more like a psychologist with a design degree. At its core, interaction design seeks to understand people.
But it is not just people interaction design seeks to understand, it’s the person-object relationship. As humans, we all tend to build a relationship with the objects in our life. We give them humanness. They have names. We fight with the objects; we love the objects. If they had a beating heart, some of our object would be little different than our friends.
It can thusly be said that interaction design structures the communication between a person and an object. This is the invisible space. An interaction designer does not design the phone in your hand but rather how you hold the phone in your hand and how you use the phone you’re holding in your hand.
There are many physical manifestations of interaction design but the single unifying feature is that they are all physical manifestations of understanding person-object communication. It is then the goal of an interaction designer to make that communication beneficial, simple, useful, and fun.
So when grandma asks what I do, “Remember when you yelled at your toaster yesterday? I make it so you and your toaster can live a happy life together.”
Interaction design extends to everything humans create. Anything that is designed, we have a communication with. Interaction design makes buildings, clothes, cars, government, education, cellphones, and toasters more human and acts as a sort of therapist to make sure that there is healthy communication.