What is interaction design?

What is interaction design (IxD)? In this article we explore what interaction design is, how it's different to UX and UI design, and what interaction designers do.

UX and UI Design
What is interaction design?

Websites, apps, and software depend on interaction design (IxD) to make simple and meaningful experiences for users. 

In this article, we cover what interaction design is, how interaction design differs from UX and UI design, and what interaction designers do.

Interaction design explained

Interaction design lies at the convergence of human computer interaction. Its purpose is to transform digital products from mechanical and cold experiences into those that feel natural and personal.

Or put another way, interaction design is the process that makes websites and apps interactive.

Interaction designers focus on what users want to achieve when interacting with a digital product. They provide us with experiences that meet our needs and enable our success. 

There are so many examples of interaction design that we move through without knowing. For example, we scroll through our Instagram feeds and hit the red heart when we want to like a post. We swipe left or right on dating apps like OkCupid, hoping to be rewarded with that hopeful message that we’ve made a match. We learn new languages on applications like Duolingo, which cheer us on with cartoon-like characters when we’ve completed a lesson. 

Interaction design comes up with these points of engagement and determines the feedback we receive when we take these actions.

interaction design
The Facebook like button is instantly recognizable. It offers an obvious visual cue to what it signifies. Image source: Wikipedia

What questions does interaction design ask?

Interaction design focuses on answering questions like:

  • What should the main interaction design goals be for this app or website?
  • What type of user interactions need to be in place?
  • What feedback will give users clues that they’ve completed an action? 
  • How does a system need to be designed to prevent errors?
  • How should interactions look and feel? What shape, size, etc. should interactive elements be?

How does interaction design create a dialogue between users and computers?

When we use an app or website, we're brought through a series of steps depending on what we want to do. When we take a specific action or input information, the computer responds. When we do something else, the system responds again. 

Interaction design focuses on making this back-and-forth feel smooth and natural. Instead of the computer commanding us in a one-way exchange, we become part of an ongoing dialogue as we make our way through each step.

interaction design

How does interaction design create engagement?

UI elements, micro-interactions, navigational options, and other types of interactive elements act as guides that enable us to accomplish certain actions. Interaction design not only lays out these steps, but predicts how we’ll respond and behave.

Usability.gov, in a post about the basics of interaction design, asks designers to consider the following when adding UI elements and other interactive features into a design:

  • Are the elements a reasonable size that enables users to interact with them?
  • Do menus and other navigational options occupy corners or other obvious intersections of lines or edges?
  • Are common design patterns and familiar interactions in place to help visitors navigate and engage?
airbnb interaction design
The search box on the Airbnb landing page encourages users to easily interact and find what they're looking for.

Why is interaction design important?

Sure, engineering is important. But even the most sophisticated tech fails if it's overly complicated. Interaction design is the warm and fuzzy counterpart to engineering, humanizing how we engage with digital products. It's what makes us want to use a product again and again. 

Interaction designers foster empathy and connection. They understand the psychology and motivations of the target audience, and tailor interactions that leave us feeling good.

What makes for good interaction design?

Good interaction design enhances usability and provides us with everything we need to have a smooth journey. 

Below is a breakdown of the main principles interaction designers consider when designing an interaction.

  • Understanding users: Interaction designers consider who will be engaging with the product and what their needs are.
  • Being intentional and obvious: Whether it’s the microcopy directing visitors through a series of interactive steps, a button to “shop now”, or the settings on the control panel for a mobile device, interactions should have a specific purpose. Along with being intentional, interaction design also needs to be obvious. The functionality of icons, UI elements, and other interactive features should be easy to recognize. Twitter’s retweet icon, Instagram’s comment bubble, and Lyft’s form asking “Where are you going?” are all interactive elements that have a clear purpose. 
  • Providing feedback: Interaction design lets users know when they’ve completed a task or taken a step by responding with text, visuals, animations, audio, or a change in state. 
  • Giving context: Interaction designers consider where a product is most likely to be used. For example, a mobile app that’s used by people on the go will function differently to a lengthy website likely to be viewed on a desktop. 
  • Providing interactions based on information structure and organization: The information architecture of a website can tell us when and where interactions should occur. Interaction designers pay attention to the overall organization of information and find the precise moments these interactions happen. 

What’s the difference between interaction design and UX/UI design?

The lines between user interface (UI), user experience (UX), and interaction design can be blurry, as there’s some overlap between these disciplines. Let's explore what these differences are in more detail.

Interaction design vs UI design

UI design concerns itself with the visual aesthetics of interface elements, like icons, drop-downs, and navigational menus. Interaction design determines the functionality of these elements depending on the target audience. 

Think of a physical object, like the mobile device that you’re likely reading this on. It probably has a variety of buttons on both sides. A UI designer determines the shape, size, and look of these controls. An interaction designer determines the functionality of these buttons and how they’ll contribute to the overall experience. 

interaction design
Figma occupies its top left nav with icons and associated drop-downs. The look and feel of these symbols are the responsibility of UI designers.

Interaction design vs UX design

UX design takes a broad approach in crafting user experiences that create a mood or atmosphere, convey a sense of personality, or have a distinct feel. The color palette, typography, visuals, brand voice, layout, animations, images, and other design elements come together, offering a distinct user experience.

Interaction design falls within the realm of UX design, and determines what type of interactions will be the right fit for a particular user experience. 

Where UX designers take a wide-angle approach focused on the overall experience of an app or website, interaction designers takes a more granular approach. They focus on human behavior and immersing users in experiences that feel personal and inviting. 

What do interaction designers do?

By now you've hopefully got a basic understanding of what interaction design is, so let's explore what interaction designers do.

The main goal for interaction designers is to focus on taking care of user needs and designing a positive experience. Part of interaction designers’ work might include:

  • Doing user research to better understand a target audience.
  • Running preference tests to determine what type or style of interactions will work best, and to ensure interactive elements are a reasonable size that makes sense for the design.
  • Organizing content so that interactions follow logically.
  • Performing navigation testing to make sure that user flows are efficient. 
  • Running prototype testing to fine-tune the overall user experience design, and problem solving any issues users may encounter.
  • Identifying the actions or commands that will guide users to reach their goals.
  • Coming up with error messages and ways to correct problems if users make a mistake.
  • Determining what type of feedback will appear when an action is performed. 

Interaction design enhances usability 

Interaction design provides helpful features that make people feel good about their experience using a website or app. Hopefully this article has given you a basic understanding of what interaction design is and why it’s important.

Are you ready to start improving your interaction designs? Sign up for a free UsabilityHub account to get started with user research and usability testing.

Frequently asked questions about interaction design

What is interaction design?

Interaction design makes websites and apps interactive. The purpose of interaction design is to transform digital products from mechanical and cold experiences into those that feel natural and personal.

What are the main principles of interaction design?

Good interaction design enhances usability. The main principles include understanding users; being intentional and obvious with interactions (e.g. a "shop now" button); providing feedback to users via text or visual prompts; giving context (e.g. considering where a product is most likely to be used); and providing interactions based on information structure and organization.

What do interaction designers do?

Interaction designers focus on taking care of user needs and designing a positive experience. The responsibilities of an interaction designer might include: doing user research, running preference tests, performing navigation tests, running prototype tests, identifying actions or commands that will guide users, coming up with error messages, and determining what type of feedback will appear when an action is performed.

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