Interactive Design: It’s More Than You Think

Interactive screen photo

photo by Dan Zen, used under creative commons attribution license

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you’re like me—that you misunderstand what the term interactive design means. And this inaccurate perspective has limited our potential in the field of web design.

I’ll support my point with two facts: First, I recently started a master’s degree program where my major is Human Computer Interaction. We focus on what’s called Interactive Design. Prior to this, I thought ID was a broad term for any kind of design related to interfaces used in interactive or digital media. While this is kind of correct, it’s not quite dead-on. I bring up my master’s program only because it has revealed that I completely misunderstood the term interactive design.

Second, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing David Sherwin of frog design speak at several HOW Interactive Design Conferences. In fact, I heard him just a few weeks ago in Washington D.C., and will again in a few more in San Francisco. Frankly, this is why this topic is on my mind.

If you’re like me, you misunderstand ID—and this misunderstanding is really holding us back. So now I’d like to help set us on course.

During all the years I’ve worked in the industry, I figured I was doing ID only because I was working in the digital realm. I heard terms like user experience, user-centered design and personas, but just figured that they were add-ons to be used when it made sense or when a project budget was sufficient. I also had insanely egotistical thoughts like, “I know best what the user needs,” or “we can’t afford to ask for user input.” These and many other excuses kept me from ever really embracing these ideas. As a result I wasn’t really doing ID.

Contrast this with presentations I’ve heard from David—where these user-focused practices are the core of the project, and at times the entire project. For me the perspective didn’t stick, it never sank in. This approach just seemed unrealistic, or impractical for the most digital design projects. I missed the boat—but now I’m on board and I hope to get you on board as well.

Defining Interactive Design

So what is interactive design? What does it really mean? What are we missing?

ID isn’t just the act of designing something—it is a way of working. At the heart of ID is the notion of user-centered design. As designers, we think, “of course what we do is user-centered.” We think we’re focusing on users, but if we’re doing nothing more than thinking of them as we design we are not doing interactive design.

And print designers who’ve made the transition to web design are particularly vulnerable to this misguided thinking. After all, unless you’re talking about a big-budget ad campaign, there’s no user testing in print design. You wouldn’t focus-group a tri-fold brochure. You might get a bit of informal feedback from friends and family on a logo design. You wouldn’t deeply ponder how a reader might navigate a product catalog. But when we start working in the digital space, where people truly interact with our designs, it’s essential that we put their needs and behaviors first.

The Importance of Design Research

User-centered design begins with research. We interview clients, potential customers and a range of user types for the project. From there we develop personas and specific use cases, followed by requirements. These requirements—rooted in specific user needs—then drive the design process. And all along the way during design, development and implementation we are testing the designs against users. How do they interact with it, what works, what doesn’t work, how do different variations perform, rinsing and repeating so we launch with an interface we’ve thoroughly tested.

The time to test is not after launch, it’s before the launch. The common design process is to launch first and test later (if at all). This is totally missing the point.

So, if you’re a designer (especially one new to the web), I encourage you to investigate the notion of ID further. And if you have the good fortune of attending the HOW Interactive Design Conference in San Francisco (October 28–31), you can hear inspiring direction from David and other great speakers. I’m really looking forward to the conference—and another opportunity to discover nuances of the industry that I have long overlooked.

Additional resources on interactive designers