What is Interaction Design?

Summary: It’s a UX technique for specifying the underlying system and user interactions that occur during task completion.  Interactions are based on personas and customer journeys. Wireframes show the flows and state changes.

If you think Interaction Design(IxD) is wireframing, you’re 50% correct. Instead, IxD is about translating user needs, desires, metaphors, and emotional value into actionable screen flows. Furthermore, IxD aims to provide an intuitive UI sequencing with strong call to actions. To be clear, the goal is a logical and intuitive (user) experience that steers and guides a user’s behavior, based on their expectations. It uses techniques like direct manipulation (eg a touchscreen or Google Maps, where you touch to change your data view instantly), forcing functions (eg this step is repeated for your own safety), and progressive disclosure (eg you only see what you need at that stage- like a wizard).

Interaction Design is about understanding how a user interacts with their goals and tasks, and bringing that context into view with a rapid prototype.

Let’s unpack a little history on the term Interaction Design and hear it defined by some UX giants and top authors of a textbook standard in design courses around the world…

Where did designing ‘interactions’ come from?

Interaction Design comes from the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). HCI, as an academic field, sits between Psychology and Computer Science in the multidisciplinary corner called Cognitive Science. “Cog Sci” also leans on “anthropology, computer science, linguistics, neurosciences, philosophy, psychology, and sociology” (UCSD– where Don Norman, grandfather of Human Centered Design, started and ended his career).

Historical definitions of “Interaction Design”

Bill Moggridge (co-founder of IDEO and inventor of the first laptop), who passed away in 2012, and Bill Verplank are credited with founding the term “Interaction Design” in the mid 80’s (Wikipedia) to extend user interface design into industrial design (physical products). His “Designing Interactions” book offers a historical reflection on the field. His definition:

“You’d like to create something where the emotional relationship is more satisfying over time…growing a little more fond of things over time” (Moggridge interview).

Note their emphasis on relationship as key to interaction. Moggridge stresses sociability again in his book Designing Interactions:

“To designing for usability, utility, satisfaction, and communicative qualities, we should add a fifth imperative: designing for sociability. When IT systems fail to support the social aspect of work and leisure, when they dehumanize and de-civilize our relationship with each other, they impoverish the rich social web in which we live and operate, essential for both well-being and efficiency”.

Context of use, including social interactions and behaviors, is critical to IxD. Context includes social, emotional, temporal (time-based UX elements), and cultural issues or phenomena.

The authors (Rogers, Sharp, and Preece) of the popular and probably best text on Interaction Design (Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction-3rd edition) note that HCI focused on design, evaluation, and implementation (basically assessing and correcting usability). Instead, they define Interaction Design as involving four key activities, starting with identifying user needs:

1) Establishing Requirements

2) Designing Alternatives

3) Prototyping

4) Evaluating

Why focus on Interaction and not Experience? Experience covers a much broader range of issues, while Interaction helps focus the design decisions on how to facilitate an ideal interaction experience. Tiny ones are called micro-interactions. Don’t get me wrong, experience as a concept (AKA Experience Design) is great. This term has become “User Experience Design,” and is part of today’s common term “UX Design”.

What is less acknowledged is that you first have to understand, observe and model human experiences and then use that to create “interactions”.

How is IxD typically thought of?

If you’ve ever been unclear it’s probably because Interaction Design has been poorly or inconsistently defined, historically. Let’s look at four examples…

1-Alan Cooper (1999) provided a very loose and broad definition:

“The practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems, and services.”

Using the term “interactive” confuses things! This is why I don’t think you should ever call Interaction Design “Interactive Design”: The reason is that interactions reference human behavior, wherein industry, ‘Interactive’ is a term marketing and ad agencies (interactive agencies) or Graphic Designers once used to describe interactivity on a website, such as the now-dead Flash. Flash? Think too many motion graphics, videos, or animations. Making something ‘interactive’ is not the same as designing deliberate Interactions. Okay, we’re getting into semantics, but it’s important if you do this for a living.

2-Industry organizations, like the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), provide an equally broad definition:

“Interaction Design (IxD) defines the structure and behavior of interactive systems. Interaction Designers strive to create meaningful relationships between people and the products and services that they use, from computers to mobile devices to appliances and beyond”.

Many definitions of IxD are so high-level, it’s as if, we as a field, are afraid to commit to any complete definition.

3-Dan Saffer (formerly Adaptive Path) insisted that Visual Design is equal to IxD (2007):

“Interaction design’s strongest ties are to the discipline of design — not to, say human-computer interaction, or cognitive psychology, although it does draw heavily on those fields. Interaction designers are designers, for good or ill.”

Equating IxD to Visual Design diminishes that focus on the often complex task of translating user behavior, needs, and desires into wireframes that compel the right actions. Visual Design is a different discipline that brings aesthetics, branding, and style to a design. A design problem might both involve visual perception and often does, but the approach of an IxD and a Visual Designer is very different. Rarely do Visual Designers attend field studies, where user pain points, personas, and observation of tasks take place. These are the secret (and essential) weapons in an Interaction Designer’s tool kit.

4- Academics like Gillian Smith, who founded the first Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy — now at the Royal Art College in London — provide the broadest definition:

“If I were to sum up interaction design in a sentence, I would say that it’s about shaping our everyday lives through digital artifacts for work, for play and for entertainment” (2002).

In short, we have looked at four definitions from UX consulting, academia, and a leading industry organization. The lack of consistency between definitions gives the impression that Interaction Design is an onion! Keep peeling, and more layers come off…

Let’s conclude with a super-definition that hopefully bridges many of these definitions by helping understand the process necessary to create IxD.

Toward a more holistic definition

Let’s consider Interaction Design as our stakeholders would: “It’s UX Design”. We ought to be aligned because we believe “UX Design is not just {insert tool name here eg. Figma}”. UX Design, like Interaction Design, is more than just designing. It’s strategic, deliberate, and intended to provide structural (cognitive) support to a task, “interaction,” or user journey stage.

Also, remember, like UX Design, IxD is “not just a wireframe.” In this ‘ultimate’ definition, interaction design includes insights from field research and user testing. Good Interaction Design comes with these evidence-based processes tightly attached. Splitting them out leaves Interaction Design vulnerable to being ‘just a wireframe’ or being ‘UX via Figma’.

interaction design ultimate definition

An Interaction Design design starts with referencing Personas and Journeys. Personas and Journey Maps are based on your context research (Field Studies) leading up to the Interaction Design phase. To de-couple context of use insights (see how to explain it to your boss) from IxD is risky and problematic. Why?

See How to Explain Ease of Use vs Context of Use to your boss

Context of use (B) frames the constraints and opportunities for anything a user does or expects to do with your product. For example:

The user can’t see your screen, too bright? (environment)

The user under pressure and thinking fast? (attention bandwidth)

The user using a screen reader because they are blind? (accessibility need)

You need to know all constraints and opportunities before any feature or functionality is even feasible from a user’s perspective.

One of the initial steps to deciding anything for users is to zoom out into the ‘problem space’ of the user. Most teams represent this information as Personas and Journey Maps. However, the source of this evidence is vital. That’s why going out into the field to begin a design process is critical.

With evidence-based Personas and Journeys in hand, making Interaction Design decisions comes easy. Here decisions improve ease of use, ease of learning, and ease of understanding for the user (C). Here Interaction Designers provide mechanisms (UI’s) to support efficiency, error prevention, and decision-making, for example.

Next, we attend to Visual and Cognitive aids (D): Concerns of color or font are not on an IxD’s mind. Instead, user flows are! Does it make sense to move from A to B?, or How can a user access a UI element? Importantly, these become the obsession of doing Interaction Design. Of course, Visual Design is immensely important, but only after Interaction Design has occurred.

IxD relies on rapid prototyping: For example, ‘wireframes’ are where IxD does its work. Whether whiteboard, PowerPoint, paper, use of improv, or an online mockup, prototypes become the planning tool. Prototypes offer simulations and review of flow, logic and, concepts behind the Interaction Design. Documenting these design decisions is especially crucial for governance, Inclusive Design, and transparency efforts.

Finally, in this ‘ultimate’ definition of IxD, we include stakeholders (E). By stakeholders, I am referring to internal decision-makers. Stakeholders are rarely if ever, included in definitions of design. Yet, Stakeholders can interfere (is kill the better word here?) with the thought process of an Interaction Designer or UX team. Stakeholders are vital to the definition because they can be included early on, for example, in a journey mapping workshop.

Speaking of stakeholders, our favorite external stakeholder is the end-user. Validating prototypes with users is paramount to measuring the success of any IxD effort. So let’s not leave it, or users out. After all, isn’t that why we do Interaction Design in the first place?


We should define Interaction Design by the result we expect from it. Ultimately, the goal is to provide the right experience for the right user to support their context of use. To be clear, IxD strives for a positive result for the business and the user equally. But it is not ‘wireframed’ in a corner. Instead, it involves user observation, stakeholder collaboration, and user testing to make it work in total.

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