The progress of interaction design

(Republished from

As the focus of the work of Interaction Designers has shifted from direct control-response interfaces to the design for behaviour and activity, the nature of our work has also shifted away from the design of discrete interactions to the consideration of complete, integrated systems.

These systems are comprised of many discrete pieces, with the object of design being the behaviour of the system as a whole. That system includes, necessarily and intentionally, the people engaged in those discrete interactions; and must – also necessarily – take into account the variability inherent in people.

At this scale, the impact of a change in one individual component or element of the system can have a disproportionate effect on the operation of the system as a whole. To use a scientific phrase, the system is non-linear. To address the design challenge inherent in such systems our approach must also be non-linear. The complexity of the behaviour of the system in response to changes in individual pieces cannot be fully anticipated or predicted using an incremental, linear approach. Direct causality is difficult, if not impossible to trace; and the impact of a change may not become apparent until long after the trigger event.

The introduction of Design methods, with an inherent non-linearity in the form of multiple, concurrent streams of concept definition, evaluation and refinement, appropriately addresses the uncertainty that exists when designing such systems.

In his recent post to Johnny Holland – Designerly ways of working in UX – Jonas Löwgren explores some of these Design methods, and how they manifest in the design of digital systems when merged with the more engineering-centric tradition of human-computer interaction and usability.

The applicability of these design methods, and the interaction designer’s understanding of designing systems that channel and shape human behaviour, can be seen well beyond the digital interfaces discussed by Jonas. These same basic principles are embedded in the educational program at theAustin Center for Design, founded by Jon Kolko. Now in its second year, AC4D is teaching students a form of interaction design that is more akin to social change, innovation and entrepreneurship than it does to the software and interface design of the mid- to late 80’s from whence Interaction Design was born.

The discipline is the same; the process is the same; the philosophy is the same. What we’re seeing in Austin is a more explicit recognition of the power of interaction design to humanise technology and truly embed people – both functionally and ethically – at the centre of the design process.

Interaction Design is maturing into an exciting, diverse, and rich design discipline with its own challenges, burning questions, and purpose. As we approach Interaction12 in Dublin in February 2012, I’m personally excited by the speed with which our discipline is burgeoning, and how the diversity of our practice manifests itself in the people and ideas on show.


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