Translating Tech Terms: What is interaction design?

We’ve taken it upon ourselves to try and simplify the often complicated world of website design, web development and digital technology.

Previously in our Translating Tech Terms series, we’ve explored omnichannel customer experience and microinteractions.

While we looked specifically at how microinteractions can improve the user experience of a website or web application, they come under the broader concept of interaction design (also known as IxD).

So we thought we’d take a look at what interaction design means and how the 5 dimensions of interaction design can help to improve the user experience of your website or app.

What is interaction design?

Put simply (although the process itself is far from simplistic), interaction design is the design of the interaction between users and products.

The goal of interaction design is to create products that allow the user to achieve their objectives in the most efficient way possible.

When people talk about interaction design, in most cases, it will relate to software products like apps or websites but it can also relate to architecture and physical products.

In this case, we’ll just be looking at its digital application.

IxD and UXD

Interaction between a user and product can involve a wide range of factors, from the way it looks and feels to the way it moves, reacts, sounds and even occupies a space (real or virtual).

Each of these elements requires their own expertise but when it comes to software and technology like apps and websites, it’s obvious that there’s a certain amount of overlap between interaction design (IxD) and user experience (UX) design.

The main point of difference is that UX design will also involve user research, creating user personas, and user testing.

Think of it as UX design dealing with the feelings and emotions behind an individual interacting with a product or platform and interaction design dealing with the mechanics of how they engage with it.

They’re both important and go hand in hand when it comes to designing websites and apps but UX has to come first so that it can lay the foundations that interaction design can build upon.

The 5 dimensions of interaction design

To understand what interaction design involves, it’s helpful to look at a concept created by Gillian Crampton Smith, an interaction design academic.

She introduced the 4 languages or dimensions of interaction design in the book, Designing Interactions.

In his article, What Puts the Design in Interaction Design, Kevin Silver, senior interaction designer at IDEXX Laboratories, added a fifth dimension.

So, what are the 5 dimensions of interaction design?

1D: Words

The content on any digital platform is vital. It’s why we always recommend a content-first approach to web design.

Online content that’s readable, informative and engaging will always provide a better user experience for visitors.

In relation to interaction design, this refers to the words used in devices like button labels, sign-up forms and anything else that requires the user reading an instruction before triggering an interaction. 

They should be meaningful, simple to understand and communicate information to users in a succinct way that doesn’t overwhelm them.

2D: Visual representations

As you’d expect, this relates to the graphical elements like images, typography and icons that users interact with.

These will usually complement the words used to communicate information to users.

3D: Physical objects or space

This refers to the actual hardware that a user interacts with when they visit an app or website.

The user experience will be completely different for someone sat on a crowded train, swiping with their finger on a smartphone compared to someone sat at their desk in work, using a mouse on a laptop.

4D: Time

You might struggle to see how you can design using the language of time, unless you have a DeLorean or a police box.

This actually refers to the visual or audio feedback that a user experiences.

In this case, time is the measure of it changing from one state to another, whether that’s represented through animation, video or sound effects.

It also relates to the amount of time a user spends interacting with the product and asks the question; can users track their progress, or resume their interaction later?

5D: Behaviour

Now we’re getting into the mechanics of interaction design.

How do users perform actions on your website or app?

This is the culmination of the four previous dimensions and also relates to the reactions that users will have as a result of their interaction, whether that’s an emotional response or the feedback they receive.

IxD Q&A

Based on these 5 dimensions, interaction designers will ask themselves a number of questions at the start of the design process.

Usability.gov, a resource for UX best practices and guidelines, has put together their own list of questions to consider when designing for interaction, including:

  • What can a user do with their mouse, finger, or stylus to directly interact with the interface?
  • What about the appearance (colour, shape, size, etc.) gives the user a clue about how it may function?
  • What information do you provide to let a user know what will happen before they perform an action?
  • Do error messages provide a way for the user to correct a problem or explain why an error occurred?
  • What feedback does a user get once an action is performed?
  • Are the interface elements a reasonable size to interact with?
  • Is information chunked into seven (plus or minus two) items at a time? (This relates to Miller’s Law, which you can read more about in our Laws of UX blog)
  • Are familiar or standard formats used? (Another Law of UX, this comes from Jakob’s Law)

Combining the 5 Dimensions of Interaction Design

Now that you (hopefully) understand the thought process behind interaction design, let’s take a look at how these 5 dimensions can be combined to create meaningful interactions.

The manipulation of each dimension has to offer users a positive experience unhindered by long-winded copy, lengthy animations or non-responsive website design.

Using a combination of the 5 dimensions and questions above, a UX and Interaction Designer will:

  • Conduct a strategy meeting
  • Discern the goals and needs of a user
  • Agree what interactions are necessary
  • Create a user journey
  • Design wireframes that lay out the interactions
  • Conduct user testing at each stage
  • Finalise the design and development of the app/website

You can read a more in-depth introduction to interaction design from the Interaction Design Foundation here; A Brief Intro to Interaction Design.

If you’d like to find out how interaction and UX design principles can help to improve the performance of your website or web application, get in touch with our user-experience specialists today.

Categories: Technology, Translating Tech Terms, Website Design & Development

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