On Welcome Screens and Dashboards

Reuse the welcome screen as a notification system.

Allow cancellation of these notes. Color code them according to their need to be dealt with. An error is red, a note or caution is yellow.

Get users to the Next page (or next thing). Get people off of the home page and into re site as quickly as possible.

Give users something to do every time they log in

Whether it is updating their profile, adding information about themselves or clicking on a new piece of content, people won’t know to click through to do something unless you present it to them. And when you do, they’ll be happy to have the direction. Often they won’t even notice it; they’ll simply click on it.

Twitter’s homepage provides all of these things and does then well. Not only does it use the homepage as an alert box, but it provides a blank empty space for the user to add data every time they open it: also, all data on the page is new, meaning there’s always something new and different to see.

Facebook functions in exactLy the same way. Both systems place ultimate value on displaying data of others before the user’s own data. For instance, onemust click three times to look at their own data on Facebook, and once onTwitter (clicking on one’s username will pull up only their tweets). With so much content available, it no longer becomes a choice whether one will participate or not, but rather what one will participate with. That same amount of choice is present to the user, no matter where they are on the website. A click on Twitter almost always shows more content choices. Even the settings page invites toggling and updating. On Facebook, every click has multiple options arise: more people’s updates – more advertisemets and images, and even chat. Even the privacy settings require a 30 minute commitment, all leading the user to spend even more time on the site.

Give them a new thing to update every time they log in and they will eventually get around to it: it took me a year to completely fill out my linkedin profile, but it did it…eventually. And the interface waited for me the entire time. Often a user might fill out all of the information just to get the notifications to go away.

User Rewards

Offer a prize upon completing a start up task. Dropbox gives an extra 250 megs for completing the introduction to Dropbox.

The Mozilla Foundation and Foursquare are similar in that they both have leaderboards that display top ranking referrers or users. The rewards are often intangible. They are often points, not karma, not ‘squiggles’. Points are points. They do not need to be called anything other than that. The idea of points has worked out for hundreds of years. Points are points. They allow one to run a game. Their name does not get in the way of gameplay. Just call points points and get over it. Don’t be inventive.

The welcome screen can also be used as a guide for a three step process that the user does not have to complete during one sign-in session. Having 3 steps that stay in the dashboard or homepage allows the user to immediately know what they need to do when they log in on subsequent sessions.

If the user must set up storage for the system to be able to work, then the first step of the dashboard should be to set up storage. Once storage is set up, that notification should disappear and be replaced with a new one, or, if it is part of a list, it should be crossed out and or grayed, illuminating the next step in the process.

Potential consequences of placing frequently used functions next to delete functions

Delete and Close Buttons Close Together in WordPress Widgets with No Undo

What happens when a frequently used option (close widget) is placed next to a Delete function?

There is a guarantee that some percent of the time the user will click on the wrong button. That user, in this case, was me. I deleted everything in a WordPress widget that had 16 individually formatted fields.

Preventing the mistakes of users with good intentions

It’s not that I’m upset that I lost data from the few minutes I spent carefully filling those fields out, it’s the fact that every time I close a widget I have to stop and think, else I may automatically press the Delete button vs. the close button.

Where is the soft delete or modal confirmation?

it’s not a soft delete that happens either – there is no undo, no “are you sure you want to do this?”, no “this widget will be removed — ok/cancel?”. It simply disappears.

Psychological response and conditioning to potential data loss as a result of ill-placed buttons

So either I begin to regard the widget section as a minefield for potential data loss or misfortune and stop editing it unless I’m wide awake and prepared for the potential consequences of an errant click, or something happens where these buttons are placed at least a few target distances apart.

Revisions and soft deletion

If a frequently used option is to be placed next to a delete option, a soft delete or a confirmation dialog for such a drastic action should be employed. Else, the functions should be placed at least one target size away to ensure one is not accidentally clicked in place of the other.

When I posted my initial thoughts about this button placement on Twitter, Devin Price replied, that, “I think the actual flaw is that there isn’t an undo button. Widgets should be saving revisions just like posts do”.

“But just look at how nice, big, blue, beveled and separated “save” is”, Chris Teso responded. In the WordPress widget function, pressing Save doesn’t close the widget box. It would be great if it did. Instead, the user must press Save and then close, going near the dreaded “Delete” option in the process.

Undo Options in Gmail

Forgiving Interfaces

This reminded me of a recent discussion Tantek Çelik and I had about forgiving interfaces. One of the best implementations of a forgiving interfaces is Gmail’s undo functionality. Its soft delete allows one to undo every action after it is done. It allows one step backward in time from a potentially damaging action. Users of software such as Photoshop are used to forgiving interfaces, and each new version of the software stores actions and histories in an even more forgiving, and often visual way. This digital paleontology allows one to dig up useful historical states and essentially go back in time.

“Interfaces should always be at least a little forgiving”, writes Çelik, “Allow undo post/edit/delete even if just for 30 seconds”.

“Gmail Labs’ “Undo Send” extension gets this right (without the cognitive load of previous attempts like scheduled sends)”, Çelik, “All forms of send/post/tweet verbs should be as forgiving. If you’re regretting your sending, undo”. He then points to a related article on Undo Send in Google labs.

As for the current moment, I’d like to be able to edit without the physiological drawbacks of constantly worrying whether or not I will lose data simply because I’ve pressed the wrong button.

Non-Visual Augmented Reality | Geonotes, Proximal Notification Systems, and Automatic Check-ins with GPS and SMS

If you don’t know Aaron Parecki (@aaronpk) yet, you should. You have an excuse if you don’t yet. He moved to Portland in October 2009.

The reason you should know him is because he created a system for automatic location check-in two years ago. He’s been taking GPS data every day for those past two years, and he’s got major data visualization skills. And Aaron innovates. The system he built keeps getting built.

I first met Aaron at Beer and Blog when he had just moved to Portland from Eugene. I forgot who introduced him to me, but I was very excited. I’d been talking about so many of the systems that Aaron was actually building. I promptly told him to present at the second Portland data visualization group, which he did.

Since then, we’ve been working on micro projects together. I started carrying around a GPS with me starting on 12/28/2009. With the exception of Japan, I’ve been logging pretty much everywhere I’ve been.

Having two GPS devices in play makes for some interesting opportunities, which is the subject of this post. This will all make sense in a minute.


Automatic Location Check-ins

A while ago, Aaron set up an automated check in system based on GPS coordinates. The system allows one to check into locations without having to load an interface. This was about 2 years before any of the geosocial systems were readily available. Parecki was not living in Portland, and his audience was small.

Now, social sharing platforms are hot, but they still require user action. This means that one still has to pause social flow to look down at a device, poke a few buttons, and check in. This is normal when one is around a tech-focused crowd, but should one still do this on a date? Or in the presence of a non-geek?

Checking in and Social Punctuation

Checking in can punctuate social flow. I ate lunch one afternoon with and experienced this. A group of five was sitting at the table next to me. One of the guys in the group got excited when he sat down. “Oh! I have to check in on Foursquare!” he said. His tablemates looked at him with blank faces as he tapped away at his mobile device. When he realized this, he started trying to describe Foursquare in order to explain why he had stopped to check in on his mobile device. It didn’t work. There is a way to avoid this.

Quadrant-Based SMS Alerts

Early on, Parecki’s system was able to SMS messages depending on quadrants of Portland, or pre-defined locations. Every time I go home, I get a text message on my phone telling me that I’ve arrived at home. Instead of actively checking in, I can simply dismiss the message. This reduces the time and space it takes to check in because I don’t have to load an app, wait for the location, and then check in. When I leave SE Portland and enter Downtown Portland, I get a SMS message telling me that I’ve changed locations.

Co-Location Negotiation proximity-notification-aaron-parecki

But there’s a lot more to the social equation than just automatically checking in. GPS is useful for a number of things. For instance, co-location negotiation, or “meeting up”, is one of the most text heavy social protocols currently in existence. It gets worse when one party hops from place to place, because one can’t constantly text their location or forward motion. Two people who haven’t met before must also negotiate by multiple texts. One might sit in a coffeeshop and wait for quite a bit of time without knowing when the other person should arrive. New visitors to buildings need specific directions in order to enter the location.

Instead of receiving a text message like “I’m late!” or “stuck in traffic”, I’ve been able to simply look at Aaron’s GPS. The picture is worth a thousand text messages. I can see if he’s left the office or if he’s crossing the Burnside bridge. If the GPS lines are squiggly and slow, I know he’s having trouble finding a parking spot.

In this situation, there is no need for text messages. Looking at a GPS map still takes user effort and load time. This punctuates task completion and social flow if one must always be checking and refreshing a GPS map 15 minutes before someone arrives.

In an effort to reduce the need to look at the GPS map, Parecki set up what has proven to be my favorite part of the entire system: proximity notification.

Proximity Notification

Instead of having to look at Parecki’s GPS map, the system detects when Aaron and I are in a certain distance of one another. I know when Parecki is near when I get a text message that says “you are 0.4 miles from aaronpk”.When I get a message that says “you are 0.1 miles from aaronpk”, I know that he’s arrived.


I can wrap up client work or finish what I am doing right up until the moment he gets there. I don’t have to waste time waiting. I get a warning “0.4 miles!” and then a confirmation “0.1 miles!”. It’s the equivalent of “on my way” and “here”, the two most common co-location ‘drags’. I call them drags because they are redundant and repetitive communication protocols. They’re actions that can be costly, especially when struggling to split concentration between driving and texting, or the sheer inability to text while on bike.


Bridge Notifications

A few nights ago, Aaron created bridges as locations, so that one could be checked into them as well. I got the text message you see here on my iPhone when I crossed the Burnside bridge.

Aaron wants to take the two years of GPS data he’s gathered and use it to visualize how many times he’s crossed the many bridges in Portland. It’s kind of amusing to get an SMS when crossing a bridge.

Why is any of this stuff important?

I’ll tell you why it’s important. Computers are evaporating. Interfaces are dissolving. Innovation in technology comes from reducing the time and space it takes to preform an action, or compressing redundant actions in order to free up time. Computers used to be the size of gymnasiums. Now we have computers in our pockets, begging for attention. We’re constantly planning for our future selves. We look at Yelp! reviews to prepare our next culinary adventure. We want to guarantee that our future selves will have a good experience. We’re connecting to tons of people to do this, connecting to the collective wisdom of a data set that consists of many samples. The more samples, the more accurate the data set. Why ask one person when you can ask many?

Tablet GPS

Xerox PARC had little tablets in the 80’s that allowed everyone to see where everyone was. There were little local GPS maps in the offices, so people could co-locate more easily. One of the guys working there was very excited about the tablets. “This is the future,” he said, “in maybe 20 or 30 years, everyone will have one of these. What works within these walls will work everywhere on Earth”.

Good interfaces disappear. Good work is invisible. Good technology dissolves. A book is a good piece of technology. If the writing in it is good enough, one’s consciousness dissolves into the pages and one has a consensual hallucination of an alternate reality.

All that is Solid Melts Into Air

The mouse is melting. The button is evaporating. Why check in physically when you can do so automatically? “Buttons are losing their shape,” says Interaction Designer Bill DeRouchey in a recent speech on the History of the Button at SXSW, (Bill’s slides on SlideShare) “Before [the computer monitor], buttons always had a sort of tangible border around them, whether physical or visual”. Automatically checking into a location means that the button does not even have a center. It is just a state that one physically walks into, or something that occurs after a certain amount of time has passed. An environmental button.

This is very similar to a video game, in which pieces of the environment closer to the avatar are loaded more fully than far away variables. Our lives are turning into video games, with plus one follower, and plus one friend. Our phones are our friends, giving us statistics about who we are and what we can do. They are our remote controls for reality.

Button Evolution

“Steve jobs hates buttons”, DeRouchey continues, “He sort of has this mandate to not have buttons. This is evidence if you consider how long they resisted having a two button mouse. It’s a all about hiding the buttons, hiding the barrier between us and technology”. Good design is reducing buttons.

A vehicle is a physical transportation device. There are limits to how small it can be made. But a computer is a mental transportation device. It need not be limited by tangibility.

Geonotes – Attaching Notes to Place

Location sharing platform Gowalla has items that one can collect when they check in, but they have to physically check in on the interface in order to retrieve the item.

This Sunday, Parecki developed the ability for users to send geonotes. That is, an outsider can open up a Google map and drag a circle over an area.

You can leave a Geonote for @aaronpk. Just drag your cursor, choose a geo size, and leave your message!


If you leave your E-mail address, you’ll get an E-mail when @aaronpk gets your note. Also, the bar will let you know @aaronpk’s likelihood of receiving your message, based on 30 days of GPS history. You can also leave a Geonote for me as well.


Geolocal Autosubscribing RSS Feeds and Augmented Reality

When one takes automatic check-ins further, one can add streaming data, allowing one’s device to collect SMS messages for hyperlocal areas without the need for QR codes or any visuals. This could be called non-visual augmented reality.

At WhereCamp 2008 in Portland, I wrote about the possibilities and opportunity of Geolocal Autosubscribing RSS Feeds.

I began the session by drawing a big grid of Portland’s on the white board. I drew 5 circles representing Portland’s 5 quadrants on the white board, and labeled them NW, NE, SW, SE and N. The circles represented ranges of ‘hearing’ that a mobile device might have to RSS feeds. I pointed out that as one progresses from street to street, quadrant to quadrant, one’s phone should understand this and automatically subscribe the user to the geolocal RSS feed for that area. That way, data could be very relevant and contextual to the area.

Aaron Parecki has developed a framework that does just this. Locations are defined by circles on a map, and SMS messages are triggered to send when one enters into the area defined by that circle. One can set neighborhoods, areas, and blocks.

Privacy, GPS, SMS and Check-in Exhaustion

Privacy is an enormous issue with systems like this. One does not always want SMS updates, open GPS map data, or text notifications of another’s proximity. In our case, it works well because we work together frequently. If, on the other hand, we were to get proximity notification texts all the time because our commutes were similar, the data fuzz would be annoying and unvaluable. We’re the only two people using the system right now. Anyone with more than 10 active friends on Foursquare or Gowalla and has probably experienced a Push Notification nightmare of endless texts.

Relative Location Value

Here’s a definition: One’s location is valuable to another if and only if that location or person is socially relevant during that time period. The basic case here is the meeting. Person A and Person B need to meet each other, but GPS data is only shared between them when they have a scheduled meeting. When the meeting ends, the data wall closes off, giving them back their privacy, kind of like a wormhole of temporary transparency between two people. This solves the problem of extreme bouts of “checkin-ism”., as well as the issue of remaining privy to one’s whereabouts all the time.

If more people were on the network, this sort of action would have to be taken. Negotiations of privacy and messages would have to be structured so as to prevent push and SMS notification exhaustion. When done correctly, the system is a valuable time saver that decreases anxiety, showing that technology is not inherently good or bad. It is design that is important.

Want to Learn More?

There’s a lot more. Hours and hours worth. But if you’d like 45 minutes of it, come to our talk at Open Source Bridge session: Non-visual location-based augmented reality using GPS data.


The presentation will cover the topics discussed above. It will also highlight the advantages and disadvantages of visual and non-visual augmented reality. We’ll cover alternate types of augmented reality techniques and how they have been saving us time in the past few months.

We’ll demonstrate how we’ve been merging available technologies with custom programming to create location-aware social networks with custom proximity notification. Finally, we’ll describe other uses for location sharing, such as automatically turning off house lights when leaving for work, and wayfinding with piezoelectric buzzers. Privacy and data transparency will also be discussed.

How is the GPS data taken?

Aaron Parecki uses trackr.eu. They have windows mobile, java, and blackberry versions of their software. Parecki says that, “when the GPS device has a lock it is very accurate, you can tell what side of the street I am on”. The program logs data about every 6 seconds, so it ends up being a very smooth line when drawn on a map.

iPhone Software

iPhone users can use a program called InstaMapper. However since it’s an iPhone you will be limited to running the application in the foreground, which means you’ll stop tracking if you get a phone call or want to check twitter or something. But as long as the program is open you’ll be tracking. IIRC it doesn’t end up with as high resolution data as the program on my phone.

boost-mobile-phone-gpsSince I have an iPhone, I can’t run a GPS apps continuously unless the device is jailbroken, so Aaron set me up with with a pre-paid Boost Mobile phone, which the InstaMapper program runs on as well.

One downside is that I have to carry and charge another device. This isn’t bad at all, because I can carry 8 hours of GPS tracking, and it feels kind of awesome to have a physical GPS tracker instead of some claustrophobic invisible mobile app within a device. Not to say that the Boost Mobile interface isn’t archaic. In a way, it’s the age of the interface that makes it nice. Switching between the two makes one constantly appreciate and consider the extremely fast evolution of interface design.

Boost Mobile Phone as GPS Device

You can pick up a Boost Moble phone for $50 at Target, and get a $10 prepaid card. You wouldn’t be using any voice minutes on it, but the credits expire after some time. It would only cost $10/month to run it all the time. Over the summer I loaned a friend my Boost phone and she took it on a bike ride from NY to LA logging most of the way.

Instamapper has an API which provides a CSV file of the last 100 points logged. Aaron then imports them into a MySQL database.


More about Aaron Parecki

You can follow @aaronpk on Twitter, or you can go to aaronparecki.com or visit aaron.pk, the mobile version.
Leave Aaron a Geonote if you’d like. If that’s not your thing, enjoy some Data Visualization that Aaron’s done with his GPS data.

And if you liked what you read, I suppose you can follow me on Twitter as well, or see if I’m in town.

Guiding Users with Persuasive Design: An Interview with Andrew Chak

UIE: How do you define Persuasive Design?

Andrew: An easy way to define persuasive web design is to contrast it with usable design. Usability focuses on giving users the ability to complete a transaction if they so desire. A usable site makes it easy for users to complete transactions, from buying products to convincing users to read featured articles.

Unfortunately, having a usable web site is not always enough to convince users to transact. Even if a user can complete a transaction on your site, doesn’t mean that they will transact.

To be successful, sites must go beyond Usability by focusing on Persuasive Design. They must motivate users by taking advantage of persuasive tactics that will make them take action. The most persuasive web sites focus on making users feel comfortable about making decisions and helping them act on them.

What site does a good job of persuading users?

eBags.com is one of the most persuasive sites I’ve seen. The site’s designers motivate users to purchase bags by offering them detailed content that helps them pick the right bag for their specific needs.

The product photos on Ebags.com are one of the site’s biggest strengths. First, they provide multiple shots of the product from various angles so that users can really see what the bag looks like. Second, the pictures show the bags stuffed with the items that are likely to go in them, displaying pens, mobile phones, notebooks, and laptop computers to give users a sense of how much stuff the bag can hold. This is a great example of how providing the right content can help persuade users to buy. (Figure 1)

eBag.com's product page

Figure 1: eBags.com’s pictures provide users with the right amount of content to persuade them to buy.

Some argue that Persuasive Design is a form of deception or manipulation. How do you respond to this criticism?

Persuasive Design is not about manipulating users into doing something they don’t want to do. Instead, the goal of Persuasive Design is to get users to make the right decision. Designers can accomplish this by doing their best to ensure that users get all of their questions answered about the content.

For example, I’m currently planning my next vacation. I’ve just had a baby boy, so I’m very concerned about finding family-friendly facilities. When I visit a hotel site, I’m very interested in finding out what amenities they have for babies, such as cribs. However, if the web site doesn’t provide this content, I can’t make a decision. Right there, I’m stuck because I’m worried about whether or not the hotel will provide a crib for my baby.

Persuasive design is not just about influence. It’s about understanding the user’s decision process and providing the information and tools to help facilitate a decision.

In your book, you describe four different types of users (browsers, evaluators, transactors, and customers), and the best ways to design for each. Can you explain why you’ve taken this approach to Persuasive Design?

As I said, persuasive design is really about supporting the decision process. Each type of “user” I describe in my book is actually the same customer at different stages in the decision process.

The focus is the task that users wish to accomplish at a given point in time. When users are just starting out as “browsers”, designers will want to make it easy for users to gather information. Later, when those users are “transactors” and ready to buy, designers will want to provide quick access to completing a transaction. By focusing on these four stages of decision-making, designers can create sites that move users forward through the transaction process.

Take Citibank.com, for example. When you look at the home page, you’ll see that it’s divided up according to different stages of a user’s decision-making process. Users that are just starting to figure out their financial needs might choose to learn about the available financial products. Users who already know what they need can look for a specific product or service. In addition, those who are ready to open an account can apply directly from the home page. In each case, Citibank’s designers have structured the home page as a starting point to meet users at whatever stage they are at when making decisions about financial products and services. (Figure 2)

Citibank.com homepage

Figure 2: The designers of Citibank.com have structured the home page as a starting point to meet users’ needs at each stage of the decision-making process.

In addition to focusing on the four different types of users, what other key issues should designers focus on to make a site persuasive?

If a site is fundamentally usable (for example, the users can navigate through the site and can figure out how to complete forms or a transaction process), the most important issue is content. Too many sites focus on the technology to make the transaction happen rather than providing the content that motivates users to complete the transaction.

If your site sells products, the design must have content that helps users make choices. Why would users choose one product over another? What are the key features? What do other people think about a particular product?

Similarly, if your site sells a service, then why should people hire you? What makes you a credible provider? Don’t just spend time specifying the content management system or how to make slick rollover navigation.

Designers also need to carefully consider the wording they use on transaction screens. For example, if the site asks for an e-mail address, then it’s important that the copy immediately explain how the site will use that e-mail address. If you provide no explanation, you’ll get a lot of John Doe e-mail addresses.

Are there sites you think have missed opportunities to apply persuasive design techniques?

Professional services, such as doctors and lawyers, tend to be the sites that miss the persuasive design boat the most. They often just provide basic office information without emphasizing why someone should choose them as a service provider. These sites could provide more content about their qualifications, experience, and customer testimonials.

In contrast, a clever contractor site could include an article about what to look for in a contractor, which is an implicit statement about how confident they feel about their own qualifications.

Would the Renaissance Roofing site be a good example of this?

If we look at Renaissance Roofing, we see a great example of persuasive content. They provide some tips to users on what they should look for in a roofing contractor.

This does a couple of things to boost the confidence of the user in this roofing company: it educates users so they feel more confident that they know what to look for in a roofing contractor and it also emphasizes that this roofing company meets the qualifications described. Renaissance Roofing even goes so far as to present their information in a checklist format, as if to challenge their prospects to compare them against the competition.

We understand you worked on General Motor’s C
adian Corporate site. How did you use Persuasive Design concepts in your day-to-day designs?

As I’ve said before, online persuasion is about understanding what information to provide and what response to ask for from a user at a given point in time. It’s about understanding “In what state will users come to this particular page?” and providing the right information in that context and then asking “What do I want them to do next?” to move them further along the decision cycle until they get to transaction that you want from them.

At GM Canada, I helped develop a personalization architecture that would help to guide users through the car decision-making process. We mapped out the steps that users would take to decide upon a vehicle and made sure that we provided the content or tools that would address the information need at each point in the decision-making process. Users who knew what they were looking for could simply find a car by model name. Users could also find vehicles by type (such as SUV or sedan) or by a specific attribute (such as price or exterior features). For those who wanted more help, we provided an advisor tool to guide them through the decision process.

For many sites, persuading the user to return is as important, if not more important, than persuading them to buy in the first place. How can designers best get users to return to their web sites?

Users will return to your site if they have a good experience on their first visit. If you don’t deliver on what you promised in terms of fulfilling their order or request, then the likelihood of them returning is significantly lower.

Another effective strategy for getting users to return is ongoing communication. This usually involves some form of e-mail newsletter to keep in touch. With such a newsletter, it’s important that designers keep two objectives in mind. The first is to provide some value within the newsletter, so that there’s a reason for users to open it up and read it. The second is to provide a reason for them to return to your site — this is when you use some of the influence tactics to lure them back for some special offer.

So You Want To Be An Interaction Designer

So You Want To Be An Interaction Designer
by Robert Reimann

We get a lot of email from students and usability professionals asking how one goes about becoming an interaction designer, and what background one needs to get into the field. What are good interaction design programs? What real-world skills and experience are required? What, exactly, do interaction designers do on a day-to-day basis?
Pursuing academic training

The first thing to keep in mind is that interaction design is a new discipline that is still being defined in the academic setting. There are only a few institutions in the world offering degree programs specifically in “interaction design,” and while their curricula share similarities, they are by no means standardized (which may very well be a good thing). Most of these and other “computer-related,” “human-computer interaction,” or “new media” design programs are outgrowths of either art schools or technical departments (often architecture or computer science departments) at larger institutions, each of which brings its own history, perspective, and preconceptions to its teaching approach.

There isn’t agreement (though this is happily beginning to change) in the academic community about what the core elements of an interaction design curriculum might be, or how to approach the teaching of that curriculum. Art schools tend to approach interaction design as a means of personal or brand expression rather than as an approach to solving product definition and usability problems; technical departments tend to teach interaction design from the perspective of exploring and implementing technologies rather than discovering and addressing human goals. Programs that emphasize HCI techniques tend to focus on cognitive theory and user research, with less emphasis on design methods and practices (i.e., the craft of design). Many design programs still focus on tools rather than methods, but that too is changing.
How is interaction design different?

It’s easy to understand the confusion, since interaction design as a discipline borrows theory and technique from traditional design, psychology, and technical disciplines. It is a synthesis, however—more than a sum of its parts, with its own unique methods and practices. It is also very much a design discipline, with a different approach than that of scientific and engineering disciplines. In an effort to clarify this, I offer the following definitions for interaction design.

Interaction Design is a design discipline dedicated to:

* Defining the behavior of artifacts, environments, and systems (i.e., products)

…and therefore concerned with:

* Defining the form of products as they relate to their behavior and use
* Anticipating how the use of products will mediate human relationships and affect human understanding
* Exploring the dialogue between products, people, and contexts (physical, cultural, historical)

Interaction design is also a perspective that approaches the design of products in several different ways:

* From an understanding of how and why people desire to use them
* As an advocate for the users and their goals
* As gestalts, not simply as sets of features and attributes
* By looking to the future-seeing things as they might be, not necessarily as they currently are

Given these definitions, interaction designers must:

* Learn new domains quickly
* Solve problems both analytically and creatively
* Be able to visualize and simplify complex systems
* Empathize with users, their needs, and their aspirations
* Understand the strengths and limitations of both humans and technology
* Share a passion for making the world a better place through ethical, purposeful, pragmatic, and elegant design solutions

Many academic institutions with new or established interaction design and HCI programs are beginning to develop an understanding of interaction design and the qualities and skills required of interaction designers. Some of the most forward-thinking of these institutions include:

* Carnegie Mellon University
* Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology
* North Carolina State University
* University of Art and Design Helsinki
* Virginia Commonwealth University

Other paths

But, do you really need a Master’s Degree or Ph.D. to practice interaction design? There are advantages to rigorous studio training combined with adequate breadth courses (in art, business, humanities, and science), to be sure. But some things, as in any discipline, can’t easily be taught. Empathy with users and the ability to conceptualize working solutions (and then refine them ruthlessly) are difficult skills to teach. At Cooper, we look for people with these talents, regardless of their formal education. Some come from traditional design backgrounds (industrial design and graphic design), but most have an eclectic education in the humanities, technology, or both. Many have had significant experience in software development organizations, working as technical writers, project managers, customer or technical support staff, and even programmers, where they created interaction designs out of pure concern for users being ill-served by technology.

If you are considering interaction design as a possible career shift, here are a few things to keep in mind:

* Designers seldom code—if you are attached to programming, all power to you: the world needs more design-sensitive programmers. But unless you have complete control over your projects, you will be short-changing your users by trying to design and develop at the same time—it’s a conflict of interest. So, if you can’t stomach the thought of abandoning programming, interaction design may not be for you.

* Usability research is tremendously important, but it isn’t design. It identifies problems, but doesn’t (except at the most detailed level) suggest solutions. Can you envision and refine broad and detailed solutions, or are you more comfortable extracting facts from known situations? If the latter, then usability may be a better focus for your interests.

* Temperament is important. The best interaction designers I know are interested in everything, and willing (even eager) to immerse themselves in unfamiliar territories to learn and absorb. They are also very concerned about people as individuals and the human condition in general.

* Designers all need some basic skills; interaction designers should be able to draw or write well (doing both is rare and valued), and must be able to communicate excellently with both their colleagues and their clients. The toughest skill to acquire is that combination of creative insight and analytical thinking that is the hallmark of a great interaction designer.

If any of this resonates with you, you may be an interaction designer in the making. Good luck in your pursuits!

About the Author
Robert Reimann is the former Director of Design R&D at Cooper, and now manages the user experience design group at Bose.