Interaction design is a specialized field in UX that considers the way a user interacts with a digital product. This includes every action they take and how they feel while doing so.
If you read that and thought “Wait a second…Isn’t that the same thing as UX design?” you wouldn’t be TOO far off.
Interaction design and UX design are used interchangeably quite a bit. That’s because interaction design (often abbreviated as IxD) falls under the broader UX design umbrella. It’s one of the many components that make digital experiences more human-focused.
But what exactly is interaction design? What goes into it? And how does it stand on its own? We’ll go over all this and more to show you how quintessential interaction design is to the UX process!
- What is Interaction Design?
- How is Interaction Design Different From UX/UI?
- Guiding Principles
- Best Practices
What Is Interaction Design?
In basic terms, interaction design is the process of designing interactive and engaging digital products to be more user-friendly. But that doesn’t feel specific enough, does it?
Interaction design encompasses the entire human-computer interaction (HCI). It aims to create more intimate, meaningful relationships between users and products. Anything that happens between the user and the screen was guided by interaction design principles.
John Kolko explained the ideology behind interaction design in his book “Thoughts on Interaction Design”. He defined it as the creation of dialogue between a person and a product.
So when a user has a goal in mind and they’re using a digital product to accomplish it, they become immersed in the experience when there’s a lively back-and-forth feeling between them and the screen. This “dialogue” is at the core of interaction design.
What began as simple text entries and screen transitions now encompasses everything the user touches in a digital environment. Anything the user clicks, taps, swipes, reads, listens to, or hovers over builds the interactive experience that users crave.
How Is Interaction Design Different From UX/UI?
UX design focuses on the overall user experience of a digital product, including how well the user interacts with it. So interaction design is just a piece of the bigger UX design puzzle.
Think of user-friendly products as a cake that needs several different ingredients to make the batter. Flour (user research), eggs (information architecture), butter (UI design), sugar (user testing), milk (content strategy), baking powder (UX strategy), and vanilla extract, cinnamon, or brown sugar (interaction design) to enhance the flavor.
And voila, you’ve got the foundation of a product that will keep your audience hooked (or just a really delicious cake).
Technically speaking, you can have UX design without interaction design. And unfortunately, many products on the market treat it as an afterthought (or leave it out altogether).
Interaction design cannot exist without UX, but UX can exist without interaction design. However, UX designs without immersive and well-thought-out interactions leave you with a pretty two-dimensional product.
Guiding Principles of Interaction Design
Interaction design aims to make digital products feel more human-like. When products communicate with us and respond dynamically to our touch, it leads to a deeper level of comprehension and connection.
A book many UX designers are familiar with is “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. In the book, he breaks down the design principles that guide every stage of product creation, including interaction design.
With digital products, you have limited time and limited space to capture your user’s attention. Can the user visually connect the dots and figure out how to accomplish their goals at first glance?
Content hierarchy is everything in information architecture and (by extension) interaction design. But we can’t jam every goal into the hero section and risk clutter and confusion. Focus on navigational organization and include icons that clue the user into where they need to go.
Affordance tells the user how obvious a specific action is in the UI design. Think about a time you couldn’t click the “Next” button on a form because you forgot to fill out a field. Was the button clickable? Was the color lighter than usual?
That’s affordance in action 😎
Users need to be able to assume the function of every element in the UI. So when we say “make it obvious”, you need to make the interaction design as obvious as opening a door or flipping a light switch.
Whenever an animation draws your attention or you hover over a button, the product interacts with the user. It’s giving feedback with your actions in the interface, creating that “dialogue” John Kolko was talking about.
Feedback makes the product feel alive, making the user experience more interactive and personable. And it doesn’t just apply to product graphics. UI elements like audio, copy, progress bars, and loading animations are all essential communication points between the product and the user.
Designers should always consider the burden of choice in their digital products. Even if it offers several solutions to multiple goals, they must be structured in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the user.
Constraints are another critical element in building the information architecture. Present focused options to the user depending on their location in the interface. For example, if they’re filling out a form for a demo, only include the necessary fields and a “Submit” CTA.
Users will return to products they trust — And consistency = reliability = trust. A consistent UI also helps solidify your brand’s experience in your users' minds. The more the user interacts with your product, the more familiar they become with patterns and flows that help them quickly accomplish their goals.
On the flip side, an inconsistent design does more harm than good. On top of looking unprofessional, it has the potential to confuse users and lead them down a path that takes them farther away from accomplishing their goals.
When a UX designer creates a sitemap for their product, they’re trying to make the user’s journey as logical and intuitive as possible. The focus should always be on clarity, drawing obvious relationships between controls and their effects.
Let’s say you’re creating a COVID-19 symptom checker for a healthcare website. You wouldn’t bury this feature in the “About Us” or “Blog” page. If the user’s goal on the website is to assess their symptoms, you would make the symptom the primary focus of the home page or you would direct the user to the stand-alone assessment page.
Affordance and mapping go hand-in-hand because the more obvious your product is, the easier it is to use.
Interaction designers, just like UX designers, should have a solid understanding of user psychology when conceptualizing digital products. User research and testing will tell you a lot about your target audience’s behaviors, thought processes, and mental barriers.
When an interaction designer understands and empathizes with the user’s mentality, they make it easier to overcome obstacles by improving the usability and accessibility of product interactions.
Interaction Design Best Practices
If UX and interaction design overlap so much, are they guided by the same best practices?
Yes and no. You’ll find some similar best practices between the two, but since interaction design focuses on one specific ingredient of the UX cake, they get a little more granular.
Following UX best practices across the design process helps you consider the overall usability of the product. But by creating standards for interactions, you can focus on the clarity of the product and provide more meaningful support for the user.
Overlapping Best Practices:
- Keep it simple. Don’t overcomplicate the design or informational interactions.
- All interactions should be concise. Help the user orient themselves in the interface and guide them to their next steps.
- Consistency, consistency, consistency. Attention to detail is everything to make sure nothing (or nobody) slips through the cracks.
- Users want intuitive products. They should be able to understand how to use the product without reading the fine print.
- Content clarity and organization are paramount. Start by mapping out logical user flows and prioritizing the user’s needs in the content hierarchy.
- If you think an element is distracting, get rid of it. Constraints are your friend in UX and interaction design.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. An intricate product or animation may impress a design major, but it could confuse and frustrate the average user.
Interaction-Specific Best Practices:
- Feedback should make the user feel good. Give the user a sense of satisfaction and reassurance that they’re on the right path.
- Error messages are frustrating, but they shouldn’t be dead ends. Offer helpful solutions to get the user where they need to go.
- Show the user their progress. Help the user understand how far they’ve come and what they still need to accomplish.
- If the user is missing something, let them know. Or let them save their progress so they don’t have to start from square one.
- Products need to be responsive. Consider the length of time between the user’s action and the product’s reaction.
- Familiar interactions and formats improve the usability and accessibility of your product.
The Interaction Designer's Role
Interaction design is a smaller niche in the user experience field. So at smaller agencies, it’s usually handled by a UX or UI designer while they’re building the product. If you’re looking to become a UX/UI designer, you should definitely study its principles and best practices.
But larger corporations with huge suites of digital products (like Apple or Amazon) need interaction designers to simplify workflows and translate complex ideas into seamless communication points.
UX/UI and interaction designers usually work in tandem on design strategy and prototyping. But interaction designers are responsible for taking the initial design and developing interaction concepts to improve usability. They also need to ensure interactions are implemented correctly and validated during user testing.
Becoming an interaction designer requires the same level of creativity and empathy needed to be a UX designer. But conceptualizing and executing interaction concepts requires adaptability and close collaboration with your team to fit everything into the product coherently.
Going back to our cake analogy — if one ingredient is off, it could mess up the texture or flavor profile of the finished product. You can’t overbeat the eggs or leave out the vanilla extract and expect everything to gel together.
That being said, if you love coming up with creative ways to communicate with your users through digital products in a team environment, interaction design would be the perfect career for you!
Interaction Design Brings Your Product To Life!
As we said earlier, interaction design is the much-needed "flavor" in your product's cake. Sure, vanilla goes a long way, but why settle when you could have red velvet, chocolate, or lemon?
UX design makes products feel more human and personable, but there needs to be some kind of back-and-forth to show the user the product is as engaged as they are. Otherwise, the "dialogue" is non-existent — leaving no real impression on the user.
Consider how elements like animations, constraints, and simplified flows can make your product feel more life-like. Who knows, maybe a little touch of interaction design is just what your product needs to keep users coming back for more.
Thinking about spicing up your product's "cake" with some fun interactions? CreateApe can help you find some interesting and unexpected flavors to make your interface truly addicting. Start a project with us today!