In another in the open letters series, a friend considering pursuing interaction design poses some questions to me. If you are new to the industry or exploring it on your own, this might provide some insight. I also expect this to work as a good segue into an ongoing series of posts chronicling my development of an interaction design department and curriculum. As always, questions and comments are invited!
Can you describe your path to interaction design/information architecture? How did you become interested in these subjects? Do you consider this a conventional route?
My path technically started way back in the early days of Photoshop, which I used on the yearbook committee in high school. I fancied myself a writer and photographer, but it wasn’t until a college friend showed me his Promise Ring fan site that I realized the potential of the web as an opportunity to self-publish - complete with the notion that someone out there in the world might discover me.
So while I kept up with photography and writing and digital manipulation of images, I started teaching myself basic HTML back in ’96. It was that, more than anything, that got my career going. In ’99 I graduated and drove out to NYC with no idea what I was going to do and no job prospects. I can’t remember who mentioned it, but someone pointed out that lots of people were hiring for web design and so I threw my awful resume onto to pile. I went from building HTML for a big company on long island to producing the same for a teen community site startup, and finally started turning my hand to visual design at an honest-to-goodness design studio.
I struggled through a few years in Chicago, eking out a living doing full-spectrum web design (concept through deployment) until very nearly burning out on the web entirely. I took two years off to grad school for urban planning in Philly and found myself – yet
again – back in front-end development. A good friend referred me to another friend, who asked me if I’d be interested in interviewing for a new kind of position called ‘interaction design’. I had no idea what it was, but I managed to get through the interview anyway.
So that’s kind of a long answer, but you might be surprised to find that it’s not terribly uncommon of a path to take. There are a growing number of masters programs in the field now, but the longer one has been in the industry, the less likely they are to have started in one of those.
What I’ve learned about folks who end up in this role (and do well in it) is that they have a keen sense of what I’d call ‘applied psychology’ – paying attention to what makes people do the things they do, and the kind of creative bent to both accommodate and manipulate those things. Usability, for example, often boils down to a detailed approach to heuristic analysis – really just being anal about large and small details. But then UX is more than usability, just like delicious food is more than just edible. But that’s the kind of baseline for getting the job done.
In my brief research, interaction design is compared to information architecture, yet a distinction remains. Based on your experience, how would you compare the responsibilities of each–interaction designer versus information architect?
When I talk about UX, the term is a bit of a misnomer – UX involves much more (typically) than an interaction designer has control of. But the way I describe the breakdown is this: interaction design is design for task completion. Interaction design consists of two elements: information architecture, which relates to the content; and interface design, which relates to the function. When it comes to web or digital design, it’s nearly impossible to conceive of a project that doesn’t involve both elements; but the practical context of both is illustrated in the kinds of tasks the user is trying to complete.
That said, I wouldn’t suggest there is any difference in the two, since both competencies are required. In practice, however, I have noticed that there is a subtle difference implied by the two terms. Information architect tends to imply less expertise in the functional side, while interaction designer tends to reflect a more central role in the project. In my experience, companies who define the role as IA conceive of it in a much more limited way – usually because they assume their visual designers are capable of handling interface design. But sometimes there’s no reason at all for the distinction, and interaction design has become so buzz worthy that you’ll see all kinds of variations on the title nowadays.
What is a typical day of work like for you?
Right now (and for the past two years, almost) every day is novel. There’s still a lot of confusion in the organization as to how to use our tiny group, and the range of projects my company has is broad enough that what is needed of us on any given day can run the gamut from accessibility consultation to site maps to detailed wireframes. Most often, though, I get asked for user flows.
Which, incidentally, kind of drives me insane, since what that usually means is that they want some kind (any kind) of documentation to illustrate how everything is supposed to work. Which isn’t necessarily a user flow.
But it might be more helpful to talk about some other places I’ve worked. A typical day for an ID might be spent wiring out a user flow – providing a typically low-fidelity, page-by-page illustration of how a user moves through a specific task (and variations on that task). Or it might be spent in user testing, moderating one-on-one interviews with test subjects against a set of prototypes. It could be what is known as ‘requirements gathering’ – the process of interviews or research / analytics to suss out all the mandatory functional specifications of whatever the final product is supposed to do. Or building annotated wireframes or comps so that the dev team knows how the final product should be built.
Generally speaking, we must be the last word on any details of the project relating to user tasks. We end up being the folks everyone turns to whenever someone asks ’how is this supposed to work?’ or ‘can we make it do x / y instead?’
What are the most challenging parts or work, presently? When you were first starting out?
The biggest challenge has (and most likely will continue to be) balancing the needs and desires of the client against the needs and desires of the end user. As the user’s primary advocate, we have to fight the battles – sometimes with our own team or account people – when the design starts to get corrupted. And trust me, there is not a day that goes by that someone somewhere on the project does not make a decision that will corrupt it. As the keepers of much of the logic of the design, we have to remind everyone why and when and how the design decisions have been made. And when it comes to clients, we also have to practice our best statecraft when mitigating often ridiculous or contrary requests.
Last but not least, we have to remember to always test our own assumptions – and be mindful of the both overt and subtle ways that those tests can be corrupted themselves. It’s really part visionary, part community organizer, part cop.
What keeps you engaged in your work (what do you love about it)?
Until very recently, what kept me engaged was just that notion of being the sort of ’user sentinel’ – the defender of the voiceless majority. It was easier to feel like that because I have worked in so many places where the role of UX was respected and understood, and central to the design process. What I realized since coming to this new company is that, as a designer, I don’t simply design for the user – I design for the team and the client, too. Sounds kind of trite, but in my experience it’s all too easily forgotten.
Without getting too zen or whatever, spending years thinking about this kind of thing starts to make you project it onto everything in your life. I think that’s typical for most professions, but I have begun to see it far more than I used to (personally). You begin to notice the subtle and unsubtle ways that people design their interactions – the color and tone and structure that combine to create different meanings or nuance. The intricate dialogue between both people and between people and their environment. It’s absolutely fascinating, and I can say that if I try hard enough, I can use every bit of it in my daily work life.
Recommendations, re: skills, education/classes, experiences. Is it necessary to have formal training to be in your field? What kind of skills/experiences makes one most competitive? Do most people begin as developers/graphic designers and then segue into information architecture?
Considering that I don’t have any formal training, I would that it’s absolutely not required. If I had it to do over again… well, I probably wouldn’t change a thing. Even so, if you had the time and money, a few grad programs are supposed to be outstanding and I bet they would be a ton of fun too. The big three in NYC were the Parsons program, NYU’s ITP program, and the new kid on the block, SVA’s masters in interaction design. But there are more all the time.
Practically, it helps to know how the technology is structured, since that is one of the largest constraints to the design work we do. But while I think it’s useful to have a grasp of programming, I don’t think you need to know how to do it as long as you know how it works and what it is capable of. There’s a lot of this job that revolves around knowing what you know and what you don’t know (and knowing who to ask for help).
Ultimately, though, your instincts are your best friend in this field: a natural curiosity about how things work and why they do and under what circumstances; an attention to detail without losing the larger perspective; the intellectual freedom to do ridiculous things and think ridiculous thoughts – since that’s where a lot of innovative ideas come from. Above all, an interest in improving the world, even if it is just making it easier to set the time on a VCR or sort your email or hit the right button on the ATM. Because while a lot of us work on micro sites or purchase path refinements or site logic, the bigger skills are just plain old design skills and are infinitely extensible.