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The Public’s Biggest Misconception About Interaction Design

Written By Nick Mendez | May 29, 2015

Thom Hines is an assistant professor at Portland State University’s School of Arts + Design, where he’s working to expand their interaction design course offerings. One of the obstacles he’s had to circumvent is the fact that the general public is almost entirely unaware of the discipline.

When Thom first got started as a graphic designer, he similarly spent a lot of time explaining his day-to-day workflow. These days, expanded access to those tools and a larger public discourse around design has made that less necessary.

Despite interaction design becoming more and more pervasive in our everyday lives, Thom said that it’s so behind-the-scenes that most consumers still aren’t aware of the process.

Part of the problem is that the field is just so new—maybe it’s conceptually been around for a few decades, but it’s only established itself more recently. Best practices are changing all the time, Thom pointed out, and this breakneck pace makes interaction design hard to define.

Interaction designers are tasked with taking a very technically-complex product and making it not just approachable, but an enjoyable experience for users. That requires a deep understanding of the capabilities of your audience, which can take weeks, months or even years. Trying to comprehend this process from the outside, Thom said, is like trying to understand the work of an architect by looking at their blueprints.

Finally, interaction design is a field with a wide scope—it encompasses visual design skills, research, prototyping, cognitive psychology, sociology, even industrial and product design. This, again, makes it a tough field to define succinctly.

Regardless of a designer’s specialization, however, they share a common goal of building something that’s useful, delightful, or that generates an emotional response in users. As the general public starts thinking more about what usability means to them, Thom said, there’ll be greater understanding around the field.

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