by Ben Hall
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes
At first glance, great software & websites are made up of 2 distinct elements; aesthetically pleasing visual design and high levels of functionality. Obviously, the goal for designers and developers is to produce systems & sites that are intuitive and pleasurable to use. But it is not a matter of simply plucking a big dollop from a barrel of ‘Great Design’ and welding it on to the side of a collection of functions. Visuals and functionality affect one another. And also, and possibly most importantly of all, there are users to consider. They have expectations (both known to them as well as unknown) of how things should work, and they experience frustration when these expectations aren’t met. When a user is engaging with a website or a software package there is a conversation, or a dialogue, that is occurring between the user and the interactive product in question that needs to be carried out to complete the specific tasks that, as designers & developers, we wish the user to perform. Understanding the context and the various elements that affect this dialogue is key.
To consider all this can be somewhat overwhelming at times. There is an ideology that tries to make sense of all this head-spinningness in the shape of Interaction Design (ID). Often, terms like ‘User Experience’ and ‘Interaction Design’ are easily misused, sometimes even substitutable for one another in the eyes of many. However, if you were to explore ID as a field of academic study you would discover that what many would describe as “user experience” simply contributes to something much greater.
Interaction Design (ID) is… Designing interactive products to support the way people communicate and interact in their everyday and working lives.
Human-computer Interaction (HCI)
In many ways, HCI is the Father of what we now consider as ID. The study of HCI traditionally concentrated solely on the use of desktop computers by a single person. But as the proliferation of mobile phones and other devices as well as the use of more collaborative technologies increased the core concepts of HCI needed to be supplemented. The landscape had changed so the way designers and developers viewed it had to change too. Now, HCI is viewed more as the core, the fundamental essence, the creamy centre if you will of ID. Literary faffing aside, HCI is the outline of literal steps on the journey the user has to carry out to complete their desired tasks. It’s the tangible inputs the user makes into the interactive product and the outputs the product makes to the user in response to the inputs.
Designing interactive products to support the way people communicate and interact in their everyday and working lives.
Contributing to ID in the shape of user experience goals, these particular goals relate to emotions that the developer wishes the end users to feel when they are using their product. These are likely to be positive goals such as producing a product that is, for example, helpful, enjoyable, or entertaining. It is up to the developer to define these goals at the start of a project. For this developer, the most heavily weighted of all the user experience goals is making your product aesthetically pleasing to the user. In particular, both print and the web are very powerful visual mediums that require strong visuals to pull people in so you can then deliver them your content. I’ve also always wondered whether it’s not outside the realms of possibility for a designer or developer to have a few negative user experience goals for specific projects. For example, if you were developing a physics-based puzzle game such as Angry Birds, does it not aid your game by frustrating or challenging the player just a little bit?
At the start of a project, a developer will also define a 2nd set of goals. These usability goals tend to focus upon those aspects of an interactive product traditionally related to work, such as productivity or effectiveness. Usability also tends to focus explicitly on the user interface. It is concerned with far more nuts ‘n’ bolts stuff such as, for example, whether a particular widget affords the user the control they require or whether a button actually performs the input for which it was designed. But it goes without saying that any decision made regarding a specific usability goal during the production phase will possibly affect other usability and user experience goals. It’s a rich tapestry of interrelated elements where careful consideration, and even more careful trade-offs are required to produce the best possible product.
Interactive products are now a massive part of our everyday lives. So massive in fact that we barely notice them anymore. Good Interaction Design (and good design in general) is much like a good football referee in that it is at it’s best when it goes unnoticed. But it should never be underestimated how much care and consideration needs to be taken so that it does go unnoticed.