Five years ago, Robert Reimann wrote a seminal article for the Cooper Newsletter called “So You Want To Be an Interaction Designer.” Like many people, I read the article and said, yep, that’s what I want to be. I took Reimann’s (good) advice and found both work and training as an interaction designer.
Now, thanks to my book, I find myself in the odd position of people asking me how to become an interaction designer, what it means to be an interaction designer, and what do I really do all day? And while Reimann’s essay is still a great place to start, I want to embellish on to his advice with some of my own.
The Last Five Years of Interaction Design (IxD)
In the five years since Reimann wrote his article, there have been many changes in the field. The dot-com bust caused a lot of interaction designers to leave the field, but the Net’s recent resurgence has allowed new practitioners to join. Interaction designers formed a new group, the Interaction Design Association (with Reimann as its first president), to create a body of shared knowledge among interaction designers and in addition to “traditional” areas for interaction designers (software and the Web), new fields of work have opened up in mobile and medical devices and in the financial, entertainment, and retail service areas.
But even the traditional mediums have changed: The Web is now a platform for application design, and software—when not being written or moved onto the web—is increasingly becoming a hybrid between on- and off-line. Even operating systems are changing as they become less and less tied to the metaphorical desktop they were built upon for the last 25 years. Everything, it seems, is up for grabs—which makes it an excellent time to be or become an interaction designer.
What Interaction Designers Do All Day
Depending on the day and the project, it could be any number of things: interviewing a client, doing field research, brainstorming, writing documentation, building a prototype, testing the product. It all depends on what stage the project is at. Unless you are deep in documentation (creating wireframes, say), it’s unlikely that any day will be the same. Yes, there still is a lot of EEMP: email, email, meetings, and presentations. But in-between, there is some exciting stuff.
Interaction designers get paid to play with ideas—abstract ideas that can become real—and few jobs can boast that. You can brainstorm things that don’t exist and then build them. You can shape behavior, making the world more pleasant and meaningful. You get to sketch ideas in colored markers on whiteboards and post-it notes. You help people solve problems. And if you are good enough, you’ll work with companies whose technology and/or influence is so great, you can make a significant difference in the world.
But in order to do this, I think there are three essential traits you need: temperament, training, and experience.
Reimann’s essay is still right on the money about temperament. Empathy with users and the ability to learn new domains and subject areas are both crucial elements of any designer’s temperament. These are the indispensable building blocks of the profession.
This doesn’t mean you need to be a “people person” (although that helps). It does mean that you should have an interest in human beings, their behaviors and limitations. You should at least care about people and the human condition in the abstract. To be a good interaction designer requires being able to put yourself in the place of your users, not imagine you are the user or your users are like you. They probably aren’t.
On the Myers-Briggs personality scale, having an “N” (intuitive) personality is nearly critical. Being able to make intuitive leaps is essential for designers. Since it’s unlikely you will ever be able to see the entirety of a problem, meet every user, or know the subject matter completely, you will have to make guesses and hypothesize theories—which is where the “N” comes in.
If you think you’re suited for this sort of work, the next thing you need to do is gain some knowledge of it. Start with some of the better books: About Face 2.0, Designing Interfaces, and Universal Principles of Design. You also need to learn about the medium you will be working in, which likely means learning about the Web, mobile technologies, and software systems. You don’t need to become a programmer, but you do need to be aware of what is possible in each medium. Knowledge of industrial design principles and good communication is also extremely helpful.
It also helps to hang around more experienced designers either at work, informal gatherings, conferences, or on-line (like on the IxDA’s mailing list). (Much of what I’m relating here has been discussed on the mailing list over the years.) The off-hand knowledge, attitude, and methods that you’ll gain are all part of the culture of design. Listen more than you speak.
One way to quickly (although intensely and expensively) gain training is at a university. The three schools I am currently recommending are Carnegie Mellon, the Institute of Design, and the Royal College of Art. All are, unfortunately, graduate-level programs. I’m unaware of any undergraduate IxD programs. Assuredly, in the next few years, we will see some arise.
If there are no undergraduate programs in IxD, what should an undergraduate student study to prepare for graduate school? Here are the two schools of thought: One is to gain admittance to a good design school and learn industrial or communication design (both of these skills will serve you well) and the other is to focus on everything but design. A background in the humanities, anthropology, literature, psychology, sociology, theater, political science, cultural studies—all will make you a richer designer.
Training and preparation, however, isn’t enough. Even though I’m an author of one, the books on IxD will only give you the background to practice the craft. They can’t make you an interaction designer: only designing can do that.
Where do you get experience? There are two ways: A good school will expose you to real-world problems (those with business, technical, and user constraints) or you can find professional work either pro bono (not recommended unless you are desperate) or with an organization.
Mailing lists, local groups, and job sites are the best places to start looking for work. Most jobs are found via word-of-mouth, so connections with other designers can help here too.
Demonstrating Your Readiness
While some companies like Cooper and Google will subject you to a series of tests before and during your interview process, every company requires a portfolio. Really, two portfolios: one on-line, one printed.
Your on-line portfolio should give an overview of what you’ve done and perhaps some sample documentation. Your printed portfolio (which you take with you to in-person interviews) should contain a deeper view of your work so you can discuss the project’s problems and how you arrived at the solutions. Be prepared to not only talk about your work, but also how you work.
What if you have no work to show? Find some. The world is filled with problems that can be tackled. Design a solution.
Why Be an Interaction Designer?
So you can change the world, of course. Sure, it might look like we’re tinkering with buttons and drop-down menus and jog dials, but really what we’re doing is changing our world—one little bit at a time—making it more humane. We help people do their everyday tasks whether they are playing a game, saving a life, or moving money from one account to another. We’re injecting the world with our values: what we think is useful, usable, pleasurable, and good. And that’s not a bad job to have.
Dan Saffer is a senior interaction designer for Adaptive Path. Dan has developed successful designs for transactional and e-commerce sites, as well as applications and devices. He’s worked with a wide variety of organizations, such as Lucent Technologies, Warner Bros., and MAYA Viz.
Join Dan this fall for his one day workshop, Designing for Interaction. The workshop will be held in San Francisco, Sydney, and New York.