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What is interaction design?

Last updated

18 April 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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The term “interaction design” was coined in the mid-1980s by Bill Moggridge and Bill Verplank. It has roots in the Visible Language Workshop held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975 and the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University in 1979.

According to Verplank, interaction design was an adaptation of the computer science term “user interface design” for the industrial design profession. Meanwhile, Moggridge saw it as a better alternative to “soft-face,” a term he had coined in 1984 to describe the application of industrial design to products like software.

The emergence of smartphones and other mobile devices in the early 2000s brought new challenges for interaction designers. While designing interfaces, they had to consider screen size, touch-based interaction, and device orientation. This led to new interaction design patterns being developed, such as pinch-to-zoom, swipe gestures, and responsive design.

Today, interaction design has become an integral part of the digital design process. Designers continue to explore new ways of creating aesthetically pleasing and intuitive interfaces.

Understanding interaction design

Interaction design is the process of designing interactions between users and digital products, such as websites, mobile apps, and software. It involves creating intuitive and user-friendly interfaces that enable users to interact with digital products efficiently.

Interaction design aims to improve user experience by making it easy for users to accomplish their goals and complete tasks with minimal effort. Interaction designers consider various aspects of user behavior and psychology to create aesthetically pleasing interfaces and facilitate efficient and effective interaction.

The process of interaction design involves several stages, including the following:

  1. User research

  2. Prototyping

  3. Testing

Designers may use various tools and techniques—such as user personas, user flows, wireframes, and mockups—to create interfaces that meet their target audience’s needs.

Interaction design’s end result is a digital product that’s easy to use, aesthetically pleasing, and effective in achieving its intended goals. A well-designed interface can enhance user engagement, increase conversions, and drive business success.

The role of interactive designers

An interactive designer is responsible for creating engaging and compelling digital experiences for users. They use their expertise in design principles, user experience (UX), and user interface (UI) to develop visually appealing interfaces that provide seamless interaction between the user and the technology.

Interactive designers work on various digital media projects, such as:

  • Website design

  • Mobile apps

  • Video games

  • IoT experiences

  • Wearable devices

An interactive designer also works closely with developers, product managers, and other stakeholders to understand user needs and create user-centered designs. They also stay up-to-date with the latest design trends, tools, and technologies to continuously improve their skills and create innovative digital experiences.

Interaction design principles

Interaction design principles help designers create easy-to-use, intuitive, and efficient digital products. These principles, not to be confused with visual design principles, are based on a deep understanding of user behavior and psychology.

Designers aim to ensure that digital products are designed with the user’s needs and preferences in mind.

Here are some of the principles of interaction design you should know about:

  • Consistency: maintaining consistent design elements and patterns throughout an interface creates familiarity and ease of use

  • Discoverability: making sure that users can easily find and access vital features and information within the interface

  • Learnability: ensuring that users can quickly and easily understand how to use an interface to perform tasks

  • Conceptual and mental models: creating an interface that aligns with users’ mental models and expectations of how things work, making it more intuitive and easier to use

  • Give feedback to users: providing clear and timely feedback to users on their actions within the interface helps them understand the system’s response and the consequences of their actions

  • Mapping: creating a precise mapping between the interface’s physical layout and the user’s mental model can make it easier for users to understand and navigate it

  • Use visual hierarchy: using visual cues, such as size, color, and placement, to prioritize information and guide users through the interface, making it easier to understand

These interaction design principles provide designers with a roadmap for creating easy-to-use, efficient, and effective digital products. By incorporating these principles into their design process, designers can create interfaces that meet the needs and preferences of their target audience and provide a great user experience.

The five dimensions of interaction design

Also known as the 5D framework, the five dimensions of interaction design were originally developed by Gillian Crampton Smith, an influential interaction design pioneer. It started with just four dimensions, and Kevin Silver added the fifth and final dimension: behavior.

The 5D framework conceptual model helps designers consider the different aspects of interaction design.

1-D: words

The 1D dimension is the language used in the interface, including labels, instructions, and feedback. Using language effectively can improve the user experience by reducing confusion and improving their understanding of the interface.

Interface designers can achieve this by avoiding jargon and technical terms and providing contextual information where necessary. In addition, the tone of voice in the interface can affect the user’s perception of the product or service.

Designers should use a voice consistent with the brand identity and align with the user’s expectations. For example, a banking application might use a more formal tone of voice, while a gaming application may use a more casual and friendly tone of voice.

2-D: visual representations

This dimension of interaction design refers to the visual elements of the interface, including layout, typography, color, and images. Designers focus on creating a visually appealing, user-friendly interface that enhances user experience.

Below are the 12 critical aspects to consider in visual representations:

  • Contrast: juxtaposing elements with different visual properties to create visual interest

  • Balance: distributing visual weight in a design to create a sense of equilibrium

  • Emphasis: creating a focal point or hierarchy within a design to guide the viewer’s attention

  • Movement: using visual elements to create a sense of motion or direction

  • White space: the empty space around design elements that is used to create balance, clarity, and focus

  • Proportion: the relationship between different design elements in terms of size and scale

  • Hierarchy: organizing design elements to communicate the importance of each and guide the viewer’s attention

  • Repetition: repeating visual elements to create a sense of unity and consistency within a design

  • Rhythm: creating visual patterns or sequences that offer a sense of movement and flow

  • Pattern: crafting repeating visual elements to create a sense of texture and interest

  • Unity: generating a cohesive and harmonious visual design by ensuring that all elements work together

  • Variety: using different visual elements to create interest and contrast

Effective use of visual elements can establish a hierarchy of information, guide users through the interface, and create a positive emotional response. A well-designed visual representation can lead to increased user engagement, improved brand perception, and greater success for the product or service.

3-D: physical objects or space

Physical objects and space are the interface’s tangible elements, including hardware and spatial layout.

  • Hardware: hardware design, such as touch screens or keyboards, must be ergonomic and easy to use. Designers must consider size, weight, and portability to create functional and user-friendly hardware.

  • Spatial layout: the design of the visual space, such as the buttons or arrangement of layout, can influence the user’s perception of the interface. Designers should think about factors such as eye flow and accessibility to create a functional and comfortable space for the user.

A well-designed physical layout can improve user satisfaction and productivity. It can also cause the product or service to be more successful.

4-D: time

The 4D dimension is the element of time and the changes occurring over time. Designers must consider the user’s journey through the interface and create a design that guides the user through the experience.

They must also consider the user’s pace and provide feedback and cues to help them navigate the interface.

Another critical aspect of the time dimension is feedback. Designers must provide feedback to the user at every stage of the interaction to ensure they understand the consequences of their actions. This feedback can be in visual or auditory cues, such as animations or sound effects.

Designers must also consider the speed and performance of the interface over time. The system must respond quickly and efficiently to ensure a smooth and seamless experience as the user interacts with the interface.

5-D: behavior

The behavior dimension focuses on creating an interface that aligns with the user’s mental models, promotes positive emotional responses, and provides the user with control and flexibility.

Designers must consider information architecture, familiar design patterns, customizable settings, and engaging visual design elements to create a user-friendly and intuitive experience. By considering these factors, designers can create a user-friendly and engaging experience that promotes engagement with the product or service.


What is the golden rule of interaction design?

The golden rule of interaction design is to design the interface and user experience so that it’s intuitive and easy to use.

What are examples of interaction on a website?

Examples of interaction on a website include clicking on buttons, filling out forms, scrolling, hovering over elements to reveal more information, and navigating through menus.

What does an interaction designer do?

An interaction designer is responsible for creating and designing user interfaces and experiences that are functional and aesthetically pleasing. They also ensure that the design is consistent across all platforms and devices.

Ultimately, an interaction designer is the liaison between humans and technology. They are responsible for making sure that the human experience with technology is as intuitive as possible.

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