“Interaction design” isn’t the latest theory in online dating or social networking; it’s the set of principles and tools which allow UI/UX designers to guide users through any website or app via subtle feedback points that emphasise their progress or activity. When you hover over a link and it lights up, that’s interaction design.
Why is it important? Well, because without feedback people can find it difficult to understand the tasks they’re engaged in. On the New York subway, for years they had mechanical units which accepted token coins from travelers: purely by an accident of design, each time a token was inserted the machine would click. This accidental feedback became part of the experience of using the subway: hear the click and walk through the turnstile.
When the subway switched to a digital system – the Metrocard – the old click went away… and with it the useful feedback. Passengers began to swipe their Metrocard two or three times and more, because without that familiar click they weren’t confident that they’d paid. That is, the feedback was as much a part of the user’s experience of paying as the actual exchange of money.
Websites and apps are potentially even trickier: they are flat, digital artifacts which, without feedback, can become confusing or even forbidding. How do you let a user know that there is a button she should press, a picture to slide away, or that their emails have been correctly sent? How do you build in that structure of reassurance and way-pointing? This is interaction design, and it’s often over-looked.
In this way, it pays not to reinvent the wheel or try to be too clever. This extends to language, too: which one of these buttons says “save” to you?
Interaction design is about not confusing the user. Part of this is playing up to expectations: the more used to computers we become, the more stuck in our ways we might be. When we see a banner with arrows either side of it, we know to click on the arrows to cycle through the images; when a button changes colour we know to click it to trigger the next action; we know what a loading bar is and what a ‘play’ icon does.
The rotating icon that denotes a programme working – a file uploading in Dropbox, or a bit of software catching up with itself in Windows – is, like the shaking screen in an iOS form that tells is something is wrong and needs to be addressed, self-explanatory and clear: we know what these things mean and what to do with them.
A good designer – like us, ahem! – will look inside a user scenario and figure out what feedback is required to guide the user properly. You can use tried and tested real-life practices here: we all know that red means stop and green go, that a tick is good and a cross is bad; when a shopping basket has stuff in it, we know it’s time to go to the check-out area.
In this way, interaction design has already established many of its ‘greatest hits’: prompts so common that everyone uses them in order to keep the user experience as seamless as possible. If your user is asking the computer questions, then your interaction design is insufficient.
That’s the role of interaction design: to answer those questions for the benefit of the user … and the site or app they’re using.