I was recently asked about the apparent confusion in the digital design community about who does what. I mainly talk about usability and user experience as I believe these best encapsulate what matters to users – the total experience with a product, system or service.

However,  other agencies see interaction design as the core service, which only bothers me because I think it runs the risk of confusing clients. In my view, it’s really quite straightforward.

The international standard ISO 9241-11 defines usability as:

The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.

So, good usability is part of an excellent user experience which is what we aim to achieve when we design products, systems or services.  Interaction design is part of the process by which we do it.

The newly published Human Centred Design standard ISO 9241-210:2010 says interaction design is where we “design the tasks and the interaction between the system and the user”.  It is central to the ‘produce design solutions (to meet user requirements)’ step in the human-centred design sequence shown here:

human centred design process
  • The standard identifies seven interaction design activities (although only some of them are explicitly called interaction design):
  • Making high level decisions (for example, initial design concept, essential outcomes).
  • Identifying tasks and sub-tasks.
  • Allocating tasks and sub-tasks to user and other parts of the system.
  • Identifying the interaction objects required for the completion of the tasks.
  • Identifying and selecting appropriate dialogue techniques [see ISO 9241 parts 12 to 17].
  • Designing the sequence and timing (dynamics) of the interaction.
  • Designing the information architecture of the user interface of an interactive system to allow efficient access to interaction objects.

Of course, such activities should never be done in isolation and I guess when lots of different people are involved, it’s difficult to be absolutely clear about the boundaries between the roles.  Interaction design skills are valuable throughout the iterative human centred design process in helping to create visual designs which can be readily understood and evaluated by users.

For example, in a recent project, our interaction designer was involved at the beginning of the project creating quick-mock ups of design options for a CMS which were used to help specify the system and gain buy-in from business stakeholders. 

Whereas, at insurance provider LV=, interactive storyboards and annotated lo-fidelity wire frames were produced to visually summarise results and to act as design templates at the end of the review and testing process.

Frankly, I do not really care what we call it, as long as we help our clients develop or procure effective and efficient systems which work well for their users, but I think it might help all of us explain what we do and why it is important if we could work towards using a common description for our services.