What Is Interaction Design? A Guide to the Basics

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Take a moment to look at this page. Maybe you’re reading the text in an email or on your phone. Or perhaps you typed blog.aftercollege.com into your browser and it brought you here. No matter how you ended up looking at these very words, you had to interact with a few websites or apps to do it.

And how did those apps end up looking or acting the way they did? Interaction design! The interaction designer’s job is to make websites and apps as user-friendly as possible.

We just happen to have our very own interaction designer, Jessica Moore, here at AfterCollege. We asked Jessica to guide us through the basics of her job and the field in general.

What is interaction design? What are some of the typical tasks interaction designers perform?

Interaction design is designing something (in this case a website) to be easy to use. Some typical tasks that interaction designers perform follow a design process of discovery, ideation, and prototyping.

Discovery is about deeply understanding who you are designing for and what types of requirements/constraints you need to be following in order to design the best possible product for that target audience.

Ideation is the process of researching and coming up with the best possible ways to solve the problem you’re facing. This includes a lot of low-fidelity wireframes scratched out on paper, whiteboards, index cards, and occasionally Post-its based on the best ideas discovered through research. I do a lot of this.

Prototyping consists of high-fidelity mock ups of the best ideas that have the style guides applied to them (I don’t make the style guides). These mock ups get passed to the engineers so that they can get started on building them.

WhiteboardJessica sketches out some ideas on the whiteboard.

What was your experience with interaction design before you started working at AfterCollege? What appealed to you about the interaction designer position here?

I had no experience with interaction design before I started working for AfterCollege. The closest I have had was a conversation/ideation session with a friend about cognitive consulting which is almost similar to interactive design.

I think that the ability to apply science to increasing the functionality and usability of a website based on the design is really fascinating.

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned about interaction design since you started?

Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about interaction design are pretty much all of them. The most important one to me has been sticking by my designs and learning how to present them and defend my design decisions. I have always been extremely nervous about presenting my intellectual work and this job has me doing it almost every day, which has helped to make it more comfortable, not necessarily easy, but not as terrifying.

What are some of the tasks you perform in a typical day?

A typical day for me consists of a combination of about 75% doing and 75% learning, giving a total of about 150% every day.

I start out by getting into the office decently early and reading design/product blogs and looking up all of the terms of the things I didn’t understand so that I can continue to learn what I do (I’m still kind of figuring it out).

Then I start to work on whatever problem I’m currently trying to solve. It’s really fun to look at it like a puzzle. Depending on where I am in the process, that can mean I’m doing anything from researching how to best fix/create something, or ideating all of my ideas about how to potentially do something, or making mockups to share with the engineers.

I do those things for the rest of the day while checking in with my manager to make sure that I’m on the right track about my ideas and what I’m thinking about doing next.

What are some of the fun aspects of being an interaction designer? What are some of the challenges?

I think the funnest part of being an interaction designer is approaching each new task as a puzzle, with no particular right answer, but a whole lot of wrong ones. This is probably the best and worst part of the job.

I’m told it gets easier to come up with the “right” answers as you gain experience, but right now I’m going through most of the wrong ones before I come across a best fit one.

What advice would you give to college students who are interested in pursuing a career in interaction design (or just want to learn more about it)?

I would suggest to just go out there and do it. Get an internship and figure out if it’s something you want to do. If you like it, great, that’s awesome!

If you don’t you can always apply the skills to your next internship/job.

Oh, and research papers that you slave over now—having to prove every grueling detail that you want to claim as some sort of finding or reason for something else—do come in handy. Believe it or not, forcing yourself to continuously prove why you are choosing to make something one way instead of another is helpful when you’re looking for the best solution to an interaction issue.

Why do you think it’s important for a product team to work with interaction design?

I think that it is important for a product team to work with an interaction designer so that they don’t waste time creating something that isn’t easy to use or understand. We build a website to help college kids and college grads. In order for them to be able to get the most out of it they have to be able to understand how to use it—that’s where I come in. Making it simple to understand and easy to use is what I try to do. I focus on what the users need and try my best to give it to them.

IMG_2883The desk of an interaction designer blends high and low tech: laptop, monitor, and good, old-fashioned notebook.

What observations have you made about the impact your work has on a user’s experience or feelings toward a product?

One of the projects that I have worked on while at AfterCollege has been a redesign of the job details page.

After implementing the newly organized page, we saw a 40% increase in sign-ups from the job details page. I believe this is because the new organization focuses on what the users want to see while allowing the important details to be organized on the side. This creates a maximum amount of saliency with the information we have about the job posting and the information we provide for the users neatly organized and easy to find on the page.

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A mockup of the job details page that Jess designed and the engineers used as a map to guide their work.

It also now includes company information so that the users can get a better idea of the job. A lot of time and thought went into the designing process of this page template and I am proud that it has worked out so well.

I also designed the scholarship and events section on the Explore page, since adding this we have been successful at improving the application process by making it easier to apply.  We can assume that it is significantly easier to use because where we used to be bombarded by questions, we haven’t had any yet.

Homework time! If you want to learn more about design in general and interaction design specifically, Jess suggests reading The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper and The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman.

P.S. Want to see Jess at work? Check out this short (but sweet) video!

 

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2 Responses to “What Is Interaction Design? A Guide to the Basics”

  1. The Basics of Job Shadowing - AfterCollege

    […] and whatever structure made the most sense for the parties involved. For my first session, I chose Jessica Moore, current Interaction Designer and former intern at AfterCollege. Steve Girolami, Vice President of Engineering was the second […]

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