Visual vs. Interaction Design

I for one generally hate getting into discussions about titles, especially in the realm of design. However, I’ll mention this one. Before you venture further, I’ll also disclaim that I am not a designer by trade but merely an interested, somewhat educated bystander.

As fluffy and pretentious as the name may sound, interaction design is a skill that is very, very different from visual design. The thought process that goes into creating an application that is going to be used is a lot different from the one that goes into making a jaw-dropping mockup or illustration.

In one sense, the term designer is definitely overloaded. Beyond the obvious technical differences between designing for print vs. designing for digital there is a certain overlooked difference between designing an application where people click on things, type in data; where things seemingly appear out of nowhere, change colors and designing a visual look.

That is not to say you can separate one from the other in a clean cut fashion; you definitely cannot. A great user interaction can go a long ways by itself but if you want to delight your users, you will want to couple that interaction with some great aesthetics of your own.

However, the point I am trying to make is that interaction design is a whole different animal that can be sub par no matter how good your product looks.

I do not know what makes a good interaction designer –and I still have moral qualms about using the term interaction designer–. However, I’ll make a few relatively educated guesses:

  • You need experience. This is a no-brainer. You just cannot learn this stuff in school (trust me, I tried). The challenges that you face when you actually create and support a product that are so weird, for the lack of a better term, compared to what your problems would be, that you’ll try to design things better the next time round.
  • You need education. This seems to counter the previous point but not really. I am not arguing that everyone needs to go to a HCI or design (I did but I was in the right place at the right time) but you need to know some hard facts to back up your intuitions. You need to know what an ideal line length is or if people care about below-the-fold. You can definitely make shit up as you design and probably convince yourself and people around you that your opinions are right but where’s the fun in that?
  • You need to iterate while designing. Again, a no-brainer, if you ask me. This stuff just takes time.
  • You need to work on your target medium. This is me saying, in a fancy way, that you need to be able to build your designs. A lot of people disagree with this. I think the best analogy I can think for this is translations, although that fails to capture the full breadth of what I am trying to say. Translation implies that as more touch and tweak an artifact, the more it will lose some of its initial value, which is correct. However, the real value in building what you design is that you’ll have a better feel for what works faster, which ties back to the previous point.
  • You need to get out and look at how people use other things than just a computer. I know this sounds a bit pretentious but watching people operate physical things just reinforces the importance of things like affordances, gestures, how people make mistakes, why Fitt’s law matters, what frustrates people.

Again, I’ll reiterate: a great designer (or product designer, whatever term you want to use for yourself) will need to have both good visual design skills and good interaction design skills.

The point I am trying to make here is that great interaction design is not something that is just a natural extension of great visual design.