Why we call it interaction design
Shortly after joining Method full-time in 2012, after years freelancing there, what was the user experience team became the interaction design team. I’m going to be honest with you, I was pretty put out about it. As someone who'd spent most of the past ten years with user experience job titles it felt both alienating and a retrograde move away from what had become a hard-fought norm.
Ted Booth, Method’s executive director for interaction design at the time described it differently. As a return to our roots and craft, to Moggridge and all that. Truer to what Method is and was exceptional at. Ted was right. I was wrong.
Three years on, and I’ve found myself pulling the exact same trick at HMRC, where I’m currently interim head of design. Other government departments are set-up slightly differently, but this is how we do it. Our model is that, for every agile delivery team, there’s a content designer, an interaction designer and a researcher. What was ‘UX’ at HMRC is now interaction design, what was a design community is now a single design team of content and interaction designers.
Here’s why. I’m increasingly against one role having effective ownership of user experience in its title. Labels matter. 'User experience designer' unintentionally disenfranchises our content designers - particularly our content designers - but also our researchers, our product owners, our front-end developers. UX designers don’t, ugh, ‘speak for the user’ alone. As a team, we all contribute to the user experience of a service.
Interaction design at HMRC and elsewhere in government doesn’t look quite the same as ‘traditional’ UX roles in the wider world. Content is 95 per cent of the user interface on GOV.UK. That's why we have specialist content designers working right beside our interaction designers, crafting what we say, how we say it, when we say it. Both design roles have to work tightly together, making sure that what the user sees, reads, engages with, interacts with works similarly tightly.
Our designers are heavily involved in research, both as observers and in directing the focus of that work, but they aren’t the researcher. That's not a question of 'marking their own homework' - any designer worthy of the name can separate themselves from the work - but a matter of practicality. It’s fundamental in making design and research in agile work for us at a cadence hight enough to enable the level of design iteration and user participation we need.
Back to Moggridge, then. In his seminal ‘Designing Interactions’, Gill Crampton Smith references four dimensions of interaction design:
- visual representations - typography, icons and more: what the user ‘sees’
- physical objects and space - I think of this as ‘context’, whether - in our world of government services - the interface is sat on a desktop, in the user’s hand, used on a flaky mobile network, in an office or home, in a public space, on the move
- time - things that change over time like sound and video
As a design team at HMRC, that’s what we do, right there.
Further reading #
What’s the design process at GDS by Ben Terrett