What is Interaction Design?

December 18, 2020

If user experience (UX) design centers on shaping the experience of using a product, and most of that experience involves some interaction between the user and the product, then what is interaction design, exactly?

The sheer volume of sites (482 million) that results from a basic web search suggests that this is an easy question to answer, but don’t be deceived. The two overlapping disciplines are subtly but strongly distinct from each other. This post will strive to clarify the role of interaction design and its relationship with user experience design.

Finding a Specific Definition

As the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF) eloquently puts it, “It has been clear ever since the dawn of computing that the way we interact with our products is important. The mouse, the light pen, the touchscreen, the wearable computer … all come from this discipline.”1

In his 2007 book “Thoughts on Interaction Design,” designer and author Jon Kolko defined his craft as “the creation of a dialogue between a person and a product, system, or service. This dialogue is both physical and emotional in nature and is manifested in the interplay between form, function, and technology as experienced over time.”

The IDF calls it “the design of interactive products and services in which a designer’s focus goes beyond the item in development to include the way users will interact with it.”2

“Most often when people talk about interaction design,” the IDF notes, “the products tend to be software products like apps or websites. The goal of interaction design is to create products that enable [users] to achieve their objective(s) in the best way possible.”3

Distinct Areas of Design

In 2019, Business Matters magazine stated, “There can’t be a successful user experience without a good interaction design. If a product isn’t usable, it can’t provide a satisfying experience. It’s as simple as that.”4

The separation between these two intertwined disciplines lies in the way we think about user interactions:

  • Interaction designers are focused on the moment when a user interacts with a product; their goal is to improve the interactive experience
  • For UX designers, the moment of interaction is just a part of the user’s journey in interacting with a product; UX design accounts for all user-facing aspects of a product or system5

The Business Matters article includes this analogy to help clarify the distinction: “Think of the product as a building that’s being considered for construction. The UX designer will consider the neighborhood, the access to education and public transport, the streets that will be around it, the demographics of the surrounding areas, the available services, and so on.

The interaction designer will take all of that data to build an informed blueprint for the building. Maybe that data helps them decide which side of the building is best to place the front door or how to build the inside to ensure that water is provided evenly in all departments and rooms. In other words, the interaction designer will use the data to decide the best course of action when creating the building.”4>

Designing in Five Dimensions

As defined by Gillian Crampton Smith, professor at London’s Royal College of Art, and Kevin Silver, senior interaction designer at IDEXX Laboratories, the interaction designer’s work involves five dimensions. The designer utilizes them to consider, in a holistic way, the interactions between a user and a product or service—specifically, to envision the real-world demands of a usership in relation to a new design. For example, consider an app that will have to process data at high speed to find results inside a mass-transit system such as a subway or metro. The designer must create it to accommodate the constraints of underground commuters: cramped spaces, fast journeys, dead zones, and so on.2

Crampton Smith and Silver identified the dimensions as words, visual representations, physical objects/space, time and behavior.


Words help convey the right amount of information to users. They should be meaningful and simple to understand, communicating information but not overwhelming users with too many details.3

Visual Representations

Visual representations—such as typography, icons and other graphics with which users interact—usually supplement the words that share information with users.3

Physical Objects or Space

These elements affect the interaction between users and products. What physical objects are used and in what kind of physical space? Are users working on laptops with a mouse or touchpad, or on smartphones with their fingers? Are they using mobile apps while standing on crowded trains or surfing websites while seated at office desks?3


This rather abstract-sounding idea refers to media that change with time, such as animation, videos and sounds, which are essential in providing feedback for users’ interactions. It also addresses the amount of time users spend with the product. Can they, for example, track their progress or resume their interaction later?3


This final dimension is concerned with how the previous four define the interactions a product affords—for instance, how users can perform actions on a website or operate a car. It also refers to how the product reacts and responds to the users’ inputs.2

Develop Your Skills for Holistic Design.

From the moment of first contact through the entire experience, your time in Kent State’s online Master’s in User Experience Design program will strengthen your skills. Become the versatile, multidimensional designer who clearly sees the details as well as the big picture—and graduate with a degree and portfolio that prove it.

  1. Retrieved on November 17, 2020 from interaction-design.org/literature/article/what-is-the-difference-between-interaction-design-and-ux-design
  2. Retrieved on November 17, 2020 from interaction-design.org/literature/topics/interaction-design
  3. Retrieved on November 17, 2020 from interaction-design.org/literature/article/what-is-interaction-design
  4. Retrieved on November 17, 2020, from bmmagazine.co.uk/business/what-is-the-difference-between-interaction-design-and-ux-design/
  5. Retrieved on November 17, 2020 from xd.adobe.com/ideas/principles/human-computer-interaction/what-is-interaction-design/