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an interaction designer at work

The future of interaction design—and how to excel in it

December 4, 2017

By Lisa Dare

It’s a good thing you like complexity, right? Of the many complicated problems an interaction designer tackles, the hardest may be understanding where the line between UX and interaction design falls. (Or perhaps the thorniest issue is interpreting what employers mean when they post openings for those titles).

UX pros generally agree that interaction is a specific discipline within the UX umbrella, a technical role that involves designing user flows for products, internal applications or APIs, and mapping them out using wireframes. Higher-level designers may also create prototypes. The common thread with UX design is a strong emphasis on creating an intuitive and pleasant user experience.

“An interaction designer might facilitate workshops and validate ideas, own user research, or even validate the feasibility of products. They may be part of the connective glue bringing different partners together. Or they may work in a more limited technical role,” says Vince Baskerville, an experienced UX lead working as a TEKsystems consultant for a Fortune 50 retailer.

Christian Sabyan, a UX architect who has done interaction work for organizations like CNN and The Weather Channel, loves the work. “I can lighten people’s day a little. I can create experiences that are easy and actually make people feel better about themselves and world around them.”

The future of interaction design

“Every company is looking for interaction design skills, and I don’t see that changing,” says Kyle Kuba, an account lead for digital clients.

What interaction designers do—and the tools they use—is evolving quickly. The tools are becoming more user-friendly, which means there’s less need for technical skill, but new creative challenges are popping up.

“One thing that concerns me is interaction and UX designers spend a lot of time developing interaction patterns, understanding how people want to interact and complete tasks. Once companies have that figured out and documented, once they’ve created a pattern library, they might not need a big UX team,” says Sabyan

But a major change on the horizon is the growing need for designers to think beyond screens to interactions that take place on Internet of Things devices and platforms, like voice-activated assistants. “Designers may not need their visual skills for these interactions, but the skills behind how they solve a problem— design thinking—is the same,” says Baskerville. Sabyan adds, “We’re going to face fascinating challenges as we keep redefining how people interact with machines. Like how will not having a device change the way we design interactions?”

The use of APIs that allow developers at other companies to these platforms will also lead to new opportunities. Interaction designers working for digital innovators like Amazon may find themselves researching what other applications can do with a platform like Alexa. “This means talking to vendors and understanding what their customers want, seeing what opportunities and problems they have, and connecting the dots,” says Baskerville. Interaction design may be less about designing an output than researching and understanding a problem, framing it, and working with the product team to build useful APIs.

Another trend is the move toward design systems, or reusable pattern libraries that ensure applications look the same throughout multiple versions. “A product like QuickBooks has multiple models, and the experience needs to feel the same with each of them,” says Paul Stryker, a UX recruiter in San Francisco. Stryker increasingly finds that digitally mature companies are looking for candidates with experience working with component libraries, especially if the company has several products.

essential traits for long-term success

“Technical skill and tactical prowess is just the baseline for getting hired,” says Baskerville, who has hired several UX and interaction designers. “Ninety percent of the job is aligning different parties and getting them excited to act on your ideas.”

That requires four often overlooked traits:

1. Persuasive communication. “You can’t just dump a binder of research. No one will do anything with it,” says Baskerville. Many interaction designers seriously underestimate how well they’ll have to be able to communicate with words. An interaction designer must sell his or her ideas and findings to stakeholders ranging from product managers to engineers, who may not understand the reasons for the decisions.

2. An independent streak. The people who really excel at UX love solving problems—often poorly defined ones. They’re creative and resourceful, and don’t mind not having clear expectations and predefined methods of working, whereas workers who need structure and supervision may flounder.

3. Hunger for knowledge. Interaction design evolves at a fast clip, and people who will succeed will be the ones who enjoy learning new things.

4. Relationship management. Interaction design crosses several departments, and it’s often important to company leaders—even if they don’t understand it. That means you’ll have to listen closely, negotiate respectfully, manage expectations well and be exceptionally patient when explaining your work.

Interaction design career paths

Many people wonder whether they’d prefer an agency over an in-house position. “Agency work is like food service: Everyone should do at some point,” says Sabyan. He credits his time with an agency for sharpening his skills and providing stimulating challenges, but also allows that most agencies expect long hours for lower pay.

Agency pros and cons:

  • Pro: More variety of work
  • Pro: A great place to become an expert quickly
  • Con: Typically lower pay
  • Con: Hours can run long—even overnight during crunch times

In-house pros and cons:

  • Pro: Stability
  • Pro: Defined career paths
  • Pro: Training and conference benefits
  • Pro: Better work-life balance
  • Con: Often offers less interesting or varied challenges

Whether you stay in-house or work in an agency, interaction design careers often branch out into three major paths:

  1. Focus on your technical capability and become an expert in something like visual interaction design
  2. Manage a UX team
  3. Move into product management, taking ownership of the ultimate direction of products

Interested in exploring your interaction design career options? TEKsystems Digital recruiters specialize in placing digital and creative professionals in rewarding positions at innovative companies. Or search for interaction design jobs throughout North America. 

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