Demystifying Interaction Design

If interaction design isn’t about supporting and influencing behavior…then what exactly are you doing?

Interaction Designer Robert Fabricant recently gave a talk called Behavior is our Medium at the 2009 IxDA conference. In his talk he makes the assertion interactive designers are, at the most fundamental level, concerned with behavior.

We design to change, guide, support, elicit, constrict, and control behavior. The products and screens we create are about getting others to do something, using or buying or donating or otherwise taking some real-world action. Good design elicits the right behavior, poor design does not.

Note: Several folks have pushed back on the term elicit above. I mean it in the weaker sense…that we design to support certain behaviors and if users perform those behaviors through our software then we’ve been successful. I realize that elicit can feel nasty…like we’re getting people to do something they maybe shouldn’t do, but that’s not exactly what I mean…even though design certainly has that potential.

Here’s the video of his talk:


Robert Fabricant – Behavior is our Medium from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Surprisingly, Robert’s assertion was not as obvious to all those in attendance as he had hoped. He got pushback on the idea that designers traffic in behavior. In a follow-up post he writes:

“There is universal acceptance of a holistic approach to human centered design within this community – generally referred to as ‘experience design’ (not my preferred term). This approach considers all of the contexts surrounding use and then tries to build a unified interaction model to support user needs over time, across these contexts. It focuses not just on expressed needs but on those that are unexpressed: the emotions, motivations, and desires that shape user engagement over time. In fact, more and more of our clients are looking for our help in identifying these latent, unmet needs. So, it is interesting to find designers who are very comfortable, in fact insistent, on this holistic approach and yet spooked by the idea that we are in the ‘behavior business’.”

I have to admit that I’m also quite shocked that some interaction designers don’t see what they do as influencing behavior. If you’re not influencing behavior…then what is it you’re doing?

This topic came up at the IA Summit as well, usually enrobed in discussion about getting more respect and communicating our values as interaction designers. On a side note the discussions about getting more respect really worry me…I think if we focused more on doing great work then we wouldn’t need to talk about getting more respect.

Here is how I explain what I do as an interaction designer, and it usually comes up very early in my discussion with new clients.

I ask them: “What do people have to do in order for you to be successful?”.

Simple question. Now, the answer might be that people need to click on ads or install software or create/save social objects or buy a product. Each one of these answers is fine, but it often takes a little bit of digging to find out the real actions that people need to take. For example, if the initial answer is “click on ads” then I have to dig deeper to find out why someone might be on the site/app in the first place…people just don’t randomly visit to click on ads.

But the resulting behavior is what I design for. That’s it…once I know what needs to happen for my client to be successful my only focus is on eliciting that behavior.

It really is as simple as that. Don’t get me wrong…it’s not always easy to do…sometimes we have to figure out why someone would do that, what the key motivators are (are they social?), or what is currently stopping them from doing so, but the process is rather straight-forward. We investigate why the behavior isn’t happening, and work to make it happen.

This isn’t magic or mysterious, but it’s always about behavior. It also, importantly, isn’t about me. I used to get bogged down into worrying about what I was doing, my ego was getting in the way. Once I started framing design problems in terms of real-world activity that others did, with my role being to elicit that activity, then most of my navel-gazing habits seemed to go away. Mostly. :)

This also helps to demystify design…really talk about it in plain terms. I think that if it takes more than a sentence or two to explain what you’re doing then you’re probably complicating it. This is extremely important when dealing with clients…you have to make your case coherently and fast. If you can’t explain in one breath what you do or how you can help them, then you risk losing their interest.

I began to think about this as I was putting together notes on a talk about designing for virality for the upcoming one-day MeshU workshop in Toronto. The problem with virality is that it’s a chain of behavior…there are several parts to it. One is creating the pathways for it to happen, to create the ways in which your customers can spread what it is you offer. But another part is even more important, designing the motivating mechanisms for doing so…in almost all cases it needs to be a win-win situation. In other words, the people who are going to spread your product virally (the behavior you want) have to be getting as much out of it as you are. This is why referral programs work so well in some cases…people are getting paid to send others your way.

So I really do see interaction design as designing to elicit certain behavior…even if you were to describe interaction design as “screen design” it’s not even a small leap to then ask: “what is the goal of the screen?”.

And the answer, invariably: “to elicit a certain behavior”.

Published: March 26th, 2009

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