Interaction design beyond the screen

July 29, 2015

Connected devices blur some of the boundaries between hardware and software.

Connectivity enables a product’s functionality and corresponding user interface to exist outside of the device itself. People can remotely access, monitor or even control such products, typically via an app or the web. Think fitness trackers, thermostats and your next car.

What a great opportunity for interaction designers to contribute their skill and experience as product designers?! Yet the vast majority of the interaction designers and other UX practitioners I know, and those that I’ve met at countless events and conferences, have only designed products and services for the desktop, web and mobile devices — for the screen. Based on their definition of interaction design, the Interaction Design Association has bigger aspirations for our discipline:

Interaction Design (IxD) defines the structure and behavior of interactive systems. Interaction Designers strive to create meaningful relationships between people and the products and services that they use, from computers to mobile devices to appliances and beyond.

Designing for screen alone limits our ability to shape how people interact with products and services. This reduces our opportunity to improve lives.

Why is it then that, contrary to our own professional organization aiming beyond the screen, aren’t more interaction designers and other UX professionals working on connected devices?

In her presentation The Modern UX Organization, Leah Buley, Customer Experience Analyst at Forrester Research, described how the potential impact of interaction designers and other UX professionals is currently being limited to the screen. Based on Buley’s 2014 research, high-impact UX organizations leverage UX practitioners across the entire customer journey. Designers in these organizations influence the user experience beyond the confines of a screen through their contributions to the design of retail, services, customer support, print/packaging and, yes, even hardware. Contrast this to low-impact UX organizations that silo UX practitioners according to their channel specialization, thus limiting the ability to deliver a holistic product or brand experience.

Whether the scope of our collective product development influence as interaction designers is being defined by our employers, our clients or ourselves, designing for the screen alone limits our ability to shape how people will interact with future products and services. And this ultimately reduces our opportunity to fundamentally improve people’s lives.

As the world of product design continues to evolve, I believe interaction designers have an important role to play, regardless of whether a screen is involved. We should seek out more opportunities to collaborate with industrial designers, mechanical and electrical engineers, and software developers. Together, we can best explore whether a product’s functionality and interface should be expressed to its user as hardware, software or a hybrid of the two.