What is the Medium of Interaction Design?

Pinocchio MarionetteOver the years I’ve observed and participated in several discussions about what is the medium of interaction design. Full disclosure: I am not formally educated in Design–I’ve just learned from my own studies, interactions with educated designers, and working with and under designers, so take this for what it’s worth. 😉  But I think a person can reason about these things without necessarily having such a formal education.  See what you think.

The argument goes, as I’ve seen it, that as interaction designers, we are focused on understanding and designing for humans, and to some extent that design (no matter what it is) is rhetorical, in a very generic sense–it communicates something to a person and tries to convince her to do something, be that changing an opinion, acting in a social context in some way, or simply using the thing designed in a certain way (i.e., affordances). Further, the argument goes, interaction design can be applied to all sorts of materials, so we can’t say that one of them is our medium, as clay is the medium of potter or paint of a painter (and so on). The conclusion is, then, that what we design–what our medium is–is human behavior.

The fundamental problem with this is that it  posits the designer in the position of Fate, as if we have some superhuman power to conform other humans to our will, to shape their behavior according to our desires, making us more powerful even than many concepts of God. I suppose this could get heady and philosophical pretty quickly, depending on your view of human free will. But let’s just assume, for the sake of keeping the discussion manageable, that human beings do have free will–that they have the capacity to choose between options of their own free accord and, thus, shape their own behavior.

Yes, that behavior is influenced by all sorts of things. People are not disembodied, purely rational entities who make completely free, autonomous, uninfluenced decisions. We have plenty of psychology research to show this is true, and we have our own experience that we can reflect upon. Yet all of these do not destroy free will–the fact remains that we have the capacity to act contrary to the influences upon us. We can creatively choose paths that were not even presented to us.

Given this, it seems at least a little bit dishonest with ourselves to say that we design behavior.  Let me offer an example that might make us shy away from making this claim. Consider the recent events in Aurora. There is a direct, admitted connection between the offender’s behavior and the behavior presented in a designed medium (film). One might say that the Batman films, and those like it, are designed in such a way as to make acting the villain to be glorious and powerful.

Following the logic above, in reverse, one could then say that maybe the films were designed to influence people to act in that way, and further, that if behavior is the medium of design, that the offender’s behavior was designed by the filmmakers (ergo, it is the designers of the films, not the individuals acting, who are responsible for the tragedy). But I doubt many of us would admit this. We can argue that such films influence people to behave in certain ways (and that maybe they shouldn’t), but to say that they designed the behavior of the villain of Aurora is, surely, going too far.  Thus, we see that the claim that we designers design behavior is fundamentally flawed.  If people are not free to act of their own accord, they cannot be held responsible for their actions.

So, then, what is the medium of design and, specifically, interaction design–it is whatever materials that we do have control over, to shape according to our vision and will. For most interaction designers, this is software–the application behavior and the interfaces presented to people. Do we use these to influence behavior? Absolutely. When we design, we have certain human desires and behaviors in mind, and we either try to accomodate them or instruct them in order to effectively engage with the software. We could be a little more precise, even, and say it is only the artifacts that the designer herself creates (usually designers are not the ones actually developing the software itself).  In that sense, the media we design are varied, depending on the needs of the team, the app, and our own familiarity with the tools of interaction design. Concretely, the media are things like personas, storyboards, wireframes, interactive prototypes, and other artifacts used to discover and communicate the design of the software.

So let’s stop fooling ourselves into thinking that we are actually designing human behavior. It’s kind of arrogant and presumptuous to say so, when you really think about it. Let’s keep it real. Yes, we are on a mission to (hopefully) better humankind through what we design–the digital and analog worlds are increasingly merging. Yes, we want to influence behavior to greater or lesser degrees (depending on the context), but in the end, what we design is the interface and behavior of software (more generally, some digitally-integrated artifact).


7 thoughts on “What is the Medium of Interaction Design?

  1. No, behavior is not the medium of interaction design. If that were the case, then we are changing behavior instead of the stuff people interact with. If that were the case, then the underlying work being done is being done at a distance from the culture, the cognitive model, of the people doing the work. Changing the behavior is a bug. The distance of the unmediated functionality cried out for design, because the intuitive behavior was lost, yet that intuitive behavior was strongly desired.

  2. Hey J –

    With all due respect, I stopped trusting your article when you go to “The conclusion is, then, that what we design–what our medium is–is human behavior.” I realize that you modified that later on, but it sure felt like a huge leap without many launching points.

    The mediums we design in are the same ones the user interacts with, period. That is, it’s the surfacing of interactions points in all analog and digital forms we come up with that are the back drop of the stories being played out. A chef’s medium is food, tastes and smells and human behavior is the result.

    Architects create environments for humans to have “formal” experiences in. Formal in the computer science sense… the “potential” touch points are variables that will be filled in different ways by users to create subjective “actual” moments that contribute to an eventual overall experience and perception. Same for traditional interaction design. We are there as Directors to lead people through the stories being play out. Our goal is to write those stories, engage the stars (users) hopefully and script in supporting characters that will allow the users to succeed in their quests. Anything else about convincing, conversion factors, changing opinion, etc are stakeholder centric story points and thus get away from what the user is there to do. I think we need to shift focus way back the user’s POV.

    Regarding the Aurora shootings. I have absolutely no qualms in saying that the writers and producers did in fact design that outcome. And, WE designed it by putting those movies, along with Hurt Locker and now this asinine Stars Earn Stripes reality show on the air glorifying war. But that is another topic 😦


  3. It seems y’all are misunderstanding that I’m presenting the argument of others and then arguing against it. Rich, if you wouldn’t have “stopped” you would have seen that more clearly. I didn’t “modify” my argument. My argument is against those who say that behavior is the medium. It’s all there in black and white. 😉

  4. I deleted a line that said that I did read further and saw that you did modify your argument. I removed it because the post was getting long. My bigger point is that I have never heard anyone claim the position you were saying exists out there, so the entire post felt a bit misguided. 🙂

    1. Wow, that’s not condescending at all.

      Both before and after this I have seen argumentation around it. Thanks for assuming that I must just be silly and making it up or something.

      Anyways, I’m glad you agree with my position on the subject..

      1. Lol. Sorry. Didn’t mean it that way. Wow, interesting video. Thought provoking, but I’m still not buying it. We need a bucket to put these slants into shen considering these talks … as the InteractionsX conferences are ( yes, hi Dave 🙂 known for presenting… they are good personal opinion pieces and less based in industry views. That is, they are more sort of speculative and less foundational.

        I think Dave might heard my calls recently for the industry to get a more rigorous and define some boundaries for academia, for sponsors, and for industry to help the newcomers as well as those in the business see clearly what we are talking about when we even utter the words interaction design. The danger of these talks isn’t that they are bad necessarily, bc I think he as some great point for product design, but with so many new people coming in and hearing these takes they might believe that is the new model for everything, and yet for nothing because the mainstream doesn’t remotely look at it that way.

        Long day. Hope that makes some sense.

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