https://hodigital.blog.gov.uk/2017/07/07/knowing-the-right-level-of-interaction-design/

Knowing the right level of interaction design

I recently accepted the role of Interaction Design Lead on an interim basis on the Immigration portfolio for Home Office Digital, Data and Technology (HODDaT).

My goal is to help shape the user centred delivery of projects by raising the quality of interaction design – the work we do and the part we play in multidisciplinary teams.

I’ve noticed confusion about what interaction design is, what interaction designers do and when’s the right time to get them involved.

Design is a good idea

Design in government exists under many guises. We have policy design, organisation design, process design, infrastructure design, security design and so on.

‘Interaction design (IxD) defines the structure and behaviour 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,' says the Interaction Design Association.

It’s often perceived that user centred design costs more and delays delivery, but interaction designers want to deliver early and often. Delivery isn’t just about delivering working software, it’s about delivering measurable value. The sooner we can get something into the hands of real users, the sooner we can start learning at scale.

Research is invaluable when building empathy with users and understanding their needs and motivations. When we’re confident we’re building the right thing, we want data to help us realise what works and what doesn’t. We can then target future research more effectively and learn something new, iterate our solution, deliver, relearn, reiterate, repeat.

De-risking assumptions and gaining confidence you’re on track to deliver your outcomes are the returns you get when you invest in user centred design.

Picture of a well-designed apartment block call system
Design meets practicality in this apartment block call system, where interaction design lets the user achieve their goal in the best way possible

The right design at the right time

People tend to think of design in 1 of 2 ways: design is look and feel, or design is how it works.

I think design has 4 levels. The stage your project is at will dictate the level of design it needs.

Level 1. Design is solving problems

First and foremost, interaction designers are problem solvers. They use design and mapping techniques to help teams define the problem and frame it in the right way.

Level 2. Design is how people behave

Before diving into solutions, it’s important to understand how people behave and what they are trying to do. Interaction designers work closely with user researchers at this level to start building empathy for and better understand the needs of users. This might even redefine the problem.

Level 3. Design is how it works

This is where interaction designers help create solutions that are easy to use and understand. They’ll prototype these solutions – often in code because interactions are made of code, not mock-ups – to test ideas with users and iterate based on feedback.

Level 4. Design is look and feel

This is about making it beautiful. It’s often mistaken as the only role interaction designers have.

Interface/visual design is important and many organisations prioritise form over function. In government, it’s important that interaction designers understand how form and function work together, but there’s less emphasis on interface/visual design.

When a project begins, interaction designers don’t start thinking about the typography or what colour palette they’ll use. They don’t need to. Government has a consistent design system for individual elements that are already beautiful in their simplicity and there’s rarely a need to create something else. Instead, interaction designers should spend time solving new, challenging problems.

Together, these levels allow for user-centric design thinking that solves problems creatively and collaboratively.

Designers should beware of secret level 5

Design is changing the world

So naturally designers want to feel like they’re doing something that matters. But not everything needs to be torn down and transformed wholesale. Sometimes you just need to solve the small problem in front of you, right now.

It’s important to remember that in government, just making products and services that work better for the people who need to use them is still innovative, radical and disruptive.

Knowing the right level of interaction design to apply at the right time can help teams understand when to get interaction designers involved.

Interaction designers should support teams with the right level of design at the right time to make things better for users.