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It was at that point that I knew we had a problem. I was delivering a brown bag lunch talk about the sociology of emotions to a team of customer experience professionals. I made an off-hand reference to the ways that we interact with advertisements, and how that creates individual and shared emotional reactions. It was not the point of my talk, but just something offered in passing. 

One person in the room took exception to that comment, saying something to the effect of:

"It is not an interaction if you are not interacting with another person."

Teaching in a user experience program and in a department with information designers, I knew this wasn’t true. We interact with innumerable objects everyday. We interact with media and communication material. Our days from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed are spent interacting with not just people, but also places and things. I offered a rebuttal to his assertion, and we left it at that to move onto other topics. 

But in looking more deeply at his statement, we can see a larger issue at play. Namely, the use of common terms with very different conceptualizations across experience design areas. It is as if people in different experience design fields use the same lingo but with different meanings. 

As was said in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Netflix, by the way, said the same thing recently.

Source: Tenor


To have communication, we need to have shared meaning. We need to have a common set of definitions that allow us to understand one another. The challenge then becomes how to create a common set of definitions that can cut across experience design fields, while at the same time creating the space within each to design for the unique challenges and requirements that are present.

Here we will explore the creation of a shared definition of interaction that can cut across all experience design domains. In doing so, our goal is to develop a common language of a concept central to experience design: interaction.

User Experience and Interaction Design

When thinking of the concept of interaction in experience design, people might first think about interaction design (IxD). IxD is primarily associated with the field of user experience (UX), focusing on user interactions with user interfaces. IxD and UX are so closely associated that for some, the terms can even mean the same thing, a Venn diagram of overlapping circles. 

In actuality, IxD is a subcomponent of user experience, one element within the larger goal of making better experiences for users through conducting UX research, creating personas, prototyping, wireframing, testing, deploying, and evaluating a final product and impact of designs. 

Don Norman states that the focus of IxD is “how people interact with technology.” He further adds, “The goal is to enhance people’s understanding of what can be done, what is happening, and what has just occurred.” We reach this goal through our UX research to understand user needs and user goals, using that knowledge to drive our user interface design, validating through usability testing and user testing, and through the iterations of the design process.

Such a view makes sense when you consider that people like Don Norman were operating in the technology design space, and concerned with how people were interacting with the technologies they were designing.

Of course, technology here is not just limited to electronic devices. As laid out in his book The Design of Everyday Things, we can explore design and usability in mundane objects like door handles, sinks, knobs, controllers, and literally anything else. Interaction design in a simple way is just the interaction between people and things that they use. Traditionally, interaction design is more focused on a UX design process involving interactions with a screen or with a (technological) product based on five design principles:

  • Words
  • Visual representations
  • Physical objects or space
  • Time
  • Behavior

For each of these points, the focus is on how they exist in the space of technological usage and product development. 

Clearly, however, we can see these elements extend beyond the technological and product space, and into a much broader space of experience design. The reason for this is that interaction is fundamental to all aspects of our lives, and a primary component of experience design.

To limit IxD to just technology would mean ignoring how fundamental it is across all experiences. In fact, we might say that it is not possible to have an experience without an interaction. While there are other concepts and processes that are involved in having an experience, interaction is perhaps one of these most important ones.

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The Primacy of Interaction in Design

Of course, we don’t just interact with technology; we also interact with a wide range of things. We can consider that everything in life involves some kind of interaction. Even before we are born, we become aware of the environment that we are in, and react to changes in that environment. From our days lounging in amniotic fluid, we might recall how we would react to changes in motion and sound that traveled through it and interacted with us. Babies become more fun when they start to respond to our silly faces and games of peek-a-boo. Their interactions with us draw us closer to them in an emotional way.

Peekaboo! Source: Giphy

Dogs have figured this out. That “puppy face” dogs make to compel you to give them food is not by accident; it is by design. According to a story in NBC News, dogs have evolved certain muscles in their faces in a way different from their wolf cousins. “[T]he muscle changes suggest dogs’ faces have evolved anatomically to improve their connections with people, said biological anthropologist Anne Burrows, a professor of physical therapy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh—”In this way, dogs are experience designers who have figured out that creating certain interactions will elicit specific types of experiences.”

Interaction and communication is part of what not only makes us human, but defines us as social animals. Dr. Matthew Lieberman is helping to found a new branch of science called social cognitive neuroscience. This field is based on data collected through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans that show how our brains react to social environments and stimuli. And it is not just that we are in a social environment, but that we are interacting with one another in a social way. As he writes in his book Social, “our brains are wired to connect with other people.” Connection happens through interaction.

Since we are wired to connect, and interaction is key to connection, we can see how interaction is vital to our lives. Thus, interaction and interaction design is central to all aspects of experience design, and not just user experience. The question becomes, how might we redefine or reconsider interaction in different experience design areas? Or conversely, what elements might be constant across experience design areas when it comes to considering interaction design?

Interaction across Experience Channels

I study interaction for a living. I was trained in the technique of conversation analysis (CA), which focuses on the intricacies of talk in interaction. We also examine the impact of context on interaction as well, exploring how a variety of factors come together to create expectations and meaning-making. We can spend a lot of time on small increments of interaction, examining interactions using audio and video recordings. Some might find that tedious, but I find it absolutely fascinating. I’ve used CA to examine customer service encounters, call center encounters, and police interrogations. 

In conversation analysis, there is a concept called recipient design, which essentially refers to how we take into account the audience with whom we are interacting and the context in which it is occurring when ‘designing’ our turns of talk. 

For instance, the concept of “talking down to someone” involves not adequately considering another person’s knowledge or expertise when they are spoken to. Women often will complain of being “mansplained” to when men speak to them as if they are not experts on a particular topic. If I am trying to explain to Serena Williams the particular elements of a tennis serve, that is mansplaining as well as poor recipient design.

Source: People

In this way, the idea of interaction design is not new. We always are designing interactions when engaging with others. If I am speaking to an audience, the first thing I want to know is the characteristics of that audience. I want to know their knowledge level regarding the topic being discussed, what they want to get out of my talk, their previous experiences, general demographic information, and the like. If I were to ask you to give a talk to an audience, and then told you nothing else about that audience, you would have a hard time designing the interaction in order to produce a good experience for them. Audience experience here comes down to interaction design.

In fact, we can say that interaction design is central to work being done in experience design. Let’s look at the following definitions from different experience design areas:

  • Harley Manning of Forrester defined customer experience (CX) as “How customers perceive their interactions with your company.”
  • The Beryl Institute defines patient experience (PX) as, “The sum of all interactions shaped by an organization's culture that influence patient perceptions across the continuum of care.”
  • Gartner defines employee experience (EX) as “the way in which employees internalize and interpret the interactions they have with their organization, as well as the context that underlies those interactions.”
  • We might think of student experience (SX) as the sum of experiences that a student interacting has across the various touchpoints of their student journey. 

And so on.

The fundamental point here is that for any kind of experience design, we have to consider human interactions with people, things, environments, and events. Thus, interaction design is inherent to experience design, and vital to creating an overall experience design as we attempt to address pain points and create experience that provide what our audiences need.

“Unsettling Interactions”

There has been a lot of discussion recently about ‘intelligent chatbots’ and their ability to “interact” with users. An article in Tom Guide on these tools has raised the “unsettling interactions” that some have reported with ChatGPT, Bing, and others. The article references a report by New York Times reported Kevin Roose, where Roose revealed the following regarding his interaction with Bing:

…Bing revealed itself as Sydney, which is Microsoft’s codename for the chatbot. As Roose continued chatting with Sydney, it (or she?) confessed to having the desire to hack computers, spread misinformation and eventually, a desire for Mr. Roose himself. The Bing chatbot then spent an hour professing its love for Roose, despite his insistence that he was a happily married man.

At one point “Sydney” came back with a line that was truly jarring. After Roose assured the chatbot that he had just finished a nice Valentine’s Day dinner with his wife, Sydney responded “Actually, you’re not happily married. Your spouse and you don’t love each other. You just had a boring Valentine’s Day dinner together.’”

Well then. Hell hath no fury like a spurned chatbot. We might think about how wrong it all could have gone if the interface was tied into other ‘smart devices’ in Roose’s home.

Source: Tenor

Sociologist and designer Bob Moore has combined conversation analysis and user experience to create conversational UX. In his book (written with Raphael Arar) Conversational UX Design: A Practitioner's Guide to the Natural Conversation Framework, they talk about Conversational UX Design as applying what we know about naturally-occurring conversation to designing more naturally-sounding voice agents and other technological interfaces.

Interaction here is not just about words on a screen, but the actual interactions that we are having with technology that is trying to act more human. He seeks to combine what we know from conversation analytic studies of interaction to user experience.

Given that interaction, and the design of interactions, are fundamental to all areas of experience design, we need to consider what a more universal conceptualization of interaction design for experiences would be. We also need to think about how to design interactions when the things we are designing cut across experiential domains.  

Moving Interaction Design beyond User Experience (UX)

As discussed here, while UX was not the first area of work to focus on the importance of interaction, it did emphasize the importance of how we interact with products and things. With the proliferation of experience design areas today, we now need to think about interaction design beyond place and things, but also people as well. In other words, we need a unified conceptualization of Experience Interaction Design.

As more experience design fields and specializations emerge, there has been a tendency to evaluate and compare them. It is not a matter of which field or which right or wrong, but rather of where our design efforts are directed. It can be like watching dogs in a play park trying to mount each other to establish dominance. In a way, we are witnessing different areas of experience design trying to achieve supremacy as the primary discipline from which all others emanate.

For example, I have heard customer experience people say that everyone is a customer, and therefore everything is customer experience. Likewise, I have heard people in user experience say a similar kind of thing. I have seen patient and student experience being prioritized over employee experience in their respective contexts.

What we need is a more general conceptualization of interaction and interaction design that is more general and universally applicable to experience design. Interaction design is connected to many areas of experience design, which—despite varying levels of difference and overlap—all seek to guide interactions between people, places, and products. Here are some general principles to consider when making design decisions for human experiences:

Socio-environmental Context: To put it simply, context matters. When thinking about context, there are different types of context we might consider. The environmental context relates to the physical features and properties of the setting with which we are interacting. We also need to consider the social context as well. By ‘social,’ it is not just all the stakeholders that are present. Additionally, we are considering the cultural and institutional context. Different context have different roles, expectations, and elements that influence and define interactions.

Interactional Elements: Every experiential setting has features and elements with which people interact. An interaction inventory would yield all of those elements, which would be the first step to consider how best to design for each of them. Then those elements could be designed under the principles of different experience design channels.

Experiential Channels: As discussed, we are in a moment of expanding experiential design channels. For any setting, there are going to be opportunities for different experience design fields to be utilized. A college student might be a “user” (when interacting with technology), a “student” (when in the classroom), a “customer” (when at the bookstore), a “patient” (when at the health clinic, and an “employee” (when doing work study). Each requires different considerations of how we design for interactions. Mapping the experience ecosystem will allow for the allocation of appropriate knowledge and resources.

Experience Integration: The ultimate goal is not to just design for one experiential channel, but to achieve experience integration. This means creating alignment and concordance between and across experiential channels by designing interactional elements that fit with the socio-physical context. Such a goal requires a broader experience design strategy and vision that cuts across specific experience design channels.

Going Forward with Experience Interaction Design

I don’t know if I made a compelling argument to the person in that brown bag lunch regarding how our concept of interaction needs to be broader and more inclusive. Perhaps it is too much to ask people who are embedded in one experience design field to see into others. To do good experience design, there is a need for people who have deep expertise in particular design fields. At the same time, we also need a broader experience design strategy and vision.

By creating broader and more inclusive definitions of experience design concepts, we can start moving toward creating a common language that can allow for better communication and executive of our experience design.

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By Gary David

Gary David is a Professor of Sociology and Experience Design at Bentley University. He also is Co-Host of the Experience by Design podcast, where he “explores experience designs of all kinds.” An acknowledged innovator and thought leader, his work integrates experiences design channels into broader experience strategy to deliver positive outcomes in complex systems. He has spoken to and worked with major multi-national corporations, community organizations and non-profits, professional associations, and non-governmental agencies to help them achieve their goals of making better experiences and connecting people to work together. He also is a Twitch EDU livestreamer (as ProfessorEXP), bringing his unique brand of humor and analysis to a global audience.