Interaction design is not respected as a design discipline

Posted on March 6, 2012.
The almighty microphone at The Great IxDA Debate

Back in February I was lucky enough to attend Interaction 12, the IxDA’s annual conference, in Dublin, Ireland. It was an incredibly well-produced event with lots of thoughtful sessions, interesting people and fun activities. One of those activities was the inaugural Great IxDA Debate. I was lucky enough to be a part of that debate. The brainchild of SapientNitro’s Dan Willis (aka @uxcrank), the debate put a bunch of interaction designers, creative directors and information architects on stage, in a bar, debating some fundamental questions of the interaction design profession – as the Guinness flowed.


Dave Malouf debating with Abby Covert looking on

Joining me on stage was a formidable (some would say motley) crew of folks from a variety of backgrounds and countries. The debaters included Andrea Resmini, Dave Malouf, Boon Yew Chew, Jason Mesut (my team mate), Pete Trainor, 
Abby Covert, Giles Colborne and Kieron Leppard (arguably the best name ever). We were paired up into teams of two and each foursome took on a divisive argument about the merits and roles of interaction design. Dan did a fantastic job, not just picking questions that were sure to get a spirited discussion, but also MC’ing the event and keeping things rolling all the while involving the crowd in the discussion as well.


Me, at the podium, debating....

The statement Jason and I debated was, “Interaction design is not a well-respected design profession.” Our job was to argue for the statement. You can imagine what it felt like to get up in front of a room of half-in-the-bag interaction designers and tell them their profession was suffering from a lack of respect. :-/

The binary nature of the  statement made it a tough assignment to take on. There are many shades of gray between IxD being or not being a well-respected profession.

What follows is the opening speech I gave in the debate on this topic. Naturally there was a ton of back-and-forth after this initial argument but this will give you a sense of where the night began. It was a terrific event that I hope will be repeated in years to come. Thanks to Dan for driving it. After you have a chance to read my argument, I’d love to hear what you think.

Without further ado, my opening statement:

Aretha Franklin once said,

“I’m about to give you all of my money
And all I’m askin’ in return, honey
Is to give me my profits
When you get home.”

…and a little respect.

That’s exactly what our clients are asking of us – give us profits in exchange for our money. In return, I’ll give you and your profession some respect. Yet what does respect actually mean? When is something respected?

Arguably it’s when that something is understood along with the value it brings to an organization, discipline, product line and ultimately, profit.

Looking a layer deeper, defines respect as, “to hold in esteem or honor.”

This means that if we seek this esteem and honor from our colleagues, teammates, employers, executives and, perhaps most importantly, our customers, they must clearly understand what interaction design is and what value it brings to their professional and personal lives.

For this conversation, I’d like to look a little bit closer to home instead of immediately expanding to our end users, let’s look within the interaction design community itself.

It was the Buddah who said, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

Yet when we look within, at ourselves, into the thought leaders, champions and defenders of the interaction design faith, what do we find?

Let’s take a look:

Dag Svanaes, a professor at the Department of Computer and Information Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and teacher/researcher in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) since the late 1980s said,

“While it is almost tautological that furniture designers design furniture, it is less obvious what the end product of interaction design is.”

This guy wrote a book on interaction design!!

Victor Lombardi, co-founder and former president of the Information Architecture Institute recently said in a conversation on the UX-Management list,

“When things are Really Fucking Important, like the design of an airplane cockpit, we don’t just review the designer’s portfolio. We hire someone who is certified, and in that case the certification is a PhD in Human Factors from an accredited educational institution. Every industry that’s Really Fucking Important, whether it’s law or medicine or home electricity went through a progression of screwing around->building knowledge->certification and I think we will tooI’m not sure when our work in general will become Really Fucking Important, but given the trend I imagine it’s this decade.”

Turning our attention even closer to home,

Dave Malouf, co-founder of the IxDA and interaction design caricature said in his Core 77 piece, State of Interaction Design, Diverging,

“Is there a core foundation, that ALL of these communities and practice types (if you will) share? What initially brought them together, or caused us to galvanize as a community of practice and what will keep these connections relevant for local and global communities who stick with the interaction design banner as one of their many representative identities?

And as I write this, I find myself sliding down that slippery slope of defining myself out of a discipline, yet again: “There is no IxD.”

If the founders of our representative organizations and thought leaders in our field cannot agree on what interaction design is comprised of, how it should be taught, if it makes a difference or if it even exists, how can our clients and potential employers begin to understand what value we bring?

I believe the value of IxD is becoming more and more evident as well-designed products, both physical and virtual, succeed in the mainstream, but it still has not reached the levels of maturity and respect that other disciplines (both design and non-design) have achieved. Industrial design has tangible output. Our stakeholders and employers can understand that. Graphic designers have long been around to get client messages and communications effectively out in the field. Employers get that as do the readers of those messages.

Most of our employers still see us as wireframe monkeys and pixel pushers. They see us as annotators and documenters – not as problem-solvers and product designers. They evaluate us based on our portfolios of decontextualized wireframes asking not how we solved the problem or what the outcome was but instead wondering what tool we used to create the straight lines in our wireframe decks.

The strategic benefits of interaction design are lost on many enterprise and mid-sized organizations evidenced by the near non-existence of C-level and other senior executive design positions at these companies. Most interaction designers rise to the ranks of director with no upward mobility available within the discipline itself. We must, essentially, change jobs to get further up the corporate ladder. Again, this is because the strategic, org-wide benefits of interaction design do not permeate into the boardrooms.

While this is also true in smaller organizations we do stand a better chance to make a greater impact and earn the respect of the entire organization because we are simply closer to the entire organization. Our work is seen and heard more in smaller companies. We must make ourselves seen and heard in the enterprise as well if we hope to attain the same levels of respect as software engineering, marketing, sales and even product management.

The fact that those within the profession struggle to unify around a name for our profession hurts our credibility. The fact that our leaders cannot identify in concise and consistent terminologies what it is that we do, hinders our progress into the mainstream of the corporate world. The fact that we, as practitioners, fail to consistently and convincingly describe what we do and the impact we have on our teams, products and companies, speaks volumes towards the progress we still have to make to get the respect we deserve and that is afforded to all these other professions.

[sock it to me indeed…]


3 thoughts on “Interaction design is not respected as a design discipline

  1. Great discussion Jeff and I particularly focused on the part about what organisations think we do and what we actually are capable of … and everything in between where designers make inroads on a case-by-case basis to peddle their wares to varying levels of success. I would rather just call myself a “designer” but even with the “user experience” qualification in front of it people still think I colour in boxes. However I’ve only been in this job six weeks and making good progress, pushing for face-time with the executive levels to consult and inform user experience strategy development.

    It’s hard not to give into the thought that we’re a cocky bunch who can’t stay in our box and just do our job, rather seeking fame and glory while changing the world. I know we’re not like that – but it feels like it sometimes.

  2. That’s a great summation of the existential crisis I find myself in
    every few months or so (few weeks, maybe?)…  I hope you’ll give us a
    chance to hear the counter-argument as well?

  3. Sounds a bit like many of the professions. As a trained Industrial Designer, I started designing app interfaces back in the CGA days using extended ASCII sets. Our goal was always to try and combine form and function in design. I often wonder if that is not an issue missed today by trained UIX guys, namely how can you assess an interface design without understanding how it looks? 

    For instance, I use Balsamiq a lot to sketch out wireframes– and it is a sweet tool. It creates drawings in a sketchy mode so as to not confuse the client and communicate “this is finished.”

    While a great conceptual tool, I find Balsamiq’s extreme visual noise of harsh contrasting regions next to each other (line to line, region to region, black to white) creates an impression of complexity for my clients– and I try and tell them this can be mitigated with proper design. Still, many of them cannot understand.

    Some of the most successful designs we know of, typically start out with a ‘vision model.’ Certainly this is true for Apple products, where the original prototypes are only non-functioning shapes without regard to what’s inside. The same is true for many outstanding game designs, websites, and in some cases, applications. It’s not necessary to force the form to define the function, but it is nice at times to see what happens when we allow the designer to create uninhibited from focussing on wireframes, flowcharts, region maps, etc..

    When Steve Jobs ‘decided’ to create a cell phone with a single button– I’m sure there were more than plenty functional types who could provide reason including documentation that it would NOT work. No one wants to press a button that doesn’t click or go down. Still, his ‘vision model’ set the stage for a whole NEW revolution in interactive design. That is the ‘outside the box’ thinking I’m talking about.

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