Foundations of Interaction Design

Written by: Jeff Parks

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banda_headphones_sm.gif The other day I had the opportunity to speak with David Malouf on his article, Foundations of Interaction Design. We discuss several foundations of Interaction design including time, metaphor, abstraction, and negative space. David also provides greater detail to comments posted on his article from readers from around the world.

We Discuss…

*What is Interaction Design?*
Interaction Design is about interaction and behavior within a specific context.

*Foundations of Interaction Design*
Dave talks about how these foundations were developed from his work at Pratt Industrial Design including elements such as line, space, color, and texture. Taking these elements into account creates a better design.

*What do you get when you cross a fax machine with a modem?*
Another aspect of Interaction Design is how machines interact with each other. Dave uses the iPod and Blue Tooth technologies to describe how Interaction Design plays a key role in making better products.

*Four on the floor*
Dave goes on to discuss four aspects of the following Foundational elements in Interaction Design:

1. Time
2. Metaphors
3. Abstraction
4. Negative Space



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Interviewer: The other day I had the opportunity to speak with David Malouf on his article “Foundations of Interaction Design”. We discussed several foundations of interaction design, including those of time, metaphor, abstraction, and negative space. David also provides greater detail to comments posted on his articles from readers around the world. A big thank you to David for taking time to speak with me, and I hope everyone enjoys the podcast. Cheers!

David, your article on Boxes and Arrows Foundation of Interaction Design struck me as really interesting, especially as an information architect. I can appreciate the complexity of defining a multi-faceted profession like interaction design.

You noted in your article that interaction design is distinct from the other design disciplines. It’s not information architecture, industrial design, or even user experience design. It also isn’t user interface design, it’s more ephemeral, it’s about why and when whether than about what and how. So maybe you could elaborate on this definition of interaction design for our listeners?

David Malouf: Yeah, sure. Something that I like to do is to make sure our terms are well defined, and I believe in very particulate definitions of things in order to help people understand the total concept. So a word like “user experience” doesn’t require that because it’s meant to be an umbrella term that’s all encompassing, but terms like “interaction design,” “UI design, ” and “information architecture, ” “industrial design”, are particulate in their nature. They have relationships with each other in order to bound those relationships with each other, to better understand them, it’s important to have a clear understanding.

So when I talk about interaction design, I’m trying to not necessarily create a hard wall between other disciplines, because there’s a lot of overlap and practice and methods and things, but it’s more about being able to understand the core essence of those disciplines and of interaction design. For me, interaction design is really about interaction. If you think about an interaction, an interaction is a form of behavior and behaviors take place within specific contexts. So defining context and defining behavior are at the core of what an interaction designer needs to do.

Interviewer: Right, and some of those core elements you illustrated in your article itself. You talk about foundations specifically. Can you elaborate on some of those ideas for our listeners?

David: Yeah, sure. I think the concept of foundations itself is something that comes out of the design schools of Europe and early US design schools, and my experience is through Pratt Industrial Design, where we put together a series of foundation classes for industrial designers at Pratt. I’m not going to remember all of them off the top of my head, but line, volume, space, color, texture are all part of those foundations.

Basically the way the education system works is to do studio classes where you dive deeply into each one of these foundations and master its language. So that in terms of negative space for a graphic designer, for example, is understanding when something is in close enough proximity or not enough white space so that it is assumed that those elements are somehow related to each other, versus those when do I separate it enough so that I know that they’re not related to each other? So a lot of that is done in graphic design and industrial design.

When we talk about interaction design, there really hasn’t been a sustained conversation about elements like these that we can use to communicate what is good interaction design, what is bad interaction design, or even what is interaction design itself. In thinking about these foundations of interaction design that’s sort of at the core of what I’m trying to put together.

Interviewer: It’s brilliant, and it’s also very complicated, of course, because you’re talking about behaviors. Of course if we were building things for other machines it’d be simple, but we’re building these technologies and tools for other people, so how do they interact with those applications?

David: Yeah, and lately actually, I’ll just add this in, a lot of what I’ve been thinking about is actually machines interacting with each other. That is another aspect of interaction design is when you think about ecosystem design and how my iPod needs to connect to my laptop and how that happens and how they can communicate to each other and what are the expectations between those two devices.

It’s very technical on the one hand, but there’s also a place where it affects the human interaction between them, such as how will my Bluetooth headset communicate to my phone? What types of information do they need to pass back and forth to each other so then the human beings on either side are able to clearly understand stakes and other information that’s viable as well.

Interviewer: Absolutely. And just getting back to the metaphors for a second, you talked about a few in your article that I’d like you to elaborate on. I know you and I were talking before about how we could spend an entire hour talking about just one of these things. Maybe we could start by talking about the element of time and how that relates to interaction design.

David: Well, I think time was probably the most complex element. I think in terms of product design, time is probably the clearest foundation for interaction design. There are other types of design such as film and dance that require an understanding of time, and there is a place where interaction design, like dance and film, is the place for narrative, is the storytelling.

So if you think about narrative and time and timing, you end up with basically one core aspect of time is pace, which is the feeling of flow through time for the end user’s experience. Like going to a movie, how often do you look at your watch, and managing that. There are times when you want the pace to be slow because you want to engage yourself that completely with it and feel that moment, but sometimes that’s take a little too far and then the end of “Lord of the Rings” comes by the fifth ending and you’re looking at your watch again.

The same thing exists within interaction design. Is that transition animation too slow, is it too quick, did I need more time to understand what was going on, do I need less time to realize the change? Things like that are important with interaction design. Do I really need to have a step-through wizard to do this process, or can you put it on one form on a screen and I’ll figure it out? To make it more concrete, that’s one element of time.

Interviewer: It’s interesting because you were noting in your article and we were talking right now you were mentioning this idea of choreography and dance and you mentioned one of the elements being metaphors, and in particular you were talking about how all metaphors break down at some point. I’m wondering why that is and what a path forward for the interaction designers would be in helping clients understand these complex ideas once the metaphor breaks down.

David: Yeah. I think all metaphors break down just because they’re not what you’re prescribing to it.

Interviewer: Right.


David: For some reason whenever I think of metaphors, all of a sudden these similes come into my head. But you could say a metaphor is an analogy, right? [laughs]

Interviewer: Sure.Yep.

David: You could say, “He’s as fast as a horse.” Well, obviously he’s not as fast as a horse because people can’t go 40 miles an hour. He’s faster than you would think a normal human being would be able to go. So the analogy breaks down at a certain level because he is not the analogy. He is just like a quality of the analogy that you’re trying to possess.

So you take the trashcan from a desktop or the recycle bin. Well, they’re not a trashcan or a recycle bin because of the fact that I can’t carry it someplace else. [laughs] I can’t move it. I can’t…

Interviewer: It lacks the physical properties of being literally able to go over, pick it up, and move it somewhere or throw out the trash quite literally.

David: Right. I can’t play my drums on it. [laughs]

Interviewer: And being a drummer myself, that’s my biggest frustration with these things for sure.

David: [laughs] Exactly.

Interviewer: But I understand. All kidding aside, I completely understand your point. You mentioned in your articles working in tandem with metaphor abstraction relates more to the physical and mental activity that is necessary for an interaction to take place. So what is the difference between an abstraction and a metaphor?

David: I think for me I wrote this article actually looking for people to help me with this stuff as much as to feed it. And I think abstraction is this thing that I’m trying to get my head around. It makes perfect sense in my head. Every time I talk about it, people sort of get a little bit lost. So I do think though that abstraction is metaphor grounded in physicality in a way.

So I think one of the examples I gave is talking about Google Maps. Being the first one to do the whole Ajax Map thing, what they were able to do is create this amazing metaphor of a map on the table. Not using the blurred focus of the reality, but definitely taking that clipping effect and saying, “You know, you’re just dragging the map around the lens of your eye basically. We’re going to clip it for you more precisely than your eye would do.”

But that’s basically the metaphor and play there. But the abstraction part of it is how you actually use the map itself and how you click down on the mouse. And the distance that you move your arm with the mouse is in exact ratio to how far you’re going to move on the screen, right?

Interviewer: Exactly. Oh, for sure.

David: You compare that to the original, the old version of Maps, where you clicked in north or northwest. And that click had nothing to do with the physical movement of distance or even how long it took to make that motion of the map. So there was a further abstraction or a lack of physical connection between those types of interaction.

Interviewer: So would this be similar to the idea of how we’re losing our ability to do cursive writing? And how just because we type keys — like my pinky is ASDF — you almost get used to this idea of, well, I’m used to writing A with a pen versus just punching a key with a finger, for example?

David: I think that there’s definitely realities, like the whole spelling is degrading among kids who do S & S too much, right? There are those realities. But I also think it’s important to understand that we don’t want abstraction or the value of abstraction to be a value of interaction design. There could be points where higher abstraction might be more valuable.

So if you look at command line interfaces, typing has nothing to do really with what I’m doing onscreen. But there’s an efficiency to that. So people who are interested in command line interfaces, an interesting product is by the folks at Humanized. They have a product called Enso, where you can command line interface your Windows desktop pretty easily.

But it still is very abstract, but there’s an efficiency involved in using that level of abstraction. So I don’t think that there’s an absolute value judgment to abstraction itself. Less is a little more.

Interviewer: Excellent. One of the questions you asked in your article about the fourth foundation of interaction design is that of negative space. You had put out the question, what is the negative effect on interaction based on negative space”

Have you gotten any feedback about that? Or could you describe to our listeners a little bit about how negative space is the fourth foundation of what you look at when you think about interaction design?

David: Yeah. For me I think there is no one negative space. I’ve been thinking about this a little bit in terms of the foundations of other design disciplines. But I think there’s a negative in each of the other foundations in a way, especially within time. There probably is a negativity in each foundation. I think that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

But what I’ve worried about here: there’s time, so pause is an obvious “something’s not happening.” There’s no reaction, which also relates to inactivity, which is the other one I related it to.

But then there’s the human element of negative space or negativity, which is just the human cessation of thought. There was a game called BrainBall or something like that where the less you think the better you do kind of thing in controlling your mind. Or think about meditation where you try to stop your language thought.

Interviewer: Less is more type thing, right? Because I know Dr. Barry Schwartz wrote a book called “The Paradox of Choice, ” why more is less. He went to the Gap one day in inspiration for this article. He had never had more selection of jeans in his entire life. He had never walked out with a better fitting, more comfortable pair of jeans, and he never had a worse experience in his entire life in buying jeans.

So he determined the more choices people had, actually the less satisfied they were with their final decision, which I thought was really kind of interesting. So maybe if we start from a negative space perspective, if we looked at the idea of removing choice, we could actually increase the capacity to get people what they need.

David: I don’t think it’s about removing. I’ve always had a problem with the paradox. I have a paradox with the paradox of choice.

Interviewer: OK.

David: Losing choices where there isn’t always as much choice is what we’re used to in the U S, you sort of miss your options.


David: So I think it’s about presentation of choice as much as it is too much choice.

Interviewer: Excellent point. I never thought about that, but you’re absolutely right. Yeah, for sure. It would have to be. Maybe we could turn a little bit to some of the comments that the readers made on your article?

David: Sure.

Interviewer: And get a little more clarification from you. Paul Bryan from Musography Corporation in Atlanta commented that, “I agree with the foundations you listed but was left wondering why you didn’t include a foundation for goal, that is why I undertook the design and why anyone else would undertake the steps of the interaction.

“Fully understanding the context and mechanics of relevant goal seems fundamental to any interaction design and constrains all of the other foundations you describe–unless by ‘foundations’ you mean the components of the interaction itself or the philosophy of the art apart from the science.” So what are your thoughts about the foundation of goal for interaction design as Paul has pointed out?

David: For me goal is something that comes from the outside of the design. It constrains the design, but so does technology. What technology I’m doing is going to constrain that design. But to me it is a parameter of which I design within.. But it is not a foundation of the design itself.

Quite honestly, it comes outside of the practice of interaction design in, like I was saying, the particular. Goals are defined from design research. They’re not defined from interaction design. They’re defined from research, so the activity itself is there.

And the last thing is that design can exist for good or for bad outside of research. If you look at studio work in the design education environment around foundations, it’s very, very much about creativity and language acquisition. There are basically three fundamental elements of any kind of creative endeavor. You need to be able to have muscle memory. If you think about playing music, you need to be able to actually put your fingers on the keys in the right places in the right time. Right?

Interviewer: Absolutely.

David: You also need to know and be able to create good music, so you need to be able to come up with your own musicality in a way. Then the final thing is you need to be able to recognize what is good and critique and things like that. Those are the three core aspects of it, and you can do that with or without research involved in that. It’s a very creative endeavor.

So that’s probably why I just leave goals out of it. Not to dismiss the importance of design research, but that’s the same as all of the other disciplines around doing user experience. They’re all important. You can’t have interaction design without some kind of formative design working in play, whether that’s visual design, UI design, or industrial design. All of those formative elements are just as important as the interaction design, and so is design research.

Interviewer: Right. Absolutely. The other question I wanted to talk to you about from a comment was a gentleman, Parek, who stated that: “While not countering what you said, I was left with the impression you believe it’s better to reduce abstraction. I’m not sure that should be a goal in itself. I would say it’s better to push out the abstraction to the right level of the given interaction.” Do you agree with what Parek is saying here?

David: Yeah, I think Parek is really just stating what I said earlier in the conversation in terms of there are points where it’s about appropriateness — to bring goals back in [laughs] or about user understanding more than goals, actually. You need to design to the appropriate needs of the users who you’re designing for. So I wouldn’t say that abstraction is a negative in and of itself.

I would say though that there’s a tendency for human beings to feel more engaged — the more the physicality feels like it’s related to natural motion or natural interactions, the more that we have to create artificial interactions in order to achieve the tasks of the solutions we’re designing, I think the more it encumbers people. So there’s not an absolute answer here, but I would tend to want to reduce abstraction, would be my answer. I would to tend to want to.

Interviewer: The last comment that I want to point out today was by Jamie Owen, who’s a visual information specialist for training at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Jamie had said that much like differing cultures have recognizable characteristics unique to their dance and their music, the “choreography” of orchestration of their interaction should also be designed as to their unique cultural characteristics.

In short, the elements of the foundations are different from culture to culture. So in my mind, this begs the question: Should culture be considered as a foundation of interaction design?

David: Again, it’s like goals in that it’s an outside constraint. I would consider it really similar in that regard, but the foundations themselves exist no matter the culture. They may be interpreted differently. Just like you take music. There is such a thing as a scale, or to get it more precisely there is rhythm. There is melody. Right?

Interviewer: Absolutely.

David: Good rhythm and good melody differ per culture, but rhythm and melody are the foundations. Then you can’t tell in other musical elements. But I wouldn’t call the culture a foundation of music, and the same thing here with the designs.

Maybe I’m going to use a visual design. Maybe I can’t use the color red in certain cultures because it may be insulting, but it still is that hue that’s there. The value attributed to that is different culturally, but it exists. And its relationship cognitively to other colors, meaning that red and green are always in contrast to each other, will always be there. Right?

Interviewer: Exactly. Well, David. Again, the article is “Foundations of Interaction Design,” obviously a conversation that is going to be carried on for quite some time outside of this podcast and definitely an important piece of work. So thank you very much for taking time to talk to me today. Is there anything that you’d like to announce to our listeners before we sign off?

David: Yeah, sure. [laughs] Well, as attributed to me, I think, in bios I’m the vice-president of the Interaction Design Association, plus my love affair with interaction design. We are having our first annual conference this February in Savannah, Georgia, being hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design industrial design group.

It is going to be great. We have four amazing keynotes from the various parts of the interaction design worlds. Alan Cooper from Cooper and About Face. And Inmates Who Run the Asylum is going to be our opening and primary keynote.

Interviewer: Great.

David: Then closing is going to be somebody probably new to a lot of people in the user experience community, which is Malcolm McCullough. He’s actually professor of architecture at University of Michigan, and he wrote what I would consider one of the best books on interaction design. It’s about architecture called “Digital Ground.” He will be giving a great talk to send us on our way into the new universe where space, form, and interaction are all sort of converging into one sort of design discipline.

In between we have Bill Buxton, principal design researcher from Microsoft – -pretty much a luminary — and recent author of “Sketching User Experiences,” will be talking about designing the ecosystem.

Our fourth keynote is Sigi Moeslinger from a design firm called Antenna Design. You probably know her work because you’ve used it, but you probably don’t know the firm as well. But Sigi, a former IDEO person, more on the industrial side of things, will be talking about the intersection, intervention, and interaction. It will be a great talk.

We have eight invited speakers from around the world. Then we have 20 lightning-round speakers doing 25-minute talks also, which comes directly from our community. It was really hard to cut those down [laughs] to only 20. So that’s going to be a high quality event that we’re looking at. Our host, Savannah, is going to be an amazing place to be in February. It’s looking like a great show.

Interviewer: Sounds fantastic. Well, living in Ottawa, Canada in February, Savannah, Georgia, sounds like a lovely place to be [laughs] in terms of the weather. So hopefully I can make it down there. But again, Dave, thanks very much for taking the time and best of luck in all of your endeavors.

David: Thank you.

Interviewer: Cheers.

Jeff Parks

Jeff Parks is the Podcast Editor for Boxes and Arrows and the co-founder of DIGIA UX Inc. in Ottawa Canada. Jeff has over fifteen years experience in the Government, Non-Profit, and Private Sectors creating goal-oriented solutions as an Information Architect, team leader, and project manager. These experiences have lead to successful delivery of projects in the Health Care and Information Technology industries including the development of information architectures, enterprise portal frameworks, e-Learning programs, cognitive rehabilitation systems, and corporate wide strategic frameworks. Jeff presented at the 2010 IA Summit in Denver and was the Closing Keynote at the 2012 Polish IA Summit in Warsaw Poland. He currently leads workshops on User Experience and Information Architecture @followuxleader
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4 thoughts on “Foundations of Interaction Design”

  1. Thanks!

    Although it doesn’t seem to show any content in iTunes. I can see it’s there in the XML though. Might be some iTunes compatibility thing.

    Sorry for the non-relevant posts. I’ll just download the podcast as it is. 🙂

  2. Kalle,

    Thank you for your feedback. I’m working on putting together an iTunes feed so anyone who wishes can subscribe to shows via the iTunes Podcast directory. I am aiming to have this up and running in early January. In the mean time, If you click on the download button and open the file in iTunes you’ll be able to see links to our sponsors and the article in the album art window for this Podcast and the one I produced with Milissa, “Blasting the Myth of the Fold”.

    I hope you’re enjoying the Podcasts. Feedback is always welcome! If you or anyone else would like to provide ideas feel free to email me at

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