Research Overview: Interaction Design

The academic field of interaction design at the present time can be seen as a fusion of multiple academic and practice-dominated disciplines, each with its own intellectual tradition. Broadly speaking, three strands can be discerned.

This article is part of a series describing the research fields we work within: Interaction Design, Media and Communication Studies and Co-production, Design & Innovation.

This page was created on Apr 20, 2010, and last revised on Feb 4, 2011.

The largest constituent by far is design-oriented human-computer interaction (HCI), growing out of the 1970s field of “software psychology” with intellectual traditions drawing on experimental psychology and computer science. The traditional focus in HCI is on a solitary user aiming to accomplish a task as efficiently and correctly as possible; concepts such as usability, usefulness and efficiency all emanate from traditional HCI. However, the academic HCI community is generally interested in extending the scope of the field and incorporating other aspects, including discretionary use (as opposed to task-oriented, externally motivated use), social use (as opposed to individual use), and non-instrumental use qualities such as aesthetics and emotion (as opposed to a strict focus on instrumental qualities such as usability and efficiency).

Design has always been an element of HCI, in the sense that the overall aim of the field is to create user interfaces and system concepts for better user experiences. Recent developments towards interaction design and the consequent incorporation of more classical design-oriented traditions illustrate how HCI’s interest in design translates to a more multidisciplinary foundation. More on this below.

The HCI strand of interaction design comprises a wide-ranging body of archival publication fora; some of the more notable ones include full-paper proceedings from conferences like CHI (Human Factors in Computing Systems), DUX (Designing the User Experience), DIS (Designing Interactive Systems), Ubicomp (Ubiquitous Computing), Mobile HCI and Design & Emotion. Influential journals include Human-Computer Interaction, Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, and International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction.

The second strand of intellectual heritage shaping the academic field of interaction design is design research, which traces its origins to cross-disciplinary studies of design practice in fields such as architecture and industrial design since the 1960s and onwards. The research in design studies combines a descriptive stance, aimed at conceptualizing design processes, with more normative, methodological approaches aiming at prescribing how design should be performed.

Design research has gradually widened its scope to address not only empirical research on design processes, but also conceptual/analytical work akin to criticism in the arts and humanities, as well as research where design practice forms part of the knowledge work. In recent years, interaction design and the digital materials have grown in relative importance among the design disciplines. Hence, a bi-directional dynamic has emerged where design research considers interaction design to be one of the design disciplines which belongs within its crossdisciplinary scope of interest, and interaction design considers design research as a valuable source of concepts, perspectives and methodology to extend its own disciplinary body of knowledge.

Important examples of archival publication fora coming from a design research tradition but serving the publication needs of (parts of) the academic interaction design community are the full-paper conference proceedings from conferences such as Nordes (Nordic Design Research) and DRS (Design Research Society), the DeSForM symposium (Design and Semantics of Form and Movement), and journals such as Design Studies, Design Issues, International Journal of Design and Artifact (temporarily suspended).

The third and final strand in academic interaction design consists of practice-oriented design, mainly in the disciplines of architecture, industrial design and graphic design. Practice-oriented design in this context refers to the kind of design that is traditionally taught in art schools and where professional practice and artistic quality are the yardsticks for curriculum design as well as for staff member qualification.

Unlike the two previous strands, practice-oriented design does not have a strong academic tradition in the sense of scientific research to create abstracted knowledge and archival publications. To simplify somewhat, the knowledge-building structures in practice-oriented design have rather been built around master-apprentice relations, craft skills and artifactual knowledge disseminated through exhibitions and similar venues.

Two relatively recent forces have contributed to making practice-oriented design an important element of interaction design. First, there is significant political pressure worldwide on traditional art-school design institutions to align themselves with the “academic system” and make their knowledge more abstracted, externalized and measurable. This is manifested on all levels, from undergraduate curricula to PhD programs and research funding. Secondly, design-oriented HCI has gradually come to see the value of practice-oriented design skills as the topics of research interest have moved into domains such as aesthetic qualities and discretionary use.

To summarize, the academic field of interaction design today is still somewhat dominated by design-oriented HCI, but it is clearly moving towards a fruitful synthesis with elements from design research and from practice-oriented design.

Two widely accepted carriers of mainstream agendas and priorities in interaction design are the (academic) CHI conference and the (slightly more practitioner-oriented) interactions magazine. For the purposes of this discussion, it is useful to examine a recent issue of interactions (vol xvii, no. 1, Jan+Feb 2010), which illustrates quite well where the field of interaction design stands in relation to the new media.

The top theme of the issue is The Critical Role of Co-Creation by Users — User participation needs to go well beyond the passive role of “spectator” in all sorts of contexts. The theme contains an article by HCI thought leader Don Norman who recounts media scholar Henry Jenkins’ ten years of work on the concept of transmedia, and (without any further references to, e.g., pertinent work in media studies) broadens the concept to include not only crossmedia practices but also creative collaboration and user-as-producer perspectives. Further, Danzico writes about the editorial/curatorial role in traditional and new mediascapes in a similarly introductory way, and Yuille and Macdonald address The social life of visualization. Moreover, the issue in question features a cover story, which amounts to an elementary introduction to tangible interaction.

The general tone of these pieces is one of surprised and pleasant discovery, reminiscent of the way in which Norman admitted the significance of non-instrumental design qualities in 2004 and legitimized them to the HCI community by publishing the book Emotional Design (Norman 2004), as well as the 2004 theme issue of interactions on HCI and mass communication (MacDonald 2004)

The recent issue of interactions can be read as a proposed agenda for research and development within interaction design directed towards the new media. It seems to validate several key choices we made a decade ago in building the foundation for what is now the MEDEA Collaborative Media Initiative.

- The notion that media will span the physical and the virtual worlds by means of tangible interaction, physical computing and place-specific media. Examples include our work on place-specific computing (Messeter 2009) and metamorphing (Linde 2007) as well as the internationally acclaimed Arduino open-source hardware development platform.

- The long-term value of integrating interaction design with media and communication studies in a hybrid practice bringing creative and analytical elements to bear on research questions concerned with cross-media communication, participatory media, transformations of editorial work and other aspects of established media structures (Löwgren et al 2000 (pdf), Gislén et al 2008, Lindstedt et al. 2009).

- The focus on social and collaborative aspects of information visualizations, in task-oriented contexts (Howard 2002) as well as for serendipitous discovery among knowledge workers (Forsén et al. 2009).


Forsén, G., Lundin, T., Löwgren, J. (2009). Pinpoint: A Design Study in Interactive Visualization for Finding People in a Large Organization. Information Visualization, advance online publication DOI 10.1057/ ivs.2009.14.

Gislén, Y., Löwgren, J., Myrestam, U. (2008). Avatopia: A Cross-media Community for Societal Action. Personal & Ubiquitous Computing, 12:289–297.

Howard, M. (2002). Usefulness in Representation Design. Linköping: Linköping University.

Linde, P. (2007). Metamorphing – the Transformative Power of Digital Media and Tangible Interaction. Ronneby: Blekinge Institute of Technology.

Lindstedt, I., Löwgren, J., Reimer, B., Topgaard, R. (2009). Nonlinear News Production and Consumption: A Collaborative Approach. ACM Computers in Entertainment, 7(3).

Löwgren, J., Bonneau, J., Möller, A., Rudström, Å., Waern, A. (2000). News on Demand Considered Useless: An Explorative Assessment of Database News Publication Features. Proc. i3 Annual Conference, pp. 19–25.

Macdonald, N. (2004). Can HCI Shape the Future of Mass Communications? (Introduction to special issue.) interactions 11(2):44–47.

Messeter, J. (2009). Place-Specific Computing – a Place-Centric Perspective on Digital Designs. International Journal of Design, Vol. 3(1), pp 29–41.

Norman, D. (2004). Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

This page was created on Apr 20, 2010, and last revised on Feb 4, 2011.