Interaction Design on the Right Scale

“Let’s take a step back.” “That’s too high level.” “You’re down in the weeds.” These are phrases you hear quite often with teams creating websites and other digital products. They’re an indicator that a team is not aligned on the appropriate level or scale of the design work. If things are not sorted out for all team members, the project will likely become dysfunctional.

Steve Baty, an Australian designer who started his career with user interfaces on websites and moved to designing “larger projects” like supply chains, delivered a great keynote on the phenomena of scales in interaction design during the interaction 16 conference, which I had attended this year in Helsinki.

I want to provide a wrap-up of the five scales Baty identified, what these scales mean for a great designer, and a thought to take away for our daily business.

Five Scales of Interaction Design

The smallest scale is the low level of tasks, all the tiny details that make a website or app pleasurable and easy to use. This might be a button label, micro interactions like a switch, or error messages.

A detail such as Facebook’s “like” button or Twitter’s hashtag may seem small but can significantly change the way people communicate with each other.

The second scale appears if you put all these details together and start speaking about consistency across different channels like web, mobile, and tablet. It could be an ordered information structure or a defined design language that connects different parts of an interface together. Without this unified guideline, a website breaks apart and meaning gets lost.

Stepping one scale larger, we come to the point of what interaction design basically is — it’s the creation of a dialogue between a person and a product, service, or system. It’s also the creation of dialogues between people or organizations. So once people communicate through a messenger app or paying with mobile, designers have to worry even more about cognitive psychology and behavior. We have to create an interface, for example, that lets people trust in each other to share money.

On the fourth level we see not only individuals but crowds of people and connections between devices that form an ecosystem. Nike+ is a good example of this. The people designing the app, website, and hardware make it possible for a group of strangers to meet somewhere, run together, and share their thoughts in the form of ratings. Nike learns from their feedback and produces better training accessories in the future.

On the largest scale, designers have an even bigger impact on people’s lives. Just think of how Uber, the transportation network company, is disrupting economics and policies with their services. Likewise, designers involved in food delivery services have to think of all the cyclists who bring me pizza, which has an effect (hopefully a positive one) on more bike-friendly urban planning.

A Great Designer

If designers go through these scales, their design activity, perspective, and methods are always changing. But as Steve Baty and some other designers before him at the conference stated, one of the most important skills of great designers is the ability to move between the scales. The best interaction designers are able to get down into the details but also to step back to high-level thinking and understand the context.

How to Find the Right Scale

At the end of Baty’s keynote, there was a question from the audience on how teams who get lost in these scales during their design process can find their way back to the appropriate level. How should we react when sentences like “Let’s take a step back” pop up?

Of course, the speaker couldn’t serve us with the one solution that fits everything. But he said that, next to having enough experience, it’s about starting a conversation in the team to understand better the context as well as the content we are designing for.

Baty’s response reminded me of a former colleague of mine who always repeated two sentences if we were stuck with a problem: “Why are we doing this?” and “Why didn’t we do this before?” This way we started talking about the problem, which led to understanding why we were stuck and to finding our way back onto another scale where we could solve the problem.

If you want to dive deeper into this topic and see more examples, you can find the video of Steve Baty’s interaction 16 keynote here.

Audrey Liehn is a user experience designer at MetaDesign Berlin.

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