How do you identify the makings of a great interaction designer? Is it coding expertise? Mastery of digital tools? A beautiful portfolio of visual design work?
Not necessarily, says Chris Nyffeler, IDEO Executive Design Director and a faculty member in the undergraduate and graduate programs in Interaction Design at the California College of the Arts. Those vocational skills are important, but they can come later. A foundation in design—whether built through education or early career experience—comes from understanding the process and building up the soft skills that all designers, but especially interaction designers, need to master.
Chris would often see his students hung up on mastering tools first. But according to him, great interaction designers have three things at their core—empathy for users, storytelling chops, and the instinct to prototype.
The role of a designer is to be the voice of and advocate for the end user. This is especially true when you're working in-house alongside engineering and product teams that might feel disconnected from the customer.
Empathy starts with an awareness of others and an ability to detect their emotions and understand their perspective. What does it actually feel like to live with a problem, and how would a potential solution actually fix it? “The more that you can build that muscle of empathy,” Chris says, “the better you're going to be as a designer.”
And for more seasoned in-house designers, the more you can help your counterparts across the organization develop their empathy muscles, the more successful it will make you and your UX team in delivering great products to market.
Chris describes storytelling as effectively envisioning ideas and putting them into a more strategic framework. That frame could be user insights (how the work is right for the user), a business context (how the work builds on business goals), or organizational context (how the team is well equipped to deliver on the work).
“Storytelling is an under-appreciated soft skill,” Chris says. Storytelling doesn’t just come in handy for presenting your ideas—it helps build consensus with cross-functional teams. Being able to share your ideas and bring others on board helps designers be strong advocates for their own work.
At IDEO, we talk about prototyping as a central step in the design process, but it's also a mindset that should be fundamental to the way an interaction designer thinks.
“As they have an idea, great designers put pen to paper, or pixels on screen, or just start building something as a way of working out their process,” Chris says.
Designers should be skilled at prototyping at various levels of fidelity, but most importantly, their gut instinct should push them to test ideas early and often.
“I love seeing that, especially from designers who are just discovering prototyping as a tool in their tool belt,” Chris says. “Seeing them realize that there’s more than one way of doing things, and that their first assumption of how they should present an experience could be right or wrong.”
Putting unfinished, scrappy ideas out into the world can make a designer feel uncomfortable, but Chris says the best prototypes leave room for users to co-design parts of the experience. “If they show you something that’s not working,” Chris says, “quickly change it. Move a button, rewrite copy, replace an image. Users can also take you down unexpected, delightful paths that can lead you to a powerful new idea."
Connecting more deeply with that end user—the person you’re designing for—is key to developing all three of these skills.
Want to learn more about interaction design? Dive deeper with IDEO U’s on-demand class, Prototyping for Digital Experiences.