The difference between industrial designers (IDers) and interaction designers (IxDers) may not be as vast as the differences between men (from Mars, allegedly!) and women (Venus, didn’t you know?). IDers and IxDers are from the same planet, but we have grown up in our careers surrounded and influenced by different norms. And, like men and women, we need to work together. In some respects (unlike men and women), you could even argue we are becoming one.
As technology becomes more sophisticated and more affordable, product experiences are shifting from simple, physical interactions into more complex digital and data-driven ones. The emphasis on ID continues to transition from form toward user interface (UI) and other elements of human to computer interaction. I have noticed some IDers are stubbornly digging in their heels instead of acknowledging the transition.
If we’re going to design the best products, we need to acknowledge and accept the differences between ID and IxD and find a way to adapt without friction. I would recommend going one step further than living in harmony to become a hybrid designer who practices both.
Equal Pay for Equal Work?
If the rapid changes in products — it’s estimated there will be about 30 billion devices connected to the Internet of Things by the year 2020 — are not enough to compel IDers to consider learning IxD, salary might be. There is a pretty dramatic difference in hourly rates for IxDers and IDers, with the former beginning to command nice premiums over the latter. This is not a new phenomenon. When you look at design consultancies, typically they will bill out an interaction designer at a higher rate than they would bill an industrial designer, and some large design consultancies are transitioning their staff’s focus from ID to UI design.
There’s more pressure on price because it’s easier to outsource the ID component of product development. It’s easier to do ID when you’re disconnected from your market, whereas IxDers still need to be connected to the market, to the users. There’s a very strong cultural dimension to IxD, which makes it a lot more difficult to outsource.
As an IDer by background this is frustrating for me, but we need to accept that ID is becoming more of a commodity service. The way I see it, we have two options: We can keep doing what we’re doing until we lose product categories and our volume of work shrinks; or we can evolve.
You Say Potato, I Say Potahto
ID has been around since the early 1900s whereas IxD has only been around for about 10 years, and IxD has some of the hallmarks of a young discipline in flux. For one, a lot of organizations still refer to IxD as many different things. You’ll see acronyms for user interface (UI), user experience (UX), and interaction design (IxD) used seemingly interchangeably. (At Bresslergroup we’ve decided to call what we do IxD, to encompass the product design experience and to avoid limiting our nomenclature to screen design (UI) or Web design (UX).)
There has always been a disconnect between the ID process and the IxD process. In my opinion, it’s due to our inherent timelines and processes. ID happens on a very constrained timeline. We have a long production development process and tooling component, and we work backwards from a launch date. We’re forced into developing a process that’s locked in time, so we try to lock down the design as quickly as possible. We start wide and exact a funneling effect where we narrow down the constraints and the number of concepts until deciding on one to refine further until it’s ready for production.
In contrast, IxD grows out of the software development culture, which is a lot more iterative and a lot more welcoming of change. IxD designers don’t have the constraints of a long lead-time or long tooling component. You can still be evolving your interface a few weeks before launch. Instead of looking at development, IxDers divide a process into chunks — designs are developed during series of sprints that are typically four weeks long. If you can’t finish everything during one sprint, it’s not the end of the world — the next four weeks will be spent integrating what you couldn’t get done.
In this respect the stereotypes of ID (perceived to be longstanding and static) and IxD (more active and dynamic) are true. But, really, (like, yes, women and men), we all want the same thing. And when ID and IxD are segregated — when your physical artifacts and hardware are designed in isolation from your IxD — you end up with disjointed product experiences.
A Happy Union
When we wanted to integrate the two disciplines at Bresslergroup, we looked at ways to combine some of the tasks we have in common. We realized we could merge the user research and visual brand language development phases. Combining some of the testing — whether it’s concept testing or usability testing — forces a concurrent process, which delivers a more cohesive product experience. It also speeds up the typical ID process.
Our integrated ID-IxD process still operates along a stage-gate timeline because we still have to deal with long lead times and long production schedules. But we can force ourselves into a more iterative process where we lock ourselves into a series of four-week sprints, producing physical prototypes along the way. Regardless of the quality of the prototype, it provides something that can be tested, that we can use to get feedback, and at the end of the day delivers a better, faster, and more efficient process — and a more cohesive product experience.
Get in Touch with Your Inner Interaction Designer
So as an IDer, what does this mean? What should you be doing?
1. Understand the cultural differences between ID and IxD. Consider joining a professional organization like IxDA. Their annual design conferences can be an eye opener. It’s really interesting to see how the topics are discussed.
2. Extend user research for product development and product design into IxD-related issues, too. That’s an easy step and a pretty efficient way to hybridize. You might also ask your boss for the opportunity to get involved in a true IxD project. It’s a reasonable thing to ask, and from a professional development standpoint it’s a smart move.
3. I recommend managers implement cross training. That’s something we do here: Our IxDers set cross training goals for IDers, and vice versa. I think that’s the best way to create cross-pollination.
4. If you’re job-hunting, seek out employers who demonstrate they understand the challenge and have organized internally to connect ID and IxD.
5. Consider changing your title. Ask to be called a “designer,” because if you’re a designer, it doesn’t matter whether you’re designing form, interface, or vibro-tactile feedback.
6. Change your mindset about who you are and what you do. When you start defining yourself as an industrial designer you’re kind of, well, limiting yourself mentally, intellectually, and psychologically.
Design is very much about managing change, and sometimes that means managing change in your own career. For IDers the logical evolution is to let go, embrace your inner IxDer, and don’t get bogged down by stereotypes and biases.
After all, most of us came from the same place: design school.