Thoughts on Interaction Design

by Jon Kolko

Reviewed by Steve Kersten for ClickStart

ISBN: 0978853806

Jon Kolko’s timely and engaging collection of essays, at its most surface level, describes the basics of interaction design (IxD): the process, the methods, the theory, and the practice. Throughout these clear and insightful writings, Kolko demonstrates a rare ability to simplify communication of complex topics while giving readers an excellent synthesis of current design thinking. Kolko’s structures his conception of the world of interaction design into four sections:

  • Understanding Interaction Design
  • Connecting People, Emotions, and Technology
  • The Rhetorical Nature of Interaction Design
  • Challenges Facing Interaction Design in Industry

Kolko concludes each section with an invited essay. The quality of these contributions matches the high standards Kolko’s own writing exhibits. Kolko’s attention to language and his devotion to human being-centered design over technology-centered design makes his writing style and content appealing to technical communicators. He has created a framework for seeing communication at the center of interaction design. I find myself interpreting this framework from the technical writer’s point of view: to assist users as I need to, I need to get more involved in information architecture and interaction design. Once engaged, I am well suited to assisting users because communication’s at the center these worlds!

Kolko, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, has an impressive grasp of the current literature of interaction design; judging by this book, he is a born teacher  who has clearly practiced what he’s talking about. These essays are as helpful as a full-blown textbook such as Heim’s The Resonant Interface or, dare I say it, Preece’s Interaction Design. Yet the book’s modest size, reasonable price, and unique design (it’s laid out in two-column pages at 9-inches wide by 6-inches tall) wouldn’t immediately make you think of it as the monumental work it is. Don’t get me wrong, however: it does not replace a good IxD text, but rather it compliments and summarizes nicely a year or two of IxD studies or experience.

If you’re new to the field and ideas of user-centered design, information architecture, and interaction design, this book is a fine introduction: you’ll be able to ponder the processes you need to follow and the issues you’ll come up against, all with the background you’ll need to start institutionalizing IxD and understanding that what you do fits in the business world and allows you to create meaning for people.If you’ve been working in the field for any amount of time, Kolko provides a succinct, readable, and thought-provoking summary of how to think about what you’re doing: it’s a rich outline of process and history within the context of business and strategy. Kolko does more than describe IxD: he places it in context so that he can maintain one of his main theses: “Interaction Design is positioned to become a strategic differentiator for business looking for innovative differentiation…” (page 23).

Devoted to contextual inquiry and an iterative design process, Kolko presents a design philosophy first, tracing the history of these ideas and highlighting the important pieces of that history to show, in the second section, how to apply them to the processes involved in IxD. All along, Kolko reflects on the idea that “…design is language: the linguistic quality of form and content is indicated through context and use” (page 11). I particularly am impressed by his gentle yet insistent focus on the fact that we’re dealing with behaviors, not demographics. (Indeed, he presents on of the best discussions of the differences between marketing research and persona creation I’ve come across in a while [pages 49ff.].) And he doesn’t hesitate to tackle the complex and sometimes messy world that interaction designers live in. Later, Kolko focuses on how to perform IxD, enhancing the insights also found in Holzblatt and Beyer’s delightful Contextual Design.

Design is communication; interaction design requires practitioners to be fluent in the language of communication to create experiences from a human being’s point of view. Thoughts on Interaction Design puts these concepts into perspective, admirably lays out thoughts about the process of designing, and successfully supports the idea that at the center of creation of software products is a human being, not a database system. You can read this elegant collection of essays repeatedly to gain insight into what you’re doing everyday. Every time I delve into this deceptively small tome, I come away with a deeper understanding of the tradition communicators and interaction designers fit into. Focusing on interaction design, you’re doing good things for both the folks you’re designing for and for the folks who sign your paycheck. Check out the book’s Web site where you can read the overview and view an annotated table of contents.