Nico Macdonald | Spy   Communication, facilitation, research and consultancy around design and technology

Review of Designing for Interaction
Blueprint [subscribe], November 2006. Review of Designing for Interaction Dan Saffer, New Riders, 2006. Author’s book site. Full book information on MIT Press site. Also Rough Cut through Peachpit. Buy from
A good introduction to interaction design and design futures, and a well-considered guide for anyone planning to practice – though there are clear limits to the author’s ‘user-centredness’


[This is a longer version of the published review.]

Interaction design (along with service design) is still the new kid on the design block. Partly for this reason it is little understood or discussed in the design media or in wider industry (though to its credit this publication ran a cover story by this reviewer as long ago as 2001[i]).

If, as author Dan Saffer convincingly agues, interaction designers stand “between the advancing technology and the people who will use it” then it is a design discipline that needs to be better understood. Saffer, a Web industry veteran working at San Francisco-based Adaptive Path (the Led Zeppelin of new media design), has done a good job of explaining interaction design to his intended audiences: interaction designers and people interested in interaction design (“even if they don’t know it yet”).

Saffer rightly places interaction design beyond the personal computer, placing it in the context of products including the ATM, text messaging, the postal DVD operation Netflix and the City CarShare service. He even considers it in the context of emergency room treatment and the DMV (the US DVLA) and sees elements of interaction design across time in smoke signals and Morse Code.

“Interaction design is about behaviour” he writes, and “about making connections between people through these products, not connecting to the product itself”. For practitioners he addresses the theory and practice of interaction design with chapters on design basics (around motion, space, time, appearance, texture and sound); design research and brainstorming (observation, interviews, activities); the craft of interaction design (personas, use cases, mood boards, wireframes, prototypes and testing); and an excellent chapter on interface design basics.

For practitioners and interested parties he reflects on and makes predictions around smart applications and clever devices (also addressing designing for adaptation), service design, and the future of interaction design, with an epilogue on ‘designing for good’. Saffer exhibits clear analytical thinking and communicates these developments well, though his forecasting is rather subjective, and unmediated by the people-centred approach he advocates for the design process.

The book is well illustrated, and displays an imaginative selection of visuals that goes beyond the computer screens typical of titles in this genre. He also includes some intriguing design artifacts, which effectively ground his explanations of process. However, some illustrations, as with many of the examples he uses, are esoteric and bordering on silly. Don’t be put off by them. Saffer includes a number of interviews with industry experts, which are both engaging and help the flow of the text.

For the practitioner, and perhaps for the interested parties, the book would benefit from a visual explanation of the design process Saffer describes. And while it has some case studies, for instance on the integration of Google’s Gmail service with its Google Talk service, they don’t describe enough of the design context and story to make the process tangible.

The thinking in Designing for Interaction is somewhat constrained by current debates around the nature of the Internet. Saffer over-emphasises the ‘social software’ and ‘Web 2.0’ perspectives (if they even warrant that moniker), for instance when he describes interaction design as being “about making connections between people”. He has also drunk the design ethics Kool-Aid, and contends that designers have a special mission to ensure that good prevails. “Designers have a sacred duty to the users of their products and services” he writes. “Without a firm set of their own principles, interaction designers can find themselves adopting the beliefs and values of the companies they work for, and this can be dangerous.”

For all Saffer’s talk of creating empathy with people, and their active role in adapting products and services, he can only see ethics from a designer’s perspective. This arrogance is ill-founded, as may be his belief that design is critical to the effective use of ‘advancing technology’ – though I am more sympathetic to the latter.

For the uninitiated Designing for Interaction is a good introduction to interaction design and design futures, and for anyone planning to practice it is a well-considered guide. And if you are not sure this book is for you, the supporting Web site ( also offers sample chapters. Now that’s user-centred thinking.

[i] ‘Action, interaction, reaction’ Nico Macdonald, Blueprint, August 2001. Overview of interaction design, including an extensive reference section.


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Nico Macdonald | Spy 2006