10 skills every interaction designer should have

If you're considering entering the world of interaction design (IxD), there are some skills you’ll want to hone before applying to any graduate-level program—but they may not be the ones you think.

One of the primary misconceptions of interaction design (IxD), as both a graduate-level degree program and as a discipline in general, is that it's highly technical. IxD is often confused with human-computer interaction (HCI), a field that grew more directly out of the computer sciences. While the fields do have many similarities, IxD is much more human-centric than computer-centric and doesn't necessarily see digital technologies as central to every solution the way HCI might. IxD is also confused with user experience (UX), which we at CCA believe is not quite a discipline, but rather an inherently multidisciplinary practice, of which IxD is one of the core components. In other words, IxD is what you want to study if you’re interested in jobs with UX in the title.

There are certainly many applications for technical skills in the field—after all, we aren’t graphic designers, but need some of those skills to communicate effectively. We aren’t engineers, but need enough coding knowledge to prototype and demonstrate. Beyond that, however, our deeper skills are more about systems thinking, sociology, and communication than about having a mastery of any particular technical skill set.

Here are the 10 skills every prospective interaction designer should possess, according to members of CCA’s world-renowned MDes in Interaction Design faculty.

1. People skills

First and foremost—every prospective interaction design student should have a deep interest in people. And not just people, but their needs, their desires, and how those needs are evolving over time. “People skills” are the core of using technologies in better ways. Without an interest in serving people, IxD is incapable of reaching its potential.

2. A few years of experience

We’ve found that to be a great IxDesigner, it’s pretty much essential to have a few years of experience in the working world. This helps give context for some of the major problems that need to be solved, the real-world challenges that might present obstacles, and clarity around how one might like to contribute to the dialogue. Each student also needs time to find their calling or visualize their path. People right out of college generally need some time to understand what’s possible and what might actually appeal to them before they’re really ready to make a big career choice.

3. A portfolio of designed “somethings”

Be they systems, products, services, environments, or business processes, it’s invaluable to demonstrate familiarity in some way with the common challenges IxDesigners face on a daily basis. Your portfolio is what tells this story of discovery. Gaining hands-on experience thinking about and engaging with the issues that affect people most, and then translating them into a format that others can digest is, hands down, the best preparation for the program.

4. English language competence

While it may seem to go without saying, having a well-developed speaking and writing capability with the English language is essential for entering CCA’s IxD program. Our program draws talented students from diverse backgrounds all over the world, and they need to be able to effectively communicate sometimes-subtle ideas with each other in order to engage in the kind of deep collaboration that is the backbone of everything we do at CCA.

Effective designers are able to evoke the experiences people want through what they design.”

5. Experience with experiences

When we talk about “experience design,” we often take the term too literally, believing that we can make experiences for people and that the things we make are, themselves, “experiences.” In reality, “experiences” are changes in the states-of-mind of people in response to stimuli. Effective designers are able to evoke the experiences people want through what they design. In order to do this, it’s vital that prospective designers be self-aware enough to make sense of and break down their own, very internal experiences, and be able to imagine how one could begin to evoke similar experiences in others through the tools of design.

6. Cognitive skills

Design is a practice that involves a great many skills and often the most important are things like curiosity, creativity, flexibility, integrity, critical thinking, and a sense of humor. These basic dimensions of human cognition may seem simple, but are hugely beneficial to the world, and we need to embed more of them in the ways we work and the designs we make.

7. Empathy

A central focus of IxD is understanding and responding to “user” needs. This requires the ability to anticipate and actively listen for others’ experiences, even when those are difficult to articulate. IxDesigners must be able to imagine what it would be like to be older, younger, homeless, frustrated, uninspired, disabled, depressed, disenfranchised—experiencing life in very different ways. IxDesigners must be adept at imagining users’ motivations, preferences, reactions, challenges, and successes.

John Maeda, renowned designer, author, and futurist, has referred to writing as a designer's most critical 'unicorn skill,' arguing that words are just as important as graphics.”

8. Written communication skills

Users still depend on written content to interact with apps and technology. If IxDesigners don’t write well, the digital and physical interactions they produce will be confusing and ineffective. John Maeda, renowned designer, author, and futurist, has referred to writing as a designer's most critical "unicorn skill,” arguing that words are just as important as graphics. IxDesigners must be able to apply the same “clean design” principles to their written communication that they apply to their graphic design.

9. A Growth Mindset

IxDesigners must be able to test their ideas, play with their designs, receive feedback, and iterate. This requires the ability and willingness to make low fidelity prototypes, seek out critiques, and flexibly reframe and change direction. They must be able to “fail early and often” and exercise a Growth Mindset, which is the belief that abilities (and designs) can be developed through dedication and hard work.

10. A studio practice

The IxD approach at CCA is not based around computer science or engineering—we're rooted in the design discipline, after all—so we take a fundamentally studio-based approach to the work that we do. Studio-based curriculum is rooted in learning through action and developing a creative design process that can be objectively evaluated. Due to the short timeline of our program, we cannot create a designer from scratch in just three semesters; thus, students with a previous background or degree in some kind of studio practice (graphic design, industrial design, architecture, or in some cases even film, animation, or select fine arts disciplines, etc.) will be ready to hit the ground running to get the most out of the accelerated timeline of CCA’s three-semester intensive graduate program.

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