Book Review: Designing for Interaction

September 11, 2006
Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices cover
Author: Dan Saffer

Publisher: Peachpit Press

Publication date: July 2006

Format: Paperback; 9.0 x 7.0 x 0.5 inches; 256 pages

ISBN: 0321432061

List price: $40.00


Dan Saffer’s Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices was an ambitious undertaking. In fewer than 300 pages, he has attempted to cover the history, current practice, and notions about the future of the rapidly evolving discipline of interaction design (IxD). Whether you are simply curious about interaction design, are entering the profession yourself, or are collaborating with an interaction designer, Designing for Interaction is a good place to start your journey down the road of interaction design.

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Saffer is well qualified to author this book. His academic and professional backgrounds have given him a solid foundation in the art and practice of interaction design. Saffer’s participation on the Board of Directors of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), an emerging professional organization promoting IxD, places him at the center of the IxD community.

Although Saffer’s book is not without flaws—such as its lack of both formal citations for many references and relevant examples for his primary definition of interaction design—I can recommend it to a broad spectrum of prospective readers. If you have either a direct professional interest in the nuts and bolts of interaction design or a casual desire to better understand what the interaction designer in the next cubicle actually does for a living, you should find this book of interest.


The book follows a straightforward trajectory through the subject of interaction design—starting with the general, moving through specifics, and concluding with musings about the future:

  • Chapter 1: What is Interaction Design?
  • Chapter 2: Starting Points
  • Chapter 3: Interaction Design Basics
  • Chapter 4: Design Research and Brainstorming
  • Chapter 5: The Craft of Interaction Design
  • Chapter 6: Interface Design Basics
  • Chapter 7: Smart Applications and Clever Devices
  • Chapter 8: Service Design
  • Chapter 9: The Future of Interaction Design
  • Epilogue: Designing for Good

Chapter 1 is perhaps the most controversial and, therefore, the most interesting part of the book, as Saffer attempts to provide a definition for the emerging practice of interaction design. It was an effective device for engaging readers, and this chapter succeeded in both piquing my interest and challenging my own perspectives on the topic.

Chapter 2 attempts to define interaction design within larger contexts: projects, business, and even the theory of design. A wild ride with brief glimpses into extraordinarily complex topics, this chapter ultimately fails to provide a coherent picture of IxD. As a quick survey of the touch points of IxD within its various contexts, I suppose this chapter serves its purpose, but it raises many more questions than it answers—questions that remain unanswered through the end of the book. This chapter, above all others, underscores the challenge Saffer faces in addressing the topic of IxD: Who is this book’s intended audience?

Seasoned professionals—whether designers, project managers, or business managers—would be able to quickly grasp this surface discussion of IxD, and while they may question some of Saffer’s assertions, I presume they could at least appreciate his point. However, what about people just learning interaction design—as the introductory paragraph suggests, ostensibly the audience for this chapter? Will they be able to appreciate how much more complex the subject of IxD is than his treatment suggests?

Chapters 3 through 6 provide a solid foundation, covering the basics of IxD and offering

  • highlights of the more than 20-year history of research into cognitive psychology
  • Saffer’s own list of desirable IxD attributes
  • the touchstone of all user-focused activities—research
  • a strong discussion of the art and craft of both interaction design and interface design

I especially appreciated that Saffer took care to distinguish between interaction design and interface design, as individuals who are unfamiliar with their key differences often conflate them.

Chapter 7 moves readers into the applications of IxD, providing examples of how this discipline adds value in specific contexts of use.

Chapter 8 expands on Saffer’s definition of IxD, challenging readers to consider that even intangibles such as services must be carefully designed and making it clear that interactions are as important within such contexts as in the more easily envisioned product arenas.

In Chapter 9, Saffer again takes a risk by prognosticating about how IxD may evolve—or more specifically, the types of objects to which and the contexts within which its practitioners may find themselves adding value. Although he implies that the activities he describes project ten years into the future, in fact, interaction designers are actively engaged in most of these activities today.

In his Epilogue, Saffer reiterates a key theme he introduced early in the book: fundamentally, IxD is a humane and humanistic discipline.


Designing for Interaction succeeds as a quick survey of the landscape of IxD, suitable for familiarizing a project manager or an individual considering it as a career with the breadth of the practice. However, its broader discussions about design theory, product-development practices, and the like are less successful, because of their lack of attention to detail. The risk here is that a reader who is familiar with some of these topics may challenge Saffer’s positions on them and, consequently, question the veracity of his views on the topics that make up the remainder of the book. To tar the entire book with this same brush would be most unfair. Saffer is on solid ground when he discusses the contexts of IxD practice and application.

What Is Interaction Design?

Throughout the book, Saffer offers us bold position statements on IxD. Consider this heroic attempt to define interaction design:

“[Interaction designers] should never forget that the goal is to facilitate interactions between humans. … But interaction design isn’t about interaction with computers (that’s the discipline of human/computer interaction) or interaction with machines (that’s industrial design).”

These statements are enough to start a flame war, engage interaction designers in an entire evening’s discussion, and otherwise ignite the passions of designers of all stripes. Knowing where Saffer stands on defining the practice of IxD helps us better evaluate the rest of the book.

Saffer’s position on IxD is fundamentally humanistic—a key plank of IxDA—and provides a much appreciated perspective that is still under-represented in the world of high-tech product development.

Looking at the book as a treatise and accepting Saffer’s definition of IxD as a starting point for evaluating later chapters, Saffer does not deliver on the core of his definition: “to facilitate interactions between humans.” In fact, a substantial number of his examples and the contexts he describes are about facilitating interaction between either objects, machines, or user interfaces and people. To suggest that these elements are merely intermediaries between people interacting with one another is to open the door to the notion that all design is just such an activity. Couldn’t one describe bricks-and-mortar architecture in the same terms: that it isn’t the design of an environment, but the design of an environment to facilitate person-to-person interactions?

Obversely, I would argue that Saffer presents so many compelling examples of how interaction design can improve people’s interactions with products, it is actually too limiting to suggest IxD is fundamentally about—or worse, only about—improving interactions between or among humans. Still, it is compelling to consider Saffer’s definition. Certainly, as the Internet continues its evolution as a means of connecting human beings with one another, the need for interaction designers who are focusing on IxD issues for communications products will continue to be in high demand.

Great information in Chapter 1 about the brief history of the practice of IxD helps readers who are new to the topic understand that this discipline is not entirely novel, but has its basis in much work that has come before. In addition, I really liked Saffer’s Venn diagram illustrating some of the many complementary practices in which designers and usability professionals are engaged.

As an interesting side note, I am just finishing Terry Winograd’s Bringing Design to Software. In this book from 1996, Winograd covered much of the same ground Saffer does in his book, but in a significantly different way. Where Saffer’s book focuses on the discipline of IxD, Winograd presents academic, intellectual, and philosophical discussions about the need for such a profession. Reading the two books back to back has given me a rich understanding of the topic.

How Does Interaction Design Play With Others?

Saffer has titled his second chapter “Starting Points,” and perhaps therein lies my problem with this chapter. Its eclectic mix of topics ranges from advice to new designers about how to engage a problem, encompasses organizational structures and project definitions, discusses the need to recognize both business and stakeholder goals and constraints, and ultimately, provides aphorisms on the benefits and diminishing returns of research.

Mid-chapter, he shifts gears and focuses, in some depth, on his own taxonomy of design: “User-Centered Design, Activity-Centered Design, Systems Design, and Genius Design.” Here is where Saffer should have cited references. Without citations, we are left wondering whether these definitions are his own or he is reflecting on accepted definitions from other sources. I have strong differences of opinion regarding both his proposed taxonomy, in general, and his characterization of these approaches to design individually. Why choose these four types of design approaches? Surely there are many others he could have included.

Consider his statement about User-Centered Design (UCD):

“The real targets of UCD—user goals—are notoriously slippery and often hard to define, especially long term goals. Or else they are so vague that it is nearly impossible to design for them. Let’s say a designer is creating an application to help college students manage their schedules. What’s the goal there? To help students do better in school? But why? So they can graduate? What’s the goal there? To get a good job? To become educated? User goals can quickly become like Russian dolls, with goals nestled inside goals.”

I want to give Saffer the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he was using this gross oversimplification for rhetorical purposes, but I’m left somewhat puzzled as to why he chose this particular tack in discussing the limitations of user-centered design. There are so many better examples of UCD’s shortcomings that Saffer could have used to underscore his point, without resorting to rhetorical hyperbole.

Saffer further confuses his discussion of UCD by trying to distinguish other design approaches from UCD, while simultaneously suggesting that each requires designers to focus on the needs of users in some way or another. Still giving Saffer the benefit of the doubt, I ultimately decided he proposed these categories not as a canonical reference, but as a rhetorical device to make a larger point: a strong designer shifts among these approaches as the problem requires. Although he makes this point clear at the end of his discussion, once again I’m left wondering whether an individual new to the discipline would understand Saffer’s rhetorical approach or mistakenly accept Saffer’s definitions prima facie.

The Art and Craft of Interaction Design

The bulk of the central part of the book focuses on topics with which Saffer is clearly both familiar and facile. I particularly liked his introduction, in Chapter 3, to the notions of Motion, Space, Time, Appearance, and other factors that interaction designers must take into account. I am always looking for ways in which specific design disciplines distinguish themselves from the one with which I have the most familiarity: architecture. Given that these same attributes fall under an architect’s purview, I began questioning what the differences really are between these two disciplines. Saffer makes it very clear how this form of design differs from other 2D design disciplines, and I suppose the fact that it is predominately 2D differentiates it from the plastic arts of sculpture and architecture.

In Chapter 3, Saffer does students a great service by providing a survey of the “laws” of IxD. Amusingly, he includes Moore’s Law (The number of transistors in an integrated circuit will roughly double every 24 months.) along with

  • Fitts’s—The time it takes to move from a starting position to a final target depends on the distance to and size of the target.
  • Hick’s—The time it takes to decide among a set of choices depends on the number of choices.
  • Miller’s Magic 7—People can easily remember 7 +/- 2 items.
  • Tesler’s Conservation of Complexity—Within any process, there must exist a base degree of complexity.

Then, his laws move into principles such as Poka-Yoke—from the Japanese, roughly meaning “mistake-proofing,” or designing constraints into products that prevent users from making mistakes—and ultimately into influences, or approaches such as Direct/Indirect Manipulation, Feedback/Feed-forward. He ends the chapter with a nice discussion of the characteristics of good interaction design. Once again, it is unclear whether these are Saffer’s own characterizations or whether he has culled them from others.

Similarly, Saffer’s discussions in Chapter 4 on research and brainstorming processes, his more granular discussion of the tools and activities of IxD in Chapter 5, and as mentioned previously, his much appreciated distinction between IxD and interface design in Chapter 6 serve as bedrock for any conversation about the discipline with newcomers. I would refer an individual who is interested in learning more about the practice of IxD to those four chapters in particular.

Writing & Editing

Among the book’s strengths, Saffer’s writing style is crisp, direct, and clear. Whether Saffer is a naturally gifted writer or he had the support of a gifted editing team, or both, the results show. I was rarely tripped up by awkward sentence structures. Saffer’s conceptual trajectory was clear. The book’s chapters were well organized, with clean introductions and summaries. Even though Saffer’s writing style might violate the classic Strunk and White, his points were easy to understand and he presented them clearly.


There are clever illustrations throughout the book that directly support Saffer’s discussion—whether photographs of objects, details of interface designs, diagrams or sketches underscoring a point.

Book Design

I am not a book designer, so my observations about the design of the book may be naive, but in general, the book design did not distract me from getting Saffer’s message.

Wide margins provided excellent whitespace, helping to segregate the copy and images in the content from annotations and captions. In some cases, small images appeared to less advantage in the margins. The full-color photographs and images on bright white paper bounce off the page. However, the font choice, Minion Pro, was less successful on the bright white paper. Its delicate strokes and diminutive serifs made the characters dance as my eyes scanned the page.

Headings clearly distinguished one section from another, and subheadings helped keep the content cleanly organized. Saffer breaks up his textual content with engaging pictures and equally engaging guest interviews—Q&As with leaders in the field of interaction design. The injection of others’ viewpoints lends credibility to Saffer’s discussions and provides a pleasant change in rhythm. My biggest criticism of the book’s structure is its complete lack of citations, bibliographical references, and so forth. Providing references to published resources is not only a professional courtesy—some might say obligation—but a service to students of IxD who want to learn more.


The emerging discipline of interaction design has been the focus of the online discussions of IxDA—formerly known as the Interaction Design Group (IxDG)—for a few years and, as I discovered in reading Winograd’s book, an academic and professional focus stretching back 15 years. Interaction designers have been working hard to find their voice and distinguish their discipline from the myriad of other related activities in product, Web, and application design. Saffer’s book is an exemplary contribution to this growing discussion, capturing the essence of interaction design’s dynamism, complexity, and humanistic focus.

Is it a manifesto, textbook, or how-to guide? The book’s lack of clarity regarding its audience—and, therefore, its lack of clarity regarding its primary raison d’être—may be more a reflection of the current state of the discipline than a structural flaw of the book itself.

All in all, the book is a substantial piece of work with an ambitious intent that Saffer delivers on well. I recommend it to those curious to learn more about the evolving discipline of interaction design. 

Senior Manager, User Experience, at Home Depot Quote Center

Principal at Phase II

Portland, Oregon, USA

Leo FrishbergWith over 30 years of experience in design management and design—as both a bricks-and-mortar architect and a UX designer—Leo drives highly differentiated and innovative solutions. At The Home Depot QuoteCenter, Leo leads a dynamic team of UX professionals in delivering engaging experiences for Home Depot associates. Previously, as Product Design Manager at Intel, he led UX teams on mission-critical programs. As Principal UX Architect for Tektronix’s Logic Analyzer product line, he filed several patents and spearheaded product vision and definition for the next generation of instruments. Leo is a Certified Scrum Product Owner. Over the past 20 years, he has served as Program Chair, Chair, Vice Chair, and Treasurer on the board for CHIFOO (Computer Human Interaction Forum of Oregon), the Portland Chapter of SIGCHI.  Read More

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