How do interaction design degrees relate to the UX profession?

Authors: Nick Kelly, Jess Greentree, and Sam Hobson

Okay, so you want to have a career as a UX designer. You know that you need to develop the necessary skills and get to the point where you have a portfolio. Something that is confusing for many people entering this world is the question of “what do interaction design (IxD) degrees have to do with the UX profession?”.

A lot of universities around the world offer degrees in IxD—how useful are they for people wanting to get into the UX industry? In this article we take a look at the way that IxD degrees around the world are promoted by universities and show some patterns in what they offer. This is helpful for understanding what you’re likely to find within an IxD degree.

How does IxD relate to UX?

In short, the term UX is used more often in industry and IxD more often within universities in many countries, yet they refer to similar sets of skills. UX design includes the entirety of user experience yet definitions tend to be a bit confusing: they focus upon the extents of UX (what it covers) rather than upon its limits (what lies outside its scope). I’m sure you’ve seen some kind of Venn diagram about the area of influence of UX. These suggest that professional UX designers are required to be across an improbable number of areas: from marketing to computer science, architecture, human factors, and sound design.

IxD is more clearly defined in academic literature, but the term isn’t used widely in industry. IxD is ususaly defined as “shaping digital things for people’s use” (Löwgren & Stolterman, 2004) or “the practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems, and services” (Cooper et al., 2014). We like to define it as “designing for dialogues between people and complex things”, because the skills for interaction design are useful regardless of whether you’re working with digital.

Every country has its own culture around interaction design and UX design. In Australia, we’re in a situation where you can find hundreds of jobs that are looking for a UX designer and hardly any that say they are looking for an interaction designer. Yet nearly all of the degrees are badged as interaction design degrees or majors. This is a confusing situation for many—the IxD degrees are useful for UX but it’s hard to find anybody telling you how it works.

What’s in an interaction design degree?

We analysed a selection of interaction design degrees across USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, Table 1.

There are four patterns that stand out within these descriptions of interaction design degrees:

  1. Many of the degrees explicitly mention the fact that they will help people to gain entry into the UX profession
  2. Many will teach you how to design for emerging technologies and list off technologies you will work with, such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), internet of things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI).
  3. Many emphasise that you will learn general design skills, such as creativity, systems thinking, creating experiences for users
  4. Many reference the fact that we don’t know the kinds of design that will be needed in future and that an IxD degree will help you be ready for it and shape it

Should I study an degree in interaction design?

In an interaction design degree, your studies won’t be as focused as they would be in a UX-specific qualification. There are plenty of non-university UX qualifications that can be found online that can provide a much cheaper and faster way to gain skills and develop a portfolio if you’re really clear that you’re just wanting to get a job and enter industry.

What a good interaction design degree will do is fulfil all four of these promises. You’ll be taught explicitly about the UX industry and how to thrive within in, through assistance with critical steps like developing a portfolio and learning the skills any employer would expect. You’ll be exposed to a range of technologies that you might otherwise not get the chance to try out—at the moment, for example, many universities are giving students the chance to experience designing for augmented reality. You’ll also gain a much broader understanding of how to design in a way that isn’t dependent on any particular tool or technology. These are the universal skills for interaction design: tools and methods for working with complexity, designing for dialogues between people and things, and how to develop a process that involves researching, prototyping, and testing. You’ll be introduced to ways to think critically about technology that will be useful in a changing world. There is no right answer as to whether an interaction design degree, a UX degree, or a non-degree qualification is right for you. The aim of this article is to resolve a common question of “what’s the relationship of the IxD degree to the UX profession?”

About the authors:

Nick Kelly, Jess Greentree, and Sam Hobson teach interaction design at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. Nick is a Senior Lecturer in Interaction Design. Jess is currently studying a PhD in interaction design. Sam is currently studying an MPhil in Interaction Design while working as a designer in industry.

Emily Carr University of Art and Design (Canada)Bachelor of Design (Interaction Design)Are you excited to work at the cutting edge of design, creating meaningful experiences with emerging technologies? The Interaction Design program places you at the centre of new creative practices such as strategic design, information architecture, game design, creative coding, visual + sound design, and behavioural insights.

Learn human-centered design methods and make sense of complex problems for more-than-human centered contexts. Choose your own path and learn to design games, services, medical applications and interactive spaces, using hybrid technologies as basic as pen and paper, or as sophisticated as virtual reality.
California College of the Arts (USA)Master of Design (Interaction Design)Build the most in-demand design toolkit in the world today: systems thinking, design leadership development, and iteration and collaboration skills—all with measurable social impact.
Sheridan College (Canada)Bachelor of Interaction DesignIn response to high employer demand, Sheridan has developed Ontario’s first four-year interaction design honours bachelor’s degree. Our unique, multidisciplinary interaction design program cultivates a big-picture perspective and diverse set of skills, laying a foundation for interaction design careers and fostering entrepreneurship.

What you’ll learn
Design theory and process.
Visual communication and visual culture.
2D and 3D design.
Digital media design and production.
Physical computing and sensors.
Programming a variety of devices.
Business practices and entrepreneurship.
Glasgow School of Art (Scotland)Bachelor of Interaction DesignThe Interaction Design programme at The Glasgow School of Art combines technology with visual thinking and creative problem-solving. As a student of Interaction Design, you will learn to work with creative code to generate engaging interactive digital media for a wide range of platforms. You will graduate with a diverse range of skills enabling future career opportunities in interactive art, design, motion graphics, app development and more.

We are characterised by actively engaging with creative coding and digital culture. The course is highly experimental allowing students to develop their own approaches within an art and design context. We consider our materials to be computers, cameras, sensors, lights, motors, projectors, networks and more. By framing the use of technology within a creative context, students learn practical and technological skills as well as how to articulate creative ideas and meaning behind work.
Quinnipiac University (USA)Bachelor of Arts (Graphic and Interactive Design)Graphic and interactive design merges creativity with technology. From designing innovative mobile apps to crafting eye-catching websites, this field offers you the opportunity to express your unique creative vision.
University of Technology Sydney (Australia)Masters of Interaction DesignInteraction design is concerned with designing interactive digital products, digital environments, systems, and services that can satisfactorily meet the needs and desires of the intended users. The Master of Interaction Design prepares and equips students with up-to-date theoretical knowledge and requisite practical industry-standard skills in this rapidly advancing field.
Concoran School of Arts and Design (USA)Bachelor of Fine Arts (Interaction Design)Shape new technologies and design solutions for problems that matter and make the world better. Our Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interaction Design (IxD) focuses on building compelling relationships between people and the systems around them. We focus on design in the context of technology, the designed world and the natural world. Moving beyond screen interfaces, Corcoran IxD is an incubator for design-based problem solving and the development of interactive spaces, products and services. Imagine, prototype and create concepts that ultimately shape people’s everyday interactions with the world.
Queensland University of Technology (QUT) (Australia)Bachelor of Design (Interaction Design)How we interact with our devices, with apps and websites is constantly evolving. As an interaction designer you can shape that evolution. Removing complexity. Making interactions more intuitive. Creating responsive media. In many ways, optimising the experience and putting people at the heart of design.
London College of Arts (England)Bachelor of Interaction Design ArtsBA (Hons) Interaction Design Arts is a multidisciplinary design course, working with multiple mediums to craft purposeful communication and experience. Students are encouraged to actively play as they pursue projects through a core methodology of research, testing and iterative prototyping.

This is a practice-led course that explores the communicative potential of physical experience. Focusing on the relationships between people, designed objects and experiences, students will work with interaction, narrative and moving image, alongside processes such as design prototyping, film-making, coding and physical computing.

You will develop a personal perspective from which to answer complex design problems, embracing approaches such as critical design and exploring design for social change.
University of Queensland (Australia)Master of Interaction DesignInteraction designers play a vital role in creating digital products that are useable, uncomplicated, and human-centred. If you’re looking to develop advanced knowledge about the design process for interactive products – this is the program for you.

Interaction with electronic devices is a major part of our daily lives. From early childhood onwards we are connected to the internet, telecommunications and networks of computer-based technologies. The emerging challenges in this radically evolving field are not so much with the nature of new technologies, but with their design. How should these technologies be experienced in our lives? How can they support and enhance our everyday practices? What should they help us become? These programs train students to address these issues through the design of new interactive technologies.
University of East London (England)Bachelor of Arts (Design Interactions)Studying on BA (Hons) Design Interactions, you will be at the forefront of future-focused design. You will experiment and develop emerging technology such as AR/VR (XR), AI, game engines, electronics, sensors, Internet of Things (IoT), ‘Big Data’ and robotics. You will play a role in shaping the world around us with free thinking ideas and opportunities.
Victorial University of Wellington (New Zealand)Bachelor of Design Innovation (Interaction Design)The goal of interaction design is to create products that enable people to achieve their objectives in the best way possible. Often the products are apps or websites, but can also be games or physical interactive products. It’s one of the newest and fastest-growing fields of design and has a big overlap with User Experience (UX) design.

Studying Interaction Design, you’ll learn how to develop and use design strategies to bring together words, visual representations, physical objects or space, time, and people’s behaviour to create digital systems and interfaces that improve aspects of human life. Interaction designers envision how people experience products and bring that vision to life in ways that feel inspired, refined, delightful and even magical.

As a student on this programme, you’ll gain a broad understanding of the tools and concepts driving the discipline. You’ll cover topics that investigate the human condition, such as design psychology and design for experience (UX). You’ll explore the latest technology in areas such as web and game design, healthcare design, and design of interactive installations. Interaction design offers pathways to learn coding; from advanced to just enough to help you communicate your design to developers and other disciplines.

Interaction designers are social and empathetic, and they enjoy working in groups. They have an understanding of people’s backgrounds, interests, and cultures. If you have an interest in improving the quality, health, and efficiency of human endeavours, Interaction Design is a great study option for you
ArtCentre (USA)Bachelor of Science (Interaction Design)Every technology interaction you experience in a day—from using mobile apps to playing games to wearing smart accessories to engaging with other digital environments—has been designed to maximize user experience (UX). By pursuing a bachelor’s degree in interaction design at ArtCenter, you will gain strategies and skills for creating person-first interactive environments and prepare to enter a burgeoning field of highly sought-after professional digital designers.
Table 1: Analysis of interaction design degrees around the world