A Matrix of Competencies for Interaction Design

Here’s the Dilemma

Human Experience Designer, Adam Dunford, a speaker at the Education Summit at Interaction 18, wrote his Master’s thesis on The Interaction Design Competency Framework: A tool to understand what industry wants from interaction design education.  He is sharing a copy of his thesis here.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell:

There’s no common description or criteria for creating an Interaction Design degree.

This poses a problem for both industry and for prospective students.

For industry, education becomes a poor predictor of the success of a job candidate because it’s unclear which skills are taught in Interaction Design programs. For the prospective students, it’s unclear “what they’re getting” when enrolling in an Interaction Design program.

Insights on Industry Needs

Several insights were gathered from Adam Dunford’s research that are critical to understanding what industry needs and expects from interaction design education:

  • Interaction design lacks a unifying disciplinary core
  • Industry disagrees on what interaction designers should know
  • Academia disagrees on what interaction designers should be taught
  • Both practitioners and academics agree that interaction design education is inadequate (although they don’t always agree why)
  • The skills and knowledge required to practice interaction design exceeds what can be taught
  • Interaction design degrees are unimportant in evaluating job candidates
  • The portfolio has the most influence in choosing who to interview
  • The portfolio is a poor predictor of employee quality
  • Job competency models offer a potential tool for standardizing and evaluating skills

It’s hard to miss the obvious problem  — interaction design degrees are unimportant to industry when evaluating job candidates, and therefore, industry is relying heavily on the portfolio to determine the qualifications of a job candidate.

According to Dunford’s research, when asked about the importance of a design degree, interviewers that had hired designers said:

 A design degree was completely unimportant in their decision, mainly because it was nearly impossible to know what skills the person had, whereas a portfolio could demonstrate skill or ability quickly.

Using a Matrix of Competencies

This poses the question whether a matrix of competencies, as outlined in Adam Dunford’s thesis, would be helpful to better understand the skills and competencies between IxD degrees and jobs. Competencies are more useful than vague course descriptions, and a matrix gives a better overview than a long list of skills.

Dunford’s “Interaction Design Competency Framework” proposes the following:

  • Present at a glance what are the task and work areas for a given job
  • Provide enough high-level information so comparisons can be made between different jobs or degrees
  • Allow for deeper exploration of specific competencies
  • Flexibly accommodate new criteria so that it can remain relevant even as new technologies, methods, and approaches emerge

Below is an example of what a “matrix of competencies” might look like for Interaction Design.

Matrix of Competencies - Example

And below is the matrix of competencies that I created for the Interaction Design Bachelor’s degree program at Santa Monica College.

SMC IxD Matrix of Competencies - Example
Note that the difference between the example and the Santa Monica College IxD Program is that with the former, Design Knowledge (15%), Design Skills (15%), Computing Skills (15%), Design Tools (13%), and Computing Knowledge (4%) accounts for 62% of the competencies.

With the SMC IxD Program (which I developed as Faculty Lead), just over 67% of the competencies includes Design Knowledge (15%), Design Skills (10%), People Knowledge (9%), Computing Skills (7.5%), Computing Tools (7.5%), Design Tools (7%), Research Tools (6%), Business Qualifications (5.5%)— a much broader array of criteria including less Design, and more focus given to Research, Business, and People. Also, Qualifications plays a stronger role as a measurement of capability.

Here’s the general definitions for the above criteria:

  • Design: graphics, interfaces, interactions
  • Computing: programming, functionality, performance
  • Research: observing, interpreting, evaluating
  • Business: managing, planning, marketing
  • People: communicating, empathizing, motivating

The “facets of competency” organize capabilities by elements of performance, and they are:

  • Knowledge: what you must know to perform a task — the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject
  • Skills: how you perform a task — the specific practices of applying knowledge to produce design artifacts
  • Attitudes: how you feel as you perform a task — the affective sentiments and mindsets the individual possesses about the task, themselves, or the people and environment around them
  • Tools: what you use to perform a task — the external assets utilized to complete a task, be it a physical object (such as pen and paper), digital artifact (such as software), or design artifact being worked on
  • Qualifications: what indicates you can perform a task — the formal and informal credentials that indicate one’s ability, such as a degree, portfolio, certificate, or previous experience

Rather than assigning a specific set of criteria for all interaction designers, Dunford’s “Interaction Design Competency Framework” proposes a matrix of competencies that reflects the ways that different programs and jobs may choose to interpret interaction design differently.

“Because each school and department decides just what to include in an IxD curriculum, it appears difficult for a prospective student to evaluate degree programs (and having unique names for an IxD degree likely only further confuses the situation).”

Let’s create more transparency for prospective students by presenting learning outcomes, the mission of the program, and the goals of an Interaction Design degree.

A matrix of competencies is an effective and clear way to show it.

Prospective students have the right to know the point-of-view and perspective of an Interaction Design program. Industry needs more clarity in order to understand the skills and curriculum offered by a particular Interaction Design program so they can rely on something more than a portfolio when hiring a designer.

Okay, what are your thoughts? 

Leave a comment — Let me know!


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