In response to a previous comment, I tried to define what an interaction designer does in rebuttal to the assertion that the goal is to build a better mousetrap. I wrote:

From an interaction design standpoint, you might ask why we have mousetraps? Are mice the real problem? How do mice get into areas where you would then want to trap them? The solution to the problem may not have anything to do with a mousetrap at all.

Hence, interaction design is not about building a better mousetrap.

Recently, I read “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking,” from The Idea of Design by Dick Buchanan. As I read, I realized that what I described above is not an interaction design approach, but a design approach: taking the given problem; trying to find the real problem; inventing a solution.

Because of our use of the term interaction in Buchanan’s course (e.g., the four modes of interaction), I have been incorrectly mixing design and interaction design, especially when trying to answer questions from people outside the School of Design about what an interaction designer does.

While I can answer what an interaction designer does if I stay focused, I do slip into explaining general design practice, which in a case a couple weeks ago, produced a very strong reaction from one of my friends.

My friend had asked what sort of work I would do after my degree. And I told him I didn’t know, because design can be applied to any problem. As examples, I gave a range from redesigning a simply control to designing a country’s tax system.

He was amazed, and disbelieving. He could not believe that a designer would have much business designing a tax system, and thought subject matter experts would be quite offended to have a designer solving a problem believed to be within their domain.

What he didn’t understand, and what I found so inspiring about the Wicked Problem essay, is that designers do not have a domain, and that design is a way of thinking, not an applied art. Unlike subject matter experts, designers can move between subject matter and apply their practice.

While I did try to explain this, my friend would not accept it. And as I read the Wicked Problem and became excited about the potential for design thinking in the world, my enthusiasm was tempered by the hurdle this position faces, as I know from experience my friend’s idea of a designer’s role is not uncommon. In fact, just a few months ago I may have had his same understanding.

It makes me wonder how it will feel to go out into the world and try to apply design thinking as I am learning it, and if we will ever get to a place where the designer is called upon to contribute to the solution of all wicked problems.