Interactivity: Definitions & Extensions

Wait, what is Interactivity?

It’s not what you may think—

Interactivity is defined as “acting or capable of acting on each other”. In order for it to happen at all, there have to be at least 2 entities which are able to communicate with each other, the output of one affecting the output of the other.

The thing is, your brain is hungry for input, eager to learn anything and everything it can about the world around it. The best way for you to help it out is to interact with things and people around you. The more you actively participate in an event or experience, the more useful information you glean in a meaningful way. Now, as designers, it is our duty to create the most appropriate solutions for our clients, solutions that are significant and enjoyable to the user. The better we engage the viewer, the better our message is conveyed. As such, interactivity is about genuine human engagement, and our designs have to compete with the whole of human experience, not just other posters or websites.

In terms of humans, interaction is a conversation between at least 2 people. One person speaks, the other listens, thinks and responds, and so forth.

In terms of humans and computers, it is the dialogue that occurs between a person and a computer program, both directly and indirectly. The user clicks a hyperlink, or drags an element, or fills in a blank, and the program takes this information, processes it, and comes back with some form of response. There are other processes that go on behind the scenes like batch processing that constitute an indirect interaction.

Interactivity on the web was fairly limited until the introduction of dynamic technologies like DHTML. Regardless of how long it took to get here,  it has caused a revolutionary shift in our society. The invention of the hyperlink changed everything: users could blaze their own individual paths through static content, leaving them free to access and organize all kinds of data in their own particular way.

What is Interaction Design?

Interactive design is, for our purposes at least, the act of creating compelling, valuable, empowering information and experiences for a user (to use Nathan Sherdroff’s words). It involves both user control and dynamic or responsive experience. It pulls from a lot of other disciplines and theories, and has been evolving rapidly over the last 40 years.

It is a term that came originally from the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), and its meaning has been hotly contested at times by people within and without the web development industry.

What does an Interactive Designer Do?

An interactive designer is a person who designs and develops the behavior and appearance of the interactive design. She must be intimately aware of the meaning of the content with which she designs, and must always be an advocate for the end user. Certainly, she must also meet the needs of the client, but if she creates something that is difficult to navigate or load, the entire site is a wash.

How does this apply to Web Design?

Web design is one of the most common instances of interactive design today. It was born in the midst of the internet’s inception, springing out of interface design. Originally, websites were basically designed by the programmers who built the site. Later, it became apparent that there needed to be someone in charge of creating the online interface, and that role is called a variety of names: Web Designer, Interface Designer, Experience Designer…it doesn’t matter all that much what the position is called, what matters is that the person filling that role is able to empathically design interfaces and experiences that are useful and satisfying.

Discussion: Successful vs. Unsuccessful Interface Design

Look at any of the following websites and see how well you can perform basic actions.


Pizza Capers (Choose the Flash site)

LA Eyeworks

  • If it’s a commercial site, can you find prices easily? Are you able to buy items with only a click or two of your mouse?
  • Is the navigation easy to follow? Does it stay in the same place from page to page? Can you intuit how to proceed or do you have to figure it out?

Now look at the following sites and ask yourself the same questions:

The Toke


Web Designer’s Wall

Some basic rules or conventions of good web design:

  1. Lead the user’s eye through the website using key visual cues
  2. Don’t be afraid to use some spacing to guide the user through the content
  3. Make sure your navigation is consistently placed and easy to use
  4. Design your site so it will be easily executed or built : we will learn more about this as we go through the quarter.
  5. Really consider your use of Typography–both the special fonts you will have to represent with images and the live type that will be rendered by the browser.
  6. Think about how your user will approach and go through your site, then design to facilitate those actions. This is what we mean when we talk about usability.
  7. Be consistent: keep your styles simple and apply them with vigor. The less consistently you style your site, the less the user can trust you to be a reliable guide through the content.
  8. Really strip off as much of the extraneous styling as you can. Unless your overall style is frothy and ornate, there is little need to add style upon filter upon effect for things like navigation buttons, backgrounds, and patterns.

Articles used in this article

Information Interaction Design: A Unified Field Theory of Design
Nathan Shedroff  |  1994

Interface vs. Interaction design

What is Interactivity?
Definition from

What Is Interactivity?

What is Interaction Design and What Does It Mean to Information Designers?
Craig Marion  |  June 11, 1999

About E-Learning: What is Interactivity?

10 Principles Of Effective Web Design
Vitaly Friedman  |  January 31st, 2008

Bill Moggridge: Designing Interactions (YouTube)