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LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education
June 2003 Number 7

Interface Design in Seven Weeks
Immersion in Interface at the Institute of Design

Marc Rettig

During the spring of 2001, the author conducted a seven-week interface design course at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. The course used design projects to lead students to make detailed inquiries into the broad field of interface design and to spark reflection on process.
      In the first project, students designed and built a paper mockup of an interface for a fast-food menu kiosk. They completed it in a week then tested, refined and retested the design during the second week. This article features a collage of the resulting prototypes and examples of issues that arose during the work.
      The second project asked students to choose one of three narrow but common interface design challenges: searching, comparing or list-making. Students first conducted qualitative user research and created information and task models. The results guided students’ designs, several of which appear in this article.
      The author considered the class a success considering its brevity, thanks largely to the students themselves but also to the learn-by-doing approach and general power of the methods and models.


Jumping in the <nobr>Deep End</nobr>

User Research

Task and Information Models


I nterface design is a huge topic and seven weeks is a short amount of time to learn it.
      In spring 2001, my class at the Institute of Design in Chicago (part of the Illinois Institute of Technology) was faced with that challenge. Given the short time, any trimming of material seemed arbitrary. Should the focus be on standard controls and issues for desktop applications? The web? What about important topics for emerging challenges like mobile devices and physical interfaces?
      I based my approach for this class on a faith in learning-by-doing and a feeling that students would quickly start to care about the right kinds of details if they were faced with real design problems. A thorough but dry survey of issues, topics and principles seemed likely to generate little more than short-term awareness without building long-term skills. The plan for the course was built on the following principles:

  • Toss ‘em in the deep end—confront students quickly with realistic design challenges.
  • Trim scope to fit the class’s title, but maintain realism. At the Institute of Design, students receive a lot of instruction in strategic, user-centered design methods: user research, translating research into design concepts, thinking about new media and interactive products and so on. This class was a chance to focus on just interface. Tactical nitty-gritty. Controls. Affordances. Feedback. Layout. Wording. We pretended that the product strategy was already in place and the process had already proceeded nicely to the point of designing the actual interface. It was time to get down to details.
  • Emphasize methods and tools for a broad range of problems. Give students an approach which helps them work on details regardless of technology or business context. Give them the heart of interface design, and assume they can go read about specific topics when the time comes.

What follows is the class’s story illustrated by student work.


Marc Rettig is an interaction design consultant and educator whose high-profile career spans over 20 years. He is currently a visiting professor in the Graduate School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University and an adjunct faculty member at the Institute of Design, IIT. At the same time, he maintains an active consulting practice.
      Marc has held influential roles in a number of corporate, academic, editorial and start-up efforts. As chief experience officer at HannaHodge, Marc oversaw the firm's user-centered process, team culture and research initiatives. Prior to this, Marc was a Director of User Experience at Cambridge Technology Partners. As principal conceptual designer of products for DKA, a Chicago-based web start-up, he invented numerous interface and product concepts for web publishing. Marc also served as performance support design lead in Andersen Consulting's advanced technologies group. Marc is active on corporate and organizational advisory boards. He participated in the formative stages of the AIGA Experience Design SIG and is a founding member of the advisory board for CMP’s Web2001 Show.

LOOP June 2003 Number 7