UX versus ID: Understanding the Design Industry

UX: In the past few years we’ve seen a lot of new job positions that lead to generating quite a confusion in the industry of digital design.

A brief history of Industrial and Interaction Design (IxD synonymously called UX) situates the entire history of interaction design within a broader history of industrial design as applied to personal computing in the 1960s and ’70s. Foundational concepts began germinating out of the R&D labs at SRI and Xerox PARC, and into the business plans of startups like Apple and Microsoft.

Prototypes like oN-Line System debuted the first hyperlinked text and Xerox’s Alto‘s first graphical-user-interface design were designed as fully integrated systems—their software and hardware intimately accompanying one another. Xerox Alto was the first computer designed from the start to support an operating system based on a graphical user interface (GUI), later licensed off to Steve Jobs. Apple engineers used the concepts to introduce the Macintosh systems, sparking the GUI revolution that took hold during the 1980s and the epitome for the “perfect” synergy of ID and UX.

But “intimately accompanied” just didn’t move enough units. Steve Jobs learned this the hard way. Thus began a 30-year split between physical and digital, which necessitated the discipline of “interaction design“—a label coined in an attempt to reclaim some of the industrial-design thinking that had been lost in the divorce from software.

Only in the late 2000s, after the iPhone kicked off the mobile computing revolution, did an economic path emerge that could invite industrial design and IxD to reconverge.

Ten years into that convergence—led not just by Apple but forward-thinking consultancies—it seems obvious that preserving too many firewalls between industrial and interaction design result in  “smart” products.

What’s less obvious is why one digital product such as Amazon Echo catches on, while the Nest Cam doesn’t.

When a company as successful as Apple puts both design processes under the same umbrella, it signals the commercial importance of the partnership of the two design disciplines. The overlap of these disciplines will only increase. As more products emerge that are balanced combinations of physical and digital, designers who can work across these two disciplines will succeed.


Data is a material just like any other.

Designers need to understand the qualities of data sets and sculpt experiences with it, whether product road mapping or creating a wire frame and flow charts for user experience. There are things a particular data set can do, points in which it breaks, and contexts where it has unexpected uses—just like any other type of material. What impact does a particular web font have on page-load time across different devices in different physical applications? This question may seem within the realm of digital interaction design, but some would suggest otherwise.  The process is universal.

With a history going back to the Industrial Revolution, ID has always been a practical discipline focused on creating usable products.

When mass manufacturing caught on, it gave rise to a new type of design discipline — focused initially on the problems of manufacturability and safety.

Industrial designers have a long history working the same issues that UX professionals wrestle with today, and many of the methods employed in the design of physical products informed and inspired methods in the field of UX and its focus on the digital world.



  1. Design thinking — the application of design’s problem solving methodologies to new arenas of business .
  2. Design for use = both groups share the same approach to uncovering user needs: primary research.
  3. They seek to design something that will have lasting commercial value for both the consumer and the business whom provides it.


  1. The most obvious difference between the two disciplines is that industrial design addresses physical products and UX primarily focuses on digital products and customer-interactions.
  2. Different product lifecycles: U.X. = product roadmap vs. I.D. = mass production
  3. ID = special additional skills focusing on engineering design and design for manufacture / UX = strategic issues of product experience and others who spend time on screen flows, user interface design.



There have long been physical products with digital components. Unfortunately, common practice is to design each aspect in isolation, only bringing the digital and physical together at a few points during the process.

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