The hardware interaction designer: an overlooked role

The end-to-end contributions of hardware interaction designers and their comprehensive influence in shaping products

While digital interfaces run our lives, they wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have devices that are made of metal, glass, plastic and are powered by electrons spinning inside conducting materials.

Touchscreens have seamlessly diminished our awareness of the tangible essence of computers and digital devices, as we intimately engage with pixels, setting aside our connection to the underlying hardware; but we still have physical interaction with these devices, such as pressing buttons, switches, and more recently, experiencing sophisticated haptic feedback that enhances our sense of touch while holding these objects.

The work of the hardware interaction designer can be a remote controller. In the picture the remote controllers from Apple.
An example of the work of HID, Apple Remote and first generation Siri Remote. (©

In the ever-evolving landscape of design in the technology industry and as we see the new advancements of artificial intelligence and the proliferation of A.i. enabled hardware, there exists a vital yet often overlooked role — that of the hardware interaction designer. Even if there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to hardware interface design, it seems that the role of hardware interaction design (HID) is not properly advertised and recognized in the current tech job market.

A picture of paper electronic board.
The material of a hardware interaction designer, physical sensors, actuators and micro-controllers. (©

Hardware interaction designers are involved across all stages of product and innovation lifestyle, from early research and concept ideation, to refinement of form, materials, gestures, behaviors and animations during development.

I characterize the process of creating new interactive hardware products in four stages: exploration, definition, productization, and observation; By moving “ from macro to micro” across the design process, I hope to highlight how hardware interaction designers are core drivers of design features and cross functional collaboration.

Hardware designers and exploration

Hardware interaction designers can act as innovation catalysts, since they are able to shape both hardware and software, crafting new ways of using computers and digital technologies at large. The practice of sketching in hardware (a conference with the same name is a congregation point for HIDs) is key to understanding and exploring emerging technologies; these explorations can be attuned to understanding new form factors, new interactions, new sensing capabilities, or new novel elements that can be presented to users.

For instance, when I was working on the UX/UI design team in the automotive space, we speculated that we could use similar technology that tracks people outside the car, such as LIDARs, to create user interfaces that are aware of people’s bodies inside the car. The design principles guiding us were based on ergonomics, such as the principle of “never reaching too far,” and creating technology that is “shy” — hidden until needed.

Virtual Wearable exploration (©

We theorized a concept called a “virtual wearable,” where a projection system combined with a LIDAR camera could sense people’s hands and project simple interfaces onto them. This novel application of an emerging technology was the basis for deeper exploration that prompted a series of experiments. Using off-the-shelf tech, we could test and experience these concepts quickly and tangibly. For HIDs, this phase yields understanding of the material, inspires new ideas and informs the definition phase.

Hardware designers and definition

“The only way to engineer the future tomorrow is to have lived in it yesterday,”

This quote by Bill Buxton is fundamental to understanding interaction design as a whole. Just as architects build scale models of buildings, interaction designers prototype the experiences before those are engineered: to comprehend them, to understand them, to feel them. Defining which features will be included in a product is crucial when dealing with hardware and the hardware interaction designer plays a key role during the product definition stage.

“Interaction design is about designing the right thing and designing the thing right.”

Because of the role that the HID plays at the juncture of the design process, Mark Retting’s thinking is key for designer to jeep in mind during product definition. Rettig’s statement underscores the significance of not only executing a design well but validating that the right design decisions are made from the outset. This principle is particularly crucial in hardware development, where the upfront costs and challenges of iterating are substantially higher compared to software. Pretotyping (see The Right It, Alberto Savoia) and validating design concepts at different levels of fidelity are essential steps before committing to the productization phase.

While this area typically falls under the realm of “Product Managers,” I believe it is actually the interaction designer who can define user-centered elements, which intimately impact the user experience of the physical product. From haptics to sensor requirements, from sensor sensitivity to actuation, the knowledge of the HID shapes the product specification while maintaining a perspective of pretotyping as they explore.

Hardware interface sketches, early in the definition phase. (©

With this knowledge of emerging technologies and desired user experiences, hardware designers can steer the conversation, help set priorities, and inform the next steps of the product development process. This pattern has been followed in both startup and large corporate environments, where product definition requires a tight collaboration between the hardware interaction designer and product planners/managers. I’ve experienced this firsthand working on different hardware products, from automotive to consumer electronics. The nature of hardware is different than software in the sense that you need to make many decisions upfront, and it becomes extremely expensive to change course once those decisions are made.

Picture of a prototype of a smart pen
This is how sketching in hardware looks like — the creation of a smart pen for tablet for medical application to test the viability of the idea. In the lower picture the prototype at two different levels of fidelity. (©

Because of this, HIDs are critical to applying design and technical insights to facilitate strategic conversations with PMs and other stakeholders, so teams ‘define and design the right things’.

Hardware designers and productization

Once the product and product features are defined, the hardware interaction designer engages with the “product” during the design development. The “product” is in quotes because, while the definition is clear at this stage, the hardware/software execution might not be finalized yet. From a hardware engineering perspective, the product cycle follows different stages of prototyping, starting at “non-form factor prototype”, to “form-factor prototype”, EVT (Engineering Validation Test), DVT (Design Validation Test), and PVT (Production Validation Test). These cycles are primarily focused on improving manufacturing processes and ensuring scalability, rather than allowing designers to iterate on the user experience or design decisions.

That’s where a hardware interaction designer jumps in as quickly as possible to start playing with the product and product features, at whatever stage it is, even if only a non-form factor prototype is available. Given the ability to work with the material, the hardware interaction designer can start designing interaction details and continue to update their assumptions as the hardware fidelity improves.

Picture of the early non form factor prototype of the iphone. On the table are visible different components of the device that are not integrated.
Example of early non-form factor prototype of the iPhone (image from

Some of the projects that the HID applies this process to are:
– gestures and interaction architecture based on onboard sensors including computer vision capabilities;
– vocabulary and behavior of visual actuators like LEDs
– sonic, haptics and tactile interfaces
– ux of battery management and peak power
– user experience for OTA software updates, soft reset and factory reset
– flows for connectivity and pairing accessories, like cases, chargers, headphones etc..

Each of these areas could warrant its own article, and there is a lengthy list of examples that could be mentioned. To make it more concrete, let’s consider just one tangible example. Let’s say that the hardware interaction designer receives a brief where they need to design the feedback system for a voice assistant hardware device.

While the main channel of communication is voice and audio, the secondary feedback indicator that communicates the device’s states could be haptic if the device is handheld or visual if the device is static.
In the case of the development of the visual indicator, the output mechanisms can be a set of lights that can offer an understanding of the underlying hardware and software states: listening, “thinking” or processing, updating, using the camera for context, taking a picture/video, booting up or in an error state. All these states require differentiated, bespoke signals for users to understand and associate with each state.

In my experience, the core magic of HID lies in designing features that feel “invisible” due to the fact that these interactions are designed to be genuinely intuitive by their tangible nature.

However, the development of these interactive elements in the analog domain often comes late in the process or as an afterthought. This isn’t due to the low priority of the feature, which is vital for a good user experience, but rather because the engineering support for prototyping hardware interfaces comes late or is not prioritized, as it requires significant integration. The engineering mindset also tends to value scalability over the rapid iteration needed to refine user experience details like light animations, potentially not supporting design with the tools needed.

The hardware interaction designer is the best figure to help prioritize and design hardware ux features. Through sketching in hardware, they can create early prototypes to simulate the experience when hardware is not available yet. Or when hardware is available, they work in parallel to the engineering efforts to quickly create software/hardware integrations to test the experience. While understanding the device behavior and full stack architecture, the HID can think creatively about potential outputs and the cultural/social context where the product will manifest.

The HID in this phase creates tangible prototypes and software tools that allow fast iterations, quick integrations and flexibility. For example, for LED animations they can create parametric controls of rhythm, brightness, and color even before these have been fully architected by the engineering teams; this provides understanding of the color rendering, timing, and overall character of the interaction.

The result is a simulated experience that runs close to the design vision and has the potential to fast forward the design and engineering of important aspects of the product experience. This not only aids the creation of product features but it also initiates early engineering conversations about software requirements given the hardware constraints.

This also yields a vocabulary of signals that are coherent with the rest of the product, brand and user interface. The result is a cohesive design language informed by hands-on iteration and material understanding — spearheaded by the HID and their collaborations with engineers and PMs.

Hardware designers and observation

Once a product reaches customers, the hardware interaction designer is involved in understanding the results of their work through a combination of data-driven analysis and subjective observations of product usage. These insights help identify and solve problems, improve existing features, and explore new areas of innovation.

The designer closely examines various metrics and analytics related to the physical product’s usage, such as sensor data, battery life, connectivity patterns, and user interactions. This quantitative data provides valuable insights into how the product is performing in the real world and how users are engaging with it.
On the other hand, qualitative observations, either directly or through user research studies offer greater understanding of how people physically interact with the product, their behaviors, and their reactions to different features and interactions.

By combining data-driven analysis with qualitative observations, the hardware interaction designer can gain a holistic understanding of the product’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement. This feedback loop is crucial for iterating on the design, refining existing features, and identifying potential areas for future exploration and innovation.

Applying product insights in development cycles, the HID informs the overall product roadmap as well as designs the subtle elements that help make the end product experience more thoughtful and meaningful for users.


As technology becomes increasingly embedded in our environments and daily objects, the necessity for hardware interaction design is here to stay. Companies must recognize the strategic value this discipline brings, fostering collaboration between designers, engineers, and business stakeholders from the earliest stages of product conceptualization.

We see the issues of poorly designed or error-prone interactions plague today’s digital hardware products; we are all too familiar with hideous light indicators, convoluted reset procedures, or disruptive software updates. However, I think these are issues that a skilled hardware interaction designer can preemptively address because they grapple with intricate details and processes that profoundly impact the user’s perception and understanding of a product.

Hard Pass on Twitter: "Guys…it's happening again… / Twitter"

Guys…it's happening again…

Seemingly simple elements, such as LED indicators or haptic feedback, require thoughtful consideration to convey the appropriate meaning and reinforce the user’s mental model. These elements require detailed planning and need to be considered throughout the whole product lifecycle to guarantee that they are properly implemented and considered. It is the role of the hardware interaction designer to consider these features and elements, knit them into a cohesive language, and move teams through a design process that leverages user feedback to improve interactions so they become intuitive and seamless.

In other words, it’s the perspective of the HID that enables what companies desperately want: well-designed products should transition seamlessly between states, providing appropriate feedback and affordances that intuitively guide the user’s experience. It’s their ability to bring clarity and expertise throughout the entire product lifecycle and remain focused on bringing core principles of interaction design to life.

The light indicator on an early macbook.
Delightful state indicators in early Macbooks. (image from Futuri Motion Tech)

Ultimately, hardware interaction design is an essential practice that ensures technology remains human-centered and that products that have hardware components are designed right. By shaping the tangible aspects of digital experiences, this discipline has the power to elevate products and foster deeper connections between users and the objects they interact with every day.

The hardware interaction designer: an overlooked role was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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