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On Interaction Design

By Published on .

Jennifer Bove, Kicker Studio.
Jennifer Bove, Kicker Studio.
There is always a lot of talk among IxD professionals about what interaction design is and isn't. Do interaction designers design interfaces? Interactions? Experiences? Do they design websites, products, services? Or, all of the above? Interaction designers define the behavior of products and systems, and how they respond to the people who interact them. Though, to me, it's much more interesting to talk about what interaction design actually does: makes our interactions with the world around us more enjoyable.

Interaction designers have an opportunity to make products, systems and services more useful, easier and enjoyable to use. There are a number of methods available to designers for getting to the useful and usable, and many books have been written on best practices for designing interactions that are easy to understand. Designing for enjoyment, however, is a bit of an art. What makes using one product more enjoyable than another? Donald Norman, in his book "Emotional Design," talks about the impact of emotions on our experiences of everyday objects and contends that designing for emotion makes for an overall better experience. But how might we design emotion into our interactions with technology? One way of doing this is by making the interactions less about the technology that enables them and more reflective of the behavior of the people who we're designing for. Enjoyment is an intrinsically human emotion, after all.

With each decision an interaction designer makes, whether it's the features we design into a product or service (what it does), or the points of interaction within it (how it works), we make our experiences more about people and less about technology. We enable communication, elicit emotion, and make our interactions more enjoyable by making our technology feel more human. Making technology feel more human is not an easy task – human isn't something that systems and software understand. We use logic, metaphors, and language to make machine interactions feel less like machines and more like us.

The Dopplr Coincidences function.
The Dopplr Coincidences function.
The web service Dopplr is a good example of how machine logic and language can be tweaked to create an experience that feels more human. Dopplr is a service for sharing travel plans and exchanging travel advice. The team at Dopplr often talks about "fuzziness" – a quality much more human than computer - and how they deliberately uses fuzziness to make the experience of their service more human. For example, the system is designed to show you friends who are nearby where you're visiting, even if they're not in the same exact city, and people who are visiting your destination at approximately the same time, even if your travel dates aren't an exact match. This way you can coordinate your travel if you want to, and see people you otherwise might have missed, in a way that feels more organic than system driven.

Another way in which Dopplr has made the software feel more human is by crafting the way the service communicates, replacing the system language of computers with instructions and responses that feel more natural, as if it were delivered by a person instead of a machine. When it's not sure which city you've typed, or it doesn't find an exact match, it doesn't say "incorrect input," it asks for help:

An alternative to incorrect input.
An alternative to incorrect input.

Often the simplest touches, like the way a product responds to user error, can make the difference in making an interaction feel human.

Another way that interaction designers can make digital products and services feel more human is by giving physical characteristics associated with "humanness" to software. The iPhone is a prime example. If you don't have one, you probably know someone who does, and you've probably seen the little dance the application icons will perform if you press and hold one of them for a few seconds. Press and hold is the gesture used to enter the "edit" mode for arranging the icons on the screen. Apple could have used a label and instructional text to explain what was going on, such as "edit mode: move the icons around the screen to change position." But that's not as much fun. Instead they use animation to indicate an editable state. The icons start to wiggle as a way of saying "okay we're ready to be moved around now"--they look excited to be moving, almost like they have emotions! And they also look less fixed in their positions, and more amenable to being dragged around the screen with a finger. This kind of anthropomorphism (giving human characteristics to non-human things) is another effective way of creating personality and emotive behavior in a product. And when done well, it can also serve as a cue to the user that the state of the interface has changed, and new interactions are possible.

To illustrate my work at Kicker Studio and the process of humanizing an interaction with technology, let's look at one of our recent projects, a concept for a new kind of conference phone. We felt most conference phones on the market were sorely missing a human element, because they're not designed with their users in mind.

We looked at the attributes of face-to-face meetings and thought about how to incorporate them back into the meetings we mediate through conference phones. Our goals for the project were to create a product that enabled an emotional connection between participants, made call activity more transparent, and made the device itself less obtrusive and more human.

Through our research with frequent conference call attendees and observations of calls in session, we found trouble spots where technology got in the way. Knowing who's actually talking on the other line, for example; or being able to send a subtle signal to someone over the phone in the same way you might kick them if they're sat across the table.

Kicker Studio's conference phone.
Kicker Studio's conference phone.
We wanted to put these natural, human interactions back into the meeting experience through our design. So our interface became image based, with photos or icons representing each caller, and a display that shows who is on the line and who is speaking. It can also show if someone has their "hand raised" to talk, and if you want to kick someone under the table, you can nudge them with a "poke" feature that only the two phones can see. There are four microphone pods that slide out of the side of the phone, allowing people to walk around the room while they talk and still be heard, be able to mute the call, and be able to "raise their hand" if they need to get a word in.

By bringing the advantages of in-person meetings into technology-enabled calls, and designing them in a way that makes them useful and usable, we can make the conference call experience more about the conversation (the human element) than the phone itself (the technology).

These are just a few examples of how products and services can be designed to be more about the humans who use them and less about the technology that enables them. Behaviors that are defined from the point of view of humans, and designed to elicit emotion, make products and services more enjoyable and easier to use. This, to me is what interaction designers do, and why I'm excited to be among them, and share the work we do in this blog with you.


Jennifer Bove is a founder and principal at Kicker Studio in San Francisco and on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's Interaction Design MFA department in New York. She travels, a lot.
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