MicrointeractionsLast Tuesday June 12th, I attended a panel on Microinteractions held at Smart Design. It was also a sort of book launch party for Dan Saffer, Director of Interaction Design at Smart Design and author of the recent book, “Microinteractions.”

Here are some notes, thoughts, and questions I had from the experience.

The Incredible Story of Patron X:

Dan told us about of Patron X: a gentleman sitting front row at a prestigious NYC orchestra performance whose phone alarm went off. And off and off and off, so much so that the conductor stopped the show until it was turned, well, OFF. Patron X, the offending audience member, was named thus to protect his identity, the audience was that incensed.

It’s a key example of the value of effective microinteractios. As Dan said, “No one ever buys a phone because you can turn the ringer off.”

Faves and Failures

Dan asked each panelist to share microinteractions that have delighted and microinteractions that have disappointed:

Karen Kaushansky, Principal Device Interaction Designer at Jawbone/Jambox):

Postive: Recently as Karen was following step by step instructions on her smart phone to install a device in her car, the app offered a button to click to turn her phone into a flashlight—at the exact stage when peering into a dark space of her car.

Negative: “You have one unread messages.” Language that doesn’t cover obvious use cases.

Kristen Culp, VP Operations at Pebble Technology: 

Positive: Nest Thermostat and how “it” “greets you” with a glowing light upon approach and illuminates a leaf icon when changing the temperature. The leaf lets you know the most economic/environmentally friendly setting as you are making the choice of how high or low to turn the thermostat. It effects decision making right at the most effective point.

Negative: the entire self-checkout experience at the grocery store, especially the payment flow that includes two different screens and hardware devices replete with ambiguously competing checkout steps.

Bill DeRouchey, Principal Designer at GE Global Research:

Positive: Mac OSX dialogue box that just shakes if the password is wrong.

Negative: Facebook bobbly chat heads one’s news stream. (I offered up “It makes you throw your friends away to end a conversation.”) Also, the dialogue box with a bank he used to use only offered “Sure” and “No, thanks” as options when doing serious financial transactions. There is a time for casual tone and a time for total clarity.

Dan Saffer (moderator, author, Smart Design)

Positive: Waze asked him if the route he took a few days in a row was his commute and would he like the app to remember that?

Negative: Anything where the tone is off. Trying to be cute but coming off weird or snarky.

What’s micro about micro-interactions? And other thoughts

Some takeaways:

  • Microinteractions are not major features. Done well, they are unexpected ways to ease the experience, delight, and create an emotional connection between brand/product/user
  • Bad interactions result in bad product reviews. It hits a nerve in people.
  • Great interactions often just result in silence because people tend to act on the negative, not the positive. Or, if you are lucky it will generate major positive buzz.
  • Microinteractions sometimes sacrifice precision for ease of concept.(ie labels like “this morning, yesterday, etc” instead of “08:34 am”)
  • When seeking client/product buy in on time needed to develop, speak in terms of business value: they can increase conversions, speed up implementation, etc. Don’t just say “brand value.”
  • As products have the ability to learn more about your behavior, they can become predictive. There’s an opportunity here for microinteractions to draw on that intelligence.
  • There is a value of an interaction anticipating a your need before you even realize it. (I think of G-mail prompting me if I want to send an email that contains the word “attachment” when in fact there is no file attached.)
  • It’s not just about consumer facing products. There are huge opportunities in enterprise products where power uses are in a specific interactive ecosystem all day.
  • Large companies like Google and Apple can dedicate teams to developing these. Smaller groups need to just fit it in however they can. It’s worth it.
  • It often takes complexity to make simple experiences.

Lingering questions

At the end of the discussion the panelist mused on the future of microinteractions. What role will predictive intelligence play in interactions? I wonder about the creepiness factor. Do I want products “knowing” and inviting me to act or not act on behaviors that may or may not be positive or something I would share with people? How do we keep the balance of agency? Who is driving what here?

When using colloquial language for interactive copy, how can we be sure to not alienate those who are not the same socio-economic,racial, or age groups?

How much should one test microinteractions? Usability tests? A/B tests? Analyzing overall metrics? What about the discovery of microinteractive opportunities by talking either directly with the intended audience or those who have already done their design research?

Going back to my past career as a museum exhibit designer, I can’t help but wonder what the equivalent is for experiencing a museum exhibit. What are the small interactions that delight and help a museum goer? Sightlines, copy that acknowledges the viewer standing right there reading it, and possibly shifting light in relation to viewer activity are some that come to mind.

Lots of details to think about and looking forward to my next project.