Interaction Design Pt. 2 - Qualities of interaction

In part 1 I outlined a very brief history of interaction design and what differentiates it from other design disciplines. I qualified interaction design as the design of behaviour, noting its temporal nature that manifests through objects in space. In this part, through the works of some academics and practitioners in the field I try to find a common vocabulary to discuss the qualities of interaction. For ease of reading, I will use the word object to refer to products, services, systems and such.


In order for designers and other stakeholders to be able to discuss and reflect on the qualities of interaction design we need an understanding not only of the physical qualities but also the temporal qualities of interactions. Practitioners and academics have over the years written about such qualities of interaction design from many different perspectives. For example, Löwgren taking a more use-experience perspective for reflection on qualities after an object is already designed suggests qualities like pliability, rhythm, dramaturgical structure and fluency. While some others like Lim et al. take a more pragmatic approach suggesting attributes for an “interaction gestalt” like connectivity, continuity, directness, movement, orderliness, proximity, pace, resolution, speed, state and time-depth. These attributes while helpful in certain contexts, like screen based interactions, may not have the generality required for long term use because of the nature of interactive material, which is inherently dynamic and changes with developments in technology. We are already experiencing other forms of interaction like, voice, gesture, virtual and augmented reality while future possibilities with neural impulses and other unknowns may not be too far off.

In this article I will discuss a general exploration about forms and expressions of interactions by Hanna Landin. These, I feel, maybe better suited for creating a more robust and lasting common vocabulary to discuss interaction aspects in the early stages of a design process when there is no object or even a mock-up or prototype and maybe even no user.

As designers we often concern ourselves with the form and expression of objects we design. When designing for objects that exist in the physical world, we understand their form through physical qualities like shape, colour, material etc. On the other hand, digital interactive objects can not only be described using their physical form but also their interaction form which is largely affected by the temporal nature of interactions. In order to perceive interactive objects as a whole or, as described by Löwgren and Stolterman, their “dynamic gestalt”, we need to experience them as a process, that is by trying them out.

The output of interaction design thus is more closely related to the temporal experience through performative art medium like film, music, dance and theater. However, as Hanna Landin describes, in the performative arts there is a clear distinction between the creators, performers and the audience while “within interaction design, spectators and listeners often become directors to some extent, as they, through their actions, can influence how the temporal structure will manifest itself spatially”. The boundaries of such direction, is however, designed.

The form of an object consists of the arrangement of its different elements to create a whole. For interactive objects the interaction form then includes both the spatial form eg. the form of a lamp or desk etc. and the temporal form eg. the form of a story, a movie or a musical piece. How these forms are manifested, conveyed, represented and communicated can be described as the expression of those interactions. It is important to acknowledge that a designer cannot foresee all the possible interactions but those possibilities always exist from the time the object is designed. For a holistic understanding one should focus on how the elements of design affect possible ways to interact and then examine what those elements express. One could thereafter speculate on how those expressions affect people’s relation to the design itself and their experience of it for more responsible and meaningful design outputs. Interaction form relates the interaction (the entire spectrum of what you can do with an object) to the function (what an object can do for you), regardless of the design intentions.


The interaction form can have different properties which can relate more or less, explicitly or implicitly towards the interaction or the function, some of these properties are discussed below:

Fragile form

An object can have a fragile form if the relation between the interaction and the function breaks easily. A common example of fragile form is making Skype calls, where we all will recognise spending the first fifteen minutes of a call just trying to know if there is a clear connection between the participants on the call. A fatal example of a fragile form of interaction is, one could say the cause, among others, for the air crash of the Boeing 737 MAX. In some cases a fragile form can also be used as a design quality or for creating a sense of power, for eg. the ‘Report’ functionalities on social media websites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, where one can never be sure if and what action the platforms will take in response to a complaint.

Magical form

If the relation between the function and interaction creates a perception of something more or something less than there actually is or if it is enchantingly presented, the form can be said to be magical. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the conversations around it in public discourse usually tend to attribute a magical quality to AI driven interactions. That is sometimes due to the design but also many times due to the complexity of the products that are not fully understood.


Changeable form

Computational devices inherently have a changeable form, firstly because it is relatively cheap and easy to replace and secondly, data can be saved and accessed which determines an object’s behaviour. We have always known cars to have a non changeable form once you buy them, but that is not the case anymore and more so in the future. An example of that is the Tesla cars whose interaction changes though software updates, whether it be adding easter eggs or fast charging or fixing bugs. This is more related to the interaction than the function of the car, which is basically just to transport people.

Illusionary form

When the function and interaction are related in an illusionary way, that is giving an impression of something that may not be. Uber made use of this form property in their app allegedly to give an impression of many available cabs in the vicinity when there weren’t that many in reality. Computational interactions easily allow for illusionary forms, but sacrifice trust in the bargain.

Indistinct form

When it isn’t clear how the function of an object relates to the interaction it can be said to have indistinct form. Indistinct interactions can often take on magical qualities, for example the photo filters on Instagram and many other applications thereafter. Many people are not aware how the filters transform photos or how their names relate to the final result, they have to try each one out during each interaction with the application.

These are just some of the properties that an interaction form could have and are intended to inspire reflection during the early stages of a design process to be able to communicate and understand expectations from future interactions. These properties need not apply to the whole of the object, but differently to different parts. They are also to be understood on a spectrum of less and more and not with a polarity of exists or not. Discussing how the form relates more to the function or the interaction and whether explicitly or implicitly allows us to design for a desired effect and change forms consciously.

The relations between interaction and function are also then expressed in different ways through the design. In a physical sense the form of a sports car expresses speed while the form of a pickup truck expresses strength. Similarly interaction forms also carry with them expressions through the design for different contexts of use. Some of these expressions are discussed below:

Anxiety

If how the interaction relates to the function is cause for anxiety, the form is said to be expressed as anxiety. Fragile forms usually can be a cause for anxiety. This can be by design or as an unintended consequence. One should however note that an expression of anxiety may not translate into an anxious experience for all users in all contexts. The experience may follow the expression but not always.

Alienation

When there is an unclear connection between the interaction and function of the object, it is expressed as alienation. An indistinct, fragile or illusionary form might be expressed as alienation. For example, error message dialogue boxes with just one button that says ‘OK’ is an expression of alienation. One does not understand the consequence or the significance of the interaction of clicking that button. The microwave in part 1 of this article is strife with the expression of alienation, creating an experience of confusion for the user.

Indifference

This refers to design decisions that do not express anything clearly. Indifference is used as a strategy to ignore known consequences which do not yet have a sound solution. The example of the fragile form of the ‘Report’ functionality on social media websites can be interpreted as an expression of indifference, where the issues are not given the level of importance they deserve. Indifference as an expression on many occasions allow for unintended consequences to have a much larger impact.

Confusion

When the indistinct form of interaction is explicitly defined, the expression is usually that of confusion in some contexts. It is a way of describing a form where the interface does not express clearly the functions of the object or how to carry out certain actions. Confusion can also be caused because of changeable interaction forms, when one cannot be sure what the interaction does in different contexts.

Imagination

Magical form in some cases expresses itself as imagination. Imagination as an expression is used in the design of toys but also, when robots with AI are assumed to embody qualities beyond their actual capabilities is an example of expressing the magical quality of AI as imagination.

Dependence

A magical or distinct form can be expressed as dependence, for example, Mobile phone notifications which call for attention even for unimportant alerts is a distinct form of interaction expressed as dependence. This can be said of games and communities too. The design of ‘stories’ functionality in social media applications emphasises dependence as an expression, using the fear of missing out, with stories disappearing after 24 hours and hence the need to check them often.


Suspiciousness

An implicitly defined fragile form can be expressed as suspicion. For example, Uber’s move towards displaying a fixed price for fares while hailing a cab, removing the transparent and distinct interaction of showing surge pricing when it was applied. Users who were first time traveler on a route would never be sure if the rate was including surge pricing or not. Implicit surge pricing is hence expressed as suspiciousness in this case.

Trust

Distinct and non-fragile interactions lead to the expressions of trust. An explicit relation between the interaction and function with such properties supports the expression of trust. As a new resident in Sweden I have come to learn about a common mobile payment application called Swish. An interesting interaction found on the app is the ability to verify a payment at physical points of sale where the payment acknowledgement screen on the senders app is reactive to touch and hence allows for verification by the receiver just by touching the screen, if they so desire. The design of this interaction strengthens the expression of trust. It could in certain contexts be in contrast to the experience of use, which could be slow, unhygienic or in rare cases even a feeling of distrust.


These are but a few possible expressions of forms of interactions. A combination of various interaction forms and their implicit or explicit relation to the interaction and the function leads to many different expressions of interactions. A combination of the forms and expressions allows one to design the right conditions for certain experiences to be created. While one can never be sure of all the interactions, reflecting on the expressions certain forms create and the kind of relationship that might create between people and objects is an activity designers should make a routine part of their tasks of creation. We at Zenit Design always try and reflect on the forms we create and what they might express, to ensure that we are designing the conditions for the right kind of experiences.

Designers are also encouraged to use and expand on their vocabulary to be able to discuss and play with various forms and expressions throughout their design process. Adding, moving, merging, subtracting and eliminating various forms and reflecting on their expressions can be very helpful in creating mindful and responsible design for society that we always strive for.

In part 3 we will take a turn towards the future and explore how the future might shape the discipline of interaction design while it itself shapes the future.

Works cited

Arvola, Mattias. (2010). Interaction Design Qualities: Theory and Practice. NordiCHI, ACM.

Hallnäs, Lars. (2011). On the Foundations of Interaction Design Aesthetics: Revisiting the Notion of Form and Expression. International Journal of Design.

Landin, Hanna. (2009). Anxiety and Trust and Other Expressions of Interaction. Chalmers University of Technology.

Lenz, Eva; Diefenbach, Sarah; Hassenzahl, Marc. (2014). Aesthetic of Interaction - A Literature Synthesis. NordiCHI, ACM.

Lim, Youn-kyung; Stolterman, Erik;  Jung, Heekyoung; Donaldson, Justin. (2007). Interaction Gestalt and the Design of Aesthetic Interactions. DPPI, ACM.

Lim, Youn-kyung;  Lee, Sang-Su; Kim, Da-jung. (2011). Interactivity Attributes for Expression-oriented Interaction Design. International Journal of Design.

Löwgren, Jonas; Stolterman, Erik. (2004). Thoughtful Interaction Design. The MIT Press.

Löwgren, Jonas. (2009). Towards an articulation of interaction aesthetics. The New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia.

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Interaction Designer - Himanshu Rohilla

Interaction Design Pt. 1 - A quick introduction

Interaction Design Pt. 3 - A Future

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Get in touch with:
Himanshu Rohilla
Senior Interaction Designer
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