Department of Design

March 20th, 2013

Don’t be afraid to teach interactions.

(The Twitter conversations that inspired this post can be found here and here (ish).)

A couple of weeks ago, I was using the latest version of the Rdio app and realized that I had no idea how to put a song into a playlist. After hopelessly tapping around, I got a bit annoyed and posted a tweet asking if anyone had figured it out, which is my standard reaction when things aren’t immediately obvious in apps.

But then I thought about an interaction that we’d recently put into place at Foursquare, the long tap checkin. So, curious, I held down my finger on the song title. Lo and behold, a whole set of song action options popped up, including Add to Playlist. Excellent! I added the song and went on my merry way.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and my friend Keith is also complaining on Twitter about how he can’t find key features in Rdio. People mention the long tap, but it’s obvious there’s a problem; the menu is undiscoverable. The long tap is a graceful solution, but it’s a hidden solution: Rdio needs to teach us.

This illustrates an interesting tension in interaction design. On the one hand, designers want to make obvious interfaces—on some level, in fact, we’re looking to create the Holy Grail of interaction design: apps so fluid, so intuitive, that people naturally have an ‘a-ha’ moment, and there’s never a sense of frustration during onboarding. And that’s great; that’s an amazing goal, and I hope we achieve it.

But at this point in technology, especially with gestural-based stuff, we’re not only working out the kinks, we’re working with a lot of technological, physical disadvantages. For example, there’s no mass commercial computer interface as simple, light, and high-fidelity as pen and paper. The iPad is a solid start, and we can reasonably expect the technology to improve dramatically over the coming decades. But fine, delicate movements and gestures just aren’t supported by technology at this time.

And aside from the technology constraints, we simply do have to create a new set of interactions for new interfaces. Screens have things you can move around, unlike drawings on a sheet of paper, so you’ll be covering up content at some point. Screens can be positioned in a wide variety of spaces, sizes and contexts; if you’re presenting information, you’ll be using more than just your hands but your entire arms and perhaps entire body. So there’s a whole set of interactions, not only you interacting with elements on the screen, but you interacting with the screen, that simply haven’t been standardized yet.

But that’s okay! Here’s the important part: don’t feel like every single action you design right now, in this Wild West time of interaction design, has to be completely intuitive. There are things we think are intuitive now that we learned using tutorials decades ago. Andrei Herasimchuk pulled up a great old Apple tutorial on how to use a mouse. Do you remember those? Probably not, even if you’re above a certain age, and your kids or siblings (or maybe even you) have likely never seen them. They learned how to use a mouse by watching people instead. People don’t come out of the womb knowing how to use a mouse—they do learn it, at some point—but once the information is out there they can learn so seamlessly it doesn’t matter.

So don’t be afraid. The interactions we have to teach now may be the new standards for the next generation, and they may be much better than what we had before, even if they’re slightly less intuitive to start. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t stop from doing something interesting just because you have to show someone else how to use it. Don’t stifle innovation and interesting gestures. Explain them, and people will remember.


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    The goal towards intuitive design is something many people strive to design but the fact of the matter is, is that it...
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