Department of Design

Curated by Timoni West.

Primarily focused on product design, technology, cognitive psychology, and the brain. Also—pretty pictures, sometimes moving.


Posts about interaction design
March 27th, 2014
Dynamic animation is strengthened by a foundation of good timing to drive it. Springs can be beautifully simulated, but if the underlying animation driving them is poorly timed, the whole thing falls apart. It’s a little too close to implementation than it is to design, and can be a trap to spend time towards early on. As designers fumble around with dynamic tools, I’m seeing too much simulation, and less opinionated articulation that is designed. The result is a clumsy interface with over-animated action that’s distracting. Signal Flow is powerful, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

The state of Interaction Design tools, by Pasql

Pasql nails the current state of ux animation tools. This part, about the difficulty of ‘designing’ in a node-based environment, is particularly spot-on.

March 28th, 2013

The studies have suggested that the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following:

1. We confront tasks we have a chance of completing;
2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing;
3. The task has clear goals;
4. The task provides immediate feedback;
5. One acts with deep, but effortless involvement, that
removes from awareness the worries and frustrations
of everyday life;
6. One exercises a sense of control over their actions;
7. Concern for the self disappears, yet, paradoxically
the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow
experience is over; and
8. The sense of duration of time is altered.

The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.

March 25th, 2013

West: There is a whole class of gesture-based functionality, basically, that mobile apps are trying to take advantage of, which is fantastic. Now on Foursquare, when you pull down on a venue, it checks you in without you having to tap the screen. It’s a power user feature we tell people about—it’s very rare you accidentally do it. Plus, a little bit of a learning curve isn’t that bad. A lot of web gurus say it’s bad if there’s any kind of learning curve or tutorial needed, but I disagree. We’re making the standards. This is the time when we’re figuring out what the best practice is.

Disabato: It’s funny, I’ll see people much younger than myself having no problem learning totally new interaction models on these interfaces when they aren’t given any help. I’ll see people my age or older, I’m 31, they’ll struggle and won’t be able to do anything on it, and they’ll need help.

West: We already have a mental model, or muscle memory, tripping us up. I have an Xbox, and I always had Nintendo before, so I keep wanting to hit A and B all the time. If I was a five year old, I would have no issues.

Disabato: I think you might start seeing apps that are experimental for their own sake. They do very weird things with gestures, they’re not really serious labored endeavors, but they’re something you can play with and understand the limitations of the medium. You see that a lot with game design and sound apps, music generation apps, that sort of stuff, where it’s just this weird set of graphics you play around with, like [sound toy app] Pluto Pluto. The more people actually use them, the more you’ll start to understand there’s way more to design than what Apple proscribes in their interface guidelines.

March 20th, 2013

The reason that I think the pull-down-to-refresh works so well in Tweetie 2 is because it’s discoverable and explanatory. It’s discoverable because you already know how to scroll a list, and as you scroll up, when you get to the top — bam — the UI reveals itself and you go “whoa, what’s that?”. It explanatory because once you start tugging down there is some great UI feedback, actual text that provides instructions as you interact. It’s not like it pops up some modal dialog with instructions on how to use it, the UI itself is the instruction. Once you learn it you simply ignore the text and can look at the graphical arrow which gives appropriate feedback on what you need to do.

Now, I think you can split gestures into two categories. One is of the pull-down-to-refresh kind. These are gestures that are discoverable and explanatory. The other kind of gestures are like tapping-the-status-bar-to-scroll-to-the-top, or swipe-to-delete (or swipe-to-reply in Tweetie). These gestures you won’t discover on your own except by accident. These are not discoverable, and they are not explanatory.

This second class of gestures can exist (in my opinion) because they are not the only way to accomplish a goal. In the case of tapping the status bar, users already know how to scroll to the top manually. It’s slower, but it’s possible. In the case of swipe to delete, users already know they can tap on a message and then tap the trash button. So knowing the gesture isn’t necessary.

So when you’re inventing new gestures, it’s important to think about whether the gesture is required to use the app. If it’s the only way to accomplish a goal, you better be sure it’s discoverable and explanatory without needing to read a manual. If it’s the other kind of gesture, go nuts!

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.


January 8th, 2013
Problems arise at interface, any interface, be it person and machine, person and person, or organizational unit and organizational unit. Any place where two different entities interact is an interface, and this is where confusions arise, where conflicting assumptions are born and nourished, where synchronization difficulties proliferate as queues form and mismatched entities struggle to engage.
June 15th, 2011
It was fairly common in medieval times to put east at the top. Which has a logic to it: when traveling across open terrain, the one consistent thing you had to orient yourself by when you broke camp in the morning was the sunrise. In fact, that’s the source of the term “orient yourself”: it literally means to face east.

Carl Muckenhoupt in a comment on See Different, a MetaFilter thread about alternative maps.

(via blech)

January 28th, 2010

More on delight, the fleeting feeling

Related to this post on the magic of the iPad, here’s more on delight from Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun in Game Design. Emphasis mine:

Aesthetic appreciation is the most interesting form of enjoyment. Science fiction writers call it “sensawunda.” It’s awe, it’s mystery, it’s harmony. I call it delight. Aesthetic appreciation, like fun, is about patterns. The difference is that aesthetics is about recognizing patterns, not learning new ones.

Delight strikes when we recognize patterns but are surprised by them. It’s the moment at the end of Planet of the Apes when we see the Statue of Liberty. It’s the thrill at the end of the mystery novel when everything falls into place. It’s looking at the Mona Lisa and seeing that smile hovering at the edge of known expressions and matching it to our hypothesis of what she’s thinking. It’s seeing a beautiful landscape and thinking all is right in the world.

Why does a beautiful landscape make us feel that way? Because it meets our expectations, and exceeds them. We find things beautiful when they are very close to our idealized image of what they should be but with an additional surprising wrinkle. A perfectly closed off plot, with just a couple of loose threads. A picture of a farmhouse, but the paint is peeling. Music that comes back to the tonic note and then drops a whole step further to end on an unresolved minor seventh. It sends us chasing off after new patterns.

Beauty is found in the tension between our expectation and the reality. It is only found in settings of extreme order. Nature is full of extremely ordered things. The flowerbed bursting its boundaries is expressing the order of growth, the order of how living things stretch beyond their boundaries, even as it is in tension with the order of the well-manicured walkway.

Delight, unfortunately, doesn’t last. It’s like the smile from a beautiful stranger in a stairwell - it’s fleeting. It cannot be otherwise - recognition is not an extended process.

You can regain delight by staying away from the object that caused it previously, then returning. You’ll get that recognition again. But it’s not quite what I would call fun. It’s something else - our brains rewarding us for having learned well. It is the epilogue to the story. The story itself is the fun of learning.

This is good to keep in mind the next time you read an article berating you for not continually taking pleasure in the “magic” of some device or another. Your brain simply isn’t equipped to be continually delighted by one thing over and over again.

A person may delight you, for example, all of your life, but they will delight you with new and interesting things, or by doing one thing rarely.


September 29th, 2009

Microsoft’s Courier Tablet | Blog | Nick Finck | UX/IA Pro, Speaker, and Community Cultivator.

If you haven’t watched this video yet, I definitely recommend it. I find it reassuring—it indicates that even if the technology isn’t currently available, we all apparently want the same kind of portable, book-like personal computer.

One thing that’s strikingly missing from this demo, though, is examples of sharing info. I rarely want to save an image just for my own personal reference; I’ll put it on delicious or Tumblr or ffffound or Twitter, tagged, with context, but available for anybody to see.

September 10th, 2009

Awesome feature, well designed.

@Facebook Launching Status Tagging for Friends, Pages, Events, and Groups Today brit

That is an AWESOME feature.

September 2nd, 2009
Designing for the social interactions of people using social and communication applications, however, is complicated by the fact that the interaction is mediated. Social interactions online are not the same as they are offline. There is less “there,” there online: people aren’t together, so it is impossible to describe “what’s happening.” Often times, people aren’t interacting at the same time, so it is difficult to observe a temporality or duration. And in the absence of a sense of shared space or location and shared period of time, we lose our ability to refer to a “situation.” It becomes difficult to observe, let alone describe, what’s going on.

We may then be tempted to describe interactions using what can be seen on the screen: posts, messages, ratings, votes, and so on. But that would be to miss out completely on the relationships, the intentions, motives, communication, symbolic interactions, and other aspects of social interaction which transcend empirical evidence. Not to mention time, which is such a critical dimension to social interactions. For all social interactions involve references to past activity and create opportunities for future activity. Relationships are nothing if not the orientation we take to others over time, moreso perhaps when we are absent from each other than when we are present.

August 18th, 2009

As a user experience designer, I thought my job was to make things not suck. Until recently. As technology has evolved, human behavior has evolved along with it. Since behavior is the basis of user experience design, my job has evolved as well. Now, my job is to make things people love. At the 2009 IA Summit, Karl Fast articulated the value proposition of user experience design with sparkling clarity. “Engineers make things,” he said, “we make people love them.” And then he held up an iPhone as an example.

This is a crucial change, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

The iPhone is Not Easy to Use: A New Direction for User Experience Design, from Johnny Holland - It’s all about interaction

This is directly related to something I’ve been pondering a lot lately: namely, how to easily differentiate—and explain the difference to uneducated aduiences—between unexpected delightful interactions and unexpected bad interactions.

Obviously the key difference is supporting what the user intends to do versus what you want the user to do. And even if you choose the former path, there’s a problem associated with assuming too much about what the user wants to do.

Example: having a car automatically unlock when the owner’s within a certain range is a nice anticipatory feature, but having the car start up as soon as the owner gets inside is assuming too much about what the user intends to do. Result: The owner is startled and confused. Eventually, the owner will be used to the car automatically starting, but will be continually irritated, not pleased, every time they go to the car just to get something out of the glove compartment.

July 14th, 2009
…Control interfaces must not be intelligent. Briefly, intelligent user interfaces should be limited to applications in which the user does not expect to control the behavior of the product. If the product is used as a tool, its interface should be as unintelligent as possible. Stupid is predictable; predictable is learnable; learnable is usable.
June 8th, 2009
May 26th, 2009