What is Interaction?

A (rant in) response to the readings: Chris Crawford, The Art of Interactive Design, chapters 1 and 2, and Bret Victor’s “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design.”

Chris Crawford defines interaction as “a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.” This definition doesn’t immediately fit my thoughts on interactivity because it centers on verbal and mental interactivity, and leaves physical interactivity as secondary.

He later gives a more “academic” definition of interactivity as “input, process, and output.” Although he doesn’t like it as much, I find it much more comprehensive, and fitting, because it welcomes interactivity outside of “listening and speaking.”

The refrigerator example that he gives, quoted below, again focuses strongly on the intellect:

[S]ome claim that when you open a refrigerator and the little light inside turns on, and then you close the door and the light turns off, you are interacting with the refrigerator because it responds to your actions…But this kind of interaction is silly and beneath the intellectual dignity of almost everybody. I’m concerned with interactivity that has some blood in its veins.

When I consider my daily interaction with my refrigerator next to my interaction with Siri, for example, I feel as though, despite it being much less “intellectual,” the fridge somehow feels more “interactive.” A large part of this, I believe, is because of the tactile experience I have with it. The fridge is a real physical object in my home. I touch it every day and it responds to my needs: it lights up the food when I want to see it; it works harder on hot days; it turns on automagically. It has a real physical and tactile role in my life.

Siri, on the other hand, despite her “intelligence,” is disembodied, impersonal, and—although rather entertaining—difficult to communicate with at times. Part of this of course is due to execution, but the point I’m trying to make is that Crawford is putting aside the importance of the tactile and physical in interactivity. People don’t just listen, think and speak on an intellectual level, we do so also—and possibly moreso—on the physical level.

Bret Victor’s rant helped to fill in the hole in Crawford’s definition. In the responses and follow up to the article, he says:

It won’t be long before almost every one of our daily activities is mediated by a “computer” of some sort. If these computers are not part of the physical environment, if they bypass the body, then we’ve just created a future where people can and will spend their lives completely immobile. Why do you want this future? Why would this be a good thing?

As someone who has always been antsy sitting in a chair all day, I share Victor’s fear of a culture that increasingly ignores the value of the body in our relationship with the world around us.

Thus, I agree with Crawford that interaction is a cyclic process in which two (or more!) actors alternately input, process and output. However, this definition should go a step further by taking into account physical input and output.

Crawford suggests that interaction operates on an intellectual scale from low (the refrigerator) to high (a complex software?). But complexity doesn’t always mean great execution and, in my experience, often seemingly simple interactions can be the most profound. I’d be more inclined to rate interaction on the quality of user-centered output. In other words, how well does an actor’s output take into account the input from its counterpart?

I’m also skeptical of Crawford’s disbelief in the one-to-many interaction. I understand his point that the quality of performance interaction can be blown out of proportion, but there’s a trend developing of subverting the stage and bringing the audience and performers closer together. In this new environment I would say there is real interaction happening as both the performers and the audience members are changing their behavior as a result of their counterparts. There’s also an emotional interaction between a performer and audience member that is intangible, yet very real and powerful.

Which brings me to my final thought: I’ve been thinking about the fridge example quite a bit and I realize that I have, unsurprisingly, an emotional connection with it because it houses my food. And maybe it’s this emotional connection that makes it feel more “interactive.” Over the past year I’ve become increasingly interested in mindfulness and the emotional significance we give to the objects around us. I’d say it’s impossible for a person to have an interaction without having an emotional response, so as I consider my definition of “interaction,” I would add “emotional” intelligence to the list of things that should be taken into account.

Product designers increasing employ user “stories” to develop their products, and I think there is something in this term “story.” It implies personal, human and emotional, and requires the designer to ask “what do I want the user to feel,” rather than “what do I want the user to think” or “touch.” And I think that’s the right starting place.

In sum, my definition is in line with Crawford’s basic definition of interaction as a conversation (or input, process, output) between two or more actors. Good interaction, in my view, doesn’t separate the body from the mind, but should take into account a user’s physical, mental and emotional intelligence.

Cover image by Paul Robinson.