5 Lessons From The Best Interaction Designs Of 2011

Frog's Robert Fabricant breaks down the themes from the 2011 Interaction Design Awards.

Like many of you, I was delighted to find an Amazon Kindle Fire sitting on my desk a few weeks ago, when it was first released. My delight was heightened by the fact that I hadn’t actually bought it. The Fire belonged to another Robert in frog’s New York studio, Robert Curtis, who was more than happy to unbox the product with me so that we could both get a sense of the quality of that crucial "first" user experience with the product. Lest there be any doubt as to whose Fire it was, the screen immediately displayed a personal message: "Hello Robert Curtis. Welcome to Kindle Fire" (even though it was not yet connected to our Wi-Fi network).

Now, I realize that the Fire has been taking a lot of heat since its launch for some major gaffes in the design, with usability guru Jakob Nielsen condemning it as a "disappointingly poor user experience." This may not be an Apple-quality product yet. But that initial setup experience set a new bar for me. A mere five years ago, critics were falling all over themselves to praise Apple for the revolutionary way that you activated the iPhone—never mind that it took almost a dozen screens, a computer, and a cable. It seemed very smart at the time. But now it seems downright clunky. With the Fire, Amazon has done something few can claim: It has moved past Apple in the consumer market. This is no small feat. It takes a huge amount of work behind the scenes, more than you can imagine, to deliver your device to you, straight off of the shop floor, one to one. The Fire’s "out of box experience" is both magical and incredibly mundane—very easy to take for granted, as I am sure we all will in the coming years.

[Behind the scenes at the judging. Standing by the whiteboard is Matt Jones, of BERG. Also standing is the author, Robert Fabricant.]

Technologies like cheap sensors and cloud computing are increasingly being used to augment our daily lives in both magical and mundane ways. Everything we do is an app in the making (a million and counting). But in this environment we are also developing a new sensitivity to the thin line between enrichment and annoyance. Which is why interaction design continues to gain prominence as the discipline with the greatest potential to maintain our sanity in this brave new world of distraction. So it was with high hopes that I joined a gathering of some of the best minds in interaction design today, including Massimo Banzi, Janna DeVylder, Matt Jones, Younghee Jung, Jonas Löwgren, and Helen Walters, to judge the first annual Interaction Design Awards sponsored by the IxDA. Our job was to recognize the best examples from 2011 as well as communicate the critical role of good interaction design in our lives. While I cannot share the winners—yet— this experience was a great moment to reflect on the state of interaction design and what it might hold in the next few years.

[The Nike Film Room, a project which allows basketball players to compare their basketball moves to those of NBA pros.]

1. Don’t look for breakthroughs.

The overall work was pretty stunning. We have reached an amazing moment in which interaction paradigms that seemed like sci-fi a few years ago are now being broadly applied in commercial markets. This includes everything from gestural interactions to location-based systems and smart spaces. Interaction paradigms that were the sole province of the MIT Media Lab 10 years ago are now in wide use at companies like Nike and Pepsi. For many of us this is like watching our children grow up. There is something both exhilarating and deeply disappointing about seeing this future arrive in the form of grocery shopping applications. And it creates an interesting challenge for the Interaction Design Awards to recognize ideas after they have already gone mainstream.

[Top and above: Artefact’s SWYP concept, a printer whose WYSIWYG touchscreen applies interaction ideas you find on cameras and table computers.]

2. Embrace the mundane.

The next breakthroughs will be when these rich paradigms are applied to increasingly quotidian and pervasive areas of our daily experience and extended into the physical infrastructure around us. At this point, it is much more interesting to see mobile feedback and data visualization applied to mass transit than to sharing playlists. It is in areas like energy and health care where these interaction models will have the most pull, exposing at the surface level much more fundamental transformations in our basic, physical infrastructure that are sorely needed.

3. Don’t buy into the hype.

Don’t get distracted by the hype surrounding Google and Apple, Facebook and Twitter, or Android and iPhone. It is time to get out of that game, with technologies like HTML 5 pointing the way. Getting your data onto a single platform is not going to win you any awards. Smart companies are turning their products into services that are broadly distributed, where the value is in the relationship, not a single device. As that continues, we will see the balance of power in innovation shift back to corporations and startups that own these services and away from design agencies that merely extend their reach to the next novel device or platform.

4. Look past the screen.

As we switch to a more service-oriented ecosystem, interaction design must extend its reach beyond the screen, beyond interactive media and digital information. One of the most interesting submissions was a set of printed instructions for a personal medical device that was beautifully designed and thoroughly tested with end users. A number of the judges questioned the relevance of this work to interaction design. But in an environment as heavily regulated as glucose meters, the most powerful and meaningful opportunities to improve interaction might not involve any pixels. Instead these opportunities reside in call centers, bank statements, or explanations of benefits.

[Interaction Cubes, a dead-simple installation on the cheap which nonetheless makes huge amounts of information fun to access.]

5. Video is the only shortcut.

How do you communicate the impact of interaction design across a distributed set of touch points, some online and some off? I came away from this experience convinced that the most important skill that young interaction designers can develop is in video "sketching." Video plays a critical role in communicating new service and product concepts across time and place. There is no substitute. And the best interaction designers working today, like Matt Jones at Berg, use video to ask new questions about the role of interaction design in our lives. Video is the only shortcut that we have as designers. So use it!

[Berg’s own video for its Little Printer, a new product which creates a receipt-sized personal newspaper.]

I hope that you will reflect on these themes—and experiment with them as well—as you review the finalists for the 2011 Interaction Design Awards. The winners will be announced at the IxDA conference Dublin in early February. So please stay tuned and join the discussion on what makes great interaction design.

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  • Jim Haughwout

    Great stuff! I'd love to see those glucose meter instructions (I am trying to make easy-to-use apps for medicine).

  • Erik

    good stuff, sounds so second nature but I understand the difficulty in simplification. 

    My question is how does video help in testing a chosen direction/application when it is not interactive. Are you suggesting it be used solely as a sketching tool to work out more complex ideas or is there something more specific I may not be understanding. 

    We use video quite often to illustrate interactions and narratives for specific way finding systems but I am interested in knowing how I might be able to push these tool sets to allow for a more creative feedback processes.  


  • Rolando Peralta

    Fantastic. I love the idea of the periodic table of elements. Simple, low budget but with huge impact and attention generator.

  • Rudy C

    Great references and ideas you have shared Robert. 

    Sometimes, I think its the initial experience of owning something that is the most glamorous and memorable. Design the experience, not just design and cram as much features as possible.

    Apple changed the retail experience is the most valuable company today. 



    "As we switch to a more service-oriented ecosystem, interaction design must extend its reach beyond the screen, beyond interactive media and digital information."
    This was one of the most insightful and important things I learned while at IDEO: interaction design extends beyond an interface, and occurs across the entire encounter. If firms and their clients limit interaction design to an end-user on a touch-screen, they're missing important opportunities to connect with a person.

  • Haig Armen

    Great principles to consider as we move into 2012. Looking forward to seeing the winners in Dublin in Feb. Thanks

  • Fn350

    Great article & interesting examples! I was disappointed I wasnt able to play the videos on my ipad.

  • Howard Stein

    Wonderful stuff! A beautifully rotating compass to the future of design. Thank you.

  • Nimble Partners

    These are refreshingly down to earth recommendations, and reinforce what I am seeing and experiencing in my interaction design practice. 

  • beephd

    Thanks, Robert.  Great post!  I'll be using this in my Interactive Media courses, and posting a link on my teaching tumblr.