4 Elements That Make A Good User Experience Into Something Great

Helen Walters reports from the inaugural Interaction Awards, and finds that the best interfaces leave tech behind and address larger systems of interaction.

In the main, entries to this year’s Interaction Awards were good. The apps, the websites, the interfaces, and the games were slick and sleek. For the most part, they checked the design boxes we have all come to expect. Sure, some seemed to have beamed in from the early days of Netscape, but overall, buttons, pushed, sent you somewhere you thought you might go. Screens, swiped, loaded the information you expected to see.

So far so good, right? After all, isn’t that what we want from our interaction design? That it does what we expect it to do (and then, ideally, that it gets the hell out of our way until we need it again?). Yet, somehow, the main achievement of all of this resolute competence was to confirm the long-held idea: that the very best design—the design that transcends the merely "good"—is way more than skin or screen-deep. As juror Jonas Löwgren, a professor at Malmö University in Sweden, commented, "It feels like interaction design has solidified to become a reliable profession that is to be trusted and relied upon to deliver." So now what?

As it happens, some clues about the future of the discipline lay among the category winners in the awards program (of which I was a juror). Many of these winners were clearly an integral part of a deeper product strategy. Many also reflected the wider shift away from command-and-control, marketing-driven design projects toward a more symbiotic relationship between design and outcome that’s becoming more common in the world at large. That’s a good thing, though it does make the job of teasing apart and assessing design’s role and impact infinitely tricky. And while "gamification" is such a horrid word that anyone saying it out loud should immediately subtract five points from their personal life score, it’s clear that fun and play are now serious business. Here, a few of the themes we’re likely to see more of in the next few years:

Building Platforms

Best in Show went to "Loop Loop," a musical application for Sifteo, which neatly turns the 1.5" blocks into a tiny interactive music sequencer. It was, commented Jury Chair Robert Fabricant, vice president of creative at Frog, "the only choice for the top award." What’s most interesting is the layering that becomes possible with these types of products: The hardware developers create a platform that appeals to software designers, who create appealing programs that encourage others to get on and tinker, which influence the later versions of the physical product, and so on. We’ve already seen the success of this approach with platforms such as Apple’s iOS or the relationship between Facebook and its legions of developers (notably Zynga), and others are clearly keen to provide the ecosystem on which others can experiment. As Stimulant’s own team commented in their entry, "We’re anxious to see how the platform evolves." This combination of a solid foundation built with inherent flexibility that allows users to seize something and make it their own is a key characteristic of many of the digital platforms that will flourish in the years to come.

Moving Beyond the Screen

The People’s Choice award went to "Interaction Cubes" by Fundação Oswaldo Cruz/Museu da Vida, from Rio de Janeiro. Installed as part of a traveling educational exhibition, the modular aluminum structure contains blocks that represent the various chemical elements. Visitors can remove said blocks and use them to activate cues and codes to learn more about each individual element. The exhibit was part of the still-somewhat-nascent move of interaction design away from the pixel and into the physical realm. For many of the judges, this provided the most exciting frontier of all. "Whether you’re using a television set, a coffee machine, a car, an elevator … all that stuff is designed," commented Jennifer Bove of Kicker Studio, who served as the founding chair of the awards, along with Raphael Grignani. "The opportunities are vast and as our objects and environments become smarter, the more opportunities there are for this to be done badly. After all, behavior isn’t explicit in computer chips; interaction designers are the people who understand how to make things work."

Seamlessly Integrating Data

Making things work might be one responsibility of the interaction designer; making sense of things is another. We’ve all been swimming in oceans of data for some time now, and the increased access to vast troves of information has led to the growing recognition that someone, somewhere has to provide the means to understand it all. And, as we’ve seen, it’s easier said than done. The word "infauxgraphic" has even been coined for pieces that turn out to be less than insightful or useful. The real challenge for interaction designers is to figure out seamless ways to use data in ways that are genuinely meaningful. "Appie" was a good case in point: The app, designed for a Dutch supermarket chain, accesses the reams of information in the store’s databases to provide real-time information on what products are actually available. It’ll even map the fastest route through a store for a shopper-in-a-hurry. Expect to see more of this type of synchronicity, which provides real utility in an understated yet powerful way.

Empowering the User

"People are more exposed than ever to the numerous choices of what to do to fill their time, to feel important, to feel loved and creative," commented juror Younghee Jung, designer at Nokia Research in Bangalore, India. For her, this means that designers have a responsibility to use their work to afford users with the feeling that they retain the sense that they are in control, not at the mercy of a design or a format. "ReadyForZero" was a good example of a product that balances deep, built-in complexity with a simple user interface. The online financial program is designed to help people manage and escape debt. Recognizing that every woeful tale of the descent into debt is different and hugely personal, the designers had to ensure a personalized but reliable experience every time. One of the most impressive things about this entry was the attention it paid to its own data: The company claims that those "who regularly use ReadyForZero pay off their debt twice as fast as those who don’t."

If mastering and maintaining the balance of content and delivery is the hallmark of good interaction design, then meshing the two together seamlessly is surely the mark of something great.

[Videos directed by Christian Svanes Kolding; Top image: traffico/Shutterstock]

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