Experience Design

Designing the small details – “Microinteractions”

Dan Saffer's text

Dan Saffer’s text


Part 1 of 2
As a usability researcher it’s important for me to stay aware and informed of guidelines for designing user interactions. Also, I want to be literate about topics within user experience design. So Dan Saffer’s book Microinteractions – Designing with Details caught my attention. His text is interesting; it focuses on the importance of the small details, the small pieces of functionality within a digital design. Saffer thinks these small details are really important because they can be “signature moments” that impact the entire experience of a product. Now that I’ve read his book, I would agree. To illustrate his perspective Saffer has included numerous examples of when a microinteraction created an enduring signature moment, for example Larry Tesla’s creation of Copy/Paste in 1973, and a lackluster one, “the initial intrigue with Google + Circles fell flat against Facebook when sorting users into circles became tiresome and gimmicky.”
What are Microinteractions?
I have to agree with Saffer on the importance of the details in designing, but it’s difficult to always know which design elements are microinteractions. As Saffer would say they “are all around us, from the turning on of an appliance to logging into an online service.” And, these “small pieces of functionality,” as simple and brief as they are, can delight or frustrate us over and over with every interaction. I can think of a situation in which I experienced the feeling of frustration when I had to log into a retail site to access tracking details on my purchase. This merchant’s microinteraction “rule” wasn’t a wise choice because it sacrificed my user experience by adding unnecessary complicatedness. It could have been much easier with an email that contained the shipper’s tracking number linked to the carrier’s site.
Paradoxically, a microinteraction can be “big” such as sending a <140-character Twitter message – a single microinteraction and a profoundly important one. To help understand the distinction Saffer says, “Microinteractions are the functional, interactive details of a product…they are usually pieces of a feature, or the supporting or so-called hygiene functionality.” Microinteractions are not to be confused with features. Features are large in scope and contain complex, multiple, user stories whereas microinteractions are “simple, brief and should be nearly effortless,” according to Saffer.
The Goals of Microinteractions 
Satisfying microinteractions happen when smart rules are made; I will talk about rules in a later post. Smart rules must be founded on solid goals. As Saffer mentions in the first chapter, the goals for making better products, particularly digital ones, are to make them more discoverable and learnable. Hmm, how so? Even as I write this piece, Word not only keeps tabs on my word count at the bottom of the screen, it flags me when I have a grammar problem (the green check mark becomes a red x). The first time I encountered it I didn’t have to learn how it worked; it was self-explanatory, easy to discover and learnable.
Discovery and Learning
I think it is important to underscore the importance of designing for discovery and ease of learning. Saffer’s not the only designer and author who believes that supporting learning and discovery are critical goals for defining satisfying microinteractions and good design. Dr. Donald Norman has focused some of his research on helping designers understand how to make design choices that improve discoverability and learning. In the summer of 2010 I heard Norman speak at the Wharton Web Conference about Living With Complexity, his new book at the time. He believes a key goal of good design is to design for exploration, which in turn supports learning that design. He used an interesting example of a Dos Prompt Command screen to illustrate how difficult it is to know how to start using its ‘design’ and functionality. The screen is simple although its simplicity is a barrier to users’ exploration. A Dos screen has nothing to explore. Also, learning a new design goes hand-in-hand with exploration which is why “easy to learn” is a standard dimension of usable design (see Quesenbery 5Es).
In the follow-on post I’ll talk about the framework of a microinteraction and how to work with it as a designer. Until then, be mindful of the small details and design for ease of learning.

About the Author

I'm a Senior Manager User Insights & Research out of the Atlanta office.

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