My Favorite Design Articles 2013

Five Ways to Prevent Bad Microcopy, Bill Beard

“We can fix that with copy.” I’ve heard this too many times when the UX falls short, and I hate it. If there’s a problem with the design, then fix the design. The best experiences have minimal copy because they’re intuitive. When designing the UX and you find yourself writing a sentence or two to help the user take an action, step back.

The First 15 Seconds: How Great Products Thrive, Scott Belsky

It is fair to say that meaningful engagement—with other people and with products and services (especially the internet kind) that could potentially change our lives—occurs only when we’re pulled past the initial bout of laziness, vanity, and selfishness that accompanies any new experience.

What Data Can’t Do, David Brooks

Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.

Deep Inside Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco, Austin Carr

Like any serious renovation, Taco Bell’s started with a trip to Home Depot. It was April 2009. To show executives how the companies could fuse the flavor of Doritos with taco shells, the dev teams “basically went out to Home Depot to buy a paint-spray gun, and then sprayed [Doritos] flavoring onto our existing yellow corn tacos,” recalls Creed, with a chuckle. “It was pretty funny watching people from behind glass spraying our tacos with a paint gun. But it was enough for us to know conceptually that we had a big idea.”

You Lookin’ At Me? Reflections on Google Glass, Jan Chipchase

Glass is Google’s unintentional public service announcement on the future of privacy. Our traditional bogeyman for privacy was Big Brother and its physical manifestation — closed-circuit TV — but the reality today is closer to what I call Little Sister, and she is socially active, curious, sufficiently tech-savvy, growing up in the land of “free,” getting on with life and creating a digital exhaust that is there for the taking. The sustained conversation around Glass will be sufficient to lead to a societal shift in how we think about the ownership of data, and to extrapolate a bit, the kind of cities we want to live in. For me, the argument that Glass is somehow inherently nefarious misses a more interesting point: It is a physical and obvious manifestation of things that already exist and are widely deployed today, whose lack of physical, obvious presence has limited a mainstream critical discourse.

Three Ways to Make Wearable Tech Actually Wearable, Jennifer Darmour

Today’s wearable technology products are mainly in the fitness space, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Wearable tech will start permeating many other domains, including medical, entertainment, security, financial, and more. The more pervasive it becomes, the more important it is to advocate for products that are beautiful, peripheral, and meaningful. Only then will wearable technology achieve its full potential to enhance our lives, rather than disrupt, disconnect, and distract us.

The Future Mundane, Nick Foster

We often assume that the world of today would stun a visitor from fifty years ago. In truth, for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others. The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it.

Nearly a Decade Later, the Autocomplete Origin Story: Kevin Gibbs and Google Suggest, Liz Gannes

Since the feature would be actively showing results before someone had finished a query, there was a huge risk of Google putting forth something that offended people — even if it was the most likely result algorithmically. That meant many hard and strange decisions, Gibbs recalled, about terms like “hooters,” which could mean owls or the restaurant or boobs; and “lesbian sex,” which on its own is descriptive, but when followed by words like “video” is perhaps not appropriate for all eyes. (In the second case, he didn’t remove the root search, but blocked some derivations.) For many letters of the alphabet, the most commonly searched word was something related to porn.

All Technology is Assistive Technology, Sara Hendren

Instead of labeling some technologies and not others as assistive, let’s start like this: We’re all getting all kinds of help from the things we make. All kinds of help, all the time, for our many material and social and educational and political needs. Private needs and public ones. No one is exempt. Then the questions get really interesting: What can a body do? What needs are you interested in? Who might use which thing for what? Where might the surprises be? How might a familiar thing morph into something else altogether?

How Robots Can Trick You Into Loving Them, Maggie Koerth-Baker

We’re hard-wired, in other words, to attribute states of mind to fellow beings — even dumb robots, provided they at least appear autonomous. But little things — how fast an agent is moving, whether it changes its movements in response to our own — can alter how we interpret what it’s thinking.

Can Siri go deaf, mute, and blind?, Kontra

What happens to Apple’s design advantage in an age of objects performing simple discreet tasks or “intuiting” and brokering our next command among themselves without the need for our touch or gaze? Indeed, what happens to UI design, in general, in an ocean of “interface-less” objects inter-networked ubiquitously?

Why good storytelling helps you design great products, Braden Kowitz

I’ve observed that teams often like to walk through UI designs as they would a blueprint – showing where each element belongs on the plan. Each screen shows how the product might look in a different situation, but the screens are not connected in any way. The problem is that when designs are presented this way, you’re only building an understanding of how the product looks. You’re not focusing on how the product works, and you’re not simulating how customers interact with it. So when teams critique designs as blueprints, it severely limits their ability to reason through the interactivity of the product.

Algorithmic Rape Jokes in the Library of Babel, Tim Maly

Generative programs are force multipliers. Small initial decisions can have massive consequences. The greater your reach, the greater your responsibility to manage your output. When Facebook makes an error that affects 0.1% of users, it means 1 million people got fucked up.

User Expertise Stagnates at Low Levels, Jakob Nielsen

People don’t read manuals. People don’t go exploring all over the user interface in search of neat features. People don’t investigate whether there’s a better way of doing something once they’ve learned an approach that works…Learning is hard work, and users don’t want to do it. That’s why they learn as little as possible about your design and then stay at a low level of expertise for years. The learning curve flattens quickly and barely moves thereafter.

Great Design Always Means Great Style, Don Norman

There are many dimensions to great design, but great style is certainly among the most important. Style in appearance, style in behavior, style in the manner of interaction – style in every aspect of the product or service. Great style requires careful deliberate specification and then attention to all the details that result, for everything must be coherent, everything must be consistent with the chosen style. Call it personality, call it the voice of the product, call it the persona of the product, call it what you will: great design always means great style.

42 Rules to Lead by the Man who Defined Google’s Product Strategy, Jonathan Rosenberg

“Back up your position with data. You don’t win arguments by saying ‘I think.’ You win by saying ‘Let me show you.’”

The simple reason products fail: Consumers don’t understand what they do, Jasper Sørensen

Innovations that are totally new to the market are often extremely difficult to describe. Things that are difficult to describe are hard to understand. And things that are hard for consumers and investors to understand typically face two outcomes: They are either ignored or devalued.

We listened to the people, not the problem, Joelle Steiniger

We want so badly to nail it for everyone. But there are always edge cases, special considerations, etc. And you’ll hear about them a lot because they tend to be a very vocal minority. But we have to remember that it’s not our job to please everyone.

Product Strategy Means Saying No, Des Traynor

Making features optional hides the complexity from the default screens in the interface, but it still surfaces everywhere else. The visible cost of this is a messy interface with lots of conditional design and heaps of configuration. The hidden cost is that every optional feature weakens your product definition. You become “A Time Tracker that can also send invoices and, sorta, do payment reconciliation, but not reporting, yet, I think, I don’t know.”

Related: My Favorite Design Articles from 2012 and 2011.

Sensory Interfaces (SI)

I’ve always hated the term Natural User Interface (NUI) to describe the collection of touch, voice, and gestural interfaces. I think we need a new, better term for them. There are reasons for this.

As Don Norman rightly points out, there is nothing natural about “natural” interfaces , other than that we’re using our bodies. (We also use our bodies to move mice and tap on keyboards.) There is nothing “natural” about manipulating objects under glass; nowhere in the natural world can I pinch to shrink. Nor can I make a gesture in space that touches nothing and have it affect something else nearby (aside from a human). Or use my voice to command real world objects to perform actions (other than dogs, perhaps). So-called “natural” interfaces are, like all interfaces, learned interfaces.

My second objection to NUI is that it’s traditionally a Microsoft term. I have nothing against Microsoft per se, but the proponents of the term NUI have been traditionally people from Microsoft, many of whom worked on Surface (the coffee-table-sized touchscreen device, not the current tablet). I have nothing against those folks, but I don’t want to be identified as one of them either.

My third objection is that it sounds dated, old-fashioned, and HCI-wonky. NUI doesn’t replace Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), so why harken back to GUI at all? Granted, it builds on GUIs, but the current methods of interfacing are a different paradigm of interacting with a digital device.

And what makes them different, yet binds all three (touch, voice, gesture) together? Sensors. All of them rely on sensors to power them. Yes, physical buttons can use sensors as well, but they can also be purely mechanical; you can’t recreate a touchpad, Kinect, or Siri without making use of sensors. The new means of interaction all rely on sensors to make them possible.

This is why I’m proposing Sensory Interfaces (SI) as a way of labeling this new cluster of sensor-powered interactions. SI (“ess-eye” or even “Sí!”) makes sens(or). It doesn’t make any claims towards naturalness; it doesn’t come with any one company’s baggage; and it’s pleasing. Sensory is close to sensual, or pleasing to the senses. Although it’s not meant for consumers, it’s easy to say and remember. It also has some precedents: a brief Google search reveals a few thousand mentions in mostly academic papers, so there’s already some traction there.

Ever since I wrote Designing Gestural Interfaces (on touch and freeform gestures) in 2008, I’ve struggled to find a good term for the types of interfaces we’re designing now that use touch, gesture, and voice as input methods. And so too, I think, has the industry. I think this’ll work. Give it a try.

NUI, no. SI, sí!

My 2012 Bibliography


★ Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel
Imperium, Richard Harris
The Dog Stars, Peter Heller
Counting Heads, David Marusek
The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang
Bullfighting, Roddy Doyle
Dawn, Octavia Butler
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain


Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, Grant Morrison
Wild, Cheryl Strayed
★ Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed
Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing, Neal Stephenson
The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, Olivia Fox Cabane
Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, Tom Bissell
Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer [Pulled from Amazon]
★ What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, Daniel Chamovitz
Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Suppose to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman, Richard P. Feynman
★ Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon
The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, James W Pennebaker
The Power of Film, Howard Suber
You’re Not Doing It Right, Michael Ian Black
★ The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathan Haidt
Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain De Botton
Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zucker
My Seinfeld Year, Fred Stoller
Both Flesh and Not, David Foster Wallace
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max
★ Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World, Christopher Steiner


100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, Susan Weinschenk
The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams, Klaus Kemp and Keiko Ueki-Polet
Designing with the Mind in Mind, Jeff Johnson
★ The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell


Make It So, Chris Nossel and Nathan Shedroff
The Mobile Frontier, Rachel Hinman
Designing for Emotion, Trevor van Gorp
Dark Matter and Trojan Horses, Dan Hill
Adversarial Design, Carl DiSalvo
Alien Phenomonology, Ian Bogost
Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business, Thor Muller and Lane Becker
Design is a Job, Mike Montiero
Lean UX, Jeff Gothelf

My Top 10 Albums 2012

It’s been a great year for music. I had a hard time putting this list together because (unlike, say, last year) I had a lot of great music to choose from, thus the massive list of honorable mentions at the bottom. All links go to Spotify.

10. Earlimart, System Preferences
Subtle, folky, melodic.

9. Sleeping Bag, Women of Your Life
Slacker power pop.

8. Guided by Voices, Class Clown Spots A UFO
If you’d told me a few years ago I’d have a GBV album on a best-of list in 2012, I’d have been really puzzled. But this is a great GBV album, right up there with some of their best like Under The Bushes, Under The Stars. Filled with pop gems and weirdness.

7. The xx, Coexist
In September, I said I doubted I’d hear a better album than this one all year. But after repeated listens, turns out it I might have overstated the case. It’s still a good album—the sound of late-night longing for a relationship long gone—but not as good as their debut a few years ago.

6. The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth
When I first heard this album, I was sure The Weakerthans had put out another album, but no, it was The Mountain Goats.

5. Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil
The indie P!nk, this albums contains some of the best pop songs of the year. “Do It With a Rock Star” has the best sarcasm of the year (“Do you really want to go back home/check your messages and charge your phone?”).

4. David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant
David Byrne and horns. Pretty much says it all. Another experiment that works.

3. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits
Catchy, almost-danceable, slinky. Like the best of Spoon.

2. Regina Spektor, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
While everyone was talking about Fiona Apple (the other weird girl with a piano), whose album left me cold, I was enjoying this album’s tuneful songs.

1. Sharon Van Etten, Tramp
She had me at the lyric, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city…or why I’ll have to leave.” This was the album I kept putting on all year, and I assume many years to come. Personal, heartbreaking, tough.

Honorable Mentions: Princeton, “Remembrance of Things to Come;” Yukon Blonde, “Tiger Talk;” Beach House, “Bloom;” Japandroids, “Celebration Rock;” Yellow Ostrich, “Strange Land;” Andrew Bird, “Break It Yourself;” The Ting Tings, “Sounds From Nowheresville;” Jaill, “Traps;” Bob Mould, “Silver Age;” Tilly And The Wall, “Heavy Mood;” Little Comets, “Life is Elsewhere;” Firewater, “International Orange!” Lord Huron, “Lonesome Dreams;” The Shins, “Port of Morrow;” and The Crookes, “Hold Fast.”

Super-special honorable mention to Beck for Song Reader. I can’t really put it on the best albums list because it’s only sheet music, but I’m loving the interpretations I’m hearing from it. And it’s just such a brilliant idea. An album for the Age of YouTube. It’s definitely the most daring idea of the year, and I expect when the songs are all in, it’ll make an appearance on my best of the decade wrap-up in 2019, seven years hence.

See also my picks for:

My Favorite Design Articles 2012

The Accidental History of the @ Symbol, William F. Allman

Tomlinson’s challenge was how to address a message created by one person and sent through Arpanet to someone at a different computer. The address needed an individual’s name, he reasoned, as well as the name of the computer, which might service many users. And the symbol separating those two address elements could not already be widely used in programs and operating systems, lest computers be confused.

Convenience, Julian Bleecker

The Corner Convenience is a vault containing the treasures of great, world-changing innovations throughout all histories. Truly. We should see our Corner Convenience as a living Neighborhood Museum of Innovation. Someone should enshrine these and teach the lesson to every secondary school student.

Why Things Fail: From Tires to Helicopter Blades, Everything Breaks Eventually, Robert Capps

Product failure is deceptively difficult to understand. It depends not just on how customers use a product but on the intrinsic properties of each part—what it’s made of and how those materials respond to wildly varying conditions. Estimating a product’s lifespan is an art that even the most sophisticated manufacturers still struggle with. And it’s getting harder. In our Moore’s law-driven age, we expect devices to continuously be getting smaller, lighter, more powerful, and more efficient. This thinking has seeped into our expectations about lots of product categories: Cars must get better gas mileage. Bicycles must get lighter. Washing machines need to get clothes cleaner with less water. Almost every industry is expected to make major advances every year. To do this they are constantly reaching for new materials and design techniques. All this is great for innovation, but it’s terrible for reliability.

Mission Transition, Mark Cossey

Transitions take us from one state to another all the time, many times a day in fact. Most of the time, these transitions feel completely invisible (as they should), and until they are taken away we don’t really know they are there. This article discusses transitions and how well-designed transitions can enhance the user’s experience by imparting a sense of control and easy navigation.

How to See The Future, Warren Ellis

Understand that our present time is the furthest thing from banality. Reality as we know it is exploding with novelty every day. Not all of it’s good. It’s a strange and not entirely comfortable time to be alive. But I want you to feel the future as present in the room. I want you to understand, before you start the day here, that the invisible thing in the room is the felt presence of living in future time, not in the years behind us.

To be a futurist, in pursuit of improving reality, is not to have your face continually turned upstream, waiting for the future to come. To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better.

10 Timeframes, Paul Ford

We’re constantly switching accelerations; we’re jumping between time frames. That’s what we’re asking people to do every time we make something new, some new tool or product. We’re asking them to reset their understanding of time. To accept that the sequence we’re asking them to follow is the right way to do a thing.

Augmented Paper, Matt Gemmell

It’s so easy to saturate electronic representations of paper with what I call “digital artifice”; the gratuitous and ultimately heavy and objectionable skeuomorphisms and decorations that betray a simplistic thinking process: let’s just make this look the same. That’s a damaging frame of mind, because it enforces a false dichotomy between the real and the virtual. Software should be an enhancement, not a replication.

True Innovation, Jon Gertner

But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

Redefining Hick’s Law, Jason Gross

We can’t always eliminate all confusion for our busy, distracted users, but we can ease their pain by limiting the options that they have to mentally process. When we view chunks of content as decision-making points, it becomes clear just how much we ask of visitors. Each option is an opportunity to evaluate its importance in the design. Designers who force users to decide between only meaningful and clear options are the ones who deliver an effortless user experience. And when the experience is effortless, everyone wins.

In praise of lost time, Dan Hill

Facebook Timeline is not quite there. While Timeline really only remembers your activity in social media, and so just a tiny proportion of one’s existence, it is interesting for two reasons:

First, it is an exemplary bit of interaction design, balancing technical innovation and business strategy with a narrative sophistication appropriate to an attempt to trigger memory.

Second, Timeline hints at what it might mean to be immersed in systems that capture our every move, and which comprise an augmented memory that may significantly alter our sense of who we are and what we do.

21st Century Gestures Clip Art Collection, Dan Hill

For some years I’ve been collating a list in a text file, which has the banal filename “21st_century_gestures.txt”. These are a set of gestures, spatial patterns and physical, often bodily, interactions that seemed to me to be entirely novel. They all concern our interactions with The Network, and reflect how a particular Networked development, and its affordances, actually results in intriguing physical interactions. The intriguing aspect is that most of the gestures and movements here are undesigned, inadvertent, unintended, the accidental offcuts of design processes and technological development that are either forced upon the body, or adopted by bodies.

Gardens and Zoos, Matt Jones

This is near-future where the things around us start to display behaviour – acquiring motive and agency as they act and react to the context around them according to the software they have inside them, and increasingly the information they get from (and publish back to) the network.

In this near-future, it’s very hard to identify the ‘U’ in UI’ – that is, the User in User-Interface. It’s not so clear anymore what these things are. Tools… or something more.

Is Siri really Apple’s future?, Kontra

Our computing devices, however, are far more “self-aware” circa 2012. A mobile device, for instance, is considerably more capable of passive intelligence thanks to its GPS, cameras, microphone, radios, gyroscope, myriad other in-device sensors, and dozens of dedicated apps, from finance to games, that know about the user enough to dramatically reduce the number of unknowns…if only all these input and sensing data could somehow be integrated.

Siri’s opportunity here to win the hearts and minds of users is to change the rules of the game from relatively rigid, linear and largely decontextualized CLI search towards a much more humane approach where the user declares his intent but doesn’t have to tell Siri how do it every step of the way.

The best interface is no interface, Golden Krishna

It’s time for us to move beyond screen-based thinking. Because when we think in screens, we design based upon a model that is inherently unnatural, inhumane, and has diminishing returns. It requires a great deal of talent, money and time to make these systems somewhat usable, and after all that effort, the software can sadly, only truly improve with a major overhaul.

The Ups and Downs of Making Elevators Go, Kate Linebaugh

At their core, elevators are a mode of transportation. Serving passengers well is constrained by the number of elevators, their speed, how fast their doors open and close, and how many people can fit in a car. In the U.S., these factors come together 18 billion times a year, each time a passenger rides an elevator.

That experience is at the heart of what Ms. Christy does. From her sparse second-floor office in a leafy office park in Farmington, Conn., she writes strings of code that allow elevators to do essentially the greatest good for the most people—including the building’s owner, who has to allocate considerable space for the concrete shafts that house the cars. Her work often involves watching computer simulation programs that replay elevator decision-making.

The Digital-Physical: On building Flipboard for iPhone and Finding Edges for Our Digital Narratives, Craig Mod

Abstractly, you can think about going from digital to physical as going from boundless to bounded. A space without implicit edges to one composed entirely of edges.

Welcome to the Future Nauseous, Venkatesh Rao

We live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak. To really understand the world and how it is evolving, you need to break through this manufactured normalcy field. Unfortunately, that leads, as we will see, to a kind of existential nausea.

Creating the Windows 8 user experience, Steven Sinofsky

We created standardized ways of doing common tasks: with touch, you swipe in from the edges to reveal commands. With a mouse, you move to the corners. The lower-left corner of the screen takes you to Start, no matter where you are. Right-click always reveals off-screen commands for the app you’re using. Within apps, Settings and Search and Share are always in the same location (the charms), no matter what app you are using. There is real value to having the consistent aspects of apps always work the same way. Yes, you do have to learn a few simple things up front, but once you know them, you know how to use the entire system.

Atari Teenage Riot: The Inside Story Of Pong And The Video Game Industry’s Big Bang, Chris Stokel-Walker

“Anyone could play,” Alcorn says. “You didn’t have to know physics or space flight or anything. Pong was designed so you could participate in athletics while maintaining a firm grip on a can of beer. You could literally pick up a girl, drink a beer, and play a video game at the same time. It was wonderful.”

Are Design Patterns an Anti-Pattern?, Stephen Turbek

Patterns, once literally a design on paper that could be copied, in UX are an abstract idea that professionals can reference. You can not copy a UX pattern, like you can copy a sewing pattern. Having someone read a pattern library will not make them a competent user experience designer. It would be akin to teaching writing by reading the dictionary – the “why”s are not answered.

GE’s New Emphasis In Appliances: Sound Design, Kyle Vanhemert

The way a product looks and feels goes a long way to telling its story–conveying what it’s meant to do and who it’s meant to do it for. But sound, too, can play that role. So it’s hardly surprising that companies like GE are putting more thought into designing the acoustic identities of their products as much as the visual ones. “You can touch, taste, smell, hear, and feel things,” Bingham says. “Besides paying as much attention as we have to the visual portion of it, we’re looking to round that out with the auditory portion.”

See also my picks for 2011 and 2010.

What is a Microinteraction?

I’ve been asked What’s a Microinteraction? a few times lately, so here’s a brief excerpt from the draft of the first chapter of my new book, Microinteractions.

Microinteractions are contained product moments that revolve around a single use case. In other words, microinteractions have one main task. Every time you change a setting, sync your data or devices, set an alarm, pick a password, log in, set a status message, or favorite or “like” something, you are engaging with a microinteraction.

…Even though we’re surrounded by microinteractions every day, we don’t usually notice them until something goes horribly wrong…but microinteractions are, despite their small size and near-invisibility, incredibly important. The difference between a product you love and a product you tolerate is often the microinteractions you have with it.

Microinteractions are the details of a product, and details, as Charles Eames famously said, aren’t just the details; they are the design. Details can make make engaging with the product easier, more pleasurable—even if we don’t remember them. Some microinteractions are practically or literally invisible, and few are the feature that you buy a product for (although many apps and devices are created around a single microinteraction; see Chapter X); instead, they are usually pieces of features, or the supporting or so-called “hygiene” features. For example, no one buys a mobile phone for the mute feature, but as we’ve seen, mute can create all sorts of experiences—for good and bad.

Think about it: Almost all operating systems, be they mobile or desktop, do basically the same things: install and launch applications, manage files, connect software to hardware, manage open applications/windows, etc. But the difference between operating systems—at least from a user’s perspective—are the microinteractions you have with it on a daily, even hourly, basis.

New Book: Microinteractions

I’m very pleased to announce that I have a new O’Reilly book coming out in May 2013 called Microinteractions: Detail-driven Product Design. What’s it about and what are microinteractions? Well, I’ll tell you.

“The details are not the details. They make the design.” Charles Eames

The difference between a good product and a great one are its details: the microinteractions that make up the small moments inside and around features. How do you turn mute on? How do you know you have a new email message? How can you change a setting? All these little moments—which are typically not on any feature list and often ignored—can change a product from one that is tolerated to one that’s beloved. They are the feel part of “look and feel.”

The book provides a new way of thinking about designing digital products: as a series of microinteractions that are essential to bringing personality and delight to applications and devices.

Microinteractions are single- or few-use-case engagements that are either on the edge of a product or contained within a bigger feature. You engage with microinteractions every time you log in, pick a password, favorite or like an item, or set a status message.

Microinteractions are made up of five parts: triggers, controls and affordances, the interaction rules, feedback, and states/modes/loops. Each part gets its own chapter, as does the overall Microinteractions Model.

Now all that’s left to do is write it!

The website is going up soon, and it’ll eventually contain excerpts and book news. Stay tuned.

FOO Camp 2012 Report

After many years of enviously watching friends attend, I was thrilled to be invited to FOO Camp this year. In case you don’t know what that is: FOO stands for Friends Of O’Reilly, and it’s an annual, invite-only “unconference” of ~300 technologists, designers, scientists, journalists, writers, and others at the O’Reilly Media compound in Sebastopol, California. The list of attendees every year is impressive and intimidating, and as soon as I was invited I began stressing about what I would talk about and whether I’d be in completely over my head. (Talking to other first-time attendees, which make up about 50% of every FOO Camp, this is a very common experience.)

FOO Camp is also about camping: you bring a tent or a sleeping bag and camp on the lawn or inside the O’Reilly offices (!). I brought my gear and camped on the lawn. The camping also made it all have an air of informality, which helped lower the intimidation factor.

The “un-” part of the conference means that none of the content is programmed before people arrive. You show up and sign up for a slot to speak about something that interests you or to demo something you’re working on. I came with one idea, but abandoned it to do another (How To Get Your Project Mojo Back, which I’ll detail in another post). The unconference format also means Powerpoints are discouraged, so you are leading or participating in a conversation, often with very brilliant, opinionated people. Getting a point in can be a challenge, as can getting people who are used to being the Smartest Person in The Room to keep quiet and let others talk. The loose, unconference-style made for some failed sessions, but also some great ones. I’d love to see one of the big design conferences try it.

At any given point, twelve (maybe more?) sessions can be going on, so it can be hard to choose among them. (It’s pretty unlikely anyone’s schedule looked the same.) Here’s what I ended up going to, and this was I’m sure in no way typical, although it does hint at the breadth of sessions:

  • Medieval Manuscripts
  • The Future of Memory
  • Cloud Robotics
  • Toys as Tools for Empathy
  • Massive Sensor Data
  • Physical Artifacts in Digital Media
  • New UIs for Making Things
  • What Are You Reading?
  • Stop Drawing Dead Fish

A lot of the conference takes place outside the sessions, with discussions going on until late at night. (I got about 4 hours of sleep each night.) It’s not unusual to find yourself (as I did) at breakfast with a tech titan or to meet your childhood hero (in my case this was Steven Levy, author of Hackers, one of the books that got me interested in computers in 1984.)

There were a few major themes that kept emerging for me. The importance of thresholds was one, especially understanding when there are hidden thresholds that cause something (data, feedback, understanding, emotion, technology) to act unlike it did previously. A return to physicality was a third: how can we make objects reflect the content/data they contain? And objects helping other objects was another. What data can other objects via an Industrial Internet pass along to other objects to make them work better?

I returned with a head-full of ideas. I likened my brain to the Big Dog robot that had been kicked but was trying to right itself and keep moving. But it was an amazing experience, one I hope to have again another year. Thanks to O’Reilly for having me!

Designing Devices: The eBook

I’ve collected and revised the essays I wrote on the Designing Devices is available now from Amazon, for the low low price of $3.99 USD or €3.

Reviews from Twitter

“Designing Devices is great.” —Ben Bashford

“Dan Saffer’s short book on designing devices is very worth reading, even if you’re not actually designing devices.” —Basil Safwat

“Designing Devices is a great read. Highlights device design challenges and how to work through ’em.” —Karen Kaushansky

Buy Designing Devices on Amazon

My 2011 Bibliography

The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi
The Dervish House, Ian McDonald
A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin
A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin
Anathem, Neal Stephenson
★ Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Zone One, Colson Whitehead
The World at Night, Alan Furst
Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang
Blindsight, Peter Watts
★ His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik
Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik

Pragmatism, William James
★ Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson
How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Sarah Bakewell
The Enemy, Christopher Hitchens
★ Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles, Geoff Emerick
You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup, Peter Doggett
The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, Eric Siblin
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, William Deresiewicz

The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist, Frederick P. Brooks
★ Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps, Josh Clark
Designing Mobile Interfaces, Steven Hoober and Eric Berkman

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman
★ The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of The Self, Thomas Metzinger

Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens
★ Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, Matt Taibbi
Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, Peter Sims
Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation, Frans Johansson
The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do, Eduardo Porter
Spark: How Creativity Works, Julie Burstein
★ Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds, Scott Berkun
59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute, Richard Wiseman
Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, Michael Chabon
The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch
First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, Robert D. Richardson
Pulphead: Essays, John Jeremiah Sullivan
★ The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp

RELATED: My 2010 Bibliography