What is Interaction?

What are you going to school for?

I honestly had no idea how to answer that question. I didn’t really know the answer myself, so how could I describe ITP to someone who wasn’t familiar with it at all?

Oh, I’m going to study interaction design.

The program seemed close to human-computer interaction, and the answer sounded official enough to prevent any further questioning. The uber-curious would prod further though.

What does that mean? Is it like user interface stuff? 

Caught. From what I gathered, ITP was about creatively learning and experimenting with technology in order to improve the human experience. So not really, but yeah, sure. Because I sure didn’t know.

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For our first week assignment in Physical Computing, we read a couple excerpts on Interaction by Chris Crawford and Bret Victor. I enjoyed reading Chris Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design, even if he tries a little too hard to be engaging and fun sometimes. I get it though, since he’s trying to be as interactive as he can be in writing–a medium that can’t be interactive in and of itself.

Art of Interactive Design

In his book, he defines interactivity as a conversation: “a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.” I liked this metaphor, and it really helped clarify what interaction should be. I would add though that interactivity should feel natural and intuitive–much like conversation itself. The goal of interactivity is for the two actors to understand the wants, needs, and capabilities of the other. Even if two actors can’t converse in the same language, the instinct to converse comes naturally in order to try and understand one another.

When it comes to physical computing, how a piece of technology listens, thinks, and speaks becomes important. Any technology that doesn’t perform all three of these tasks can’t be truly interactive. A lot of devices achieve some sort of interaction, but they often don’t go far enough. Television can listen to remote inputs, but they are only just starting to achieve the capability (with streaming services like Netflix) to process what you like to watch to predict what you should watch next. Wearables like Fitbit can listen to your body and spit out basic information, but it cannot yet process your body statistics into a fitness plan. Our generation of technology is starting to master the listening and speaking part of interaction, but we have a ways to go to fill out the thinking requirement laid out by Chris Crawford.

Moreover, according to Victor, the lengths of which we have explored how technology can interact with us is vastly thin. Most of our digital technology resorts to finger pointing or button pushing, but our bodies are designed to do so much more. There’s all sorts of things we could grab, hook, pull, peel, cup, rub, etc. In our analog past, we used to turn dials for thermostats or grab levers and flip switches for automobile controls. Now every button is behind a glass screen, limiting the intuitive feel that we had once achieved.

Good physical interaction should take advantage of the myriad of actions that humans can take. They should leverage the interaction that makes the most intuitive sense for the expected output. An object with good physical interaction needs to listen to the input from humans, intelligently “think” about how to translate that input into a desired output, and let the user know what that output is. Although I do not have much experience in interaction with physical goods, I can foresee that good physical interaction will be much harder to achieve in practice, and I look forward to the challenge of mastering it.