book review: Microinteractions

Microinteractions from O'Reilly Media

When I started reading this book (quite a few weeks back), I was immediately drawn in. I started learning the meaning behind some of the smallest interactions I experience every day: the pulsing light on my MacBook Pro, the “sound off” switch on my iPhone; I suddenly had a new understanding of the world around me. Though I was fascinated by this new insight, I was uncertain the rest of the book would hold up to this level of wonderment.

I was not disappointed.

At 150 pages, this is a fairly quick read, but the true importance of the work lives in the details, much as the title indicates. Microinteractions is about the “the single use-case features that do one thing only” and how we encounter them in our lives. From unlocking a smartphone, to turning on our computers, to building software apps and web interfaces, microinteractions are the things we don’t think about that create the totality of our user experience. Paying close attention to these seemingly miniscule details can mean the difference between a good user experience and a GREAT user experience. Not only this, but creating a great user interface can mean repeat customers, a greater brand following, and increased business.

The details are not the details. They make the design.
~Charles Eames

One of the early examples of microinteractions that Dan Saffer shares is that of a signup box. I particularly relate to this interaction as being significant because of a personal pet peeve around signups, which is when there is not a “smart keyboard” matching the text field in the form. I’m not certain the technical term of this, but here’s what I mean:

You’re using a smart phone, and come to a website that gives you a signup box for a newsletter. The site is (hopefully) mobile-optimized or at least designed responsively, so you are at least seeing a reasonably-sized signup box. The first box requests a name, which is easy enough to complete with a standard keyboard. Then you hit next, and find a box asking for your email address. But there is no “@” symbol on the virtual keyboard.

I’ve encountered this many, many times, and each time I remark to my front-end developer partner that “smart keyboards” should just be a thing. Always. He agrees, and I proceed to enter my email, switching between keyboards as needed to complete is successfully, and we move on.

From here, Saffer goes on to discuss a variety of microinteractions and their impact on the ways we encounter technology, and by extension, life. The core of the book is the microinteraction module, a series of actions involved in creating, designing, and understanding the importance of microinteractions. He finishes the book by showing us how to put all the components of the module together and testing the microinteractions. Like I said, it’s a pretty quick read.

Microinteraction Example - iPhone mute switch

But being a quick read does not detract from the value and importance of the work. I’ve read through this book three times now, each time learning new things and ideas to implement in my user experience design. I find myself paying better attention to the moments that seem insignificant and how I feel after using a microinteraction. Does it work for me? Could I improve on it? How does my work relate to this interaction, and how can I aim for the best user experience?

I feel lucky that I read this book so early in my UX design learning, because it has given a great appreciation for the work that UX designers do to create a human-computer interaction that is meaningful and adds value to my life. I can understand more clearly why designers and engineers make the choices they do, and make my own choices with more information and value to them. I can’t wait to learn more about microinteractions and to have conversations about their meaning and how to design them as I continue learning user experience design and interaction.

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