Dan Saffer, like many designers, likes to quote Charles Eames. But unlike many designers, Saffer–Director of Interaction Design at Smart Design–wrote a whole book inspired by one of his favorite Eames quotes: “The details are not the details. They make the design.” Saffer’s book, titled Microinteractions, takes Eames’s maxim to heart and then some. “For the last decade or so, designers have been encouraged to tackle ‘wicked problems’ and to address systems,” he tells Co.Design. “But when you’re working on such a macro scale, the details sometimes get lost, and it’s the details that make systems feel more human, and more humane. So I wanted to write a book that took a look, almost at the atomic level of design, of what makes details work.”
So what is a “microinteraction,” anyway? According to Saffer, it’s a product use case boiled down to a single moment, focused on a single task. Unlocking your smartphone is a microinteraction; so is the chiming sound that plays when you boot up Windows or OS X. But microinteractions aren’t restricted to computers. “They are everywhere: in the devices we carry, the appliances in our house, even embedded in the environments we live and work in,” Saffer writes. “Most appliances and some apps are built entirely around one microinteraction.”
These atomic design moments, Saffer argues, are what whole products, and even whole systems and “wicked problems,” ultimately boil down to. If microinteractions are delightful, humane, and effective, then their success accretes and trickles up into the broader user experience in general. “Most good designers have been doing this for decades, especially some of the great industrial designers like the Eameses and Dieter Rams,” Saffer says. “The on/off switch is often the first microinteraction people encounter with a product.”
When microinteractions succeed–even invisibly, which is how most of them do–they make an emotional difference that’s greater than the sum of their tiny parts. Saffer’s current favorite microinteraction is in the Waze navigation app: “When I leave work, get into my car, and launch Waze, it asks me, ‘Are you going home?’ I never had to tell it that at a certain time, in a certain place, that’s where I usually go, but it observed my routine and makes a smart suggestion.” His least favorite is the smiley face that Gmail displays when you have no new mail in your inbox. “It’s a weird tone for an event that’s not necessarily positive. ‘No one likes you, you’ve got no mail…but have a great day!'”
And that’s what’s tough about designing these micro-moments: They can be so subtle and fleeting that ultimately their success or failure may come down to personal taste. (I personally find Gmail’s inbox-zero smiley face kind of cute.) Luckily, Saffer’s book provides a well-defined framework for analyzing and developing successful microinteractions, so you don’t just have to go by gut feeling. There’s even a handy cheat sheet, created by Saffer’s colleagues at Smart Design.
In the end, Saffer’s mission is less about defining what kinds of microinteractions are “good” or “bad” than about providing a useful way to pay attention to them and iterate on the process of creating them. Microinteractions are a lens for design–one of many–but this one is becoming ever more relevant as we expect our products to become “smarter.” “We’ve had microinteractions going back to the 1800s and electric “push-button” technology,” Saffer says. “In the last decade alone, think of all the microinteractions around touch screens, gestural UIs, setting up wi-fi, syncing to the Cloud, and probably dozens of others. Microinteractions are here to stay.”