How Designing for Micro Interactions Can Make or Break a Product

By Denny Royal

September 20, 2016

Subtle details are often the difference between customer frustration and customer adoption.

What’s the difference between a wildly successfully product and one that just can’t seem to catch on?

How can a product come along (like the iPod) with the same features as existing products and just crush the incumbents? Well, as renowned designer Charles Eames said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.”

In the design world, details can manifest themselves as micro interactions. These are the small things users don’t really think about, like adjusting volume, turning a feature on or off, interacting with a single piece of data, or even analog interactions like buckling a seatbelt.

These often overlooked design elements are the difference between a product that gets the job done and one you can’t live without.

What Are the Little Things that Count?

When we think about how people behave with a product, there are certain things a design team can and can’t affect.

We can’t affect a user’s motivation. Motivation comes in waves and is often based on context. They’re either motivated to interact, or they aren’t. But we can affect their ability to complete the desired interaction, and how that interaction is triggered.

So how do we design for these interactions? As with all design work, we start with empathy gathering—learning about the user’s behaviors and desires. The difference here is that we need to go even deeper into observing the circumstances of interaction. We need to make sure we fully understand the habits of the user and the context of use.

At the micro-interaction level, users are often unable to explicitly describe what is going on. So it’s up to the design team to observe and intuit any unmet needs the user may not be articulating.

People also often develop workarounds for failed micro interactions. So the design team really needs to tease these out through observations and interviews. Many of these workarounds, while frustrating, may feel normal to the user. So we have to look carefully for friction and probe deeper.

Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Well designed micro-interactions can help a user learn a new system, and then stay in tune with it. They also have the power to act as triggers, encouraging a user to perform an action when they are motivated to do it. Triggers may encourage browsing and sharing, or they may be the sound that reminds you to fasten your seatbelt.

But these types of interactions also have the potential to become instant friction points in a system. When designing a digital product or website, movement in the interface for the sake of movement is an example of poor micro-interactions that often show up.

Another example that comes to mind is on the Apple Watch. After going from “glances” into deeper app views, there’s no way to return to glance view without first going back to the watch screen. (It’s a frustrating loop for this user.)

The first step in preventing poor micro interactions is to make sure there’s a true need for the interaction. That goes back to user research. After designing an interaction, the design team should re-evaluate it and see what can be pulled away. Always simplify.

Testing, Testing, 123…

After simplifying the design, the key is to run tests with real users and iterate.

Again, deeper observation than normal is necessary, because users often can’t articulate the small things that frustrate or delight. Many times it comes down to feel for them.

Tests should be done with the interaction in context of the product or service whole. Testing out of context can generate misleading results, because interactions influence and affect each other. Strong product adoption is often a result of how well interactions perform together. So comprehensive testing is a must.

Did the interactions surprise, delight, and add to ease of use, or did they become friction points? How effective were the interactions for the user?

When we consider all the details singularly, and as a whole, we end up with a product that is much more successful, effective, and delightful to use. That’s the difference between breakthrough innovations and products that just plod along with marginal success.

To find out more about product design and micro interactions contact us.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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