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Steve Baty
Jul 16, 2014
Connecting through interaction

This is the second post in a series of articles that will form an integral part of the Interaction Design Yearbook.

In Interaction Design, one school of thought focuses on the design of interactions between human and device with the primary purpose being the control of that device. Another looks at the surface interactions – those request-response interactions of the interface – as a means to an end, and the design activity as one focused on the end, as much as the means. That end goal is the behaviour of the people interacting with, and through, the design.

I’d like to focus on that second school of thought in this post as it’s one that represents, for me at least, a new and powerful area of exploration for interaction design, and some fertile ground for experimentation.

The Interaction Awards have a Connecting category to look at excellence in interaction designs that “facilitate communication between people and communities”. For me, the strongest entries here are ones that facilitate the strongest connections in the most interesting ways, rather than simply interesting interactions that connect people.

As a judge of the Interaction Awards in 2013 I was struck by two entries in particular that, in different ways, created a strong connection (in the context). In one, the eventual overall winner, 21 Balançoires, the connections were playful, whimsical, and immediate. In the other, JK5, the connections were multi-layered, lasting, and asynchronous.

JK5 is a project from a student housing establishment in Helsinki. The objective was to improve the care residents take with their environment by first creating a connection between them and their fellows, embodied within the building itself.

The solution is an interesting attempt to facilitate interactions between residents who, generally, won’t interact with one another face-to-face or who are simply faces in the corridors.

Of most interest to me is the asynchronous nature of the interaction. That is, the delay built into the design such that the actions of one participant – completing a maze or a leaving a note – and those of the next, which occur in response. So, whilst the design incorporates feedback in the way messages and actions build up over time, that feedback is on a delay of hours if not days.

This adds an element of system design to the object that is typically not present in more traditional interactions. That brings about with it some very different challenges – connecting an action to a delayed reaction so that it makes sense to the participants; persistence and a sense of ‘state’; as well as change over time. Understanding these feedback loops and the delays inherent to them is not a skill typically taught to designers.

21 Balançoires is different in this regard. The feedback – the musical tones; the harmonies – change in real time in response to the actions of the participants.

Participants swing on one of 21 linked swings creating individual tones or, as participants engage with one another and connect, harmonies and melodies. There is a sense of play to the design and, through that play, the connection becomes more complex (if still fun).

There is a wealth of potential to this style of interaction design, aimed at forging connections between people; creating communities – of interest, geography, shared endeavour – ephemerally or more lasting. It can help draw us out of isolation, and reconnect us with the world around us. This can help with depression; help with collective endeavour; harness the power of crowds; or simply connect two people who would otherwise never have met.

There is real power in this style of interaction design, and one which I’m happy to see being explored in such interesting ways.

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