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Steve Baty
Jul 6, 2014
The physicality of form in interaction design

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

The 2014 Interaction Awards were handed out at the conclusion of the Interaction14 conference, held at the beginning of February in Amsterdam.

Looking over the winning entries I’m struck by the physicality of the form in which the interaction takes place for many of the entries.

In some quarters Interaction Design is defined quite explicitly as a practice rooted firmly in the digital domain. Interaction12 keynote and design Professor Jonas Lowgren sees interaction design in this way, defining it as:

“Interaction design is about shaping digital things for peoples’ use.”

And it would be fair to say that the large majority of interaction design takes place in a digital context, be that a smart TV, smart phone, an app, a desktop computer, or an online service.

However, I believe that to accept this relatively narrow definition of interaction design is to mistake its roots with its entirety. The potential of interaction design is much broader and, quite literally, more potent.

If I instead take interaction design to be, as encouraged by Robert Fabricant, to be a method of enabling and shaping behaviour, that potential becomes very quickly apparent. (And, in fairness to Jonas, much more difficult to define in academic circles.)

In response to Robert’s 2009 keynote at Interaction in Vancouver, Joshua Porter noted: “…the resulting behaviour is what I design for.”

Neither Robert nor Joshua felt the need to add the qualifying “in digital contexts” to the way they view interaction design. And this is certainly borne out in my own work as an interaction designer – very little of which takes place within the digital domain.

Rather, as Jon Kolko states at the beginning of Thoughts on Interaction Design, interaction design creates a dialogue between an individual and an object. And, more importantly, through that dialogue allows the individual to perform an activity that in all likelihood is an interaction with another person.

In the foreword to Jon’s book Don Norman writes:

“Kolko demonstrates that interaction design impacts all aspects of our lives. That the tools and methods can be used for the solution of social and political issues and not simply for the development of products.”

The winning entries of the 2014 Interaction Awards demonstrate this perspective very clearly. Take, for example, KonneKt, the interactive toy intended to allow cooperative play for children in hospital isolation wards.

The ‘problem’ is human – a desire for contact, connection and play in the face of an otherwise disruptive and disturbing experience. Likewise for the family and friends who, on their side of the glass, are left feeling impotent and unable to help.

KonneKt solves this problems not through online chats or video calls – poor substitutes at best – but rather turns the barrier into a shared playground through magnets and suction cups.

That this is an exercise in interaction design seems – to me at least – readily apparent; and one of high quality at that. That it does so without recourse to digital technology is entirely to its credit.

The same could be said for Pivot, winner of the Empowering category, for its design aimed at addressing the needs of victims of human trafficking at a critical juncture in their lives. The design highlights the very real danger in which these people find themselves: “Rescue information was printed on flushable, water-soluble paper for easy and safe disposal.”

The designers of Pivot have understood very well the context within which their users will interact with their design. They have created an opportunity for a discrete interaction to occur – via a pay-phone – through the medium of feminine hygiene products (which are unlikely to rouse the suspicion of captors).

The desired behaviour is that the victim of human trafficking reach out to authorities – safely; the product is designed to demonstrate empathy, understanding and engender trust in someone who cannot be expected to trust. And it does it in a way sensitive to the cultural and emotional obstacles that might otherwise stand in the way of that person reaching out.

All of which is not to say that interaction design does not continue to play a major role in the creation of digital products and services. Quite the contrary. Look at Adobe Kuler (Expressing) or Swegon IQ-Navigator (Optimizing) for two examples.

However, interaction designers have clearly, forcefully, and irreparably broken out of their digital birthplace, and we are only just beginning to see how far we might go.

6 July 2014
james trethowan

Great article. Great work Pivot amd Konnect. brilliant! Spoiled by the headline though. there is no such word in the english language as physicality is that Wspeak?

6 July 2014
Dan Saffer

There is certainly a school of thought (championed by Dick Buchanan among others) that interaction design is about mediating conversations between people, though objects or systems. Digital is not a consideration, only the interaction engendered.

However, others, including myself, would argue that a defining characteristic of interaction design is the definition of behavior and the accompanying feedback of products and systems. It’s this interactivity that distinguishes interaction design from industrial or communication design. For example, Pivot is a great piece of design, but is it interaction design? The object itself has no behavior and no feedback. We don’t know if anyone interacted with it. We don’t know if it worked. It can only influence behavior through static, visual presentation—communication design, in other words. Likewise, Konnect is also an amazing piece of design, and while it has some behavior (in how it can be manipulated), it has no feedback. It’s a great piece of industrial design.

All design is about influencing behavior. It is not the sole purview of interaction design. What should be celebrated by the Interaction Awards is the thoughtfulness and usefulness of the designed behavior and feedback of objects and systems, be they analog (mechanical or human) or digital (apps or objects with embedded tech). A simple test: could this entry be submitted unchanged to other design competitions for other disciplines? If the answer is yes, it might not be an exemplar of interaction design, the discipline we’re ostensibly rewarding.

7 July 2014
Jochen Denzinger

As far as I remember, Ideo’s Bill Moggridge coined the term “Interaction Design” back in the 80s to find a counterpart for Industrial Design/ Product Design in the digital realm.
This “outbreak” leads us to fairly well-known discipline… (and is recognized by the community, think e.g. of Jason Mesut’s talk in Amsterdam or Klaus Krippendorff’s keynote…)

(cf. Bill Moggridge, Designing Interactions, Cambridge MA and London, 2007, p. 14)

11 July 2014
Steve Baty


I agree, it’s not a word we see very often, but use of ‘physicality’ goes back over 350 years!! More importantly, it describes what I was hoping to focus on in this article, which is the degree of consideration for the physical seen in the work.


11 July 2014
Steve Baty


The notion of feedback and a sense of use is a really interesting one for me. The context in which you use it implies immediacy and synchronicity of both input and output. And perhaps, then, that’s one way to think of the shift I’m seeing: the shift towards asynchronous interactions and delays between input and output, request and response.

Taking a simple example of social interactions – interactions between people mediated by technology or otherwise – the reaction of the other participant is not always immediate or synchronous, but still falls within the designed interaction.

So let me ask you a question: is 21 balançoires (2013 Awards winner) a better example, due to the immediate feedback presented to the people interacting with the swings, and each other?


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