On physical interaction…

According to The Art of Interactive Design physical interaction is communication. It’s not just a switch turning something on and off. Nor is it fancy user interface design. It’s a dynamic process that can be broken down into three basic divisions: listening, thinking, and speaking. In the scope of physical computing this can be thought of as input, processing, and output. In terms of our class discussion last week this would seem to place implicit interaction over explicit, gestural over tangible, since explicit/tangible interaction was defined as deliberately turning a switch on or off. This line is not always so clear though. Each situation requires it’s own solution, as the author of A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design alludes to.

He posits that tools are designed to meet a human need. The tool should fit both the problem and the capabilities of the user. In this light implicit/gestural interaction is not necessarily better than explicit/tangible. For example, let’s say I’m an OK piano player, I can play some chords, but playing a melody in one hand while playing chords in the other hand is beyond me. I want to be able to play a melody and have a computer analyze what i’m playing and then provide the backing chords while I play. Playing the melody is explicit, i’m choosing which notes to play, what rhythm, etc., but there is also the aforementioned communication going on too. The computer listens to what I play, thinks about it, and responds appropriately. The tool fits my capabilities, and meets my needs.

The same author also urges us to consider the entire range of human expression when designing interactivity. Computers usually observe such a small fraction of what humans are capable of. We can move and sense and feel and act in nearly countless subtle variations. A really excellent interactive device will be designed with this in mind.

So, taking all of the above into consideration, “good” interactive design could be defined as having the following characteristics:

  • it enables communication, specifically through listening (input), thinking (processing the input), and speaking (output)
  • it considers the user’s capabilities & needs; including making the result of their actions clearly recognizable
  • it address a specific situation, problem, or goal
  • it takes into account the whole range of human expression, i.e. listening more subtly and thus responding more naturally


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