Multiple scales interaction design

Authors: Mikael Wiberg
Posted: Mon, November 02, 2015 - 11:54:10

”Attention to details” has always been a key concern for interaction design. With our attention to details we ensure that we as interaction designers think carefully about every little detail of how the user might interact with and through the digital technologies we design. As interaction designers, we share this belief that every tiny detail matters for the overall experience.

Although our field has evolved over several different “waves” of interaction design paradigms, this concern for interaction design at the scale of the details has remained. For instance, when we developed command-based interaction back in the 70s and 80s our focus was on dialogue-based system design. When we went for GUI design in the late 80s and onwards we again went straight for the details and developed a whole vocabulary to enable detailed conversations about the details of the GUI (including notions such as WYSIWYG, balance, symmetry, etc.). 

Today when we talk about interaction design it seems like attention to details might be  the concern for interaction design—at least if we look at the development in industry. Whether we look at interaction design in smartphones, smart watches, smart TVs, or just about any new interactive gadget, this concern for the details—in interface design, in icon design, in menu design, in hardware design, and so on—is always present. 

In relation to this contemporary concern for “the details,” some voices have been raised for the re-introduction of an industrial design approach to interaction design. While this approach for sure can help us to advance our close-up focus on the details, due to its long history of craftsmanship and associated focus on details, I suggest there are additional demands on interaction design competence emerging at the current moment. 

“Attention to details” helps the interaction designer to stay focused—on the details. This is a core competence for any designer, this ability to stay focused on the small details that also determine the overall impression of a product. However, it might be the case that there is a need at the current moment to think about attention to details not just as a single-threaded focus, but as something that works across multiple different scales. Traditionally, “attention to details” has meant “close-up attention to the visual details” (of the user interface). However, today our digital products are also parts of greater designed wholes in many different ways. Apps, for instance, are of course designed to run on smartphones and tablets, but they are also supposed to be designed in relation to other apps (to work and look like other apps), to be designed in a way that works in the context of an app store, and maybe also work on several different devices and at different screen sizes. Further on, many apps are also very much integrated with social media and as such these apps need to incorporate typical ways of interacting and communicating via such platforms (e.g., by sharing, liking, or re-tweeting others online). For the interaction designer, this means that nowadays he or she cannot only pay attention to the nitty-gritty details in the user interface. Beyond this, the designer needs to think about the interplay between the app and the device/hardware running the app, how modes of interacting with the app correspond to ways of interacting with social media, how interaction with the app might even be part of interacting via social media, etc., etc.

While one could say that the contemporary interaction designer might need to have “split-vision,” I would instead say that interaction design is beginning to work more and more like the profession of architecture. The well-experienced architect pays attention to details on very many different things at once. Typically this is referred to as working with architecture at multiple scales. The overall scale might be a concern for the visual appearance of the building; at another scale it might be about how the building might work as a social intervention in the context where it will be built; at yet another scale attention to details concern the program of the building or the placement of windows, doors, and hallways. Here it is impossible to say that one thing is more important than another to focus on. On the contrary, it is the ability to focus on all of these different scales that leads to great architecture.

In a similar way of seeing things I would say that at the current moment great interaction design demands a similar sensitivity, an ability to pay close attention to a multitude of scales operating simultaneously in any interaction design project. If only paying attention to user needs, then something else is left aside. Likewise, if only staying focused on some details in the user interface, then something else is probably overlooked.

So, what are the implications from this for the profession of interaction design? Well, we already know how to go for the “attention to details.” Let´s never forget about this core competence! But beyond this, I would say that there is a need for any interaction designer to develop skills and a sensitivity for which scales are at play in any particular design project and then learn not just how to pay attention to the details at each scale of the project, but also how to merge these details into functional wholes, that is, into great interactive products and services. From my perspective, this is about compositional interaction design and, accordingly, the interaction designer moves from his/her single-threaded attention to some details to also think about how to arrange these details into well-working compositions across these multiple different scales—thus this proposed notion of “multiple scales interaction design.” 

So, stay focused! On all the different scales of your design project!

Posted in: on Mon, November 02, 2015 - 11:54:10

Mikael Wiberg

Mikael Wiberg is a full professor in informatics at Umeå University, Sweden. Wiberg's main work is within the areas of interactivity, mobility, materiality, and architecture. He is a co-editor in chief of ACM Interactions, and his most recently published book is The Materiality of Interaction: Notes on the Materials of Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018). [email protected]
View All Mikael Wiberg's Posts

Post Comment

@Mattias Arvola (2015 11 02)

Sounds like what Schön and Wiggins (Kinds of Seeing and their Functions in Design, Design Studies 13(2), 135-156) talked about as shifts between domains in architecture. The shifts are driven by a propagation of consequences of a design move from one doman to other domains. I have previously conceptualized it as zooming in and out beteween detal and abstraction levels, but perhaps it is more like transpositions between domains equally detailed. I think I need to think some more on this…

@Monica (2015 11 04)

UX and architecture have always comparable in many ways. I very much agree with this observation. I don’t think it’s a new phase, but one that is getting more recognition. The devil is in the details, but a designer much look at the solution in a holistic manner, as well.  The flow throughout the ecosystem, much as in architecture, along with the structural and technical requirements, very much map to UX. I like the comparison of the levels of attention. I would place the visual UX more along side the Interior Decorating phase of a house. The last phase, but one that very much integrates with the overall intention of the structure. Great piece, thank you.