Scripted interaction

Authors: Mikael Wiberg
Posted: Mon, October 05, 2015 - 10:51:06

"Interaction design" is a label for a field of research and for a practice. When we design interactive tools and gadgets we do interaction design. But what is it that we´re designing? And is this practice changing? Let me reflect on this a little bit.

Inter-action design

If we take this notion of interaction and we split it up into two words we get inter and action. From this viewpoint, inter-action design is about designing for the inter-actions to be supported by a computer system and between a computational device and a person. This leads to a design paradigm focused on which actions a particular design should support, and on how to trigger these supported actions via an interface. In short, interaction design becomes an issue of mapping supported actions to an understandable user interface. Of course, we can add to this design paradigm that menus, buttons, etc. designed to trigger these actions should be logically placed, easy to understand and use, etc. Clearly, very much of tradional HCI/interaction design relies on this interaction design paradigm, ranging in focus from interface design to issues of usability. From this viewpoint, interaction design is about arranging computational devices to support actions between users and their computers. Clearly human-computer interaction (HCI) was a perfect label for describing the main entities in focus for this design paradigm—in particular, a focus on how to design interfaces for efficient interactive turn-takings between humans and machines.

Interaction design

But interaction design might not only be about designing the interfaces for triggering certain supported actions. As we can notice from the HCI and interaction design research community, interaction design is also very much about experiences and experience design. Given one such perspective on interaction, we can think about interaction design not only in terms of designing the interfaces to trigger actions between entities, but also in terms of designing the form of the interaction per se, i.e., should the interaction be a rapid or slow? Frequent (in terms of user involvement)? Or should it be about massive amounts of information? When we start to think about interaction design from the viewpoint of designing not only the interfaces for interaction but interaction per se we shift focus from interface design to issues of experiences, perception, emotions, bodily engagement, etc. With a focus on designing the interaction, we then need to add a focus on how we experience this interaction we are designing. Again, and in relation to this design paradigm, we should acknowledge how our community has a stable ground for doing interaction design from this perspective, including for instance a focus on experience design, embodied interaction design, etc.

Less and less interaction?

However, we are now facing a new trend and a new challenge for interaction design. With the advent of ubiquitous computing, robotics, the Internet of Things, and new digital services like IFTTT (If This Then That), it is likely we will interact less and less with digital products (at least in terms of frequent and direct turn-takings between users and computers in typical interactive sessions as we have though about interaction design for more than a couple of decades now). In fact, we do not want to frequently interact with our robotic lawn mower, much less experience any interaction with this computational device. We just want it to work. On the other hand, if we are forced to interact with it then it is probably due to a breakdown. In relation to this scenario, does interaction design then become a practice of designing for less (direct) interaction or ultimately almost no interaction at all? (For a longer and more in-depth discussion on ”less and less interaction” see the paper ”Faceless Interaction” [1].) However, this does not mean than we are moving into an era where interaction design is not needed. On the contrary(!), if we are going in the direction of having less and less direct contact with the computational stuff surrounding us in our everyday lives, then we need an interaction design paradigm that can guide us toward the design of well-functioning tools, objects, and devices that can live side-by-side with us in our everyday lives. So, how can we go about doing such interaction design?

A proposal: A focus on scripted interaction

In HCI and interaction design research we have a long practice of studying practices and then designing interactive systems as supportive tools for these practices. Typically this has lead us in the direction of a ”tool perspective” on computers and we have looked for ways of supporting human activities with the computer as a tool. As we switch paradigms from the user as the active agent doing things supported by computational tools toward a paradigm that foregrounds the computer and how it is doing lots of things on behalf of its user/owner, we can no longer continue to focus on designing the turn-taking with the machine (in terms of interface design, etc.), nor can we focus on designing how we should experience this turn-taking, these interfaces, or the device. Instead, and here is my proposal, we need to develop ways for doing good scripted interaction design in terms of how the computational device can carry out certain scripted tasks. Of course, it should not be ”dump scripts,” but rather scripts that can take into account external input, sensor data, context-aware data, etc). As a community, we already have techniques for developing good scripts from thinking about linked actions. For instance, we are used to thinking about user scenarios, and have even developed techniques for doing story boards, etc. However, we also need techniques for thinking about chains of actions done by our computational devices; we need tools for simulating how various interactive tools, systems, and gadgets can work in concert; we need tools and methods for designing interaction design across services; and we need interactive tools for and ways of examining and imagining how these interactive systems will work and when breakdowns can ocur. However, as we´re standing in front of this development and the design challenges ahead, we can also move forward in informed ways. For instance, the development of scripted interaction design methods, techniques, and approaches can probably find a good point of departure in the book Plans and Situated Actions by Lucy Suchman [2]. While our community always seems to look for the next big thing in terms of tech development, we can simultanously feel secure in the fact that our theoretical grounding will somehow show us the way forward! 


1. Janlert, L-E., & Stolterman, E. (2015). Faceless Interaction - a conceptual examination of the notion of interface: past, present and future. In Human–Computer Interaction, Vol. 30, Iss. 6, 2015.

2. Suchman, L. (1987 ) Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication, Cambridge University Press.

Posted in: on Mon, October 05, 2015 - 10:51:06

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]
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