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Deeper than Design: Are microinteractions really improving your site?

Sam Burke's Layout avatar

Convenience is king. How many times have you heard that phrase in business? It’s a mantra I used to swear by at work. The more convenient we can make X, the better. In a culture and economy of abundance, it makes total sense. When we have everything we need, we begin to want more quicker and easier. If we don’t even have to touch it or ask for it, even better. And the web is probably one of the biggest victims of this mentality (yes, I said victim). It’s forever changed the way we make decisions, buy stuff, date…the list goes on.

Since the inception of innovations like autocomplete and “swipe right,” fortunate web users around the globe have come to love – and sometimes hate – the eroticism of microinteractions. What are these little events, you may ask?

“Microinteractions are contained product moments that revolve around a single use case – they have one main task. Every time you change a setting, sync your data or devices, set an alarm, pick a password, log in, set a status message, or favorite or ‘like’ something, you are engaging with a microinteraction. They are everywhere: in the devices we carry, in the appliances in our house, the apps on our phones and desktops, even embedded in the environments we live and work in. Most appliances and some apps are built entirely around one microinteraction.” – microinteractions.com

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It’s inarguable that these little wonders have done amazing things for humankind. Take autocorrect, for example. I mean, who could live without that? This post certainly couldn’t. Or cut and paste? I’m sure that’s assisted in some pretty important things. And Facebook without “likes” is like…I don’t know. Is there even a metaphor appropriate enough?

The deeper you dive, the more convenience does really seem like the king. But there’s a dark side to the coin of convenience. It’s done some funny (and not-so-funny) things to us. It’s helped us forget how to cook, many of us how to spell (myself included, though that was always a hopeless endeavor), how to remember a person’s phone number (I still can’t remember my boyfriend’s), and even how to learn (not a joke). We may think “Pull to Refresh” and “Autocorrect” don’t play a role in all this, but we are wrong. They’re in the majors. “The more these online conveniences permeate our lives, the more we seem to “forget.” ”

Now, there’s no way we’re going to change or eliminate (nor should we) the existence of microinteractions. Too many of them are critical to the beneficial advancement of our progressive societies, and they are now too deeply embedded in our culture of behavior. There is something we can do differently, however. And we must start thinking about and doing things differently. If we don’t, well…just picture what a society of people who can’t even think critically would look like.

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So, how do we avoid this?

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know this: when we’re designing anything – websites, apps, software, the list goes on – we’ve become incredibly good at asking ourselves “what can we accomplish?” and “how do we get it done?” But there’s another question we often forget:

Why should I even design this?

The question, “Why?” is a critical checkpoint in better understanding and ensuring that the future we design is the future of a better humanity, not just a better shopping experience. Shopping won’t solve world problems, unfortunately. And neither will “Pull to Refresh.” Asking why doesn’t just provide the reason you’re creating something. It also provokes a process of considering the net effects of our design and development decisions. Think about it like this:

Autocorrect is one of my favorite microinteractions, if not my favorite. Since childhood, I’ve been a terrible speller. You might as well fail me on day one to save everyone the trouble. When we got a family computer at home and I started processing more documents in Microsoft Word, a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I no longer needed to know how to spell! For years, I utilized autocorrect unabashedly. It helped me write papers quicker than ever, use words I never knew before, and look like an intellectual badass without really actually being one. I was living on cloud nine! My ability to communicate more eloquently was no longer dependent on my spelling skills or ability to recall information. It was now only dependent on my (often weird) thoughts and a well-programmed computer.

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Until just over a year ago. Then something changed.

I started to recognize that my vocabulary wasn’t actually expanding. Sure…I could write words I didn’t know and spell them correctly because of the wonderful suggestions my iPad made. But my ability to communicate wasn’t really improving. I wasn’t remembering any of these words. I didn’t even really know how to use them properly. But I could use them because the microinteraction gave me the opportunity to. If it’s there, why not use it…right?

When it registered that not giving words the proper time and proper understanding – including spelling – meant  I wasn’t learning anything, I freaked out a little bit. Not only was I not gaining knowledge, I was probably communicating poorly. (In fact, I know this to be true.) So, I set out to actually start learning again instead of relying on autocorrect, and my friends and colleagues even noticed my recent ability to communicate concisely and effectively. Without reverting back to a life of linguistic inconvenience, I probably wouldn’t have the incredible job of helping companies transition through major changes. Let me (auto)correct myself: I wouldn’t have this job.

To me, this is where the real danger begins.

It’s not to say I no longer use autocorrect (I can’t really live without it, sadly). But when a word comes up that I obviously don’t know how to spell, I now look it up. I don’t just let the computer do it for me. And suddenly, because of the “inconvenience,” I know a word’s true definition, how to spell it, and the 100 different ways I can use it in both vernacular and proper speech. I don’t know about you, but that’s quite a lot of gain from forgoing convenience.

Now, what does this lengthy anecdote about autocorrect have to do with you and design?

The next time you design something, ask yourself: is the gain convenience worth the potential costs? Is easier really better than forgotten? Should I really have my app auto-fill out my address so frequently that there’s a chance I will eventually forget it? It may sound funny, but what about your phone’s contact book? I certainly remember ZERO numbers in there except for my own (on a good day). How about you?

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And what happens when we forget some of the most basic pieces of information? We have yet to fully discover this answer, but I can’t help but look at honey bees as an example. One of the potential reasons for their increasing death rates, year-on-year, is because of the growing occurrence of hive abandonment and inability to navigate home (also known as CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder). Their issue? Pesticides and parasites. Ours? Perhaps phone apps. In this case, how different are preventers-of-bugs from preventers-of-inconveniences? I hope I never see the day where copious amounts of people are roaming the streets unable to find their homes or use the maps app on their phone because…oh wait, what’s a phone again?

Jokes and honey bees aside, if there’s one thing I hope you walk away from after reading, it’s this:

Just because we can doesn’t always mean we should. It’s cliche and old, I know. But the more time passes, the more it seems to hold true. As we design to encourage the use and adoption of conveniences like many microinteractions, we tip the balance towards “forgetting.” I know we are advancing. I know we are making progress. But ask yourself…how much of this “progress” really is for the better? I don’t know the answer, but I think we need to start exploring the question better. How? By starting with conversation, and starting with a simple question many of us loved way too much as a kid:

But…why?

If we did this a little more (and asked some other important questions when we create), maybe the future will look a little different. And maybe we’ll be lucky enough to still remember each other’s names.

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Key takeaways

  • “What?” and “How?” are great questions. They help us determine the path of action. But don’t forget to ask “Why?” as it determines the path of effect.
  • All conveniences aren’t good conveniences. Ask yourself what you lose every time you use a microinteraction. What happens when I copy and paste versus re-write? What happens when autocomplete remembers all my information and I no longer have to? I’m not saying these are all bad, but they’re worth considering.
  • We are still human, based in biology. Nature is one of the most efficient systems out there. We can design to improve it all we want, but this does not come without consequences. Most importantly, we can no longer ignore the effects of what we create on ourselves and others.
  • Change is inevitable, but how we change is up to us. Don’t forget our agency in this. Accepting the “inevitable course of technological advancement” is not the only option. We pick the course with our actions, with what we create. It’s up to us to determine the course of change.
  • As designers, we can contribute to the problem or the solution. “You have a choice in what you design and why. Never forget, as it’s where your true power lies. ”
  • I still love autocorrect, and it’s okay if you do too!

What are your thoughts on (user) design staples like microinteractions? Do you feel like they are for the better, or maybe for the worse? Or in between? We’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comments!

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