Interaction: What it Means

Without looking up the definition right away, the word Interaction conjures up images of people connecting and emotionally responding to each other through recognized vocal and colloquial body language and speech patterns. Through these body and facial cues, we interact not just on a vocal level but a physical one as well. Of course, the actual definition of Interaction, as defined by old white guys, is much more polished than that. Interaction, as defined in the Webster’s Dictionary, is:

Sure, the definition itself leaves for quite a bit of open interpretation but beyond the physical and emotional interactions we hold with people, and how those interactions define our character quirks, how are we defined by the interactions we have with everything else? Can we categorize the experiences we hold with items that we use every day as an interaction? If one were to substitute ‘particle’ for any other object, we certainly could. So what about the interactions we have with our dogs? Or the interactions we have commuting? Or to be topical, how are we defined by the interactions we have with technology?

Technology is what we make of it, as our society lends a helping hand in creating the very things that we plan to use everyday,  our role as designers is to create technology that serves it’s functionality. This technology is a constant work over time, as our prolonged interactions with the objects we use reveal more and more about what we look for in the things we use or how we create them in our own likeness. And to me, Interaction is not simply the concept and execution of someone or a being connecting with another organism or object, but a sort of trial and error that helps us determine or evaluate. Interaction gives us the means to develop critical reasoning to judge other interactions we have. We develop our own preferences and base our personalities on the things we use and how we use them. Because of this, our interactions are valuable to shaping our very being and determining how we will work tomorrow and in the future.

Interaction definition

World dictionary defines Interactivity as a “two-way transfer of information between a user and the central point of a communication system, such as a computer or television.”
In a nutshell, this “transfer of information” is perceived as a form of a dialogue between a human and a machine.
When I think of dialogue, i think of a scenario where the ideas are actively exchanged, discussed. There is a focal point to the dialogue and it resides in dialogue’s erratic nature.
After all, we can never guess what the person we are conversing with will say next, how they will respond to our words, touch, look, gesture. This is what true interactivity is to me. The moment of the uncertain, the moment following the generated information.
Now, when I think about human/machine relationship I do not, for most part, think of interactivity. We program machines to perform a specific function for us. We design objects to carry out that function in the quickest, most convenient way for us. Performing and carrying out a function to me is not dialogue. There’s no room for surprise, well, yes, there is a huge element of surprise when a machine breaks or malfunctions. Maybe, just maybe, that is the ONLY real moment of interaction between the human and the object. We pressed a button and the machine did not perform its function. This frustrates us, we throw the damn thing out or try to fix it.
As I mentioned in last class, I am interested in designing and programing objects and spaces in a way to engage, surprise, keep guessing, generating information that will then in turn evoke a response from us.

A Definition of Interaction

Around this time last year, I recall seeing a Burger King advert in which a chicken nugget was controlled by the distinct touch based gestures of an iPhone interface. The advert spoke, “Manage your social networks and connect with your kids on a delicious new kind of hot spot.” After a gentle click from a female hand, the nugget in the ad slided across a Google map while tweets and Facebook statuses erupted from its fried surface.

The problem with the advert wasn’t just that it was stupid. It was stupid but many of the greatest ads are. What made it utterly irredeemable was that it was unintentionally stupid– both ironic and completely literal, as if the creators initially intended to make a commentary on the Facebook-mania happening at the time, but then thought that an interactive chicken nugget could be a valid and stand alone concept. Perhaps they misunderstood the multifaceted levels of irony being raised, the chicken nugget is, after all, a puck of meat as engineered and artificial as any contemporary gadgetry. Were they by some means suggesting that the experience of socializing over a family meal at a Burger King was somehow more rewarding than communicating with family via a social network? And everything, all the graphics, the use of gesture based interaction was all some kind of parody? I don’t think there is any meaning to find in the advert. The commercial stands as a example of what happens when a powerful concept such as Interaction is utterly misunderstood to be a gimmick or fad. Interaction is anything but.

The word Interactive really doesn’t mean anything beyond responsive. Mostly everything is interactive, Newton’s Laws of Motion addressed this in the 17th century. By his definition, an object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an unbalanced force acts upon it. This fits the computational definition as well, an Interactive Program being one that is only active when being used or acted upon by a person– this is opposed to non-interactive programs, which can run at any time, with or without a user (i.e. maintenance scripts, etc).

When I think of Interaction I tend to focus on a difference between interactive experiences and what I would call “transferable experiences” for lack of a better phrase. Interaction can semantically be reduced to physics– a broken computer can be interactive if thrown. A transferable experience would semantically imply that something is being transmitted between parties. That one force isn’t the moved and the other the mover, but that both parties are enacting a force on one another, hopefully in an equilibrium that perpetuates the interaction.

For example, a ladybug lands on your hand and begins to crawl. You harmlessly poke it, directing it’s path around the outside of your hand. This is an interactive experience. Your poking is interacting with the ladybug. However, beyond the experience of having a ladybug land on you, as pleasant an experience as that is, you are not really gleaning much knowledge from the ladybug. You can discern that poking it adjusts its path, but you are ignorant as to why. There is an imbalance between you as a force and the ladybug as the force you are acting upon. You have no idea how terrified or awe-inspired the ladybug is having you innocently poke it. Likewise, the ladybug has no idea what your intentions are as it’s being helplessly poked.

In another example, a puppy trots over to you and begins rubbing itself against your ankle. You oblige the animal by petting it’s head. The puppy rolls over, tongue hanging out wanting you to pet its belly. This experience has gone beyond interactive. Not only is the puppy reacting to your petting– it’s in many ways transferring its emotional state to you. This is no longer simply testing the physics or instincts of something, it is creating a bond and creating a meaningful memory through interaction. Notice the puppy moves and if you hold your still petting hand stationary, it will position itself so that you are petting it in exactly the spot it likes. Likewise, the puppy is hearing you, “Good puppy,” you might say as you pet. It is gleaning by your tone, demeanor, and continued petting that you are enjoying the experience. You’re likely to remember how much and where puppies enjoy being petted. Compared to the ladybug, you left the second interaction with more knowledge because both parties involved participated to create a balanced interaction.

Interaction is really about a two way communication that is dictated by some form of designed intent. The intent brings context to the Interaction. How much the Interaction Designer wants the user to know at any given time is carefully designed to yield an effect.  As an Interaction Designer, one cannot be present as the puppy was in the second example, responding to being petted. An Interaction Designer however can set up, through a series of boolean questions,  how an interaction can progress as determined by the actions of user. This to me is the heart of Interaction and applies to even human to human conversations in which participation dictates the depth of the conversation.

Interaction Definition

In the most abstract sense, interaction can be defined as the process that enables the exchange of information between two or more systems. When this process occurs, each system necessarily has an effect on the other. The information exchanged could be as simple as a binary state in computers to any other number of complex variables such that occur when human beings interact with one another. The key is that the systems have an exchange of information.

If no information is exchanged, no interaction has occurred. For example; staring at rock is not interacting with it because the rock cannot feel your gaze nor respond to it. However a moment of interaction occurs if you decide to touch said rock. Both entities are effected and you are in fact exchanging information. The process of physically contacting the rock creates an exchange of information that is minuscule but does exist. There is something there, namely the tactile sensation of it being harder than your finger. The rock in turn receives little information about your finger, but given enough time and poking each would conceivably erode the other, storing a physical ‘history’ of the interactions that occurred. Interaction necessarily effects the state of the systems involved. Its specific behavior is an emergent process that occurs to allow the exchange of information between two systems.


Interaction is the relationship that exists between everything.  Every object, in some way, is interacting with every other object to some degree at every point in time.  In this way, interaction is not a switch that is either on or off.  Instead, when looking at how any one object interacts with any number of other objects, one should evaluate it as a degree of interactivity.  This understanding of interactivity is a derivative of the fundamental laws of physics.  This understanding of interaction applies to more than just objects; it applies to systems as well – physical, digital, and cerebral.  Of course systems are just complex relationships of multiple objects.  At the root of all three of these systems is a series of physical objects that are interacting to drive the system.  And at the root of all of these objects is a complex system that comprises the object.  In this way I think that objects and systems are interchangeable.

Every object or system has a unique way of interacting with every other object or system.  These interactions are commonly understood as physical phenomena, as some type of language, or a combination of the two.  Examples of these interactions include a ball bouncing off of the pavement; two people communicating with words, hand gestures, and facial expressions; and a person using a computer to do work.


interactivity is the way things communicate be it person to person, person to environment, or even person with technology.  It most simply put it is how things communicate with other things and the effect they have upon each other.  This is not a one way street however, because there must be two things for this to work.   I would say that talking is a form of this but there must be a listener as well otherwise this doesn’t occur.  This reminds me of a game I play when i spot someone on the street talking with what appears to be themselves.  The game is called blue tooth or crazy.   and it is played by seeing someone talking to themselves at a distance and trying to determine whether this person is talking on a bluetooth or simply just talking out loud to his or herself.  In terms of interaction within this programs contexts i would say that interaction has to do with programs taking to one another and how we as people use and communicate with and through these objects.  communication in this way could be done through text, images or even the steps we take to make these things happen.  I would try to break things down to their root words normally when thinking about these things but i was unable to find a suitable break down other than action between two things and this seems far too vague of a definition to actually gain any benefit from it.

Definition of Interaction

Interaction can be difficult to define in a broad context as its meaning has many varying interpretations that are all dependent on specific scenarios. In its most basic definition, I think interaction can be defined as simply an experience. Taken further, an interaction produces an experience creating feedback that in some way alters behavior, but in order for this to manifest, there must be a two-way communication. The communication channel used can vary to great degrees, but ultimately the end result of an interaction will always be an experience.

The meaning of interaction from a modern designers perspective is slightly more involved as the communication channels must be made with the user in mind so as to create a clear and meaningful experience. As many modern designers rely on technology and the web as a communication medium, designing engaging interaction is one of the primary goals for any project. Without interaction, there is no meaningful experience, which will very quickly discourage any potential users.

Good design interaction occurs when the designer utilizes interface, logic and visual illustrations so as to fully engage the perspective user resulting in a dynamic experience. Many people would argue design interaction that is highly intuitive results in a good user experience; the less you have to think about something, the better the experience of using it becomes.

Utilizing intuition in design allows the user to interact with something faster. Since such emphasis is placed on the rate at which a product or application operates, good design can make up for slower connections and processors. These examples are only a minuscule component in the big picture of interaction.

Regardless of the specific circumstances through which an interaction is taking place, it should always be designed with the user in mind and should always be engaging. I believe that with these basic concepts in tact, a designer can create an interaction that becomes a unique experience that will draw attention and retain interest.

Class starting soon!

Welcome to Major Studio Interaction 2012! Class starting in January!