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.