Actions for interaction design
Take a moment to imagine a world where everything you own, irrespective of size or significance, has the potential to interact with anything else connected to the same space. These interactions would not be exclusive to personal devices but could extend to take advantage of equipment and data of small businesses and large corporations. Well, companies like Nest are already leading the way in this area with solutions such as heating systems that use smartphones to track habits in order to save energy and cost for the user. But as more items are added to the Internet Of Things (IoT) space, the benefits could be endless. Whether it’s the watch on your wrist, the lawnmower in your shed or a rain sensor at a local weather station; data is being made available to anyone with the option of being acted upon at any time.
This vision is propagating thanks to a world born from apps and interaction design is essential to this process. However, solutions on this scale offer up many challenges, first of which is how to take an infinite amount of data and interpret it in a way that is easy for the general public to understand and interact with. From the outset connections seem like a simple idea to represent, just look in the real world and you’ll see physical connections everywhere; devices to plugs, keys to chains, dogs to their owners — all of these have a physical tether that can be easily translated to a graphic solution by means of a single line. But what if you want to know the power consumption of the device, the whereabouts of your keys, or the vitals of your dog? The potential function of that “line” starts to get more complicated as the need for interrogating information increases.
This will only get more complicated as time progresses, not only through the introduction of more and more connected items, but also the introduction of new ways to interact such as virtual and augmented reality. This may sound like an overwhelming future for interaction designers but it’s important to use consistant principles when attacking each of these challenges. After all, coherence is key. Here are some thoughts on how to approach any interaction design problem, no matter how big the brief or how complicated the system.
The Internet of Things is an exciting prospect and allows the opportunity for a wealth of information to be displayed, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. There is a common ideal in graphic design that less is more, but sometimes there’s a need for more complexed detail to be included. If this is the case then it’s important to cross examine the information to work out what is essential for the best and most coherent user experience.
When you have the information at your disposal, work out a hierarchy of importance. Put yourself in the shoes of an everyday user and work out which information is more relevant for quick glances, and highlight what is more appropriate for when the user has time to interrogate further. This is essential as it will help define and inform the design stage.
With your research in place it’s time to design the interface. Starting simply and defining principles early is important to gain structure. Use simple familiar geometric shapes, build from there and form a relationship between the complexity of the data and appearance of the UI elements. When you get to a draft of the principles take a step back and ask yourself, can this be made any simpler without losing clarity of message, and more importantly, should it?
Get your ideas down and then tweak them constantly. Now is the time to exhaust your opportunities and explore visual cues as much as you can. Iterating allows you to add services and ideas gradually and analyse them in granular detail. Don’t worry if an iteration removes something from the process as the priority should be moving forward by adding clarity, not adding clutter.
Working with a prototype helps you to visualise how your whole concept will work in a real use case, but it’s also important to have a few instances where the limit of the application is stretched to the extreme. Using a real-world example helps you to test your concepts to the limit and if your principles hold together in these situations, then the rest should look after itself.
For a real world example, imagine the following scenario. A home network contains a variety of appliances that talk to each other directly but also communicates to external manufacturers and suppliers. It would be short-sighted to consider only a simple interaction between two devices as the possibilities extend much further, beyond single instances. Your kettle could tell your phone that the water has boiled. Your fridge could mediate milk stock levels based on weekly usages trends and place orders with retailers to make sure you never run out. Your energy company could analyse data from milk consumption, water usage and kettle boiling duration and tweet you to say that you could save £X each year by reducing the amount of water you use for tea. So, using the previous design principles, what would these interactions look like? What’s the hierarchy of information and how do you keep the concept simple for the consumer to understand?
We are at an exceptional time in interaction design where nothing is off the table. User experiences ranging from controlling home thermostats to keeping track of livestock are being treated with the same design investment as mainstream music services and Triple-A photo editing software. In the near future these interactions will reach far beyond the 2D space. Trying to keep disciplined will be more challenging than ever, but I for one am looking forward to playing a part in a more coherently designed, frictionless and interactive future.