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Physical Interaction: What’s wrong with it?

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Previously worked as a UX designer doesn’t guarantee me from mastering what does interactivity mean. Alright, it’s just a term. Who cares about a term as long as I know how to use it or how to make interactive stuffs. Yes, I was too stubborn to realize how a term would definitely change the way I see things. I realized it’s not just about a term, rather a concept of how we understand things. Further, understanding is the core to do an action. How can we do the right action if we don’t understand the concept behind it?

I always wanted to be an interaction designer and make cool interactive stuffs — tools slash gadgets slash robots that can interact with humans to create engaging experience yadda yadda yadda. Okay, I need to stop here, since I didn’t get a clear idea of what interaction means. Reading a book from Chris Crawford titled “The Art of Interactive Design” and a blog from Bret Victor: “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design” totally blow my mind. It was like I finally saw lights in a closed tunnel. I got a brighter idea of what I’m going to do to make interactive stuffs.

It’s all started with interactivity term, which means there are interactions between blank (input anything here) and blank (input anything here). I would define interactivity as a spectrum, as we can input anything in the blanks.

Interactivity Spectrum
Interactivity Spectrum

"Dead" Interactivity

As it gets closer to 0 or dead zone, it means that there’s no interaction between those blanks. For example, I’d like to play tennis, but it turns out I don’t have any tennis ball. How hard I swing the racket, I wouldn’t experience playing tennis. Because how much effort I make, I won’t get any feedback.

Dead Interactivity
Dead Interactivity

"Half-Dead-Half-Alive" Interactivity

When it’s around the middle, it could be in between no interaction and interaction. What does that exactly mean? I’ll give an example (still about playing tennis): I ask my friends to join me for tennis, but everyone is busy. Since I need to do some exercise, I decided to play by myself. Me vs the wall. I hit the ball on the wall, and it bounces back. Yes, there’s interaction between us, but I could predict what I’d get. The wall always does the same thing: it reflects what I give over and over again. It’s boring. Some time sooner, I’d give up playing with it. In this perspective, I won’t call it fully interactivity since the wall only reacts to what I do. I’d call it reactivity.

"Alive" Interactivity

When you’re in the opposite site of the spectrum, it means that both things interact with each other. Take a look at the tennis example (now I finally found someone to join me!). It’s interesting playing tennis with a friend. There’s uncertainty what I’ll do, where I’ll hit the ball. I need to have some tactics to beat my friend. And so does he. So the process is this: I receive a ball, I determine where should I hit, then I hit it. There’s always thinking process in between. This way, I won’t get boring. Academically saying, “alive” interactivity is about input, process, and output and it loops all over again.

Alive Interactivity
Alive Interactivity

This “alive” interactivity then what I’d call physical interaction, when something fully interact with other thing. Both sides can process what’s the output from its input. The term physical means there’s a medium in between, to trigger the actions. In the tennis example, the medium is the ball. A medium can be anything: tools, body parts, sound, etc. I know it doesn’t literally mean physical, but something human can sense.

So, I was wrong aforetime. I thought physical interaction was about interaction between two things. Not false though. But it’s beyond that. The interaction has to be “alive” and there’s a medium in between.

Then, what makes good physical interaction?

As I mentioned before, interactivity is like a spectrum. The good physical interaction happens as it gets closer to the “alive” point. Then what we need to think about is: how to maintain it close to the “alive” section?

Not boring!

Who wants to do the same thing over and over again? I won’t stop playing tennis with my friend unless I’m exhausted. We need to keep people interact as much as possible, because interaction needs to be from both side. But if we’re interacting the same thing all over again, soon enough we’ll be done with it. We need to think so that it won’t keep repeating all over.

There’s a goal to be reached

I’ll keep playing until I win the game. People have their own purpose to do actions. Good physical interaction makes people keep going until they reach the goal. The goal can be anything: having fun, feeling relieved, satisfaction, getting some information, etc. So when we’re creating interactive product, we need to think what’s the purpose, what people use it for.

Surprise me with uncertainty

People love to be surprised. We would like to expect something different. I’m not hitting the ball to the same spots so that my friend cannot predict it. The more uncertain things are, the more surprised people will be. There’s a tendency that people will keep going until they get what they want. They will keep interacting since it’s unknown ahead them, but they’re expecting something cool to be received.


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