Microinteractions: A Conversation with Dan Saffer of Smart Design

By Steve Kroeter April 30, 2014
Dan Saffer, Creative Director: Smart Design (San Francisco)
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Designers & Books talks with Dan Saffer, a Creative Director at Smart Design. Saffer is the author of four books on design, including, most recently, Microinteractions: Designing with Details (2013, O’Reilly Media), which looks at the importance of designing the “small stuff” from phone settings to smoke detector alarms.

Designers & Books: When and how did you get the idea that it was important to write this book?
Dan Saffer: The value of details was pounded into me when I went to design school. But in professional practice, particularly in design consulting, where I work, the details often get dropped or overlooked because of time and budget constraints. But when I started to look at all the products I loved, there was an attention to detail that stood out. It was often the small pieces of functionality, as opposed to the features, that made products feel high quality and well designed. The care and thoughtfulness made them stand out for me.

Also, for years, design has been focused on Big D Design: systems, platforms, and the like. All these large experiences. And what often gets lost there are the human and the humane—the two things that microinteractions can bring. It’s important for designers to tackle hard, large problems, but we can also bring value to the small stuff, as well. But there wasn’t much out there on designing the small stuff.

Microinteractions: Designing with Details, by Dan Saffer; foreword by Don Norman, 2013 (O’Reilly Media)

Particularly in digital design, it was being done in a really ad hoc manner, but I was interested in what would happen if we deliberately set about to focus on microinteractions. I’m convinced that they make stronger products, if done well and deliberately.

D&B: You define microinteractions as “design opportunities for making seemingly inconsequential moments into instances of pleasure.” In his foreword to your book, Don Norman gives some good examples of bad microinteractions (for example, the experience he had with Apple’s photo cataloging and edition application, Aperture). Can you give us some everyday examples of particularly successful ones?
DS: They’re all around us. The one I use as a standard example is turning the ringer off on your mobile phone. It used to be you had to dig deep into onscreen settings menus to turn it off, which was tedious. Now, it’s usually a simple switch in the hardware.

My favorite microinteraction right now is on the Kindle app and devices. As you read, a tiny indicator of how much time is left until you’re finished with a chapter (or, if you tap it, the whole book) is in the lower left corner of the screen. I love it because it’s similar to what you’d do with a physical book, which is to flip ahead to see how many pages are left in a chapter. But it goes one step better and converts those pages (which are meaningless in digital form) to dynamic time, based on how fast you read. Since you can’t see the “thickness” of a book in an app or Kindle, this is the next best thing. Or perhaps even better.

Another recent favorite is from Nest Protect. With this smoke detector, Nest fixed what was once a horribly annoying microinteraction: the chirp of a smoke alarm with a dying battery. Nest Protect has Nightly Promise: a green glow when you turn out the lights, which means the batteries and sensors are working properly. If there’s a problem, the light ring glows yellow. Then you can wave at it and it’ll tell you what’s wrong. You’ll never wonder what smoke alarm has a low battery, and you’ll never be awakened in the middle of night by a random smoke detector alert again.

Illustrated microinteractions created by Smart Design. Photo: courtesy of Smart Design

D&B: In one respect it seems you could look at the concept of microinteractions as just being part of good design work—thinking the design through carefully and finishing it off completely. Is there truth to that? If the answer is yes, what is the benefit of separately naming this one aspect of that overall process?
DS: Absolutely true. Focusing on details is a philosophy of designing that stretches from the Eames to Dieter Rams and beyond. By calling out “microinteractions” as a thing (which has been attempted for decades, I should note), it’s a deliberate attempt to not only emphasize details but also to get designers and developers time to polish. It can be difficult to say, “I need time to think about how this login widget works.” But saying, “I need time to work on this microinteraction,” somehow lends it legitimacy. Naming the category gives it power. Silly, but true.

D&B: In the “who should read this book” section, in addition to the expected recommendation of designers (since it is, after all, a “how to” book), you also recommend it for critics and entrepreneurs. How does the book connect to those types of readers?
DS: For critics, one way to evaluate products is via microinteractions and the principles outlined in the book. Can you log in? Is it easy to connect to the Internet? Does the app start from zero? Does it bring the data forward? Does it speak human? These are all criteria that can be used to check the overall experience of a product, not just, “does it work?”

For entrepreneurs, I hope reading the book helps them with strategy and what to focus on. There’s a push these days to get out the minimum viable product, but another strategy is to do what the Mailbox app (acquired by Dropbox before it had even officially launched) did: focus on microinteractions so that everything is polished and interesting from the start. The features Mailbox had were commodities. It was the microinteractions that made that app really special. Of course, you want to know if people will want your product, but one way to improve your chances is to make your product desirable, and microinteractions can help do that. For Mailbox, even the signup form was a brilliant microinteraction.

Microinteractions Quick Reference Guide created by Smart Design. Photo: courtesy of Smart Design

D&B: In the back matter of Microinteractions you provide extensive information about the hummingbirds on the cover. Why did it occur to you to use hummingbirds as the centerpiece image of the cover?
DS: Alas, O’Reilly, the publisher, picks the animal. Birds are on the covers of all “interface” design books, and it makes sense that hummingbirds (the smallest bird) birds went on the cover of the color edition.

D&B: On your blog you’ve listed some suggestions for how to form habits that contribute to inspiring creativity, and you’ve published a bibliography focused on the creative process. There are three titles that you especially recommend. What’s particularly special for you about those three books?
DS: The Creative Habit is filled with nuts-and-bolts wisdom from dance legend Twyla Tharp. You don’t often get such an intimate reveal of how someone finds and develops a creative idea, especially not someone of her stature. Even though her field is removed from mine, her insights and wisdom about the process are not. I’ve read many books on creativity, but this one is my favorite.

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry and Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon are likewise filled with not only inspiring philosophies, but practical advice as well. Too many creativity books and articles are “fluff” designed to make you feel good and creative just by reading them. All three of these books offer actions you can take today to improve your creative output.

D&B: On your last blog posting of 2013 you listed your nonfiction and fiction bibliographies for the year. Can you pick one book from each list that you would like to recommend to our readers?
DS: Nonfiction: The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better by Sandra Blakeslee. I read a lot of books on cognition, and many of them rehash many of the same points, but not this one. It’s one of the best I’ve read in a few years, and I think it will have vast implications on design going forward, as the plasticity of our brains accept more and more physical enhancements. If you’ve ever wondered why you duck your head when your car goes into a tunnel, this book is for you.

Fiction: The Son by Philipp Meyer. The Son was the best fiction book I read last year. On one hand, it’s an easy read, with several gripping narratives. On the other hand, it looks unflinchingly at some pretty horrible subjects. But this story touches on so much that is America—settling the West, oil, empire building no matter what the cost—that it was impossible for me to put down.

Smart Thinking: Microinteractions Animation from Smart Design on Vimeo.

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