A Golden Rule for Interactions and Life

Most of us have experienced a relationship in which the other person constantly assails you with their problems, yet when the tables are turned, their response is cursory before turning the conversation back to themselves. These relationships soon end or we put up with them because the other person is our mother.

I tweeted yesterday about judging the One Show Interactive Awards and, while I’m not going to comment on any individual entry, there is a tendency of advertising agencies to make a video with big production values, put it online with some social media gimmicks and call it interactive. This is not an interactive relationship. It’s someone shouting, “Like me! Like me! Like me!” They frequently violate a Golden Rule1 that I’ve had for interactivity for many years that I also tweeted:

The effort required to experience something should be less than or equal to the payoff of the experience.

I learned this very early on in the stone-age days of “multimedia” authoring. Back when we were creating interactive experiences that needed to fit on floppy disks or CD-ROMs, CD-ROM drives had transfer speeds of 150-300KB/s. This meant you had to make some choices or divide up the content into smaller beats. If it takes three minutes for an interactive to load, you better be sure I’m going to play with it for at least that amount of time, preferably more. We quickly learned how annoying “skip intros” were. Not that this prevented them from being re-born in every new medium.

Despite faster technology, nothing has really changed. What happens with broadband and CPU speeds is largely the same as what happens with rubbish bins, hard-drives and roads. You just fill up the available space. If you buy more of them to deal with it, you just fill those up too, making cleaning up even more of a pain. Nothing beats dealing with restrictions by using less resources in the first place.

Unfortunately, with greater bandwidth available, agencies fall back on their traditional model. Make a cool video and then deliver it big, because now they can. Instead they could use the extra bandwidth and CPU speed to make the delivery of a smaller payload quicker and make the most of the Golden Rule payoff equation. That one-minute’s worth of fun interactivity has a better experiential value ratio when it is delivered in five seconds compared to it taking three minutes to come down the pipe.

The rule of, “If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it” generally chimes with the Golden Rule, but not always. Some things do need explaining and that is okay as long as they are actually complicated and we are going to use them a lot. Most interfaces are not worth the effort of learning for the things we want or, worse, have to achieve with them. Those kinds of tasks are often short-lived. It’s annoying to have to hunt for a tool palette or preference in Microsoft’s crazy Word interface just to turn off some auto-styling crap. On the other hand, we spend a long time learning to drive a car and having someone explain it to us, because there are many variables at play when we drive, we will drive for the rest of our lives and prefer not to kill people in the process. (Dear American and Australian readers: learn to drive a stick shift – it will make you a better driver).

For many people, this is why learning maths in school feels pointless. The effort versus daily usage seems disproportionate. Programmers often appear to be the antithesis of the Golden Rule, because they give the impression of enjoying the process of learning something very complex or writing a script to achieve a task that can be done with a few mouse clicks (I’m looking at you Dr Drang and Brett Terpstra). But the rule still holds, because either the process of working something out has a long-lasting skill payoff or the script that took a while to write replaces many multiple uses of the mouse-based version.

The Golden Rule works well when thinking about service experiences too. Many services involve highly asymmetric relationships. You can usually buy something or create a contract very simply online or over the phone in a matter of minutes, for example. This side is in the service provider’s favour. Yet when something goes wrong or you want to quit your contract, you have to wait on hold for ages for customer service or, if you live in Germany, contact the company in writing. On paper. Via snail mail. Then the response time is in the order of weeks, not minutes.

You can be fined on the spot for not having a train ticket, but it might take months to receive compensation if your train is cancelled. These all feel unfair because they are unfair and, like the “friend” whose worry dumping is a one-way street, you soon feel bitter and want to get out of that relationship as quickly as possible. Companies like Amazon and Zappos put a lot of effort and money into redressing this imbalance with great success.

If you go to McDonald’s the meal experience is low-grade, but delivered quickly. If your Big Mac takes a long time to arrive, there’s no point in going to McDonald’s. Conversely, it feels fine to wait for half and hour for your food in a good restaurant, because you know the risotto is being freshly made to order. The payoff is slowly savouring the meal, ideally with a fine glass of wine and great conversation.

The Golden Rule works for most media. It’s why we do the first or 99th page test on books, why films (usually French) are frustrating when nothing seems to have happened and suddenly the credits roll.

Well-written TV series exploit the Golden Rule too. Within the space of an episode we get the story payoff for that episode, but we also teased with the promise of the next piece of drama in the larger story arc. A dangling plot line requires some effort from us to imagine what might happen next, but it is only just irritating enough to leave us wanting the next episode so we can scratch that itch.

The effort versus experience equation is why making it easy to pay for music downloads trumps the effort of downloading it illegally for most people. It’s certainly why I buy much more music than I ever used to.

The rule works for games very well too. The best games are those whose rules are easy to learn, but the gameplay is engaging for hours. As Steven Johnson points out in, Everything Bad is Good for You2, videogame designers stopped writing long instruction manuals and creating “training levels” some time ago. Instead, players are dropped directly into progressively more difficult action. Part of the pleasure of the game is finding out just what the gameplay is. In this scenario, the experience payoff is intimately bound together with the experience of gaining it.

And life? Humans are highly attuned to this kind of balance in relationships, whether work or personal. Like most animals, we instinctively make calculations about expending energy versus rewards returned, whether social or nutritional.

In our modern lives it is why a six-hour commute for a one-hour meeting is so irritating and why meetings are generally so toxic. It is why dysfunctional relationships take so much out of us and why people who are generous and open, reducing the barriers of interaction with them, are a pleasure to be around. It is why bank bailouts for people getting million dollar bonuses seem so unfair and why voting apathy is so prevalent.

The Golden Rule is really about getting the balance right at the “border between boredom and anxiety”, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously explored in his research on flow3. It is the challenge of interactivity, games, TV shows, films, music, services, food, education, sex, relationships, society and life.

  1. It probably needs a more original name than The Golden Rule, like Polaine’s Ratio of Effort vs. Experience, but it seems cocky writing that on my blog. There is absolutely no reason why you should not quote it as that though. 

  2. Amazon affiliate links. If you use them, thank you. 

  3. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers (also an affiliate link). 

Ninja Blocks


Ninja Blocks are a great Kickstarter project for anyone wanting to connect together their hardware world with Web services. From the Ninja Blocks blog:

How it all works

Ninja Blocks are simple but powerful open source hardware backed by an amazing web service called Ninja Cloud that allows your Ninja Block to talk to your favorite web apps.

Each Ninja Block comes with an RGB LED and built-in temperature sensor and accelerometer. Four expansion ports and a regular USB port allow you to add further inputs and outputs.

Ninja Cloud allows you to control your Ninja Blocks without writing a single line of code.


Ninja Cloud allows you to program your NInja Block by creating Tasks. Tasks are made up of Triggers and Actions.

You can tell your Ninja to perform tasks like:

  • Talk to Siri and turn on the light
  • Take a picture of your front yard and save it to Dropbox when movement is detected
  • Switch your lava lamp on whenever your friends are playing on Xbox Live
  • Get a notification on your phone when a package is left at your door
  • If your baby is crying turn on a lamp in the hallway

(Via Reto Wettach’s interaction design blog).

Interaction Awards 2012 Winners

Sadly I couldn’t be at Interaction ’12 in Dublin this week, so I’ve been vicariously soaking up the vibe (but not the alcohol) on Twitter and the IxDA conference blog. This year was the first ever Interaction Awards and the winners were just announced.

My absolute favorite was CIID student Ishac Bertran’s Pas a Pas project, which won the Best Student category. The video above explains it best, but Betran describes the project as

an interactive educational tool for schools that enables children to learn and experiment with different sets of elements using animation. It aims to use the physicality and the animated outcome of stop motion animation to bridge the gap between abstract concepts from maths, physics or arts (usually represented by graphs, equations or words) and reality.

As the father of a nearly three year-old daughter who goes to a kindergarten that has a lot of Montessori input and who also loves to grab my iPad and play with it, I really loved the crossover analogue-digital nature of Pas a Pas. The retro hi-fi look of the product design of it really works so well with the concept too. An invitation to play if there ever was one.

Best In Show went to LoopLoop, a tiny sequencer made using Sifteo cubes. It is very cute, but for me was more a re-hash of many a sound toy I’ve seen (and designed) than anything really re-thought. Most of all, more effort seemed to go into the interaction design than the irritating plinky-plonk sound design, which I think is a shame, although this often happens with such toys.

Best Concept went to Out of the Box, a clever way of telling people learn about their new smartphone in an analogue way. It’s basically a book with sections cut out of various pages in which the phone and its parts sit. As the user turns the page, the book tells them how to interact with the physical object. I can’t help feeling it’s a little unwieldy, but very cleverly worked out nonetheless.

The People’s Choice were the Interaction Cubes, which are a nice, low-tech way of creating an interactive periodic table. The analogue aspect of this seemed to connect with people.

(p.s. Don’t forget to go and check out the Interaction 12 Student Design Challenge. It’s a different competition in which finalists compete on-site during the conference. I co-chaired it last year.)

End User Development and more from Interaction-Design.org

Mads Soegaard and his wife Rikke Friis Dam have been hard at work over at their Interaction-Design.org site, a free and well put together resource of educational materials about interaction design. The whole site is set up as an encyclopedia with tightly focused articles that have expert commentary underneath and often plenty of video interview material. It’s also been formatted for print/PDF export as well as iPad/iPhone reading. A lot of effort has gone into the site (read the history of it) and it is well worth regularly visiting – the main encyclopedia page already has plenty of useful chapters.

Mads has pre-released some new material on End User Development, “a set of methods, techniques and tools that allow users of software systems, who are acting as non-professional software developers, at some point to create, modify, or extend a software artifact” (Lieberman et al 2006). The intro video is below, which gives some definitions:

While the focus of this tends to be on software, I think there are also some lessons to be learned in terms of service designers delivering tools and skills to organizations they are working for, who in turn can further develop according to their needs themselves. On the one hand, it feels like we’re almost putting ourselves out of business – the old teach a man to fish idea. But I think there are plenty of smaller situations in which organizations do well working internally and pull in outside expertise when they feel they need the external input or a deeper knowledge of a process. It’s much like the difference between basic car maintenance and hiring a mechanic. The added benefit is that organizations are much more receptive to your processes and interventions when they have already taken on the mindset themselves.

Kinetic Design

Alongside the surge of interest in gestural interaction, there appears to be a rising fascination with kinetic works too. Some of this comes out of the crossover of interaction designers now being able to relatively easily work with physical computing interfaces like Arduino boards and camera tracking.

But there seems to me to be a fascination with the physicality of objects too. Not in the static sense of product design’s endless fascination with chairs and lamps, but in the way objects move and transform. ‘Kinetic designer’ Ben Hopson, has written a long and interesting piece on Core77 titled Kinetic Design and the Animation of Products in which he explores this discipline.

I’m not sure he can really claim to have ‘created’ the discipline, but he has certainly brought together some interesting ideas and approaches in one place. Much as Dan Saffer has argued in Designing Gestural Interfaces, designers in this area need “A Vocabulary for Motion” and methods for sketching and recording motion:

“What choreographers, physicists, and puppeteers have in common is that they are all able to sketch movements, record their ideas, and talk about them. Design has no such tradition of kinetic notation or vocabulary. While design has many resources with which to address form, surface, and structure, it has no means of effectively developing or recording a spatial event that takes place over time.”

Interaction design does use some elements from these disciplines and many more to describe interactions, but in the end it always comes down to what it feels like. And the only real way to do that is to make a prototype.

“Fancy hardware or mechanical elements are not necessary for such models and, in fact, can become a hindrance. As long as a sketch moves as it should, it doesn’t matter how it’s made or from what. Dirty, fast, and cheap sketches are usually sufficient to demonstrate a motion concept. One can use simple materials like foamcore, tape, hot glue, and balsa wood. The model itself is not important– just how it moves.”

The same is true in interaction design. For me, the question are always, “does this encourage playful interactions?” and “do I feel compelled to keep interacting with/using this interface?” These are intangibles – they are experiences and it is very hard to predict without a prototype. It is also what makes it so hard to describe what I do for a living…

Update: Sarah reminded me in the comments about the DVD player vs. jukebox comparison in Ben’s article. It reminded me of Nakamichi’s famous Dragon casette deck that turned the tape for you:

Interaction Design for Behavioural Change

Interaction design is all about changing people’s behaviour. Without the action > reaction part, there is no interaction. Whether you click one button instead of another or stop to play with an interactive shop window , the art of interaction design is about understanding that transaction. (And it’s the subject of my, hopefully soon finished, PhD. Sigh).

Taken to a broader context, these principles have been successfully applied in areas such as service design and sustainable design. It is something we tried to look at in the Visualising Issues in Pharmacy project too.

But what about economics? Robert Fabricant from Frog Design has written an insightful piece on Frog’s Design Mind blog called Design For Impulse. He makes a good point about interaction design education too:

“If I was starting an Interaction Design program (like Liz Danzico at SVA) or taking one over (like David Malouf at SCAD) the one academic subject I would be sure to cover is Behavioral Economics.”

He then goes on to quote David Leonhart’s New York Times article about behavioural economics and the Obama administration’s interest in it:

“Behavioral economics sprang up about three decades ago as a radical critique of the standard assumption that human beings behaved in economically rational ways. The behaviorialists, as they?’re known, pointed out that this assumption was ridiculous.”

To explain behavioural economics more simply, I’ll quote the next paragraph in the article:

“Would-be weight losers pay $100 a month to belong to a gym they rarely visit. Borrowers get fooled into taking out a loan with an appealing teaser rate. Patients fail to follow even a basic regimen of prescribed drugs — a failure that can leave them with serious medical complications and Medicare with big hospital bills.”

Essentially, we all do things that make no rational or logical sense, even if we say we wouldn’t. And we’re especially irrational with money – who hasn’t shopped around for a tiny saving on groceries and then stopped to drink an over-priced coffee afterwards, negating the savings? (Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational is a good starting point, apparently. I haven’t read it yet.)

As the world we interact with becomes ever more interconnected and our need to understand everything from the economics of what we are designing through to the life-cycles of everything we use, understanding this psychology becomes essential. For interaction designs (and, I would add, some product designer and architects), this kind of thinking is, or should be, built into what we do. As Fabricant says:

“Outputs, Outcomes and Impacts are VERY different things and clients often confuse the two. As an Interaction Designer you better know the difference.”

It seems to me that Obama’s administration understand the psychology of interconnectedness very well. It will be interesting to see if they can put it to work on such a large, messy problem.

Out with the economists, in with the interaction designers I say!

(Once again, thanks to the ever-excellent IxDA discussion list for the heads up).