Finding an Interaction Model

| Shannon E. Thomas

When designing new experiences, it is imperative that we balance invention with inspiration. Learning from other tools helps us to create quality experiences, and copying patterns that work ensures a familiarity of experience for our users.

An interaction model connects the user’s conceptual model to the design of the user interface. While interaction models are often used solely for explanation (it works like Instagram with the navigation of Path), it’s important that we not overlook their role in the generative process.

Balancing cleverness with familiarity

Creative people are often credited with the ability to make connections, but designers are too often complacent, and are all too happy to make connections between their current projects and their favorite apps. It’s easy to imagine designing a calendar that’s similar to Apple Calendar or Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook or Sunrise. Look at the app store, and you’ll see products that differentiate themselves with little more than color schemes.

Of course the opposite is also true, and there are plenty of designs that run so far from common UI patterns that they’re not only completely unfamiliar, but also thoroughly unusable. Cleverness can work in moderation, but novel interactions tend to be more pleasing to designers than to users.

Somewhere between these two extremes is (pardon my sales speak) “innovation” – the useful cleverness that makes experiences enjoyable and legitimately better.

What if our thing was designed by that company?

When exploring, we look at different visual design possibilities as well as different interaction models. In the simplest form of this exercise, we simply look to different products and services and repurpose their intentions to our needs.

This isn’t as simple as copying the designs with new words and images – it means understanding the motivations behind the design. For example, Facebook’s design is far more than their signature blue navigation and white content boxes. It’s social and suggestive and talkative. These are the most important considerations when asking “What if our thing was designed by Facebook?”

Ultimately, the exercise should force thorough consideration of patterns that have already been established. By designing a mail client as if it were Swarm (by Foursquare) or designing a social network as if it were Adobe Photoshop, we interrupt our own expectations and discover new patterns. Even if our experiments end in novel experiences, we are able to reframe the problem in different ways, giving us more power over it.

Still hungry?

We asked ourselves “What if our intranet was designed by…” – completing the sentence with more than twelve different products. See the possibilities here.