Where’s the Line Between Interaction and Reaction?

“Interactivity” is becoming more of a buzz word and less of a strategy in the design world.

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

“Interaction: a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.” — Chris Crawford, The Art of Interactive Design

When we think about interaction, in the context of people, it’s quite simple. But when we look at what interactivity means in the realms of technology and design, the answer becomes a lot more convoluted.

Much like how “innovation” is a buzz word in the medical community, “interactivity” is a buzz word in the arts, technology, and entertainment worlds. There’s no denying that it gets thrown around a lot as a marketing ploy to describe things that are hardly interactive. It makes products or experiences sound more fun and exciting even if they really aren’t.

I hear the word thrown around in meetings all the time. When I worked in medicine, it was innovation. Now that I work in communications and instructional design, it pops up all the time.

Interaction. Interactivity. It sounds exciting, it sounds like it would always be a good thing. Yet if we don’t really think interactive design through and ask practical questions about how it works and what the benefits truly are, we can end up with a lot of unnecessary fluff.

We dramatically overestimate what counts as “interactive.”

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

Crawford lays out his definition of interaction and looks at how that applies in practical contexts. His first example is a proper, thoughtful conversation between two people. One person speaks, another person processes, then responds accordingly. It’s a tried and true example of interaction.

“Conversations, in their simplest form, begin with two people, say, Gomer and Fredegund. First, Gomer says something to Fredegund, at which point the proverbial ball is in Fredegund’s corner.”—Chris Crawford

One slightly amusing and off-topic thought I had was about how much effort conversation sounds like when Crawford explains it. He does a fantastic job of breaking down and analyzing everything that goes into a conversation, but when I think about it in such detail, talking to another person sounds exhausting. (Pardon my introvert coming out — I had to write a lot of emails today.)

A simple reaction isn’t the same as true interaction.

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

Crawford makes several compelling examples in the first chapter of his book. One is a refrigerator — does the light in the fridge turning on when you open it count as interactivity? I would agree with Crawford when he says no. The fridge doesn’t need to physically think or algorithmically process any data to give you a response. It’s just a simple interaction of the light turning on. It isn’t truly interactive, even if it seems like you might be interacting with it.

There are a lot of very simple things out there that we might call interactive that just aren’t. Jim Campbell, a contemporary San Francisco based artist who is known for his LED light works, alluded to this in an article he wrote a very long time ago.

“The first time I walked through an automatic door at the supermarket I thought the door was smart and was responding to me.” — Jim Campbell, Delusions of Dialogue

At first, when doors open for you, it seems like it could be interactive. Yet in reality, it’s just reacting to your presence.

Even reading and consuming media aren’t truly interactive.

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

“Let’s augment our definition of interactivity by discussing some things that aren’t interactive. Printed books are my first target because you can’t interact with them. A book can’t listen or think. It can only speak; it speaks its words as we read them.” — Chris Crawford

I have to share these tidbits of the book since no one can explain this better than the author himself. I was reluctant to believe him at first because as a writer, I do try to listen to my readers. If a few people tell me they really liked something I wrote,

This is a feedback loop, but it’s not an interactive activity.

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

On a different level, if I read an incredible book with such heartbreaking events that it makes me cry, I’m still not technically interacting with the book. I’m just reacting to it. Crawford goes on to shed light on this difference with some hilarious sarcasm.

“Do you disagree? Just say the word! Don’t be shy, tell me what you really think. It’s not that I don’t care, but I’m not listening to you and I can’t hear you; I’m sitting in my office in Oregon, which may be hundreds or thousands of miles away from you.” — Chris Crawford

More controversial than the fridge argument would be Crawford’s argument on whether or not reading is interactive. What do you think, as you sit and read these words? Are you interacting with me? Are you interacting with my words?

I usually try not to ask so many questions in my writing because I find it redundant. However, really understanding what is interactive and what isn’t takes a lot of thought and asking questions.

Crawford’s writing style is a delight to read. His straightforward, sarcastic tone reminds me quite a bit of Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. When I got to his part about him debating what is interactive and what isn’t, I got a good laugh out of this tidbit about him making fun of false interactivity and throwing his email address into the text after lightly patronizing the reader.

Interactivity is a new paradigm and we’re going to see conflicting definitions for a long time.

Illustration Courtesy of VectorMine

“Interactivity design, on the other hand, addresses the entire interaction between user and computer. While it shares much with the study of user interface, interactivity design differs because it considers thinking in the process of optimization.” — Chris Crawford

This is precisely why we have so much confusion about what is interactive and what isn’t. Doors and fridges aren’t really interactive. Toys from the 90s aren’t really interactive, even if they’re advertised as such. The depth of misconception is lengthy and it only becomes more convoluted the more “interactivity” is used a snappy buzz word in meetings to impress people with a higher salary band.

I’m only in the first chapter of The Art of Interactive Design, but I feel like I’m already learning a lot. I think Crawford makes a compelling argument for what is interactivity and what isn’t. I’m guilty of being that type of creator who throws interactivity into something like a child throws confetti at a birthday party. I’ve thrown interactive elements in just for the novelty of having them, not necessarily because they were well thought out.

Writer and poet from Neptune. Instructional designer in NYC. Grad student at @NYUTandon studying Integrated Digital Media.

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