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Thinking on Microinteractions

I just read Dan Saffer’s Microinteractions: Designing with details a great, straight-forward approach to thinking about design details in any given user experience design. It got me thinking about my own UX preferences as well as past pleasant and painful interactions. But first,

“What the heck is a microinteraction?” you might be asking yourself. It sounds kinda silly, like a microthought or a micropoop. Not really satisfying, right? But it’s actually a really cool concept. A microinteraction is the simplest, tiniest piece of any kind of human-machine activity. Saffer (2013) calls it, “a contained product moment that revolves around a single use case – a tiny piece of functionality that only does one thing.” For example, you “slide to unlock” your iPhone. Your iPhone unlocks. That’s a microinteraction.

The good ones are hard to recall since they’re so small and mundane. If it’s a good one, chances are it’s unmemorable. It just works. The bad ones are way easier to remember because they make one feel desperate, frustrated, anxious and are an obstacle to our main goal. They might take time to resolve, and sometimes spoil the whole experience of using a product or service.

While reading this book, which is chock-full of great examples, both the good and the bad, I tried to think of my own experiences.

I’m going to start with the good, since, as I mentioned earlier, they are way harder to think of.

Pleasant microinteractions:

  1. Google Now automatically sending me driving directions (and estimated time of arrival) to my home, work, and any address I look up, across devices. Nice and easy. I don’t even mind when it guesses wrong because it doesn’t cost me anything (wrong meaning I look up an address but am not actually going there and it pushes the directions to my phone anyway). I remember the first time I found the ETA to my work one morning, like a little gift. I love it.
  2. Turning off the alarm on my droid. This one is not obviously good. You have to swipe left to snooze, and swipe right to turn it off. This is hard for me to remember when I first wake up (even though I’ve been using it for over a month), and trying to remember which is which actually helps wake me up. So, mission accomplished, I guess.
  3. Using the shortcut to open the camera app on my iPod Touch. Next to the “slide to unlock” there is a camera icon which I can grab and slide upwards to open the camera app. That way I don’t have to unlock the screen, find the camera icon, click on it, etc. I can’t remember when I first noticed this and I’m still not sure if everyone has this option, or if it “figured out” that I use the camera a lot. Who knows, but it is good.
  4. Seeing if someone else is already editing the Google Drive file I’m in. I don’t enjoy all aspects of editing in Drive, but I like being able to see who else is in the file, making it easier to see if someone else is editing at the same time. They appear as a little bright color square in the top right corner of the browser.
  5. I haven’t used this, but my brother tells me that Autodesk’s Inventor program has great tool tips (instructions that appear when you hover over a tool). He says these practically eliminate the need for tutorials. (I wonder, however, do they always appear? Even after the 1000th use? That could be a little annoying, unless it learned how often you use the program and adjusted.)

Stressful microinteractions (these are the easier ones to remember. More dramatic. Not always easy to fix, unfortunately):


  1. Knowing when the Nespresso machine is ready to make coffee. Goal: to make coffee. Rules: 1. Toggle the machine on. Two buttons (which you later press to start the flow of coffee) pulse with green lights. 2. Open slot for coffee capsule. Place capsule inside. Close. 3. Check to see the machine has water. If not enough water, add water. 4. When the flashing green lights turn to solid green, the machine is ready to make coffee. Press either one of the green lighted buttons to start the coffee (the left one, with a small coffee cup icon, is a short coffee and the right one, with a larger cup icon, is long). 5. The machine stops automatically, or the user can press the same button to stop the coffee manually.// Now that I’ve been using this machine for months, most of the ambiguity, such as how short is the short coffee, has become clear. However, the feedback of the flashing green buttons still causes me distress. Most of the time I think it means that it’s warming up the machine (and the water inside). However, if the machine is left on for a while (say after I’ve made one cup and I go to make another 30 minutes later) the lights will flash even though it’s good and warm. Does this now mean that the machine is “sleeping”? Once this has happened, I do not know how to “wake it up.” I push the green flashing buttons. I turn the machine off and then on again. Flashing resumes. I open the capsule slot and close it, which sometimes works (but not every time). Sigh. Sometimes it just takes a couple minutes and then it presumably resets. On top of this, sometimes the flashing is synchronized and sometimes it alternates between the buttons. This drives me nuts. It’s keeping me from my coffee! And it uses the same feedback (flashing green lights) to indicate seemingly different states at different times in the coffee making process (once the machine is first turned on, and after the machine is on for a while).
  2. Entering my TicketMaster password. I never remember my TicketMaster password. Worse, I never remember to try to login first before looking for tickets. I’m always trying to enter my password after I have selected tickets. I enter a password. Password incorrect. I enter another password. Password incorrect. The system locks you out after three tries (I think) so I don’t want to try again. I see the little red clock counting down my remaining time to purchase the tickets. Damn it! I have to click on the “forgot my password” button and reset it, and sometimes I lose my tickets in the process.
  3. Screen brightness on my Android. I swear I have the screen brightness on a setting that makes it adjust based on context. I thought this meant it’d be less bright at night and brighter in the day. For some reason, my screen is blindingly bright at night in the dark. And I’m too lazy to spend any more time figuring it out.
  4. Vibrating home screen “buttons” on my droid. I managed to turn off all other haptic feedback. I hate it. There’s a delay and it slows me down. I don’t need all that feedback. I already have the visual, I don’t need the tactile. It’s annoying. I figured out how to turn it off once I’m in the app menu, but just can’t figure out how to turn it off for the buttons on the home screen. And again, I don’t want to spend any more time on this than I already have.
  5. Picasa photos appearing in my Google searches. Not cool. Picasa used to be my go-to photo storage and sharing service, but I had to stop once it became Google +’s photo tool. I have a lot a lot of problems with Google +, but most upsetting to me is I don’t have reassurance that my photos are only being shared with the people I want to share them with. Even though mentally I can reason that my photos must only come up on my searches, the visual combination of my private photos with public search results is unsettling and makes me want to vomit. I don’t think anyone has fully figured out photo sharing. My mom accidentally shared all her iPhone photos with the Apple TV via iCloud, so that all her photos come up automatically on the screen saver. Why? It’s really not easy to store, tag, sort, and share photos. I take a lot of photos.
  6. Unsubscribing. Period. Wait, I mean, unsubscribing!!! I hate hate hate trying to unsubscribe from email blasts and newsletters once I’m enrolled in them. I hate unchecking that box that subscribes you to newsletters when you register for any new service. I even hate when the default is an unchecked box because it reminds me that such a thing exists. If I want to receive emails from you, I will go out of my way to find you. I promise.
  7. I know this is a stereotypical girl thing, so I hesitate to say it, but turning on my TV. For reals. I have a universal remote that has been programmed for the TV, computer, DVD player, Apple TV, Roku, and it can take minutes to turn on any one of those things. boo.


These may seem like mundane, unsexy UX problems, but they are so so important. An unpleasant microinteraction is a big buzz kill.  So, let’s work on making microinteractions lovely, please.

6 thoughts on “Thinking on Microinteractions

  1. Mundanity is hard, for good reasons since context matters more.

    1. That’s right, context is critical, and understanding people and what they’re doing or want to be doing is key. In trying to come up with examples, I realized that the difference between a pleasant and an unpleasant microinteraction can be super subtle. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  2. Great post! One delightful little microinteraction I recently noticed is Gmail’s new inbox feature that lets you confirm a newsletter subscription or track a package without having to go into the email itself.

    It’s the little things!

    1. Ooh good one! Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Here is an early take on microinteractions by Dan regarding the need for a microinteraction.

    1. Nice observation about leave-taking. Thanks for sharing!

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