What is Interaction?

Earlier this week I purchased a new computer.  My “old” MacBook Air started to show an error  between the connection of its trackpad and the core, processing part of the machine. I would try to put up a website and the arrow would not click in the right folder. When editing an image in Photoshop, it would pick any tool but the one I needed to use.  I was even afraid to open the browser: imagine what an uncontrolled arrow logged into your Facebook account can do with your social life. It drove me crazy.

I tried rebooting the OS, different USB mouses, Bluetooth mouses, reinstalling…until I finally took it to a Tech Bar. They did a proper diagnosis of the issue and the results were not good. The cost of fixing it wouldn’t pay off at all (around $900), so I had to say my goodbyes and spend some considerable extra bucks on a functional new model.

Even though this first paragraph tells the sad story about the last days of my 2014 MacBook, it’s a good example for defining effective interaction. Basically, it happens when you move your mouse and the computer is able to listen to this movement, process it, and respond to you, making the arrow on the screen go to the intended mouse movement’s direction.

In this dialog there are two actors,  person and computer. And they have a continuous conversation: person speaks (input), the machine thinks (process), and speaks (output), and so on. All steps are essential to the success of it. In the case of my computer, it was not processing the information right. Accordingly, the mouse didn’t respond to my command, and this important feature compromised its capabilities to further interaction.

Still, proper interaction can happen throughout different types of technology, with mouse or without mouse, with machine or without one. Interaction is something intrinsically human and essential to our survival. We can also have a conversation by speaking with other humans, by exchanging mails, by petting an animal, by using the fridge and seeing its internal light turn on as we open it and many other ways.

In a fun experiment made in 2016 by Kamptipopen, an award winning architecture firm from Japan, employees could use colorful pipes to communicate in the office. Still, the interaction that humans have with a computer is more complex and functional when compared to the interaction with the fridge, the playfull and colorfull pipes in Kamptipopen’s office or most other machines. So, it is not a boolean quality: it has levels. And is this high level of interactivity that make computers play such important roles in our daily lives.

“People claim that the computer’s true essence lies in its ability to crunch numbers, or handle mountains of information. While these are desirable features, they don’t lie at the core of what makes the computer so important to our civilization. Remember, we had plenty of number-crunching and data-cubbyholing computers in the 1960s and 1970s, but we don’t talk about “the computer revolution” until the 1980s. The revolutionary new element was interactivity.” – Chris Crawford

The interaction between human and machine devices has grown exponentially in the past years. We all experienced the shift from VHS videos to Netflix, from home fixed phone lines to our smartphones, from mailing to Whatsapp, from buying our books in a bookstore to having them by one click in our Kindles… and the list could go on and on. It has grown to a point that it is clear that we already behave as cyborgs, we just have to accept it.

Emerging technologies aim to optimize this further.

I agree with the idea put in  Bret Victor’s A Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design, written back in 2011, in which he reminds us of all the other senses such as the ability to feel, that are still “invisible” through nowadays gadgets and networking tools. Still, for something to be effectively interactive, a conversation must exist. It must be intuitive enough so it won’t be perceived as an emerging technology or prototype, but as something that improves our daily communication process.