The Main Principle of Designing Interactive Environmentsby@zanimanski
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The Main Principle of Designing Interactive Environments

by Valery ZanimanskiFebruary 11th, 2021
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What interactivity means and why you need it to make immersive products. We’ll also cover what constitutes immersion, and why “user” is an objectifying term. 
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Let’s cut to the chase: the main principle referred to in the title is that interactive environments need to be immersive. 

However, by itself, this doesn’t tell you much. 

So let me elaborate on my point, and go through what interactivity means and why you need it to make immersive products. 

We’ll also cover what constitutes immersion, and why “user” is an objectifying term that we need to be careful with.

What Interactivity Means

Things are supposed to be clickable. That’s what interactivity means — and that’s what people expect from our products.

When a person clicks on any object, they expect it to be interactive and get some effect out of that click. 

This is the 101 of what makes them a “participant” in the work of their tool, and not merely an observer.

At the same time, when somebody accidentally clicks on something, they are frustrated and blame the app for having an “inconvenient” UI element.  

They are now stuck with the consequences of their participation. 

Is that fair to a UI designer? No, but it’s still our job to:

  • Provide the satisfaction of an interactive element doing what the person wanted it to do.
  • Minimize the frustration when things have gone awry.

Both of these things have a lot to do with what we call “flow”. 

When we praise a product’s flow, we mean that the product’s UI is enjoyable, aesthetically pleasing, and, most importantly, the user always achieves their goals easily and quickly.

Great UI is Always Immersive

Within the context of UI, interaction is a simple relationship between a cause, effect, and feedback. When we tie all of these elements together, we get some form of a flow.

A user interface, in turn, is simply a gate to access that flow. 

When you hear that our UI needs to be more “user-friendly”, this just means that we need to provide people an easier access to the flow.

When we talk about usability, our logical end-goal is to build the kind of interface between the user and the flow, that they don’t even realize they are using an interface.

What we’re aiming for is “immersion”, i.e. for a person to move through the UI elements without consciously thinking about pressing a button. 

At the same time, we’re aiming to maximize a user’s enjoyment of the process through providing progress cues.

Those create the feeling of actively solving problems and guiding the process, and we should never break that feeling of immersion.

When you are designing like that, you need to keep in mind three simple questions: 

  • Does the user KNOW what to do in the UI? 
  • Can they DO what they want to do? 
  • Do they FEEL they have achieved something when an action is completed?

Essentially, we need to explain the rules of the game, provide the functionality needed, and, of course, create a feeling of progress and accomplishment when they do everything right.

Why the UI Designer Needs to be in Every Room

Think about interaction and immersion as an endless loop: 

  • when a user can do something, 
  • they need to know how to do it, 
  • and once they do it, 
  • they need to feel they’ve achieved it.

In order for us to guarantee those outcomes without a user getting “stuck”, we need to consider this interaction loop at every stage of development starting with the earliest concepts.

A huge problem with the UI design process today is that the companies tend to work with the designers at the very end of the process and title us “visual department”.

Which we often accept, too! 

This means that by the time we get to the UI, all of the decisions have been made, and all that’s left is for us to design around those decisions, since redoing development is simply too expensive.

Instead, a UI designer should be providing contributions from the ground floor. 

Even the simplest prototype made by the designer in the beginning of the process helps immediately recognize and address the problems with user experience.

The role of a UI designer is to be the “stand-in” for the average user and protect that user’s interests at all costs. From information hierarchy to the creation of personas, our job is to be there.

User experience should be a through-line from the very first stage of developing a UI (the very first stage being the creation of UI objectives).

To Achieve Immersion, Treat User Like a King

This brings us to the most important point of all: your user is king. 

We are all users of other people’s designs. We’ve all been frustrated at the UI for one reason or the other. Only a UI designer is not a typical user.

That’s because we simply know too much. There can be no objectivity if we’re doing a lot of guesswork, since no designer likes to re-do their entire project.

Nor do developers, project managers, or the company investors. And so user needs go by the wayside again and again.

This is how we end up with copy-paste, unwieldy designs — because we ignore that the user has a need and wants our product to do a job. Doing that job excellently should always be our utmost concern.

Unfortunately, our user objectives need to always be balanced against the client objectives (which is return on investment).

A user-centric interactive flow can only be achieved through a lot of research, including competitive research. 

If you are approached to design a project with a list of objectives, keep in mind your managers will not be end-users of your product, so there will be no concern for immersion.

However, when you start bringing the notion of “immersion” in your UI work, it immediately creates empathy with the user. You start asking yourself questions like: “Would that break a user’s flow?” — “Would this throw them off-balance?”.

More likely than not, the answer is yes to both of those. 

Humanizing the User to Create Immersion

I don’t like saying “user”. It’s generic, vague, and doesn’t signify much at all. 

It even has some drug abuse connotations to it. There really isn’t much humanity in the entity of a “user”, which is why humanizing them is so important to create good products.

Marketing research is basically all about figuring out who your particular user will be, completing an intense picture of what that user might look like, where they work/relax, what is their income level.

That’s the first way to humanize your user — build a “persona”. A persona is an aggregate type of a person who would use your products and would be a perfect buyer for you. 

In terms of UI, personas aren’t an extremely useful tool. There really isn’t much use for a UI designer to know how far from downtown their perfect user lives. 

Instead, we should be focusing on the main principle: creating immersive experiences. And for that, we don’t need to know if our user is married or not.

What we need is to know the jobs the users expect done, and then put ourselves in their shoes.

A great trick that works here is to abolish the word “user” entirely. Not “users”, but “my friend Alex”, “my spouse”, “my dad” — sounds freaky, but the reality is that our spouses, parents, and friends are users.

They are literally whom you’re selling to, and who needs to be immersed in your UI. So rather than call them “users”, try for a second to imagine what would truly immerse your close friend. 

What would your partner think of this particular information architecture, and what, on the other hand, would get them hooked? 

When you frame your UI research in this way, you can’t help but cover their intrinsic needs.

And satisfying those needs, in the end, is what we’re getting paid for.