I’ve been working on an app that has an innovative navigation. It got me thinking about how certain apps are defined by user interaction. When the interaction is unique to the product, it becomes part of the user experience and ultimately part of the brand. These “branded interactions” are fast becoming a valuable commodity.

Can a user interaction really form part of a brand?

There are countless interfaces which require the same methods of user input. We tap, we swipe, we type on tiny keyboards whilst walking, we occasionally fall over.

The memorable interfaces are not only intuitive to use but those which engage us on an emotional level. Interaction typically involves one or two simple actions, used repeatedly.

In Designing for Emotion, Aarron Walter suggests the most engaging interfaces “surprise and delight” the user. A product that is not only useful but a joy to use builds positive perceptions of the brand to create lasting brand loyalty.

What if an interface could help you complete a critical task and put a smile on your face? That would be an experience you’d recommend to a friend; that would be an idea worth spreading.
—Aarron Walter, Designing for Emotion

For me, the app that hangs beautifully off simple interactions is Clear, the colour-pop ‘to do’ list. I found Clear’s interaction intuitive from the outset, helped along by engaging sounds and subtle animations. Pull down to add a new item, left swipe to “clear” a completed task, shake the device to undo.

Another app that works for me is Rise, the super-simple, user-friendly alarm app which has revolutionised my mornings. Drag your thumb up or down to select your rising time, the screen colour changing to reflect day and night. The colours, font and user interaction all add up to a defining brand experience.

So if a user interaction is unique to your product, can you claim legal ownership?

If you own an Apple device you unconsciously ‘slide to unlock’ countless times a day; it’s an easy and effective interaction. Apple owns a design patent on the “ornamental" design of the lock screen, so while they haven't exactly patented the gesture itself, they have copyright over the design that forces you to make the gesture. This is possibly why the unlock screens on Android phones won’t allow you to pick an unlock gesture of one single slide, left to right across the screen.

Another interaction we immediately associate with Apple is ‘pinch to zoom’. Apple did have a patent on pinch to zoom but this was recently overturned following their billion dollar lawsuit against rival Samsung.

There has been a lot of chatter about Twitter’s patent application for the ‘pull-down-to-refresh’ function. Pull down to refresh has got to be the most intuitive way of refreshing content on a mobile device; it’s used by Gmail, iOS and countless others. Twitter claim they acquired the right to pull down to refresh when they bought iPhone client Tweetie back in 2010. There is still no decision on this patent, though legal commentators say the ruling is likely to be in Twitters’ favour.

When you start searching for patents you sure come by some random ones

Microsoft owns a patent on “gesture profiles” that users create when using Kinect. The user creates a custom profile shape (say an enchanted unicorn, mid prance) to open their favourite game. Microsoft OWNS THAT MOVE and they could potentially prevent other companies from allowing you to create a similar “gesture profile” for a competitors’ product. Microsoft also owns a patent for “flicking your pen” at something. The jury’s out on that one.

A serious consideration for designers

Granting legal ownership to user interactions is a serious business and sets a real precedent for future design and development. As an interface designer, it also makes me a little nervous. Should we be paying heed of these patents (like pull-down-to-refresh) — or are they just for the big fish?

In such a crowded market a unique and memorable interaction can really set you apart from the competition. It’s clearly a key area for consideration when designing the mobile user experience.