Classification of Physical Microinteractions — A Collaborative Design Project | Part 1

Avyay Kashyap
Physical Microinteractions
7 min readJan 12, 2018


We live in a world filled with millions of objects, many designed to help improve our lives. Each of these objects aim to perform the function at hand to the best of their abilities while conveying an aesthetic that can bring about delight while using the product. We interact with these products in multiple ways. We use the sense of sight, smell, touch and hearing to directly manipulate and change the states and forms of the objects. And the objects themselves communicate to us asking us to interact with it in certain ways, appealing to our intuition to initiate/trigger an interaction.

There are innumerable ways in which a product expresses itself, and more often than not, some of the most delightful experiences with a product lie in the small details, such as a satisfying click, or the ability to feel the warmth of a coffee mug while drinking coffee, or feeling and hearing the firm snap while closing a box’s lid, or the smoothness with which a slider glides, or even the thrill and adrenaline from pressing down on the accelerator of a car.

What is a micro-interaction?

Dan Saffer, author of Microinteractions, defined Microinteractions as, the single use case features that do only one thing.

In the digital space, there are things like the like button of Facebook which does only one thing, ie, like a post. In the physical world, there are bottle caps which do only one thing, ie, open the bottle, thus making it a single use case feature — micro-interaction.

Microinteractions that enable us to do just one thing — react to a post.

Microinteractions have four parts:

  • triggers, to initiate the microinteraction;
  • rules, that decide how the microinteraction works;
  • feedback, which illuminates the microinteraction and;
  • loops and modes, the meta rules that affect the micro-interaction.

These come together to make up a micro-interaction.

Multiple microinteractions come together to enable the interaction we have with the products. This is the case with websites, apps and all digital microinteractions and can also be extended to products we use in our daily lives.

The approach in Product Design

Product conception in Product Design has generally followed a top-down approach where the product is conceived keeping in mind the bigger picture, solving a massive problem, designing systems to tackle organisational issues. But this is done with the risk of losing out on details, which is key to defining the distinction between a great product and an okay product.

Let’s take the example of a bottle. When designing a bottle for athletes, Product Design generally keeps in mind the bigger picture of having the need to make the bottle look sporty, and withstand high pressures and stress that it will experience during its rough life period. There is concern to ensure the water never spills or leaks, but usually, details such as the manner in which the athlete is forced to drink water, ie, the way water flows out of the cap is ignored. The athlete has to suck on the bottle like a baby, not something that is very sporty. This is an essential part of the experience the user has with the product. By relooking at the microinteraction of having water, the bottle could be designed to make the act of having water feel athletic or sporty, thus adding to the experience and possibly delighting (and energising in this case) the user.

Doesnt he look cute?

What we are trying to do

Realising the impact of these micro-interactions on the overall experience of a product or a service, we felt a need to provide a means by which this can be used as a way for designing these tools. From intent, we normally formulate and bring to life ideas into the physical realm in the form of artifacts which we would then expect to be ‘used’.

Christopher Alexander in 1977 coined the term Pattern Language, to help architects create more meaningful patterns in the houses and areas they were designing for. It talks about how parts transform into wholes. The basis was that for any given space, there are certain elements, details, that need to be present, to capture the essence of the place and enable it to become the quintessential example for what the place is meant to be. For example, a café is defined by certain elements — a particular type of chair, a specific kind of table, a certain lighting to set the mood, an air of openness and spatial clarity along with relevant graffiti on the walls. These individual elements when done well, come together to give the user an experience of a different kind. Pattern Language acts as a tool of sorts to enable to architect to design a café that will be an ideal café, but allows for the architect to have his/ her own expression.

The finer details in these experiences enrich the overall feeling and semantic being communicated while the artifact is being used. We have interpreted this relationship as a communication between an object and a user. Both of them are essentially rallying information back and forth and triggering something in the other. When you grip a toothbrush, the ridges make you feel like you’re holding it firm; which in turn helps you carry out further actions with the assurance that the product is doing its duty. And your response to the toothbrush is also a key factor in defining how you further interpret its form.

Some things are.

Some things ought to be.

These ought-to-be’s are controlled by us, created by us,

and most importantly, defined by us.

We interact with this realm to see how it responds -

out of curiosity.

We interact with this realm to bend it to our will -

we are its controllers.

Through our tool, we’re attempting to illustrate a few examples of such ‘designed’ microinteractions. This sorting can then be applied or viewed in context to its interaction flowchart; elements like where it’s relevant, what triggers it, what usually precedes it, what comes after it, all this aside from their categorisation according to intent. Doing so, we hope to introduce or emphasize an alternative way of looking at things; designing from the minute details, designing with emphasis on the microinteractions which enrich the product’s experience.

Why we are doing it

We had talked about the sporty bottle designed for the athlete earlier. This is just one example in a sea of objects designed for us humans. There are numerous objects which can be made into a completely new experience just by focusing on the details.

Let’s continue with the example of a bottle. There are multiple ways to interact with it. But primarily, the interactions can be broken down into four parts — holding the bottle; placing it on a surface; opening the cap; and drinking water from it. If the bottle were being designed for children, from a Product Design perspective, the primary aim would be to make the bottle look playful and colourful. The look will extend to the feel is what would be assumed. But if each of the microinteractions on the bottle were tackled separately to make them playful, we might end up with a completely new look for a children’s bottle which could make for a novel experience.

Also, it is important to highlight the details, the microinteractions, the small bits, which make up the soul of the object, and have the ability to bring to surface those small pockets of delight that truly differentiate a great product from a good product.

Through the tool, we hope to create meaningful analogies that a designer can use to create products with a focus on details.

Scope of the project

We started the project with the aim of creating a structural understanding of the many small interactions the products and tools we use everyday demand from us as users. The goal is to come up with a classification that would help in breaking down/ detailing the various minute aspects of handling a product, and bring to light the intricacies of the continuous dialogue that takes place between the user and the product which helps get a task as simple as opening a drawer done. The classification had to be accessible to people to use. This need made it necessary to create a tool that could be accessed by everyone to help visualise these microinteractions along with the functionality for them to be able to add to the repository of data.

To sum up, the goals of this project are to:

  1. Create a classification that will form the basis for all interactions we have with physical products around us.
  2. Create a tool to access the sorting to visualise the microinteractions involved in products.
  3. Provide an interface to help expand the repository of microinteractions that make up the products.
  4. Highlight the dialogue that takes place between the product and the user.

Part 2 talks about how we went about the classification process of the sample set that we collected.

You can read it over here:

Co-author: Jazeel.