Dan Saffer blog image

Microinteractions: the big thing about the little things

Last week Slack, everyone’s favorite communications platform of the moment, announced a new feature that allows you to “react” to a message with any emoji icon: Imagine the Like button if your Facebook friends were able to choose a fist bump or sushi emoji, instead of the traditional thumbs up.

This is the type of feature that rarely makes it into a requirements document. And though it’s remarkably simple, the applications of this simple little interaction go beyond anything Slack’s design team might have imagined.

When I saw emoji reactions for the first time, I immediately thought of Delight 2015* speaker Dan Saffer.


In addition to his day job as Creative Director of New Products at Jawbone, Dan has written countless articles and four books on all facets of interaction design. His latest, “Microinteractions,” is effectively a playbook to design interactions just like Slack’s emoji reactions. “Once you start tuning into microinteractions, you start to see them everywhere. And then you are cursed like I am where you focus on them and get a little OCD about some of them sometimes.”

Microinteractions are at the heart of delightful experiences

The concept of microinteractions—those small, intentional, lightweight moments in a product’s design—isn’t a new one, but as a topic for those who think about strategic design, it was (and arguably, still is) often overlooked. Ironically, it’s often these features that are core to a great experience.

Dan: As I started to think about the products that I loved, whether they were IoT, physical products, apps, or whatever, the things that I really loved about them weren’t usually the big features. It’s all of the little things that end up making the difference for a product that you love.

Take the Amazon Kindle as an example. A design strategist might think, “How do we redefine the book for the digital world?” Part of Amazon’s answer to this is the “time to read” feature, Dan’s microinteraction example of the moment.

Dan: I really think that is a tremendous piece of engineering. It differentiates the Kindle from physical books, and it’s personalized because it’s based on your reading speed. So I know that I’ve got three hours left to read in this book, or I have 20 minutes until the end of this chapter so I know I have enough time to read it before I go to bed. It’s really changed how I think about books. If my wife said to me, “When are you coming to bed?” I can say, “I have 15 minutes left in this book,” where before I might have said, “I’ve got 40 pages left.” I think that’s a really profound one that I think about a lot.

The little things make a difference

There has been some backlash to the idea that these little interactions are meaningful to the overall effectiveness of the design. John Pavlus talked earlier in the year about his lack of enthusiasm for “delightful interactions.” (Read our response here.) Dan and I talked about what well-designed microinteractions mean in a business context, especially in a product landscape where features become commoditized.

Dan: Even if you have something that is a pretty unique feature, there is nothing that says that very soon someone won’t copy it and commoditize it. The microinteractions become product differentiators, they become a thing that makes your product stick out from the other one that may have that exact same feature set and deliver it in a very similar manner. We’re seeing this all the time, particularly in startup strategies. Take the Mailbox app, where they took the basic mail features and just really focused on every single microinteraction to a pretty high level of polish. Mailbox was acquired before it even really launched. It’s not just a way to make things delightful; it’s a way to make your product stand out from other people’s products.

There are even some products that are pretty much designed around a collection of microinteractions, like Twitter. Then there are the standout examples, when these types of interactions may not only differentiate the product but also the redefine way people think about a brand. Take Facebook and the Like button.

Dan: If Facebook came out with a new version of Facebook and didn’t have the Like button you would think, “Well where’s the Like button? Something must be broken here.” It’s been elevated to be part of the Facebook brand. It’s extremely valuable to them. The people that click the Like button are much more valuable as customers to Facebook than people that don’t.

Microinteractions within the Internet of Things

We talked in depth about what this means when we’re designing for experiences in which humans aren’t the only consumer of information. Take for example the Nest ecosystem that may be automating your home.

Dan: You have microinteractions that tie the different pieces of the ecosystem together so that they seem like an ecosystem and not just individual products. If the Nest Protect detects carbon monoxide it will tell the Nest in your home to turn off your furnace so that your home doesn’t explode. That’s a really nice, pretty basic, microinteraction. It’s definitely something they can talk about and it may very seldom happen, but it’s an interesting thing for them to tout and a really sellable, marketable piece of information for consumers.

Using the microinteractions model doesn’t preclude using empathic design practices—they’re not simply flair that gets added to a product, so care must be taken in applying them, especially in the design of screenless experiences.

Dan: There are also things like alerts and sound cues and flashing LEDs. Are there times that you want those things and other times that you don’t? In the book I talk a little bit about this idea that my friend Karen Kaushansky came up with, the idea of the “non-use-case.” What are the times where there shouldn’t be feedback, that there shouldn’t be something that’s triggered? I think that’s going to be really important. In the first generation of Jambox, it used to sound off in the middle of the night to say, “Hey the battery is running down, the battery is running down.” And the first time we heard it we thought there were intruders in the house. So I think there are times where you know it’s going to be important to figure out when stuff doesn’t go off.

Moving beyond pure digital design

Given its roots in industrial design, the model of microinteraction design extends out beyond pure user experience. It’s possible to think about these types of interactions in any design strategy, including things like service design. Dan mentioned that he’s seen just that happen.

Dan: People have taken the model and applied it to things I never even considered. For example, there was a group of librarians that took it and started to think about the library experience, breaking it down into the four parts of the microinteractions model. People are applying it to things like service design, which I was completely not thinking about at all, but it’s really interesting that the model does extend itself out to many different types of situations.

The importance of the little things in design cannot be overstated. They may be small, but they can have a dramatic effect on the adoption and the perception of a product, service or brand.

Stay connected to our experience design community and delight your inbox with fresh conference news—subscribe to Delight Digest today! 

About Dan Saffer

Since 1995, Dan Saffer has designed everything from websites to appliances to robots. He believes that design isn’t only about problem solving, but about creating a better, more humane future. Dan’s insightful, thoughtful approach to design has been captured in the three books he’s written—Designing for Interaction, Designing Gestural Interfaces, and Designing Devices—which are required reading for any student of interaction design. His latest book, Microinteractions, was published in 2013 to great acclaim. Dan is currently Creative Director, New Products at Jawbone, where he works on next-generation wearables and consumer electronics.

Follow him on Twitter at @odannyboy.