Designing for "Deep Interactions"

Position paper #3 for IDSE 102 – Design, Society and the Public Sector, by Jonathan Lewis & Diana Griffin.

Experiences are important. They teach us what is right and what is wrong. They shape our beliefs and our preferences; they make us who we are and who we will become. Experiences can lead to growth or destruction. This premise should spark little contention, but we begin here because we believe that its implications are significant when played out in full. Consider the theory of John Dewey, in which experience is defined as the interplay between internal and objective conditions in a given situation. Experiences exist in continuity, building upon each other, leading always to growth, change or reinforcement, whether positive or negative. Because experiences have such pervasive effects, it is vital that we—in the collective and individual sense—examine the questions, “What are we experiencing?” and “How are we affecting what others are experiencing?”

So, what are we experiencing? To answer that question, we must look at the interaction between external and internal conditions that make up experiences. While internal conditions are unique to every individual, external conditions are, on a broad level, shared by all within a common culture. In our culture, where some digital device or technology is always within arms reach, most experiences are in some way influenced by digital technology. What effect does this have? In his speech to the German Informatics Society given in 1990, Neil Postman argues that technology has brought a bombardment of information of such relentlessness that ultimately we have become indifferent towards everything. He asserts that with millions upon millions of sources of information available to us, our foundational understanding of what should cause surprise, fear, sadness, excitement or joy is warped. He calls upon his audience to care less about information and more about things that matter, stating:

“There is no denying that the most prominent uses of computers have to do with information…The computer is an answer to the questions, how can I get more information, faster, and in a more usable form? But now I should like to put some other questions to you that seem to me more reasonable… If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information?”

In the two decades since Postman posed those questions, the pervasiveness of digital technology expanded, and designers and technologists came to recognize the reality of the information overload Postman described. To help navigate this ever-widening sea of information, many designers are turning to experience or interaction design as new approaches, hailed for their ability to humanize technology. By focusing on the human experience to create things that are: learnable, memorable, efficient, satisfying, poetic, beautiful, and usable, these emerging disciplines are expected to help us solve the problem of managing the constant flow of information around us. Now, we find that things created to facilitate this human-technology dialogue—in other words, interactions—are now everywhere. In short, ‘interaction’ is the new ‘information’. Consider your everyday experience of technological interactions, or take ours as an example: as we write this paper, one of us has 38 internet browser tabs and 14 computer programs currently open, while the other is conducting a one-minute experiment to see how many browser tabs can be opened on a 13-inch laptop; the result is over one hundred. Each of those tabs and programs offers a multiplicity of different interactions, and those are only on one device. We could also look at smartphones for another example; there are over 6000 applications in the productivity category of Apple’s App store—most of them created to help us manage the overwhelming number of interactions in our day-to-day lives.

Today, rather than “informing ourselves to death” (the title of Neil Postman’s 1990 speech), we are now interacting to death. Taking the above quote from Postman and substituting the word ‘interaction’ for ‘information’ yields equally valid questions:

“… If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of interaction? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of interaction? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of interaction?”

You may see these questions and think, “Yes.” But rather than a lack of any interaction, such interpersonal breakdowns are usually due to a lack of a specific kind of interaction, and may be exasperated by the ubiquitous presence of other, negative kinds of interaction. If interactions are the molecules of experience, and our experiences are as often as not mediated by technology (at least in the culture within which we are writing), we must ask, what kinds of interactions are we facilitating when we create new technologies, and how do we facilitate interactions that don’t lead to breakdowns? What kinds of interactions lead to a life focused on the things that matter?

In an effort to create products, services, and systems that cultivate the right kind of interaction, the field of interaction design has turned to ethnographic methods to gain an understanding—or a “thick description,” as Clifford Geertz terms it—of users’ needs. Ethnographic methods originated in fields such as anthropology and have been modified by designers and “design thinkers,” as Jocelyn Wyatt names the interdisciplinary participants in the resulting collaborative design process. Such processes are developed to empower users by intimately involving them in creating solutions to the problems that affect them. The assumption is that if the people who will be affected by the design are involved in the creative process, they will direct the designer to create the appropriate kind of interaction for their situation.

These methods are not without flaws, though. One problem we see with this approach to design is that it still operates within the same value structure that created the problems it attempts to solve—in our culture, the value structure that believes that helping us manage the flotsam of interactions we find in a sea of information is the most helpful solution. We are not arguing against the use of ethnographic methods in design; these methods are invaluable for bridging the gap of understanding between the designers and the people affected by their designs. However, well-implemented ethnographic methods may just as easily have led to the creation of one of the 6,000 productivity applications available for your iPhone as to the creation of a truly meaningful and necessary design solution.

To create the right kinds of interactions, designers must have a strong understanding of the kind of interaction they are striving for and this understanding must transcend and sometimes trump information gathered using ethnographic methods. In a recently published article, Bruce Nussbaum claimed that, “ethnography is too shallow for what we now need. We need to go much deeper into the historic context and wider into the lateral connections of people in society.” We posit that such a depth of understanding leads to the kind of interactions designer should strive to facilitate—what we call deep interactions.

This concept of a deep interaction is grounded in the recognition that humans are finite beings whose cognitive, emotional, and physical faculties can only be directed towards a limited number of things. The framework for deep interactions is most clearly understood when viewed against what we consider to be shallow interactions. The following are comparative statements chosen to help assist in understanding the nature of a deep interaction:

  • Doing fewer things better. Whereas shallow interactions focus on enabling people to do more things (managing their multiple to-do lists, for example), only so more interactions can take place.
  • Enabling reactive emotionss. Whereas shallow interactions lead to a numbing of emotional reactions, making it difficult for individuals to experience surprise, joy, fear and sadness.
  • Focusing on local. Whereas shallow interactions focus on making infinite global connections, deep interactions focus on knowing and caring about individuals and the environment around you.
  • Encouraging mindfulness. Whereas shallow interactions lead to tasks being performed mindlessly, deep interactions lead to mindfulness of what you are doing.
  • Prioritizing thoroughness. Whereas shallow interactions make speed a priority, deep interactions make thoroughness a priority.

To illustrate how interactions can be viewed with an understanding of deep interactions, we will compare two of Google’s mobile platforms: Google Orange, an SMS application popular in Africa and the Middle East, and Google App for the iPhone.

Google for iPhone
Owners of Google’s iPhone application can access most of the features of Google’s online offerings at close to broadband speed. These include but are not limited to search, Gmail, reader, news, documents, calendars, and maps.

  • Doing fewer things better vs. more things easier
    – No: Gmail allows for multiple email accounts to be added at the same time, and gives notifications when a new email is received, enabling people to manage more and more accounts and relationships. Additionally, calendars allow for the scheduling of a day down to the minute.
    – Yes: Documents allow for the creation of one artifact that can be worked on collaboratively eliminating the need for time spent creating many versions of something.
  • Enabling Reactive Emotions vs. Numbing of Emotions
    – No: Google reader and google news contribute to the information/interaction overload that causes people to be jaded about all that is going on in the world to the point where nothing is surprising and nothing leads to action.
    – Yes: Users have the option to limit what they read through lists and filters.
  • Focusing on Local vs. Global
    – No: GChat treats users that are 3,000 miles away the same as users who are 3 feet away.
    – Yes: Maps allow individuals to navigate their local environment.
  • Encouraging Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness
    – Mindless: Google has a picture search that allows users to take a picture of something and search for it online, running the risk allowing individuals to gain most of their knowledge through visual picture searches.
    – Mindful: Google allows users to turn notifications off allowing them to be in the present.
  • Prioritizing Thoroughness over Speed
    – Thoroughness: Google searches are incredibly thorough.
    – Speed: Google prioritizes things for you in their searches.

Google Orange
Google Orange is a partnership between Google and the French telecom company Orange. It allows SMS phone subscribers in parts of Africa and the Middle East to access Google Services. One of the main features is conducting Google Chat conversations using text messages. Users will be given a certain amount of free text messages per month as an incentive to using this service.

  • Doing fewer things better vs. more things easier:
    – More: More text messages could lead to more individuals and relationships that need attending.
    – Fewer: SMS access to Gmail could allow for better communication in jobs previously unavailable to people without internet access.
  • Enabling Reactive Emotions vs. Numbing of Emotions
    – Numbing: Google news and Gmail could cause users to become jaded about current events.
    – Normal: Users have the option to limit what they read through lists and filters.
  • Focusing on Local vs. Global
    – Global: Google Chat treats users that are 3,000 miles away the same as users who are 3 feet away.
    – Local: Text messages allow for users 1 mile away to easily connect with each other if transportation is not available.
  • Encouraging Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness
    – Mindless: SMS enabled chat often takes a significant amount of time causing users to perpetually have their face buried in their phones.
    – Mindful: Google allows users to turn notifications off allowing individuals to be in the present.
  • Prioritizing Thoroughness over Speed
    – Thoroughness: Google searches are incredibly thorough.
    – Speed: Google prioritizes things for you in their searches.

These two examples illustrate the point that whether a product, service or system will lead to a deep interaction is oftentimes ambiguous. Yet the answer to this question is vital to the world that we continue to create through the experiences that we influence with our technologies. It must be our goal as designers to create things that lead to deep interactions, ultimately leading to positive life- and culture-shaping experiences.


Dewey, John. “In Need of a Theory of Education.” Education and Experience. 1938.

Postman, Neil. “Informing Ourselves to Death.” Speech to the German Informatics
Society. Stuttgart. October 11th, 1990.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. 1978.

Wyatt, Jocelyn and Tim Brown. “Design Thinking for Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter 2010.

Nussbaum, Bruce. “Want to Know More About Bruce Nussbaum’s Creative Capitalism? Read On.” Fast Co. Design. October 12, 2011.