Book Review: Microinteractions

microinteractions_comp1-228x300They say the devil is in the details, but the angels are in there too. That is, if you have a clue about what you’re doing. People who want to design things have large egos and presume that they’re skilled enough to work on large, grand ideas. But so rarely do designs in this world get the small things right, and if the small things, the little pieces that get used the most, are broken, what is the point of being large?

Dan Saffer’s book Microinteractions is the best book I’ve read about design in ages. I’ve been working in design for 20 years and often have younger designers ask me for advice, or how to achieve their grand design dreams. Most books about design are similarly grand and presume that everyone knows the basics well enough to do the little things well. The world proves this not to be true. Spend an afternoon strolling around town with a gaggle of caffeinated interaction designers and you’ll hear an endless commentary on the details the designers of the world have gotten wrong.

The book itself is a wonderfully self-consistent: it’s short, concise, well designed and brilliant. The fun and salient examples nail Saffer’s points, and his writing is sharp, incisive and with just enough comedic curmudgeonry to keep you smiling most of the way through. The book’s ambitions, like any good design project, are clear. Saffer’s focus is on the small sequences of interactions he calls, surprise, microinteractions. Ever been frustrated by entering your password? Leaving a comment on a blog? You’ve been let down by a microinteraction design. Perhaps the majority of design frustrations in the technological world are micro, not macro.

This is the book many designers will begrudgingly pick up, thinking it’s beneath them, but by the time they get to page 25 they’ll be thinking “oh, this is fun” and then by page 50 they’ll realize “oh dear, I make that mistake, or have peers that do” and when they’re finished they’ll know “I now have a language to describe these important problems that have bothered people for ages but were hard to describe, and I have the knowledge now to fix them properly”. What more can you ask for from a book about designing things?

We live in a world where the clueless have disturbing amounts of influence. There are no licenses required to use words like design, simplicity and quality, and it should be no surprise we’re often victimized by the engineered junk companies pass off as products. If we want that to change we have to start in the small. Until a designer, or an organization, can consistently get the details right, what hope is there to get the grand things right either?

Please buy this book. I say that selfishly as I want better design in the world. But I also say it generously: so many design books are fluffy affairs, lost in abstraction and ego. Saffer has hit the bullseye of problems the design world desperately needs to solve, and written a book every designer needs to read.

A free chapter is here (PDF) and the book has its own website.


7 Responses to “Book Review: Microinteractions”

  1. Mike Nitabach

    Just ordered the book! Sounds fascinating!

    Although I am not a UI designer, I spend a lot of time working with my scientific trainees on writing grant applications/manuscripts and designing graphical displays of quantitative and qualitative data. My philosophy has always been that no matter how fantastic the big picture content, it is the little barely perceptible stuff–like getting arrays of graphical elements exactly perfectly aligned–that makes or breaks how your work is perceived by other scientists.

    And when someone looks at written work and graphical displays of data, if these little microdetails are off kilter, they perceive the data themselves as shoddy. And they probably don’t even know why!!!!

  2. Mike Nitabach

    Just read the sample chapter, and it is very interesting. Just today I experienced an example of a poorly designed microinteraction involving feedback using the Seamless Web food delivery ordering app for Android.

    Before you add each desired menu item to your “paper bag”, you can press a button that opens a text box to type in any special instructions for that item. So I pressed the button and typed in for my chicken shish kebab wrap that I wanted the chicken cooked well done. Then I pressed the “Submit” button, which closed the text box and returned me to the menu item page.

    But there was absolutely no indication on the menu item page that the text I had typed had been successfully associated with the menu item. So, being the attentive individual that I am, I pressed again on the button to enter special instructions, and saw that the text I had originally typed was still populating the text box. This made me feel better.

    Then I pressed “Submit” again to return to the menu item page–still no indication that the special instructions had been registered– and pressed on the button to add the chicken shish kebab wrap to my order.

    When I was done adding items to my order, I pressed the button to checkout. This brought me to the checkout page which listed all of my selected menu items. This page also had no indication at all that I had provided special instructions concerning the chicken shish kebab wrap.

    So I went ahead and pressed on the “Place Order” button.

    The only feedback I ever received that my special instructions had been registered was in the automated confirmation e-mail that I was sent after the restaurant accepted my order. So this poorly designed microinteraction caused me to waste time going back to the special instruction entry text box to see if maybe my text was still there as a hint that it was registered and to waste emotional and cognitive energy worrying whether it was registered and attempting to find a workaround to confirm registration.

    (The Seamless Web app handles this microinteraction correctly, and gives confirmatory feedback when you enter special instructions both immediately and in the order summary you see before you click “Place Order”.)

    1. Scott

      I’ve yet to use Seamless, but it’s ironic that even with an app name like that, there are still little details that are hard to get right.

    2. Dan Saffer

      Once you start to see them, you can’t stop. Sounds like they didn’t understand what the message was they were conveying (or not) via Feedback here.

      1. Mike Nitabach

        “Once you start to see them, you can’t stop.”


  3. Eric Lawrence

    I’m a long-time buyer of Scott’s book club, so I was eager to read Microinteractions. While I enjoyed it, if you’re writing a book about how important it is that designers get the small details right, it’s important to get the small details right.

    This book (the printed version, at least) has a large number of problems related to the images– for instance, they often rely on specific colors (the book is printed in black and white). The prose is also often inconsistent with the image (e.g. directing the reader to look at a screenshot which doesn’t make the point that the text makes).

    Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is mentioned in the preface: now that “microinteractions” have a name, designers and developers can better argue for making investments in their implementation.

    1. Scott

      Thanks for the review Eric. Sorry if you were disappointed.

      It’s a good note to me to always mention the format I read the book in (which in this case was a pre-release PDF, which, as it turns out, made it hard for me to comment on any image production issues anyway since it wasn’t final).


Leave a Reply

* Required