We think of apps as pieces of software; things that help us get things done or avoid getting things done. But they’re also excellent props for story telling. Just as we leaven our conversations with interjections, proverbs and idioms, why not leaven them with apps? Especially apps that do exactly one thing. What UX designers call microinteractions are nothing but an expanded version of what humans beings have been using in dialog and sensorimotor interaction for millennia.

I was on a bus yesterday when it almost hit someone. The bus was turning left into the Harvard bus station. Meanwhile the pedestrian was walking and texting at the same time, oblivious to the fact that he had stepped right into the bus’s path. Fortunately, the bus driver was paying attention. He braked hard to avoid the man. You should have seen the man’s face — nothing like having a ten ton bus screech to a halt inches away from your face.

As it so happens, I had just slipped a book I was reading on microinteractions into my backpack. A microinteraction on a mobile device is a single thing you do in or with an app. More generally, a microinteraction is one action anywhere, like saying uh-oh or OK when someone asks you a question. Opening the door to your car is a microinteraction. Entering your email address in an app is a microinteraction. Avoiding a pedestrian who steps in your way because he wasn’t paying attention is a (failed?) microinteraction.

As Saffer emphasizes throughout his book, good design is as much about the microinteractions as it is about the big features. Some great apps are great precisely because they do one thing supremely well. App design is increasingly getting unbundled; it’s moving toward single use cases. There’s always the danger of going overboard with the focus on microinteractions, but we invariably design a good app when we focus on that one thing that delights the user.

Or save his life.

Don’t we need an app for that? High end cars are equipped with pedestrian detectors, but what about an app for pedestrians to avoid buses, cars and other walkers? I present to you my ticket to app infamy:

The Lifesaver

Lifesaver

This week’s links:

  1. Dan Saffer’s book on Microinteractions. I can’t say it saved my life, but it helped me understand how to create an app for doing so.
  2. Yo. Enough said.
  3. Donald Norman on the Design of Everyday Things. Cognitive Science meets Design.
  4. Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. The original source of all these ideas.

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