Microinteractions: The low cost of high reward

Like macroeconomics, microinteraction is a word whose meaning seems self-evident. As macro is about large things, micro is about little things… and it’s the little things that matter. 

What are microinteractions? 

Simply put, a microinteraction is a quick routine where a person is triggered to perform a single task. Once they do, they receive feedback as their reward. 

The Facebook “Like” is one such microinteraction, but there are many more. We use them all the time; however not all Web experiences provide them. Done properly, they form the basis for killer UX, so we need to understand their value and then provide it for our clients.

Why should we care?

To understand why microinteractions matter, let’s return to basics. The most fundamental objective when we create a digital experience is so obvious it’s sometimes overlooked. We want people to come to our site. We may even want them to come back often. Further, we usually want them to perform a task.

Our objective is to convert them somehow from what they were to what we want them to be. The key to converting human behavior is to change or create a habit. Microinteractions help form habits, and that’s why they matter.

What makes a good microinteraction?

First, a microinteraction has to be…. well, micro. It needs to be quick, short, and unobtrusive.

Next, it should be fun. And finally, it should require no explanation. Its use should be automatic or self-evident.

One of my personal favorites is a star rating microinteraction for product reviews. When I see five grey stars, and I realize I can click on any one of them to instantly provide my opinion, this feels rewarding. I can’t think of a reason not to click.

It’s tempting to take this ability for granted now, but just a few years ago, users had to navigate to a separate page, enter their rating then click a sad grey Submit button, receive an uninspired confirmation message and finally hope and pray that they were somehow returned to what they were doing before they were so rudely interrupted.  

This multi-step, multi-page, incredibly boring process is now reimagined as a slick microinteraction, which unsurprisingly has become the standard. A JavaScript technique called AJAX made this technically possible, but it was the creative execution that made it effective.

Stop doing that 

The early days of the Wild, Wild Web produced many failures. More than providing hours of rib-splitting laughs, these missteps help us remember what not to do. Classic blunders such as the HTML blink tag, the Microsoft paper clip and the ubiquitous splash screen are three oft-cited examples of interactions to avoid. Stay away from endless loops of visual noise and time-consuming and pointless animated interruptions. Though the case studies are old, the learnings remain valid today.

Digging in a little deeper 

Microinteractions work because they increase user engagement. In terms of cost and reward, the cost is low, and the reward is high. This is not to imply that they must be complex; a changed visual state, a brief animation, or a modified social status all go a long way to providing a satisfying reward. 

If it sounds like rats pushing levers in cages to receive food, that’s because the psychological theory is the same. Humans seek to maximize reward while minimizing cost, and experience designers must understand and take advantage of that motivation. That’s the difference between blasé and killer UX.

Organizations need to recognize that killer UX is a key differentiator. It creates outcomes that drive our success, or failure. So perhaps it’s time to think about how to provide killer UX as a required deliverable.

From meh to yeah! 

Whether it’s a wedding cake, a classic car or a great Website, it’s the final detailing that makes an experience memorable. We really need to think about how to provide space in our process for that final detailing, because surprising and delighting our end users, while creating new behaviors for them, is key to our clients’ — and our own — success. 

I don’t think there’s a single formula for making this happen, but I know that our industry is full of brilliant, passionate minds who want their work to be the best it can be. We all need to find ways to make that happen; to hone our overall processes so that they become facilitating rather than limiting frameworks.

Final thoughts

What projects have you been a part of recently which featured microinteractions that you know are killer UX? 

Please bring them to my attention — send me a link and tell me how your idea came about. If nothing comes to mind, then that means your product is not as good as it could be.

If that’s the case, try to identify where your team missed opportunities to layer on finishing details that grab attention and compel engagement. Study where your process works and where it doesn’t, and together with your colleagues form a plan to push forward this critical final detailing.

We can continuously improve our ability to provide delightful experiences that change behaviors. Furthermore, by measuring those behaviors we can deliver hard evidence to our current and future clients that our experiences are habit-forming.

No single person can do this alone. It’s necessary for everyone on the project to step up and help deliver killer UX every time. Microinteractions are just one piece of the puzzle, but they’re effective, and they should be relatively easy for your team to nail.

Your personal satisfaction and professional success may depend upon it.