Physical interaction has been moving in a troubling direction, as Bret Victor states in his rant, we are currently being led to believe “pictures under glass” (referring to modern touch interfaces) are the future of physical interactivity. I prefer to see touch technology in this capacity as more of a stepping stone than a permanent answer to our interactive needs, but it’s spreading beyond the realm of smartphones and tablets and finding it’s way into all kinds of products in our lives, superfluously replacing tactile buttons, switches, and dials in everything from espresso machines to cameras.
The Leica camera above serves in my mind as the perfect example of well designed physical interaction in a mechanically complex product. The camera has the ability to become an extension of ones body, providing physical feedback when manipulated in the form of a solid “click” when a setting is changed by the user on the body. This physical feedback upon manipulation provides the user with more than just a visual form of communication with the device allowing for distraction free composition via the viewfinder while letting ones hands do the work. Leica has kept true to this design since the launch of the Leica M3 camera in 1954, changes in it’s digital cameras have been quite minor (the elimination of the film rewind/advance levers for instance). While other camera companies struggled attempting to design around the digital revolution, taking far too long to realize the value in a mechanically refined and simple design, Leica is an example of a company that did not let it’s original design waiver and has found success because of this.
Interaction in the digital realm is slightly more complex, in Crawford’s book “The Art of Interactive Design” he describes interaction as a form of communication, something that requires three steps – listening, thinking, and speaking. This is required by both parties to have interaction, anything less becomes more of a reaction than an interaction. Crawford goes on to state that we shouldn’t measure interaction as a boolean property – it is not something that is either on or off like a switch as there are different levels of interactivity. Taking this into account and applying it to the digital realm there are very few non interactive tasks when using digital technology, we are constantly either speaking/listening to our devices. When inputting information into a digital device, whether it be a touch or keystroke we are “speaking” to the device, once said input is complete the device “listens” to our input and begins processing or “thinking” about the information we have given it. When complete the device offers us a reply (talking back to us), this happens countless times throughout our day as we interact with the digital devices around us. That said all digital devices have an element of interactivity, some higher than others. That is until you tell your computer to launch netflix and begin watching a movie – this top-down form of communication offers zero levels of interactivity with its user.