The first assignment for the Basic Interaction course I’m teaching this semester was due today. With it being only a week into the semester, I did not know what to expect from the students. But their efforts provided fodder for some stimulating discussion and considerations for interaction design. The assignment was as follows, originally developed by Chris Pacione (now at BodyMedia).

A: Physical cube

Starting with a cube, design an interactive object that you think best communicates the following uses. The cube should look as though you can:

  • rub it
  • turn it
  • squeeze it

The cube can be no bigger than six inches in any dimension. You may add or subtract from the cube, but it has to remain cube-like. Other shapes may be used as long as they play a secondary role. You may also use color, texture, material as well as a relative context. For example, the final solution might be a green fuzzy cube with little circular nibs placed on the floor.

With no mention of research of audience, the students were left to their own devices in their interpretation. There were a range of solutions, many made of some sort of foam or sponge to afford squeeze, a lot of fuzzy bits for rubbing, and various measures to suggest turning.

After some discussion, we started talking about the success of the requirements from a distance and then once you got the cube in your hands. I saw this as a macro/micro perspective similar to how you might talk about a poster. From across the room you might be attracted to a cube because it looks like you can interact with it in one way, and then upon close inspection you discover further ways to interact with it. I had not thought about affordances as being macro and micro before, so I thought this was an interesting point to emerge especially when thinking about keeping people engaged with a product by not revealing all its tricks up front, but allowing for some exploration and discovery.

We also talked about the range between explicit and implicit affordances. For example, an explicit means of communicating that the cube should be turned might be by an arrow. In the middle of the spectrum might be a quote or line of text that starts on one side of the cube and continues across multiple sides, provoking the user to turn it to read the whole sentence by not explicitly telling them. On the implicit side might be a cube that is a puzzle that can be pulled apart and put back together. This act requires the user to turn the cube to examine all the sides to figure out the puzzle.

Finally, it was interesting that no one challenged the requirements by creating affordances that did not deliver. For example, no one purposely designed a cube that looked like you could turn it but actually did not turn. This brings up a point about intention (and perhaps manipulation) in design. When would you want to suggest an action that could not actually be performed? Unfortunately, we did not have time to discuss this. Perhaps for the next assignment.

As for this assignment, I think it’s a great introduction to interaction design because it gets people thinking about interaction design outside of the context of digital interfaces, it’s easy to talk about because you have tangible artifact to interact with, it’s quick, and it’s fun.