Little Details, Big Meaning: Microinteractions in Experience Design

Posted by Justine Andrews on Mon, Sep 14, 2015

This month's blog topic is experience design. This post was written by SapientNitro's Michael Restiano and talks about the little details in experience design that can turn into cultural signifiers. 

Michael Restiano (@mikeyrest) is a content strategist at SapientNitro. When not helping brands develop and plan useful, relevant content, he’s a freelance writer published across the interwebz. Catch some of his stuff on the Huffington Post, or the SALT BlogMichael Restiano

What makes an experience an experience (*jazz hands*)?

It’s a question I’m constantly asking myself here at SapientNitro. When does the thing I’m planning the content for stop being just a website or an app? When does a channel stop being just a channel, and inherit character and identity?

Personally, I don’t think it’s inherent in any of the usual suspects: technology, copy, visual design, and (dare I say it) content. These are essentials, not differentiators. Try and build an experience without one and see what happens—I bet you’ll get something that looks like it climbed out of the primordial, HTML soup of early ‘90s web design. Please do us all a favor and send it back from whence it came.

Experiences undeniably get their functionality, purpose, and aesthetic from the large-scale essentials. But I’d argue that they get their character from the tiny ones: from the microinteractions.


There are a few ways to define the term “microinteraction.” Some have come up with actual, comprehensive definitions, while others, myself included, prefer an educated winging-it style: If it’s tiny, meaningful, and functionally embedded in the experience, it’s a microinteraction in my book.

Like, when Shia LaBeouf appears on screen to convince me to fill out a form. Did that just make me understand that real, actual human beings with a sense of humor and empathy created this scary, minimalist form thing? Yup. Do I maybe, just maybe, feel a bit more inclined to fill it out and do business with this company because I get their brand a bit more, and I’m likin’ it? You betcha.

Or, how about when Google Translate plays a word or sentence slower when I ask to hear it for the second time? That’s called anticipating a user need, and not being obnoxious about it (“Oh, sorry, do you want us to play that SLOWER for you?”) It makes me walk (look?) away from my screen saying, “Huh, thanks for getting me, Google!”

And, for an example not on Little Big Details (which, if you haven’t gotten the hint by now, you should totally follow), let’s talk about Tinder.

Could I click the little heart or x at the bottom of my screen to indicate my infatuation or repulsion for the poor specimen—sorry, human being—in front of me? Sure. But it’s far more fun to give a furious swipe to the left or right, incarnating my mental “eww” or “EHRMAGERD” for everybody on the subway to see. It’s so damn fun, actually, that “left swipe” and “right swipe” have become cultural signifiers. Did an interaction from your experience get turned into an anti-smoking music video, sung by B-list artists from across the country? Nope, didn’t think so. And yes, that’s meant to be a good thing. I think.

Point being—microinteractions like these are what give an experience character, tone, and humanity. They’re the things that make your app or website an experience (*jazz-hands*) to be remembered, rather than just another...experience. 

And puh-lease don’t play the industry card. Is a financial services firm going to give its geriatric insurance shoppers a Shia surprise? No, because that’s cruel and probably-maybe-most-likely a lawsuit. Don’t do it.

But, feel free to provide things like prepopulated forms, recommended products, or an online chat after being on a page for a few minutes. Those are the tiny details that solve big user needs. Bake with good content, solid tech, and pretty design, and you, my friend, have an experience (*jazz hands*) in the oven.

Topics: branding, website, app, tinder, experience, microinteractions, design, MITX