Usable vs. Poetic Interactions

In Thoughts on Interaction Design, author Jon Kolko writes about “poetic interactions.” The thrust of his essay was that a truly poetic interaction went well beyond simple usability—whether a task is easy or efficient to perform—and that too much of interaction design, especially in the digital realm, focuses on usability to the exclusion of other factors. As Kolko writes in his essay,

Some practicing designers balk at the idea of designing poetic interactions. One early reviewer of this text was as blunt as to say, ‘I have other things to worry about - like shipping a working product that isn’t awful.’ Yet if designers focus only on the low-hanging fruit of functionalism or usability, the human experience with designed objects is destined to a level of banality. As ideological as it may appear, what if that piece of enterprise software offers - for a fleeting moment of use - a poetic or soulful experience?

This dichotomy of usable vs. “poetic” interactions is something I’ve often come across as a designer, before and after the transition to UX. When I talk to clients and hiring managers, user experience is far too often discussed in terms of usability testing, to the point where the terms are interchangeable. When asked what kind of user experience activities a team might do in a course of a project, often the answer is wireframes, a few user flows, and user testing—in fact, the ability to write and execute a test plan is the most often requested attribute of UX designers in job postings, aside from knowing a whole bunch of front-end coding stuff that many UX designers don’t touch.

This got me thinking more and more about the author’s discussion of poetic interactions, and the idea of creating something that isn’t just usable, but can actually shape behavior. Whether we want them to or not, the interactions that designers create can help shape behavior, for better or worse. Facebook, for example, has changed the way that we think of social interaction on the web. Is the interface “usable?” Yes, once you get used to it. But the point of Facebook isn’t an easily intuitive interface; it’s about getting you to interact with people in a new way.

Likewise, the RMV isn’t necessarily “usable.” But it does have some poetry to it. When you arrive at the RMV, you’re sorted according to what you’re there to do, and then you get a number that corresponds to the task you’re there to perform. By separating the tasks with a letter (as they do in Massachusetts), and giving you an approximate wait time up front, you’re prepared for the task of waiting. You know what to expect. So you bring a book, or your iPad, or you find some other way to occupy your time.

This is the difference that exists between things that are “usable” and things that are “poetic.” You may not understand the poetry, you may not appreciate the poetry, but it exists. And subtly, it changes you.