What is interactivity?

Upon wrapping up my first week of classes at ITP, I’m contemplating increasingly what the “I” in “ITP” stands for. Literally it is “Interactive” (perhaps the only relevant part of its name, “ITP” is the “KFC” of academics), but despite “interactive” continuing to remain relevant in today’s digital culture, it’s probably useful to probe deeper into what it means.

Basic Interactivity

I typically start an exploration like this by understanding the most basic concept at play here. If we break down the word, we find two smaller words: inter and active. As in at least two parties acting upon each each other. Chris Crawford in the first 2 chapters of The Art of Interactive Design: A Euphonious and Illuminating Guide to Building Successful Software speaks at length about how a conversation between two people is an act of interactivity. Both are subjects and objects!

However, more important might be how to achieve interaction with less human objects. No… not computers. We’re not there yet. As someone with some architectural experience, I like to think of a door as a great object of interactive capacity. Our subject, in this case a person named Sam, approaches a closed door. The following occurs:

  1. Sam observes the door is closed while wondering what lies beyond it.
  2. Sam turns the handle.
  3. The door, as an involuntary reaction to its handle being turned, releases the latch that has locked it closed.
  4. Sam feels the latch release and pushes the door open.
  5. Sam walks through the doorway.
  6. Everyone, door included, lives happily ever after knowing they have achieved their greatest purposes in life!

These kinds of tiny interactions are happening constantly over and over in our lives without a moment of thought from us. Why then do we consider only digital interfaces when considering interactivity? Is this definition deficient somehow? Perhaps good interaction, like design, is 99% invisible, and digital interactions are just so awful that we now consider them to be the only versions of interactivity worth talking about.

Cyclical Nature of Interactivity

I think what appears to be unique about the above progression is that it can ultimately continue on and on. Sam opens the door, Sam walks through the doorway, and the door closes. Sam opens the door, Sam walks through the doorway, and the door closes. The door wouldn’t open without Sam. Sam would probably walk through the doorway without the door, but wouldn’t have interacted with anything in the process. In the best interactive systems there always appears to be a give and a take… or a give and a give.

Putting a puzzle together might be a stronger example of how this cyclical process can push a subject towards an eventual goal. Sam puts a piece in the correct place in the puzzle revealing a small piece of the larger picture. This results in a satisfying tactile sensation of that piece sliding right into to place and the enticing hint of a completed puzzle, both sensations provided by the inanimate puzzle! Motivated by this dual sensorial pat on the back, Sam plows forward.

I think my older brother had this in his bedroom in high school

Legos can be seen as a kind of puzzle that has no completed state. Through this cyclical process, a kind of creative bootstrapping can occur where kids (or in some cases adults) can start making a thing by putting pieces together and figure out what it is in the end—not the beginning.

Exploiting this process is going to be a key component of what I hope to achieve at ITP.


    1. This refers to the feedback that something has happened. It’s an idealized scenario, and we all use doors completely without thought. But when a door is locked, it’s something we react to immediately. If there’s a door with a keypad, usually there is some indicator that its safe to proceed.

      1. Right. I think that’s the part that makes something interactive, an observable outcome of an action, sometimes (often) used to inform the user.

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