Book review: Designing Gestural Interfaces

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In the wake of the ever increasing popularity of gestural interfaces, Dan Saffer wrote his newest book: Designing Gestural Interfaces. In this publication by O’Reilly he tries to give us some valuable insights. But did he succeed?

Gestural interfaces are not new, but they are more popular than ever. Everywhere around us you see new ones popping up. And before everybody is coming up with their own interpretation and translation of what they should be and do, we must evaluate what has happened in the past and how we must deal with the future. Dan Saffer’s book is a great starting point for this exercise.

Let’s go through the book chapter by chapter.

The basics

The first chapter is an introduction to the subject. It gives a good and basic explanation. One interesting part of this chapter is ‘matching the gesture to the behavior’. This approach states that the best designs are those that ‘dissolve in behavior’. Here the product must become part of what the user is doing fluently. This is what good gestures should be, combining peoples natural behavior with a related action.

The human body

In the second chapter Saffer focuses on the human body, something a lot of designers often forget. The importance of understanding the mechanics of a human body is really fundamental in order to design good gestural interfaces. What is you body capable of doing? And what not? And we should not forget ergonomics. This is important even though there is no mouse. Saffer goes into this subject rather well, describing possible limitations and pointing us on some simple, but valuable facts (10% of adults are left-handed).

Patterns for touch, interactive & free form

After the first two chapters the book dives into possible patterns for gestural interfaces. It’s an important step Saffer tries to take here: trying to define an international set of patterns. Several companies are developing gestural interfaces and are creating their own patterns, independent of each other. Some, like Apple, are even trying to patent some patterns… so it’s really important to start describing a set that is recognized by users and freely usable by any company. It would be a great step if the patterns Saffer describes would be available online, open for discussion and growth.

Documenting gestural interfaces

Documenting static websites in the 90s was pretty straight forward. But with growing interactivity and gestural interfaces it is a challenge for designers to capture the way an environment or device interacts with a user. The fifth chapter of Designing Gestural Interfaces looks into different ways to document your project. The one I like the most is drawing storyboards, encapsulating not only the interface but also the context and how the user behaves in it. It’s a great way to test for yourself if the design works, but also a superb way of presenting the concept to clients.

Prototyping

When you’re done with the sketching you want to prototype an interface. In the sixth chapter of the book you get some low- and high-fidelity ways of prototyping. Amongst the low-fidelity is the creation of paper prototypes, which I really like. It’s an easy and really fast way of making a ‘working’ version of your product. You can give it to a colleague and let him play around with it. But even playing around with it yourself is really helpful, since you will ‘feel’ and see what it does. Of course paper prototyping is not always the best solution, since gestural interfaces can also be about bigger objects or even spaces. But these are also easily prototyped. Saffer gives some nice examples of these.

Communicating

For me chapter 7 “Communicating Interactive Gestures” was one of the more interesting ones. It learned me the true importance of communicating that there are interactive gestures or not. Imagine that there are some public spaces that have gestural interfaces, and some don’t… but it’s not communicated well. This will cause real stress, since people won’t know if, when, how and what they will trigger an event. It’s really important to be clear about this, stating when there is an interaction possible… what it triggers and how. But in order to achieve this we will have to find an international language, explaining this to us. It could be something as simple as an RSS icon, but it has to be something clear.

Future

In the last chapter Saffer tries to sketch his vision for the future. Unfortunately he plays on the safe side and only describes the main trends going on in the field. So when you follow the important sites in the IxD and UX field, you are covered and can skip this chapter.

Conclusion

Before I started reading this book I thought it would dive deep into the world of gestural interfaces. But I should have known better… Since this is the first serious attempt to capture the subject it is logical that it needs to introduce us to a lot of new things. And although only the first chapter is called ‘Introducing Interactive Gestures’ I have to say that the entire book is an introduction to the subject. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t give helpful information, but it never goes into the subject deep enough to totaly cover it. This makes Designing Gestural Interfaces a great book for people new to the subject, like students. Let’s take this book as the fundament and see some new ones building upon it, going more in-depth.

Book Details
Designing Gestural Interfaces
author: Dan Saffer
publisher: O’Reilly
details: 247 pages, paperback

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

4 comments on this article

  1. Boyd on

    The way the book is set up sounds very similar like an earlier book that he wrote (Design For Interaction). A width scale of information but no a lot of depth. Maybe its better to see the book as a short introduction to the field of gesture interfaces.

  2. I completely agree with you Jeroen!

    I haven’t read the book from cover to cover, but did look through it for 1-2 hours. Personally I was expecting more from an O’Reilly book, this is (in my opinion) too shallow for anyone who has been following the industry news for the past couple of years.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book to have as a reference to the basics of gestural interfaces, but I think the content is weak and doesn’t have enough depth behind how people experience gestural interfaces (as opposed to ‘traditional interfaces’)

  3. I actually had the chance to sit in on a Dan Saffer lecture last night and had a chance to briefly discuss the book with him. I mentioned I wish I had the book three years ago, when I started to leave the traditional industrial design mentality and focused more on interaction design. (@laumans) Saffer agreed wholeheartedly that the book is intended for the beginning student level and not as a methodology or toolkit for anyone involved in the field for a few years.

  4. I concur. I expected more, even though I had read “Designing for Interaction”. I would have liked to see him cover more of the history of touch screens and research done within those fields in the past couple of decades — in particular the effects of the so called Gorilla Arm syndrome. For me those studies really put touch based interactions into perspective. I still think it’s essential to understand the place of touch/gestural interaction as part of a larger world and not see it as a revolutionary new thing that will make everything else obsolete.

    To be honest, I haven’t read all of it, just the parts that looked interesting. Right now, it’s sitting on my desk just for future reference.