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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.