Interaction Models and the Key to Creating Optimum Flow

An interaction model is the outline for how a product operates, taking into account user behavior and experience. Here's what you need to know.

Written by Dhanesh TK
Published on Jun. 28, 2023
Interaction Models and the Key to Creating Optimum Flow
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
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Have you ever struggled with an updated app? Or referred to the documentation for a new operating system?

You just don’t care, right? You want to dive into the app straight away. That’s why good design is always invisible, allowing you to dive into the app without having to read through pages of documentation. It banks on your past experiences and expectations by modeling everything for your fulfillment. In the best platforms, those interactions are in perfect sync with your thought process and work in tandem with the system. You, as a user, are in a flow state and not all concerned about how the system works.

What Is an Interaction Model?

An interaction model provides the underlying structure or blueprint for how a product or system behaves based on known user behavior. It provides a model for the structure, consistency, direction and feedback for the product, with the goal of helping users reach a state of flow.      

That invisibility is the hallmark of a good interaction model.

 

Why Interaction Models Matter

In general, interaction models have a wide variety of use-cases across disciplines, each with its own set of beliefs. In the context of interaction design, we can frame it as the underlying structure or framework that governs the behavior of a product or system in concert with the user’s behavior. It provides structure, consistency, direction and feedback with the system. To summarize, it’s the blueprint of actions between users and the system.

Today’s customers are exposed to more and more digital interactions in their day-to-day life. This has brought the tolerance level for poorly designed products to almost zero. To survive in this experience economy, products have to be on par with the experiences and expectations of the users. With user-centered design, businesses can now focus on users, their context, channels and landscapes to deliver the best possible experience. An interaction model is the starting point for laying the foundation for a great user experience.

interaction model factors chart
Factors considered in defining an interaction model. | Image: Dhanesh Thekoot Kumar

Interaction models try to inform the way the product behaves with users. It’s a conceptual model that visualizes the interactions based on the mental model of the users. Governed by the principles of interaction design, a good model must display the following traits;

  • Being invisible: An easy learning curve, familiarity with past experiences, prompt feedback and anticipating user actions make a product invisible. Invisibility is achieved when users are in a state of flow using the product. It’s a hallmark of good interaction models.
  • Consistency: Consistency builds trust. It creates a feeling of stability and honesty, which thereby increases user satisfaction and ease of use. Surprises and shocks can ruin trust.
  • Familiarity principle: The model must have real-world metaphors, affordances and past interactions for it to quickly resonate with users . The more familiar users are with an interaction, the quicker the adoption will be.
  • User progression: A good model must adapt with user maturity. The progression from novice to mastery for users requires the system to provide adequate interactions. There must be provisions for basic and expert users.
  • Unobtrusive: The model must display adequate maturity when giving alerts and feedback. Rather than intimidating users with constant notifications, the system must be passive, calling less attention to itself.
  • Minimalism: Focus on what’s important to users and set aside all other features that don’t help users focus on the task. In a sense, design around what is critical and leave the rest. Too many features, ads and attention cravings will backfire.

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Defining Interaction Models

Building interaction models require comprehensive insights into users and their contexts, channels and landscapes. These will serve as the guiding stars to help you define an interaction model. It is a collaborative process that starts with whiteboard sessions and workshops before progressing toward more concrete models.

interaction model diagram representation
An diagrammatic representation of an interaction model. | Image: Dhanesh Thekoot Kumar

By bringing stakeholders, small and mid-size enterprises and users into the process, we can ensure diversity on all viewpoints and quicker ideations. The interaction model can draw insights upon the initial research activities designers conduct.

Let’s take a closer look.

 

Scenario Ideations

From personas, key scenarios and context can be captured and prioritized from personas. They can be based on usage ratio, significance or user context. These scenarios can be further visualized through rough sketches with users in their context.

A tutorial on the basics of interaction models in UX. | Video: Interaction Design Foundation

 

Conceptual Models

From scenarios, you can easily figure out the connections, hierarchies and interactions to visualize a low fidelity model. They are abstract, diagrammatic representations of entities, structures and relationships enabling us to digest the big picture.

 

Information Architecture

By giving structure to the elements in conceptual models, information architecture organizes, labels and gives hierarchy to the data. The information is a bit more concrete and provides more details like site maps, hierarchies, categorizations, navigation and metadata.

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Screen Layouts 

From the information architecture, you get to know the key primary functions, verbs and nouns of your product. Based on this, the foundational structure can be visualized as a starting point. Form factors like mobile, tablet and desktop must also be considered at this stage.

interaction model component layout
Common layout patterns like full width, two column, three column, etc. | Image: Dhanesh Thekoot Kumar

 

Components

This provides hierarchy and structure to the layouts by organizing contents into meaningful blocks. Components are based on functionality and can have multiple patterns to represent them. For example, headers, footers, headings, content modules, data tables and more.

interaction model component layout
Component layout or modules like content modules, data tables, search engine results pages, etc. | Image: Dhanesh Thekoot Kumar

 

Patterns

These are the building blocks of the interface. They bring harmony and consistency to the user interface (UI). A typical pattern will have multiple elements that display how data or information is organized. They can be reused across different components to achieve a function.

interaction model component layout
Typical user interface patterns like search, list , tables, graphs, images list, etc. | Image: Dhanesh Thekoot Kumar

 

Advantages of an Interaction Model

The most exciting part of any design is the implementation phase. For a practitioner, the joy of seeing the insights transition into concepts is satisfying. It’s nice to see your hard work finally pay off with the evolution of these frameworks. Interaction models serve as a foray into this process, giving us the foundational structure from which we can start building. Being invisible doesn’t make them inferior, and their immortality is evident across design systems, style guides and interaction libraries.

And for a user, it’s better that they remain unnoticed. As they say, “The most beautiful things are always hidden.”

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