Three Keys That Make Good Interaction Design Great

Janna DeVylder, president of the Interaction Design Association, breaks down a simple product–a reusable coffee cup–and shows how it succeeds in three vital areas: context, impact, and craft.

Three Keys That Make Good Interaction Design Great

A very difficult task sits before me. In November, I will be joining an amazing Interaction Awards jury in New York for a weekend of evaluation, critique, and debate, deciding which submitted works represent the best of interaction design, the design for how people relate to, interact with, and use products, systems, and services.


This will be the first Interaction Awards, run by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). It comes at an exciting time for our discipline. While books and articles have attempted to select, review, and dissect the work of interaction design over the years, never have we seen such a concerted effort to gather interaction design work, evaluate it and then display it for both the design and business worlds to see. Year to year, the evolution and growth of the work will come through in the Interaction Awards.

When people submit their work, they’ll be asked to place it in one of six submission categories. Instead of categories like “web,” “mobile,” “embedded in product” or “service,” the categories emphasize the focus on the intent of the interactions and impact of the design, beyond the medium or channel:

Optimizing: Making daily activities more efficient

Engaging: Capturing attention, creating delight and delivering meaning

Empowering: Enabling people to go beyond their limits

Expressing: Encouraging self expression and/or creativity

Connecting: Facilitating communication between people and communities

Disrupting: Re-imagining completely an existing product or service by creating new behaviors, usages or markets.

Breaking the mold of channel creates an exciting dynamic for us to create discourse over why we want people to interact with the things we’ve designed, and how they benefit from doing so. Ahead of the challenge, each of us on the jury needs to think about how we would evaluate the submitted work based on three judging criteria: Context, Impact and Craft.

Just how would we use these criteria? Let’s look at a great product example I run into on a daily basis–Australia’s KeepCup–and put these criteria to use.

Disrupting A Product Category

If the KeepCup was eligible for the awards (less than two years old), I would imagine it would be submitted under the “Disruptive” category. It was the brainchild of sandwich shop owners Abigail Forsyth and Jamie Forsyth who were compelled to create a product that reduced the amount of takeaway coffee cups their business was contributing to Australia’s landfills. How could their shop reduce its carbon footprint while encouraging and relying on customers to change their habits, participate, and reuse?

The answer came in the form of a reusable takeaway coffee cup, whose details have been precisely tuned. Today, over 800,000 cups have been sold worldwide. It is marketed as the “first barista-standard resuable cup.” Walk into a coffee shop in Sydney and you see them sitting on the counter, often indicating a daily savings for bringing in your cup. How did it go from an idea to an adopted phenomenon? The differentiator is not in creating a resuable coffee cup (although they did that quite well by considering the aesthetic and pleasure of use); they had to orchestrate, encourage adoption, and change the behavior of customers and barristas alike. The judging criteria actually help us dissect a fascinating story.



For the first category, Context, we’re asked to think about “the challenge, culture and geography in which the work is intended to sit. The relevance of the problem it addresses, and the timeliness and appropriateness of the solution.”

There certainly were challenges that the KeepCup was designed to face, and it wasn’t just about the form of the cup nor manufacturing. There is a culture of takeaway coffee consumption, and the volume of consumption in disposable cups was increasing each year. More and more people were on the go, meaning more takeaway cups were thrown away every day. Would people actually wash their cups and remember to bring them? Would coffee baristas accept these cups and would they fit under the machines?

The customers needed to buy the cups, wash them, remember to bring them back, and to enjoy the taste of the coffee from the cup; barristas had to be willing to serve coffee in these cups and be assured they were working with standard sizes. This product couldn’t create lag in service delivery; it had to fit into the flow of work as easily as disposable cups did.


The second category for consideration is Impact, asking us to think about “the potential impact of the work on people, its intended users and society; on business, profit, cost, brand; and on the planet, the environment and the world.”

The folks at KeepCup are not just selling cups; they’re encouraging a way of living, requiring great orchestration of product, placement, service and use. The KeepCup team would have needed to understand the barriers in order to position and best increase adoption. Customers would have to consciously shift how they consume coffee in the midst of easy takeaway cup purchases, similar to how people now have to remember to bring their reusable bags to grocery stores. Coffee shops and baristas would need to be assured the coffee amounts would be the same, the qualities of taste, smell and heat would be maintained, and that service could remain as quick as it is with disposable cups. The environmental impact is something that would be felt over time and with widespread product adoption. KeepCup even has a “Calculate my Footprint” feature on its website as a way to see how individuals and businesses can annually decrease environmental impact.



The final category, Craft, covers several variables, looking at “the coherency, structure, behavior, and meaning of the work. Its presentation, emotional content, and practical purpose; Its elegance in language, functionality, and use, as it supports human interaction. Attention to detail, fit and finish, how the medium serves the purpose and goals of the design.”

The aesthetic of the KeepCup is unmistakable. With its mix-and-match sensibility, it’s something you can inherently make your own, something that you are happy drinking from and walking around holding. In many ways it’s a very visible “green” accessory and may actively serve as a trigger for other people to change their behavior. The aspect of pleasure of use encourages repeat usage. Coffee shops that display, sell and encourage use of KeepCups also take on “green” cred, even having the ability to sell branded KeepCups, a walking billboard for their shops. Had the idea been right but the form-execution poor, the adoption and global spread of this product would have been incredibly impacted.

The founders of KeepCup chose a product and an interaction model of reuse as a way to meet their intended goal. Others might have created a website or social media campaign as a way to discourage disposable coffee cup behavior; or more environmentally friendly disposable cups; or an easier at-home coffee maker; or a coffee pill. The point is this: there are many ways in which to encourage and change behavior, and medium alone does not indicate impact or reach.

I relish the challenge ahead. There’s a day left, so go ahead–make our work difficult for us. Challenge your own assumptions about what interaction design can be. Submit your work and your story. I look forward to celebrating the finalists of each category at the Interaction 12 conference in Dublin in February 2012.