The Future Of Tangible Interfaces: 5 Insights Backed By Science

How much do we really know about what makes an interaction pleasurable for a user? These researchers are quantifying the guessing game.

The Future Of Tangible Interfaces: 5 Insights Backed By Science

Last week, researchers came together in the Dutch city of Eindhoven for the 10th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction. The conference explored the bleeding edge of human-computer interaction—think water-based interfaces, soft robots, and new forms of haptic interfaces—and featured researchers studying the intricacies of how we relate to technology.


Despite the cerebral subject matter, it’s surprising just how universal some of those ideas are. In fact, reading the conference’s long list of papers and posters suggests a booming world of interaction design seems to be inspiring new research into the way humans perceive the world around them, lending new insights into human behavior that could impact not just technology, but any product or object. Here are a few examples.

Olinchuk via Shutterstock

Skip The Plastic If You Can

How much do we really know about what form factors users find pleasurable? A team from Sheffield Hallam University’s Cultural, Communication, and Computing Research Institute argue that as more everyday objects take on interactive properties, understanding how material, size, and shape affect our perception both positively and negatively is crucial.

For their study, they created a series of “hybrid” objects, each combining two elements from a list that included shape, texture, noise, vibration, and light. They asked people to record their impressions of, say, a plastic sphere versus a fabric one, or a sphere that emitted light versus a sphere that buzzed, and so on, using adjectives including interesting, comfortable, playful, surprising, pleasant, special, and relaxing.

The correlations they found indicated that people definitely preferred certain types of materials and interactions over others. In some cases, they confirmed previously supposed theories, including that people tend to prefer spheres over cubes. But more importantly, people were especially positive about fabric objects and averse to plastic ones—and always preferred objects that reacted to their touch, whether vibrating or emitting light.

The authors point out that there’s a chasm between these findings and the way technology is designed right now. Let go of the 3-D printer and the laser cutter, they say, and spend more time figuring out how to design objects that feel natural and playful to human users.

guteksk7 via Shutterstock

Temperature Is The One Sense That Designers Totally Ignore

Excluding the burning-hot imprint your laptop leaves on your knees, when was the last time you interacted with an object through heat? A team of Swedish designers at TEI, led by Södertörn University’s Martin Jonsson, say temperature is a totally underutilized design material.

After all, our daily lives are defined “by what are essentially acts of homeostasis—adjusting the temperature of our baths or showers, making sure our food and drinks are of the right temperature, putting on or taking off pieces of clothing,” they write in their paper, “The Aesthetics of Heat.” There’s a lot of human pleasure to be unlocked in heat, and right now, designers are ignoring it.

To prove it, they developed a full-body heat mat to test how heating different parts of participants’ bodies affected their perception. They found that while temperature might not be the most exact or immediate form of interaction, it has a few major benefits. Unlike the haptic or audio feedback you might get from a device—say, a buzzing hoodie that encourages better posture or a smartwatch that taps your wrist to get your attention—the heat mat users reported feeling like the heat was actually coming from inside their own bodies.


“The aim was thus to create a stimuli that supports inward-looking rather than turning attention to the external world,” they explain. That’s something no other form of haptic design can do, and it opens up a new genre of “slow and reflective” interaction design that puts the emphasis on subtle ambient interactions rather than, say, external notifications or reminders.

Tatiana Popova via Shutterstock

The Way A Product Moves Is Part Of Its Personality

Over the past year, we’ve watched the rise of UX that’s driven by chatty personalities—from Slackbot to Quartz’s new mobile app. But your personality isn’t just about what you say, it’s about how you act.

Marco Spadafora, a designer at Polytechnic University of Milan, collaborated with a team from Stanford University’s Center for Design Research to create a set of design principles for the way interactive products behave. “We found a lack of tools to design the behavior in a consistent way,” they write. So they created a design method called Personality that prompts designers to use archetypal human personalities as blueprints for interactive products.

They also came up with an incredibly funny and sweet way of testing their method. They tested three personalities, each based on human stereotypes, using an interactive sofa on wheels called SofaBot. Then they rounded up a group of subjects and asked them to complete a task in the same room as SofaBot, which would interact with the human subject based on its designated personality (the Risk Taker, which was sneaky and obtuse; the Loving Parent, which was helpful and warm; and the Big Boss, which tried to direct users). It turned out that these behaviors were very tangible to participants. “It was following me and it agreed with what I was doing,” said one subject of the Loving Parent SofaBot, while another described the Risk Taker by saying, “It was anxious until we got to know each other.”

Whatever the personality quirks of SofaBot, the subjects ended up bonding with, well, a piece of furniture. “We went through so much together, we became buddies,” one participant said. If that’s not evidence that designers need to think carefully about how their products move and behave, what is?

Luis Carlos Torres via Shutterstock

Color Is Way More Meaningful Than You Think

You’re probably familiar with anecdotes about designers adding weights to their products so users perceive it as higher quality, right? Well, a team at Würzburg University presented a study arguing that something as simple as color can have the same impact on an object.

We’re used to thinking of design metaphors in terms of objects, such as the desktop or the trash can. But color is another genre of metaphor, too, and we tend to infer a lot about an object based on its hue. For example, darker colors tend to have a “weight” to them, even when they don’t, and higher-saturation colors draw our eyes, which makes us think that they’re larger than a similar object of a different color. These associations extend to size, temperature, and weight and represent an underused vocabulary for designers, especially when it comes to products that have to translate across multiple languages.

“By grounding color-to-abstract mappings in sensorimotor experience, designers are able to use color in a way that is possibly valid across languages and cultures, i.e., designers do not have to rely on symbolic meaning that is highly culturally dependent alone,” the Würzburg team writes in its study. In short: Pay attention to the colors you use, because our brains are hyperaware of them—and tend to read much more meaning into each hue than you’d expect.

BlueSkyImage via Shutterstock

Mindfulness Is An Interaction You Can Design

The past 150 years of product design—especially in the home–has been a march toward ease. Every oven, dishwasher, and appliance has been designed to take the thinking out of the equation. But is that necessarily the end goal for product design these days, when users are increasingly interested in experiences and authenticity?

Not according to Vincent van Rheden and Bart Hengeveld at Eindhoven University of Technology, who say that as our values evolve from speed and simplicity toward slowness and complexity—as seen in the slow food movement—product design needs to catch up. The duo designed three prototype blenders that each required users to do a different physical task to operate, with each designed to engender a different level of mindfulness and engagement. One required users to twist a rod between their thumb and forefinger, a second required repetitive pushing, and a third required users to pull a string, a bit like starting a lawn mower.


As zany as these prototypes sound, when the designers tested how users rated their experiences with them, they found that spending more time operating an appliance ended up producing richer user experiences. They call this “embodied” interaction, and describe it as the UX equivalent of mindfulness. “Most of our kitchen appliances make us less engaged in the act of and less caring for cooking,” they write—but designers, both in the kitchen and elsewhere, have the power to change that.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.