What is interactive experience design, and why does it matter?
Interactive experience design is a multifaceted discipline that combines various elements to create immersive and captivating spaces. These designs are often proposed for physical environments, such as indoor exhibitions in museums or visitor centres, or even outdoor public spaces. A user’s journey is considered at each step of the way, including the interfaces they use, the hardware that they interact with, and the software that drives the entire experience. It also encompasses the décor, lighting and sound design needed to transport visitors into an entirely different headspace. This unique approach allows for the telling of specific stories in a compelling and engaging manner. And most importantly, it enhances the relationship between the content and the consumer.
Moreover, interactive experience design works within the growing experience economy, enabling companies, organizations, and brands to highlight their values and how they connect with users on a deeper level. By blending various mediums and technologies, this innovative design discipline leads to impactful experiences.
Best practices in interactive Experience Design
The five principles—robustness, maintainability, inclusiveness, intuitiveness, and fun—are discussed as they shape the three most important pillars of any design. For a truly interactive experience, material and decor choices, hardware, and software are central to any interactive experience. Materials and decor create immersive environments, while hardware supplies tangible interaction tools. Software controls and connects the digital elements to physical experiences. Adhering to these principles enables designers to engage users, deliver impactful narratives, and foster meaningful connections between space and audience.
To add extra context to each principle, there are case studies from past exhibits where our team at MoMoLab tested these principles in real and relevant projects. Together they tell a complete story of how working with these highlighted principles can lead to a successful and enjoyable project for everyone; you, the creators, your clients and your audiences.
Best Practice 1: Make it Robust
Interactive experiences should be designed to withstand the challenges posed by users and the test of time. The focus on durability and resistance to damage ensures that the delivered products are long-lasting and reliable. By embracing robustness during the process of designing interactive experiences, while finding materials, selecting hardware, and building software, you will improve the experience for your team, the client and the users.
When it comes to creating interactive experiences, the choice of materials and decor plays a vital role in ensuring robustness and longevity. At our office, we embrace a Dutch term called “hufterproof,” which can be best translated as jackass-proof. The English term “foolproof” comes close, but “hufterproof” encompasses more, acknowledging the need to design solutions that are so resistant to failure that they can withstand even the most destructive tendencies of some users. When choosing things to include such as decor pieces, interactive surfaces and built materials, consider what can withstand being dropped, scratched, climbed on, or touched by thousands of hands. Look at designs from the perspective of someone who might wish to destroy what you’ve made. You will notice the weak points ahead of time and so you can tweak your designs to avoid issues before they arise.
It is also important to expect edge cases and potential misuse of the hardware built into interactive exhibits. Accepting that users may interact with the experience in undesirable or unpredictable ways is crucial. With this in mind, incorporate damage resistance into your first designs. Try creating replaceable, cleanable, and modifiable parts that can withstand inevitable breakage. Also, consider the potential number of users and their interactions beforehand so you predict and remove elements prone to breakage. This testing can save you a headache later to fix damages that were foreseeable.
In addition to robust materials and hardware, the software behind an interactive experiences also plays a crucial role. You should develop software that is robust and easy to work with. This includes designing with scalability in mind and expecting ways that software will need to adapt to changing content needs. There might be shifting requirements for the exhibit as time goes by. By developing software that allows for easy swapping of content, videos, images, or audio, you can enable seamless updates and maintenance. This flexibility ensures that the interactive experiences are still robust and adaptable after years of use, enhancing the overall longevity and maintainability of an exhibit.
- Case Study
Using the decor at the Afsluitdijk Wadden Center as an example, we discovered the need for robust material designs after doing hands-on, practical experiments. The project manager on our team took it upon herself to test the durability of decor pieces resembling basalt blocks that were planned to be distributed throughout the visitor centre. By intentionally dropping them down the stairs, she revealed their weak points. Recognizing that children, the target audience, would likely subject these blocks to rough handling by kicking or throwing them at each other, the design was changed to incorporate a stronger coating, ensuring resilience and longevity even in the face of enthusiastic use.
Everything will eventually break. The best we can do as designers is predict weak points and prepare exhibits to be easily repaired when things are used and inevitably fail.
Best Practice 2: Make it Maintainable
Maintainability should be a central pillar for any interactive exhibit. This principle is vital in cleaning, upgrading, rebooting, or debugging interactive experiences. This process reduces downtime and therefore strengthens the relationship between clients, operators, and designers.
No matter how robust a design is, breakage is inevitable. Therefore, in ensuring maintainability, you can prioritize the use of materials and decor that allow for easy part replacement. We recommend removable panels that conceal the components most likely to fail, enabling swift and hassle-free replacement when necessary. Build devices in a way that parts can be swapped out. This approach streamlines the maintenance process, minimizes downtime and leads to quick restoration of full functionality to the exhibit.
Efficient maintenance is best planned for through the integration of remote access capabilities. By enabling remote monitoring, troubleshooting, and issue resolution, you can reduce the need for physical intervention, saving time when easy fixes can be done via an online connection. Additionally, designing your devices to be easily rebootable on-site empowers operators to address minor issues promptly without the need for external support. These measures enhance maintainability, ensuring uninterrupted operation and a seamless user experience.
To ensure maintainable software in interactive experiences, prioritize the following tips and tricks.
First, name everything in a logical manner to avoid unreadable code. Use descriptive names for classes and methods that clearly convey their function. When collaborating with others, set up coding style agreements (such as camelCase or snakecase) to maintain a uniform codebase. Additionally, clear agreements on coding style and file structure are essential for a readable codebase.
Before starting to code, consider the program’s function and structure. Create a structural design and identify the major components. This approach helps figure out the necessary classes and their relationships. Designing the structure in advance allows for easier integration of classes, as their inputs and outputs have already been defined. Think of the classes as building blocks that fit together. It is important to have a solid foundation, as building on a weak one may require significant code rework in the future.
One key aspect of readable code is ensuring that all classes and methods have clear-defined functionality. Avoid overloading them with excessive functionality or data, as this can result in bloated and convoluted code. Instead, break down complex classes and methods into smaller, focused units with clearly defined functions. Additionally, minimize repeating code to maintain consistency project-wide. By reducing repetition within single methods, changes made to the code will apply throughout the project, preventing unintended behaviour.
Creating a modular system of building blocks makes it easier to maintain the codebase. If a particular piece of code or a class needs rewriting, it can be isolated and refactored without affecting the entire project.
Another tip, instead of shouldering all the work, you can use reputable third-party libraries or applications to save time. However, ensure that the software is reliable and functional before using it. Consider the time spent learning the software compared to the time saved by using a third-party library.
Finally, document your code and APIs for future use. Human-readable documentation provides a clearer description of the project’s functionality compared to the code itself. It is also important to write comments for all parts of the code, even if their functionality seems obvious. These comments can help future modifications by providing a quick understanding of the method’s purpose. By following these guidelines, you can maintain a readable and maintainable codebase for interactive experiences.
- Case study
The devices created for Our House, such as the interactive Music Quiz, have proven to be excellent examples of why making flexible and updatable software is essential. The ways our team designed the entire experience proved instrumental in creating a dynamic and versatile exhibit. The software allowed for easy content replacement, enabling the quiz to adapt and transform for special promotional events, record release parties, and other occasions. This seamless transition between default and customized content ensured minimal downtime as updates were installed, maximizing the museum’s ability to engage visitors and remain relevant in a fast-paced music industry.
Always aim to reduce the time needed for an exhibit to be maintained or upgraded. If you take the time to design systems to be easily repaired everyone benefits; your team, your client, your exhibit users.
Best Practice 3: Make it Inclusive
Inclusivity and accessibly should always be design features to create exhibits that are enjoyable and accessible to many users. By integrating inclusivity into the material, hardware, and software choices, you can promote an environment that celebrates the diversity of your audience.
When choosing the materials and decor pieces for an exhibit, inclusivity should be a key consideration. This involves addressing accessibility needs for a wide range of users, including different ages and abilities. For example, making all exhibits wheelchair accessible can be a simple decision for a start. The design should also consider the size and positioning of interfaces to accommodate small children. By incorporating inclusive features into the design process, you can seamlessly integrate accessibility into the overall experience.
When choosing types of hardware to be included in your experience design, make sure it is inclusive to the greatest number of users. And while it not possible to have the same experience the same across every different use case, you can have experiences that are interesting, fun, and engaging wherever possible. Thoughtful choices in hardware can go a long way to make an experience accessible.
Inclusivity should be a central practice from the beginning stages of developing software that runs an experience. By making it an integral part of the design process, we ensure that accessibility features are not tacked on as afterthoughts. The positive impact of inclusivity on user satisfaction and accessibility is invaluable. By dedicating the necessary time and resources, we create designs that resonate with diverse audiences and foster a sense of inclusiveness. This can include options for subtitles, multiple languages, high-contrast user interface design, or non-auditory feedback that helps user navigate the exhibit. They can be simple interventions that have big impacts.
- Case study
In recent projects, MoMoLab has made a concerted commitment to make our designs as inclusive as possible. For the VR balloon flight experience created for the Food Forum at the Floriade, we made a deliberate choice to include a mode in the software for users in wheelchairs or with difficulties standing for longer periods of time. This required extra studio time to ensure that the sitting mode was as enjoyable as the default mode. By proactively considering inclusive design during the development process, we created this experience to cater to a broader audience, making everyone feel included and valued.
We were approached by parents of less-abled children who had just taken the VR Balloon flight. They were grateful that this experience had included a designated sitting mode. The parents explained that they had often come to expect that interactive experiences could not accommodate their children’s particular needs and the delight their children had to easily join in on this experience.
Inclusivity is simple but often ignored simply because the cases that require special attention are often not the norm. It takes some extra work to envision interacting with an exhibit from an unfamiliar perspective. While there is no magic bullet for designing interactive experiences that perfectly cater to everyone, it is worthwhile to make this effort in your designs.
Best Practice 4: Make it Intuitive
Creating an intuitive design may seem like an obvious goal, yet it is surprising how many interactive exhibits are presented in a way that is difficult to use due to unnecessary complexities. The key is to encourage users to interact with the content using the fewest steps possible while ensuring that the interaction process is immediately clear.
In interaction design, the principle of Occam’s Razor is helpful to always keep in mind. It says that the simplest explanation is usually the best. When deciding how users should interact with content on a screen, use physical buttons, or move through a space, competing ideas often arise. However, the best approach is typically the simplest one. It is about finding the design that offers the smoothest journey, with the fewest and clearest steps.
When selecting materials and decor for interactive experiences, the principle of “less is more” is essential. Each element should enhance the user’s interaction and experience. By starting with a minimalist approach and gradually adding detail and storytelling elements, the journey becomes easier and more intuitive. Overloading with devices, screens, and decor pieces can distract from key interaction moments and overshadow the greater story.
Hardware choices should align with the principles of simplicity and intuitiveness. While clients may wish the latest technology, it’s crucial to question whether it truly enhances the narrative and user interactions. Complex hardware can hinder the flow of visitors and increase the risk of failure or misunderstanding. Conversely, often simple hardware choices improve user understanding and ensure a smooth experience.
In the design process, style often overshadows substance. To create an intuitive design, refine and eliminate unnecessary elements. Text should be concise, purposeful, aiding explanation. Clear calls to action and feedback cues guide users. The sequence of steps should feel natural, afford active and passive interaction.
Intuitive software design incorporates affordance and signifiers. Affordance relates to action possibilities between users and objects, suggesting how to interact. Signifiers supply cues about affordances, making them perceptible. Designs with affordances intuitively guide user actions, and clear signifiers, be it visual, auditory, or haptic, enhance understanding and engagement.
Aligning affordances and signifiers with intended interactions through clear visible cues avoids unnecessary confusion and frustration. When done naturally, the balance between affordances and signifiers enables intuitive grasp of functionality. Users can actively or passively participate with the interactive moments, enjoying a feeling of autonomy and engagement.
The iterative process to simplify designs is often one that is best when unseen. The most organic and ideal intuitive design can often go unnoticed because it seamlessly guides a user through their journey.
When you prioritize intuitive designs for effortless, enjoyable interactions the simplicity, clarity, and natural progression that follows helps visitors move through a larger exhibit and digest the information in a very natural way.
- Case Study
A prime example of the benefits of making interactive experiences intuitive is shown through the Digital Fireworks display at FloriWorld. By incorporating the design principles of affordance and signifiers, visitors were effortlessly guided through the exhibit. The physical detonators invited interaction, while the red lights that turned green were signifiers of the desired interaction. The plungers in the detonators acted as affordances, intuitively communicating the action of launching fireworks in their desired flower and colour. Positioned in a dark room against the picturesque backdrop of Kinderdijk, the exhibit created an immediate understanding, reminiscent of childhood experiences with DND plungers from cartoons. The design of the entire exhibit and room removed the need for added explanations. This seamless integration of affordance and signifiers in the design ensured a captivating and easily comprehensible interactive experience for visitors.
Creating intuitive designs for interactive experiences is crucial. Incorporating affordance and signifiers helps guide visitors through their user journey by creating interactive experiences that are immediately recognizable without the need for added explanations.
Best Practice 5: Make it Fun
In the world of interactive experiences, the importance of making interactions fun is often overlooked. When designing exhibits for museums, visitor centres, or experience spaces, it’s crucial to consider the perspective of new visitors. What are their expectations and desires during their visit? While informative content is important, there should also be room for laughter and creating lasting impressions of joy and wonder. The following details the ways that elements of fun can be included in the materials chosen for a space, the hardware in use and the software that drives the whole experience.
Selecting materials and decor that add a playful touch to the interactive experience is particularly important. Tactile and colourful elements can enhance the sense of playfulness. Experiment with different perspectives and spatial arrangements to transport visitors to new dimensions or time periods. Embrace the opportunity to include something strange and wonderful, injecting a sense of magic into the environment.
When it comes to interaction design, it can help to question the necessity of added touchscreens in a world where nearly everyone carries a screen in their pocket. Instead, explore the potential of incorporating physical interactions through analogue dials, levers, and buttons. These tangible devices create engaging moments where users can fully immerse themselves in the experience, focusing on simple and amusing interactions.
Designing software that encourages moments of feedback is essential for creating fun interactive experiences. Incorporate surprising elements such as vibrating floors, sound effects, or flashes of colourful lights. These unexpected feedback moments can captivate and delight users, playing a pivotal role in making the interactions enjoyable and memorable.
Consider the role of sound design as well. Carefully craft sound effects, music, and voice-overs throughout the user journey. Thoughtfully combining these audio elements can enhance the overall experience, leaving a long-lasting impression on users.
- Case Study
A fitting example of making an interactive experience fun was our project for GP Groot, a waste disposal company. We transformed the somewhat mundane topic of garbage disposal into an exciting and memorable visitor centre by focusing on the company’s innovative steps towards environmentally and socially responsible waste sorting. Through storytelling and interactive exhibits that infused fun and magic, we highlighted GP Groot’s positive impact and dedication to sustainability. This engaging approach successfully conveyed their important message and left visitors with a newfound appreciation for their social and environmental commitments.
Designing interactive experiences with a focus on fun and playfulness can leave visitors with lasting positive memories. By incorporating engaging materials, hardware interactions, and software feedback, designers can enhance interactive experiences that delight users and convey the messages in a more organic way.
When material and decor, hardware and software work together in an engaging and playful way, it is easy to convey your message to an audience and make a meaningful connection. These five best principles detailed above—robustness, maintainability, inclusiveness, intuitiveness and fun—should be the main lens by which any experience designer judges their work. These principles, if carefully followed, can guide projects from the concept phases into immersive, impactful, and accessible designs, beloved by multiple ages and abilities.