Aristotle’s Secret to Interaction Design – UX Planet
Spoiler alert: Aristotle never designed user interfaces.
So, you might be thinking, “How could Aristotle and interaction design be connected?” Of course, Aristotle never focused explicitly on these things, as he was busy pioneering physics and astronomy. But the more I looked into Aristotle’s analysis on story structure in his work Poetics, the more I realized he has a perfect framework for planning an interaction with a product.
Aristotle mapped tragedy to tying a knot
Aristotle stated that the tragedy should imitate a whole action, which means that the events follow each other by probability or necessity, and that the causal chain has a beginning and an end.
There is a knot, a central problem that the protagonist must face, and the story will consist of two parts: complication and unravelling.
During complication, the protagonist finds trouble as the knot is revealed, tied, or developed. During unraveling, the knot is resolved.
The concept of a knot applied to interaction design
This idea of tying a knot maps surprisingly well to any interaction. An interaction with a product is a problem that a user must face — whether it be opening social media to escape boredom, or opening a payment app to send money to a friend, these are all “problems,” or knots, that the user has.
As the user goes through the steps to try to solve their problem, they enter in the stage of complication, often presented with many options or unexpected results. Finally, the user enters the unraveling phase, when the user gets the reward they seek, or completes a task they have set out to do.
Extraneous interactions make the knot hard to untie
Aristotle stated that events should be whole, in that they follow only due to probability or necessity. In interaction design, we see a lot of examples where steps don’t make sense chronologically or are unnecessary…yet they still take up a large part of the story. Distractions make the knot way too difficult to untie.
Let’s take the design of Forbes.com, for example:
The advertisements overtake the screen. They are not appearing out of necessity, nor out of probability. Youtube’s ad scheme often has ads appear every few videos or after a certain amount of watch time, which the user may expect, since it is a probable response to have been watching for a long period of time.
However, I came to this Forbes article externally, and seeing the whitespace on the page gradually get filled by ads felt like my attention was being fragmented. The article was no longer the forefront of the site, the ads and call to actions were. In other words, rather than the villains or hurdles adding complexity to the tale and the protagonist’s development, they end up becoming the protagonist. Yikes.
In fact, the popup below appeared even before I had read the article:
The popup isn’t necessarily the problem. This popup appearing before I have read the article violates Aristotle’s idea that events should logically follow one another. If this was my first time on Forbes, and I had just clicked on the article because my friend sent it to me, why would I feel compelled to subscribe even before I even read it?
If the approach was rearranged to fit a narrative, the subscription rate would surely go up. For instance, let’s say I was able to read the article without obstructions, and decided Forbes’ content was valuable. I began clicking more articles, reading more. Then, the call to action appeared to me to sign up for a newsletter or a daily digest. I would be much more likely to subscribe, since the events follow a logical progression.
Add things to your narrative that fit
Airbnb has an impressive framework in place, where they are adding more components to their services, but they actually make sense.
Take Airbnb Experiences, for example, which allows you to book experiences with locals:
If you are on the Airbnb site, you are not just looking for accommodation. You are an explorer. You are traveling, you want to get a taste of the local culture, and you want to engage with the place in a way that is affordable. It makes sense then to fold in the opportunity to have affordable, local experiences with hosts appear on the site right next to the option to book homes.
This is an example of augmenting experiences to add features that fit into a narrative, and make untying the right knot easier. After all, identifying the knot correctly is key here. The knot — or problem — is a traveler having a fun, affordable experience embedded in local culture. It is not simply “finding accommodation,” as many of us may first assume.
It’s okay to remove things from interactions
From Aristotle’s idea of knots, we can see that it comes down to an idea of relevance. It is easy to get caught up in planning interaction steps to maximize ad revenue, time spent, and user awareness of features. However, an interaction planning session should be more distilled into “do these events logically follow one another?” If the information being presented is an “extra” or in a “misc” category, maybe it should not be located in this particular interaction. It may be better suited in a different narrative. Maybe it should not appear at all, and that is okay.
Don’t be afraid to move your story around, or your interaction around, so the steps make more sense. Your goal is often to untie a knot for a user, and design that journey so that the user feels safe, delighted, and rewarded. If a user feels like this is not occurring, then brand affinity will slowly erode over time — similar to the way I feel this small sense of dread before clicking on a Forbes article.