The power of microinteractions: a guide for galleries, libraries, archives and museums

With the hasty shift to online delivery during the past 18 months, the pain and frustration of a badly thought-out digital experience is certainly something that we’ve all experienced. And this has made us more aware of the importance of getting even the smallest of online interactions right. 

Let’s take the ubiquitous video meeting for example. Everything in this process, from the scheduling to the invite, is made of lots of tiny little interactions that can either make or break the experience. 

This makes us think a lot about microinteractions – the seemingly inconsequential, often overlooked, single use case features or functions that can have a big impact on our online experiences.

In his seminal book on the topic, Dan Saffer defines a microinteraction as: 

“a contained product moment that revolves around a single use case—a tiny piece of functionality that only does one thing. Microinteractions can power an entire app or device, or (more often) exist alongside or inside a larger product. They are the small moments that can be dull and forgettable, or pleasurable and engaging.”

And it’s that last sentence that really drives home the role of the microinteraction. Without being too corny, we believe that software can bring joy in tiny but important ways. This may just be about getting out of the way and letting you get things done. But it can also be a way to bring a little bit of positivity to your online interactions. 

There has been some talk of these kinds of microinteractions when it comes to the experience of using a library or a museum website, and when interacting with online archive collections or gallery exhibitions (though it’s unlikely they were being referred to as this). Take pre-overdue notices, for example, or messages printed on borrower receipts, or even a like button on items in an online exhibition. 

These are just a few examples of microinteractions that are being rethought in library, archive and museum software because of the impact they can have on user engagement. But there’s certainly a lot more that can be done to make the experience of using our websites and our apps much more positive in tiny, incremental ways. 

For some reason, we still seem to be a long way from being able to auto-renew books that are due back on rainy days, or being shown a random item in the collection when you shake your phone. And this seems like such a missed opportunity.

One of the areas where microinteractions can be really effective is during on-boarding – when new users are first introduced to a platform or software application. 

In our recent projects building web archives and other collection management platforms we use microinteractions to help make the experience of new curators and transcribers easier and more welcoming. For example, a user dashboard with some friendly welcome information. And a clearly laid out path to help get new users started.

And there are other interesting examples in the sector that demonstrate the difference that microinteractions can make. 

The Try it now feature on OA. Works’ Open Access Button is a refreshing change from the pervasive ‘contact us for a demo’ approach of many cultural sector vendors. Instead you are immediately shown an example Digital Object Identifier (DOI) to use with a demo form, and the feedback when you enter a non-valid DOI is detailed and helpful. 

Visiting hours in the footer of the National Library of Finland’s website, which updates to show the hours for today, is a good example of utilising the ‘status’ of an interaction to provide a better experience.

One of the main use cases for microinteractions is preventing users from being met with a ‘blank slate’. Instead of showing an empty search form, Stadel Museum has a small animation showing example searches to help users start to explore their collections. 

Cambridge University Library’s Spacefinder tool is an example of a product that combines a set of microinteractions into a single unified experience. But the one that immediately factors in the user is the ‘use my location’ button. This combined with some thoughtful filters allow users to easily find their perfect study location, both within and outside of the library. This product also inspired Harvard Library’s ‘Find a Space’ tool.

And as our experiences of museums, libraries, galleries and archives becomes more hybrid, microinteractions can also be used to bridge the gap between the digital and the real world. 

Taking into account location or other elements of the real world is something that we embed in a lot of our own platforms and resources. We’ve started to implement different ‘real world’ elements that impact our experiences of using web based platforms. 

Our new website homepage is a lightweight example of this – the animation currently updates based on the weather of our homebase of London. (Admittedly, 90% of the time it’s cloudy so we may have to add a few variations of cloudy with a chance of rain in the next iteration).

Wording also plays an important role in successful microinteractions. The tiny bits of text, for example, when a user first registers for an account or signs up to receive a newsletter, or even when asking for a reminder of a forgotten password, are called microcopy. And your website (or catalogue or online exhibit site) microcopy should be rewritten, tested and improved regularly. You can find out through web analytics or conversations with users (hopefully both) if any part of the process is causing confusion.

So how can we implement microinteractions to make a more positive interaction for users? 

  • First be clear on the goal of the interaction
  • Identify one thing that can be made better. This could be how the user is kept informed about errors or other status changes, a setting that is being underutilized or a better way to accomplish a common task
  • Map out the improved workflow and how it makes the experience better for users
  • Make it at least 20% nicer
  • Implement the first iteration of the new or improved microinteraction
  • Test with users to gather feedback
  • Iterate

A good place to start is with how your systems manage when things go wrong – how can we mitigate the frustration of an online experience gone awry. For example, consider what happens when a user forgets a password, when a form field is incorrectly completed or when they are otherwise being updated about a change. If this process breaks down, users might give up or go elsewhere or this could otherwise ruin the experience (and at least part of their day).

Our increasingly hybrid and remote working environments mean we have more and more opportunities to delight and engage our users, but we equally have plenty of opportunities to frustrate them as well. Microinteractions can help make your platforms and software more welcoming and friendly and can help you bring a tiny little bit of joy to engaging with services online. A little bit at a time.