Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Elements of Communication, Part 1

August 27, 2007

When considering or working to create interactive design, it is useful, I think, to examine the gulf of communication that exists between direct, face-to-face, truly interactive communication and impersonal attempts at communication on a Web page. But in order to appreciate the magnitude of this difference in effectiveness it is far better to examine the many layers of sensation and interaction as they apply to each context, from personal, face-to-face contact to impersonal text or buttons on a page.

Think about the differences in the fullness and effectiveness of communication between:

And for each of these examples, consider the difference between your knowing or being friends with the speaker or writer and not knowing this person.

At each step away from the first example on this list we lose some piece of the overall communication and the message becomes increasingly imprecise and less meaningful. Additionally, interactive aspects of the communication diminish quickly; after the second or third step they disappear altogether.

The quest to articulate these metaphors as effective mechanisms in the Web environment turns this theoretical examination into a practical exercise.

Have you ever considered these facets of communication and how they apply to interactive design? Does this little exercise provide you with any sense of just how easy it can be to craft inefficient and imprecise communication on a Web page? It does for me, and I believe more examination would be worthwhile.

In the context of what we seek to accomplish with interactive design, the primary goal is communication. In fact, in some instances the primary goal is fascination or excitement or jaw-dropping awe (imagine just how easy it can be to fail)! With any given project we seek to communicate an idea, a concept, brand qualities, desirable traits, or simply whatever it is that the client wants us to communicate for them. So we seek to engage users and visitors and readers in such a way as to allow our message to first be perceived and then to take hold, consciously and/or unconsciously.

So in light of the gulf between in-person, face–to–face communication and text and pictures on a Web page, it should be clear that what we attempt is fraught with peril and opportunities for missing the mark.

While I typically write for the purpose of convincing readers of some specific fact or idea, or to get readers to buy into some ideal, here I’m just going to engage in some examination of communication’s specific layers. Since an understanding of the elements of communication is essential to the field of interactive design, it seems to me a useful exercise.

In order to apply to interactive design what you can learn in this examination, consider what might serve as contextual metaphors for the important senses we depend upon for human-to-human communication. The quest to articulate these metaphors as effective mechanisms in the Web environment turns this theoretical examination into a practical exercise. I hope that this article series might serve to help you do so.


If we’re engaged in interactive design, we should ever be conscious of the most powerful and fundamental sort of interaction: face–to–face interaction between people. We must be aware of the many elements that facilitate communication during direct and indirect contact, and of how communication inevitably breaks down as we remove layers of contact and sensation from communication.

In this first installment of our examination, I’ll provide a somewhat comprehensive examination of the great many communicative clues we rely on to shape our experience at its most rich and immediate level: face–to–face communication in a group.

Face–to–face conversation in a social setting

Picture this scene: you are an unmarried 26 year-old man (your age, gender, and marital status are relevant!) at a professional association cocktail party. You’re one of 6 people, 4 men and 2 women, seated in comfy chairs around a coffee table in a corner of a large room filled with other partygoers. All 6 are people you’ve just met tonight. One of the women, seated just to your right, has caught your interest and has responded with what seems a slight indication that she finds you interesting, too. The 6 of you have been chatting for a while about various topics and you’re now having a direct discussion and mild debate with one of the men whom you just met tonight sitting across from you, as the others in your group listen.

For our purposes here, the topic of conversation should remain undefined, as specific topics bring a host of contextually specific factors to behaviors that would cloud our simple examination of fundamental communicative clues.

The basic facets of the discussion, the communicative clues, and the relevant responses from yourself and the others might unfold this way…

At the start of your discussion, the man has a cordial smile when he speaks to you and an expression of interest when you’re speaking to him. You note that the gaze of the others in your group follows the speaker during your back and forth. They’re interested, too. The pleasant expression and interest exhibited by your discussion partner is reassuring and encouraging. You reciprocate in kind and find that you’re sitting up straighter in your chair than you were earlier. This is going well, and your body says so.

In order to apply to interactive design what you can learn in this examination, consider what might serve as contextual metaphors for the important senses we depend upon for human-to-human communication.

Your partner is now keeping his gaze fixed on you during the discussion, and you unconsciously perceive that his pupils dilate slightly when you’re speaking to him. His legs are uncrossed and his arms are placed on his chair’s armrests. This causes you to relax a bit more, confident that he’s receptive and finding interest in what you have to say. Furthermore, the woman to your right has her right leg crossed over her left, toward you (she’s “including you” in her space). This is also reassuring on some level. For the first time, you notice what must be her perfume. She now clearly understands that you’re somewhat interested in her, because you tend to look toward her each time just before you respond to your discussion partner.

Though the man across from you still wears an expression of cordial interest, with your last statement he ever so slightly cocked his head to one side, indicating that he disagrees with that last statement — or at least has never considered the idea you’ve touched on. His gaze moves down and to his left. Clearly, he’s considering what you’ve said and is crafting his response. You note that the others smiled and looked up and around the room, with a slight but audible intake of breath from one or two of them. Politely, they don’t want to indicate that they think there’s any cause for concern.

The man regains his cordials smile as he looks up at you and takes his turn in the conversation. He crosses his legs and leans back comfortably in his chair. He engages his hands in the conversation for the first time, making a steeple with his fingers and emphasizing his words slightly with his right hand and forefinger. His body language says that he’s set up a defensive position. As he speaks, he turns his head and gaze casually in an effort to engage each of the others. This indicates that he wants buy–in from the group as he presents his different idea in response to yours. You note that instead of following the speaker, the group’s gaze is no longer on the speaker, but rather now upon you; they’re looking for clues from you that either 1) everything is okay, or 2) you’re going to move from mild debate to strong debate.

You disagree with the man’s point, but you see no reason to turn a cordial conversation into an argument. Manners demand some flexibility in this setting among strangers. You smile and your response is gracious, as you sit back comfortably in your own chair. Your body language indicates, as everyone clearly understands, that you’re leaving him the field; you don’t seek confrontation. One of the other men works to support the seeming truce by breaking in with a bit of levity. Everyone chuckles and nods, looking downward, but as no one looks directly at him he knows he’s not invited to continue.

The man across from you continues with a response to your last, but instead of looking directly at you, you notice that he’s directing his response to the woman to your right. His smile is less cordial and more genuine and enthusiastic now. You find this mildly agitating, as his behavior may indicate that he’s interested in vying for the woman’s attention. Maybe he doesn’t get that you’ve already developed a rapport with her. You extend your right arm across the back of your chair and toward the right, and cross your left leg over your right, toward her. But you’re looking straight at the man across from you. Your expression does not indicate that you’re upset, but instead of a cordial smile you’re wearing a look of mild expectation; your move, buddy.

Okay, enough drama

Clearly, the 6 people party to this conversation experienced more than what was communicated in the mere spoken words. Vital information was communicated via:

So now imagine that same scene, but instead of being present and a participant, imagine that you merely heard the recorded conversation. Or perhaps imagine that you engaged in the conversation by phone. How much of the vitally important information and how much of the nuance would be lost on you? In fact, mountains of information would be lost.

I believe that there’s plenty to consider with this example as it contrasts with the contexts presented afterward. Next time, I’ll examine a different context of communication and, ultimately, I want to mull over some of the possible metaphors for some of these vital communicative clues that can be brought online to interactive design.