15/03/2016 | BlogPost

The role of microinteractions in designing digital health experiences

Andrea Paraggio | Art Director


"If you care about user experience, you should care about microinteractions"

This is the statement with which Dan Saffer opened his workshop at Frontiers of Interactions 2015 on the importance of microinteractions within the design process. “If you care about user experience, you should care about microinteractions”, and that’s what we intend to do at Healthware, where we are very interested in the role that they can play in making a difference in the super-expanding sector of digital health. Firstly, let’s start with defining them.

A microinteraction is that feature of a product that performs a small task such as muting the phone via a button, rating an application with a tap, displaying the remaining part of the journey to our destination, etc. They most often remain invisible until something goes wrong or, by contrast, something goes incredibly well. In the second case, the microinteraction rises to signature moment, i.e. it ends up being an integral part of a brand’s identity (think of the “like” on Facebook or the “I’m feeling lucky” button on Google).

Bringing all this within the health area, the first thing we acknowledge is that everything related to user experience in other sectors is worthy exponentially in the health sector:

UXHealth = UX r+c+i

Where r is relevance, c is complexity and i is the degree of intimacy with which the product enters into a relationship with the user.


While UX deals with user experience design in the direction of its ‘well-being,’ in the health sector everything becomes even more significant and complementary to the basic features of a product: proper user experience designing is no longer only an opportunity to grab, but it is a minimum asset, a sine qua non which ensures the success of a product.


Complexity is the ideal ground on which user experience design plays its best. Apps that provide support to better address cancer or help in properly managing diabetes represent situations that are much more complex than those that we are accustomed to using every day: health is not tout court entertainment and the risk of facing cognitive dissonance1 and various other biases is constantly around the corner. In an area like that, even a single interaction can be crucial in determining the success or failure of a product.


While the success of a digital product depends on the ability of the product to take on human characteristics2 and establish a very close relationship with the user, everything is much more critical in the health sector, where the product is called to store large amounts of sensitive information on the user. Moreover, we cannot exclude that in the future certain devices will “get inside” the user, changing from wearables to insideables.

Why can microinteractions play a key role in digital healthcare? The reasons are many and diverse.

Some reasons concern the most technical and less fun part of the question, but perhaps the most important, namely the issue of the ‘validity’ of health data: proper microinteraction design within an app can serve to greatly minimize and even nullify human error. Speaking in digital terms, microinteractions can play the same role that was played by poka-yoke3 in traditional product design. This is very important if we think that the biggest battle that digital products are fighting in the health sector is that of the scientific validity of data and the acceptability of the latter by physicians.

"The difference between products we love and those we simply tolerate are often the microinteractions we have with them"

Other reasons pertain to the part concerning the relationship which we have already talked about earlier: the microinteractions represent the ‘feeling’ element within the product-user relationship. They make the difference between a product that people use and a product that users ‘love’ and end up accepting without qualms in their lives. In addition, as already mentioned earlier, they can ensure that the user finds simple and pleasant an experience that would otherwise be challenging and tedious. Properly designed microinteractions can shoot up the popularity of a digital product and the degree of user loyalty.

"Your product’s design is only as good as its smallest part"

Others refer to a change in the design paradigm: those doing business in the digital healthcare should take into account that to make a difference in such a competitive and design-heavy sector is that in designing a mobile application, a wearable device or any other digital artifact, one has to think about the product in a holistic manner, but also learn to ‘think small’, because the overall perception that the user has of a product is the sum of many microinteractions:

Pp = m1 + m2 + m3 + … mn

Where Pp is the ‘product perception’ and m is a microinteraction4. As mentioned above, these have the considerable virtue of keeping the user but, on the other hand, they conceal a terrible danger because they are ‘invisible,’ imperceptible on the conscious level.

How to solve this problem?

Design is better than cure. Proper methodology during all stages of product designing is without doubt a golden rule in reducing the risks prior to the launch of a product. Having a method allows being more predictive and not suffering from the consequences of having introduced, more or less consciously, negative experiences into the product.

Defining a design methodology also allows:

  • Having a clear idea of the nature of the product to be developed and its ‘standard user;’
  • Clarifying the context within which the product will ‘dwell’ and the scheduling of when it will be received/used;
  • Identifying the user stories to create ‘tailor-made’ microinteractions for the user.

1 The mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance
2 According to Leandro Agrò, a digital product must have three characteristics to be ‘smart’: it must a) know stories b) be sentient, c) be connected in the same social networks used by humans.
3 Poka-yoke (ポカヨケ) [pron. "POH-kah YOH-keh"] is a Japanese term that means "mistake-proofing". A poka-yoke is any mechanism in a lean manufacturing process that helps an equipment operator avoid (yokeru) mistakes (poka). Its purpose is to eliminate product defects by preventing, correcting, or drawing attention to human errors as they occur. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poka-yoke
4 This does not exclude the possibility that a single microinteraction can make a user fall in love with a product regardless of the value of other interactions included in the digital product.

This is one of the articles of the Healthcare transformation booklet inspired by the FrontiersX Conference, that will be published very soon. Stay tuned!

  • Consumer centric design
  • Customer Journey
  • FOI - Frontiers of Interaction
  • Frontiers Health
  • Patient Journey
  • Usability
  • User Experience (UX)
Andrea Paraggio

Andrea Paraggio, Designer and funky bass player. Plus 10 years of experiences in graphics, user experience, interaction design and prototyping. Post-degree with full marks with honors in industrial design with a dissertation about generative design and Internet of Things