interaction design · usability · user experience

How is an interaction designer like a choreographer?

Australian Ballet, Swan Lake Tour 2005

How is an interaction designer like a choreographer? They both rely on conventions and patterns to faciliate powerful and efficient communication.

Last night I went to the ballet. I’m not really much of a ballet girl. You’re much more likely to find me at the symphony. I haven’t been to the ballet for almost 10 years (and that was to see the Nutcracker one Christmas in London, so I’m not even sure if that counts!).

I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it. A couple of hours of prancing on the stage with some nice enough music (how many people did I just offend with that sentence… I’m sorry). I didn’t have great expectations, but instead I had a completely unexpected experience of flow. The couple of hours at the ballet felt like minutes. I love that feeling.

Sadly, some might say, I spent quite a bit of the time thinking about the amazing challenge that the composer, choreographer and performers had in communicating what is a rather kooky storyline to someone like me (that is, someone who wasn’t prepared to shell out $15 for a program and ‘learn’ the storyline before watching the ballet).

In the first act, villager Giselle is in love with Albrecht, a nobleman disguised as a peasant. When Giselle discovers the deceit, she is heartbroken and dies. In the second act, the undying love of Giselle for Albrecht, who has come by night to visit her tomb, saves him from having his life-spirit taken from him by the spectral wilis, the vampiric ghosts of betrothed girls who have died before their wedding day, and their Queen. At day break, Giselle has saved Albrecht’s life, but must part from him forever. They pledge their love to each other, and she descends back into her grave. (The most succint version of the Giselle storyline ever, courtesy of Wikipedia (of course)).

Communication of character and storyline in Giselle is facilitated through two primary means – musical motif and mime. Particular musical treatments identify characters and communicate some of the nature of their character, giving much greater depth than could be communicated through mime alone.

Berthe, Giselle’s mother, is associated with limited, non adventurous notes to suggest a large, protective, provincial woman, while Hilarion’s theme (played only by the strings and without harmony) indicates his jealous, sly nature. (Royal Ballet, Ballet Magazine)

The music contains a whole range of ‘signs’ or triggers that provide much additional detail to the social, environmental and narrative setting of the ballet – again, none of which could be as efficiently achieved through movement.

What is known as “pipe drone” permeates Act I to provide peasant colour. This was a common convention of the period as bagpipes were associated with folk music all across Europe. There is also the use of hunting horns and horse rhythms to create the aristocratic huntsmen. Act II opens to the sound of a clock tolling 12. Adam creates an eerie atmosphere by combining each bell tone with an unrelated chord indicating the alien environment of the forthcoming act. This is followed by a motif that represents fear, and the use of the minuet, which to 19th century audiences would have been a dance associated with the dead. (Royal Ballet, Ballet Magazine)

Patterns and the use of conventions are just as important in the choreography of the ballet as for the music, including both the dance steps and the use of mime. ‘Like the score, the 19th century audiences understood the mime conventions, and could “read” the dancing, mime being the “language of the hands”.’ (Royal Ballet again).

GiselleThe physical gestures of mime have a very long history and are easily ‘read’ not only by 19th Century audiences, but also by the audiences of today.

There are innumerable codified gestures that are interpreted, without thought, as a sigh, or fear, or a swoon (even though, in everyday life, we have probably never performed those gestures ourselves!).

On a stage, these exaggerated, mimed gestures are integral to telling the story of the ballet to the audience. If these gestures were not so codified, like patterns drawn from a library, the clarity of the narrative would be lost. Within the context of the ballet, these gestures are remarkably powerful. (Out of this context, they would of course, be absurd!)

The choreographed dance movements also lend great expressiveness and depth to the communication of the character, their emotions and circumstances.

The step integral to this ballet is the ninety degree arabesque. It is characteristic of Giselle’s yearning, as portrayed in all those 19th century lithographs. The Wilis are also closely associated with this step. For them it symbolises their unenviable position of being doomed to exist forever between heaven and earth.

Now, I do have to admit that I didn’t get *quite* this much from the ninety degree arabesque, but it was *definitely* successful in conveying yearning. (And there was plenty of that in the second act!)

What on earth does this have to do with interaction design and creating usable interfaces?

Giselle didn’t teach me anything new about interface design, but it really brought home the power of convention and patterns and repetition. It also made me think about other opportunities that might exist for creating ‘triggers’ or providing more depth of understanding around the experience that I’m trying to create. It makes me think, again, about what we, as a profession, can do to build a library of patterns that makes this experience all the more powerful from interface to interface.

All of the elements that we have available for use carry meanings with them that can make our communication more succint and powerful, or alternatively create confusion. We should think of all those elements as part of our design – including the elements that may fall outside our scope (I’m thinking visual design in some cases, or legacy design elements in others) – and think about how decisions made in those areas might impact on the overall message.

We should think about what we can do to create expressive interfaces that do more than just get a user from the start of their task to the end. This is true whether you’re designing a form for a bank transaction, interaction design for a game, the homepage for an content rich website. Elements that we use, or choose not to use, have meaning that we should seek to be aware of and use effectively.

Perhaps we can also think about the rhythm of our interfaces and how they exist in time…. but perhaps that’s getting a little complex for a closing remark.

Maybe I’m still a little caught up in the romance of the ballet… I’m not sure. For as long as it lasts though, I’m going to design more like a choreographer.

I think a comment involving some post modern theory is appropriate around now. But, I think I’ll leave that to you. What do you think?

(P.S. If you’re in Sydney, get thee to the Opera House to see the Australian Ballet’s Giselle as soon as possible. It’s gorgeous.)

image credits: Australian Ballet and

9 thoughts on “How is an interaction designer like a choreographer?

  1. Interaction design:choreography? Maybe the orchestration of smaller parts into a unified whole via transitions, triggers and flow?

    BTW – have fun with the CPU gig!

  2. hey Ric – that’s also a good way of thinking of it… how did I miss that? (Too caught up in the creative bits I think!)

    and yes, I will have fun with CPU! It’s kind of crazy and fun to mind someone else’s blog – especially someone like Kathy!

    (if you don’t know what we’re talking about, you should head over to Kathy’s blog, Creating Passionate Users immediately. It’s one of my most favourite blogs and while Kathy is off at Webstock, she’s given me and two others the keys to keep any nasty comments and comment spam at bay!)

  3. Interaction requires information in both directions, but there’s also emotion to consider.

    One of my absolute favourites is the spam folder in Gmail. Go and check whether you have any spam and you get this great message:

    Hooray, no spam here!

    Not only does this give me the information I needed, but it makes no spam a little funnier and more exciting than it is in other interfaces.

  4. i had to go delete all my spam in Gmail to see that error message – it’s cute, isn’t it!

    Akismet does a similar thing in WordPress – it says it must be your lucky day because you have no comment spam.

    there are a few other cute error messages I’ve seen around the place that add a lot of personality to what could otherwise be a frustrating experience (Flickr, Blogbeat and Bloglines spring to mind).

    makes all the difference, doesn’t it! :)

  5. It certainly does! My other favourite (also Google, which is interesting) is an Orkut server error:

    Bad, bad server. No donut for you
    We’re sorry, but the server has acted out in an unexpected way.
    Hopefully it will return to its usual helpful self if you give it another chance.
    We apologize for the inconvenience and our server’s lack of consideration for others.

    An error message that gets a smile is great, but this one made me laugh.

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