This morning I had a presentation about what interaction is. I’d like to specify, it was about interaction, not Interaction Design. I want to make clear that I’m speaking about interaction itself not of the related design practise.

The most controversial point of my presentation was when I compared interaction with communication. (I knew that it was going to rise critics, but I can’t help myself to speak about less obvious stuff, I like to throw the stone let’s say).

Apparently it’s commonly assumed that communication is a part of interaction, that there is no communication without interaction. In my opinion this statement is wrong, I believe that there can be communication without interaction.

To begin let’s define what interaction is. The first (almost instinctive) way to do it is to google the word interaction and have an opinion from Wikipedia, which says “Interaction is a kind of action that occurs as two or more objects have an effect upon one another.”

While communication “is the activity of conveying information through the exchange of ideas, feelings, intentions, attitudes, expectations, perceptions or commands, as by speech, non-verbal gestures, writings, behaviour and possibly by other means such as electromagnetic, chemical or physical phenomena and smell.”

“Communication requires a sender, a message, a medium and a recipient, although the receiver does not have to be present or aware of the sender’s intent to communicate at the time of communication; thus communication can occur across vast distances in time and space.”

“It is the meaningful exchange of information between two or more participants.”Wiener, Norbert (1948). Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine

Arrived at this point, before contradicting, just take a few seconds and think about the difference between communication and conversation, 15 seconds should be enough…

Now, let’s consider this example:
I casually read a sign affixed on a shop window which says “open”, I’m not interested in what is written, but unconsciously I read that 4 letters written on it, I receive the information, therefore the object has an effect upon me, but I have no effect upon the paper. Therefore there has been communication without interaction.

That’s communication, I received an information, but I didn’t interact with it. A sender, without interacting with me has managed to communicate me his message.

Not happy with that, let’s consult some of the main theorists in the field to have a better idea of what interaction is (I won’t discuss the Wikipedia definition of communication otherwise I would end up writing a book rather than a post):

Don Norman divide the interaction with the world in two gulfs, the Gulf of Execution and the Gulf of Evaluation, separating the user and the physical system (anything that interact with it, can be a system, an environment, another person, personally I don’t like to call it system, but rather entity).


The Norman scheme assume that the user has a goal, however reading unconsciously a sign in the street I don’t have a goal in first instance, consequently I don’t form an intention, I don’t specify the action. I do the action of reading the sign, however at that point Norman’s circle is broken, thus there is no interaction.

Furthermore, I can also get the information, I do unconsciously “evaluate” the information, but still I don’t care of that, so nothing changes my state, I do not reformulate a new goal.

Another theory of interaction is the feedback loop, illustrated below:


Still recurring to the example of the open sign. It is quite clear that first of all the interpretation of “reaction” would be very abstract (the sign reacts to my sight), but since I don’t care about the information I got, I don’t see any abstract explanation for the “modification”. However, once more there has been communication, since I got the information.

To sum up, communication is for sure an extension of interaction, however it doesn’t necessarily require it. We can get an information without necessarily interact with it, interaction requires an “answer”, a connection between two systems. Action-reaction, instead we can easily read something passively, we can get an information without that it would change our state, without that it would trigger any reaction, without start any loop.

If we want to say that reading unconsciously a sign means interacting with the sign then we arrive to an absurd, stating that whatever happens in the universe is an interaction.