65.1, February 2018

Interactivity in an Age of Immersive Media: Seven Dimensions for Wearable Technology, Internet of Things, and Technical Communication

Jason Chew Kit Tham


Purpose: Interactivity in virtual environments has been a key area of investigation in fields ranging from technical to creative sectors. Scholars find a cross-disciplinary disparity on what interactivity embodies and accomplishes. This article traces the definitions of interactivity in existing research, devises seven dimensions of interactivity for wearables and IoT products, and identifies key roles for technical communicators in immersive media design.

Method: A research review of key literature on interactivity in general and technical communication and mobile technologies in particular.

Results: Current literature shows that concepts of interactivity in communication design and technology are multifaceted. Seven dimensions of interactivity can be derived for immersive media design: 1) reciprocity/ease of response, 2) synchronicity/context awareness, 3) connectedness/ubiquity/pervasiveness, 4) navigability/accessibility, 5) user control/personalization, 6) entertainment/sensibility, and 7) sensory stimulation/multimodality. These dimensions can be mapped onto the interactive design of wearables and IoT products. They also inform the roles of technical communicators in producing immersive technical communication.

Conclusion: Further investigation of the constructs in interactivity can help uncover a more accurate relationship between interactivity and its dependent variables. The new dimensions of interactivity in immersive media environments suggest that technical communicators and designers must pay attention to 1) the seamless connection between the user and the systems, data, and actions; 2) user control and customization; 3) proactive contextual assistance from smart technologies; and 4) device sensibility and sensory stimulations.

Keywords: interactivity, immersive media, wearable technology, Internet of Things

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • A cross-disciplinary disparity is evident in how we talk about interactivity. For immersive media like wearables and IoT products, this article recommends seven dimensions of interactivity suited to designing robust yet effective user experience in immersive environments.
  • The roles of technical communicators are to understand the interactive dimensions for wearables and IoT communication, create interactive interfaces that are integrative and effective, and be a user advocate in legal and ethical issues.


About 30 years ago, Rafaeli (1988) observed that “interactivity is a widely used term with an intuitive appeal, but it is an underdefined concept. As a way of thinking about communication, it has high face validity, but only narrowly based explication, little consensus on meaning, and only recently emerging empirical verification of actual role” (p. 110). Since then, the topic of interactivity in computer-mediated environments has been widely discussed across such fields of advertising, marketing, information design, and human-computer interaction studies (for overviews, see Kiousis, 2002; McMillan, 2002; Quiring & Schweiger, 2008; Gao, Rau, & Salvendy, 2009). Within the academic discourse, many different theoretical definitions and frameworks for analysis have been produced (Quiring, 2009).

However, amid the rapid advancement of technologies and new media––including the recent proliferation of wearables and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies––interactivity is still a nebulous concept due to the wide array of digital phenomena afforded by these new technologies (Liu, 2003; Kiousis, 2002; Quiring, 2009). Contrary to Rafaeli’s (1988) observation, Quiring and Schweiger (2008) argued that interactivity is over-defined due to its different applications in the broad field of communication. The inconsistent usage of the term interactivity and its conceptualizations have complicated the replicability of empirical studies (Quiring, 2009), thus hindering scholars and practitioners in systematizing central characteristics of effective interactive design. This presents considerable problems to technical communicators working in the contexts of interface design and information architecture especially with the advent of wearables and the IoT, where interactivity is crucial to user experience and productivity.

The shift beyond visual or graphical user interfaces into voice user interfaces, such as those found in smart home assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, presents new terrains for communication designers and developers in delivering information and engaging users on a new level. How does a voice-activated help system differ from a print- or screen-based user guide? How does navigation work on a screen-less user interface? How might technical communicators design information systems that would help users avoid undesired mistakes, like that unfortunate moment when Amazon Echo’s Alexa “talked dirty” to a young boy because Alexa had misunderstood the child’s query (see video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4MdPlJ2h_M)?

With multiple key technology companies developing innovative IoT products and making custom solutions and standards, we have seen “a plethora of closed vertical solutions, leading to a highly fragmented market” for immersive media1 (Cirani & Picone, 2015, p. 35). The need to seek a common understanding of interactivity at a time of such fragmentation is therefore imperative to successful user experience and to preventing IoT technologies from reaching a dead end. This, however, doesn’t mean that concepts of interactivity should be reduced to a single definition. Acknowledging the cross-disciplinary disparity in achieving interactivity, this article focuses on definitions and dimensions that are applicable to wearable technologies and IoT products. It maps out the existing conceptualizations of interactivity, devises new interactive dimensions, and identifies key roles for technical communicators in envisioning a future of immersive technical communication design. As a backdrop to the rest of the article, the following section offers a brief introduction to immersive technologies, including wearables and IoT products.

Immersive Media: Wearables and the Internet of Things

Recent developments in personal computing have made devices increasingly mobile and moved them closer to our bodies. Wearables, bio-implants, and other embodied technologies embed computational ability into objects we can carry on ourselves to perform tasks and track our behaviors (Pedersen, 2013). As interfaces, they seemingly minimize our interactions with computers. From activity trackers like Fitbit to smartwatches like the Apple Watch, wearable technologies change our interactive behaviors with screens as they typically come in small screens or with no screen at all. This presents a host of design challenges that are significant to the work of technical communicators and interface designers.

As wearables become more commonplace, tech giants like Microsoft, Google, Samsung, and Facebook have announced their commitments to innovating new human-computer interaction experiences, where the latest gadgets would promise immersive experiences for users of virtual and augmented reality technologies. Devices such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive offer nearly full immersive experience for users by providing surrounding visual, audio, and tactile feedback through a head-mounted display and hand-held controls. Users might feel as though they were physically ported into a computer simulation, displacing their conventional perception of presence and reality. For example, the Microsoft HoloLens (see Figure 1), an augmented reality viewer and head-mounted computer, promises to reconstruct the way users find and use information and communicate with others. Google, known for its wide-ranging entrepreneurial spirit, has experimented with its own version of reality-augmenting eyewear––Google Glass––although it has been taken off the market since early 2015 due to market disinterest. Google continues to leverage its low-end virtual reality (VR) headsets today, namely the Google Cardboard and Google Daydream Viewer, as a way to build market demand for higher-spec VR in the near future (Sydell, 2017).

Figure 1. Microsoft HoloLens worn by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, right and Erisa Hines of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Photo credit: NASA/Charles Babir (public domain image retrieved from Wikimedia).

On top of these, the last few years have been the pivotal infancy stage for a new household technology called the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is both a concept and an infrastructure of technology (Greengard, 2015). Floris and Atzori (2015) defined IoT as “a network of interconnected objects which are able to acquire information from the physical world and to make this information available on the Internet” for users and machines alike (p. 1747). Essentially, the IoT is the idea that everyday objects and technologies can be digitized and connected to become a network of intercommunicating systems. Using sensors, radio frequency identification (RFID) or near-field communication (NFC), and Internet protocols, everyday things and devices can track data, search for information, and complete daily tasks with or without human involvement. Examples include artificial intelligence (AI) home assistants such as Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Apple HomePod, as well as smart home thermostats (see Figure 2), bulbs and lighting systems, door locks and security systems, autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars), pet feeders and planting watering systems, emergency responses systems, and even coffee brewers. These technologies are made to connect with the user’s personal computer devices so they can be programmed to perform tasks on their own (hence they are “smart” technologies). Through RFID and NFC, these devices have the capability to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects (like other household appliances). These pieces of information can also be accessed by the user and could be used to help the user make decisions in the future. Unlike other digital-first gadgets, such as the smartphone and laptop computers, IoT devices have varying interfaces and are quickly transforming the way we interact with devices and information.

Figure 2. A Nest learning thermostat reporting on energy usage and local weather. Photo credit: Raysonho (public domain image retrieved from Wikimedia).

Across business, education, medical, creative, and technical industries, all of these new technologies have gained notable popularity for their ability to engage users at a level unprecedented by traditional print or 2D screen media. For this reason, they pose new challenges related to the way we communicate information and interact with one another. As communication designers, writers, and developers, technical communicators are tasked with creating user-centered interfaces for efficient interactive experience. At a time when many mainstream outlets2 are experimenting with immersive media as means to communicate and work, we need to equip ourselves with current knowledge about interactivity and its emerging trends so we can better serve end users. We can start by understanding how interactivity is currently conceptualized across the diverse fields of communication. The following section briefly outlines the method by which relevant literature sources were selected and synthesized.


This article follows a research review methodology with the intention to provide a conceptual explication that is useful for technical communication in the context of immersive experience design. It was inspired by Andrisani et al. (2001) and McDaniel’s (2009) analyses of interactivity in Technical Communication. With the goal of continuing the conversation on the technical communicator’s role in interactive design, I began with an exploratory literature review using keyword searches. As pointed out by Kiousis (2002), defining interactivity is “cumbersome” due to the “vast implicit and explicit” conceptions prepared with different academic and professional perspectives (p. 357). To create a coherent corpus focused on the implications of interactivity for technical communication, I applied the criterion that every literature source included in the review must address interactivity explicitly in the context of mediated communication. This precondition ruled out literature on relational communication studies, classroom teaching practices, neuroscience, genome research, and biology.

To find articles in the technical communication and technology literature related to interactivity, I searched Technical Communication, MNCAT Discovery3, and EBSCOhost databases. The most successful searches included the following key words:

  • (technical communication) and (interactivity) or (interactive)
  • (wearables) or (wearable technology) and (technical communication)
  • (wearables) or (wearable technology) and (interactivity) or (interactive)
  • (IoT) or (Internet of Things) and (interactivity) or (interactive)
  • (IoT) or (Internet of Things) and (technical communication)

Besides Technical Communication, I also searched top technical communication journals such as Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, and Technical Communication Quarterly to ensure coverage of key literature. Using Google Scholar and the general Google search engine, I was able to find unpublished studies that provided contexts to the literature featured in this article. The publication date of the selected literature goes as far back as the time when interactivity in mediated environments was first discussed, which appears to be around the 1980s (for example, Hornik, 1984; Rafaeli, 1988).

Upon organizing key themes in the literature and determining the points of departure for this article (conceptualizations), I began a focused literature review to identify shared attributes within each point of departure and operationalized the conceptualizations to devise the dimensions of interactivity presented in this article. As a frame of reference, operationalization in this article refers to the process of creating specific attributes for a concept––i.e., interactivity––that can be observed and measured—e.g., user control (Kenny, Gorelik, & Mwangi, 2000). Specific to this study, these attributes or dimensions are linked directly to wearables and IoT products. It is important to consider these dimensions neither as exhaustive nor exclusive to immersive environments. They represent a range of possible measures for the concept of interactivity but do not limit it to these measures alone. These dimensions are then worked into practical guidelines for technical communicators in the conclusion of this article.

Defining Interactivity

An in-depth understanding of interactivity is of critical importance for those who analyze or develop technology-enhanced communications. Scholars in various fields of mass media, information, and computer science have conceptualized interactivity based on general characteristics and features available in the user interface. Indeed, some of these conceptualizations may seem foreign to those in technical communication given the variation in focus. Nevertheless, we can learn from these literature sources how interactivity is dealt with in specific contexts and genres, before extracting conceptualizations that are most relevant to technical communication and immersive media design. As an overview, Table 1 summarizes some key definitions of interactivity with emphases on advertising, marketing, and technology studies, from the pre-Web era to the current age of networked applications.

As observed in the studies summarized in Table 1, definitions of interactivity can be categorized based on the primary focus on process, features, perception, or the combination of these. Some researchers have defined interactivity as properties of a certain medium, either general characteristics like user control, two-way interaction, etc. (Steuer, 1992; Ha & James, 1998; Lombard & Snyder-Dutch, 2001; Schumann, Artis, & Rivera, 2001; Cho & Leckenby, 1999; Coyle & Thorson, 2001) or specific features such as multimedia functions and chat rooms (McMillan, 2000a; Ahren, Stromer-Galley, & Neuman, 2000; McMillan, 2002; Chou, 2003). Some researchers have focused on process-related variables (Miles, 1992; Zack, 1993; Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997; Ha & James, 1998; Liu & Shrum, 2002). Others defined interactivity through the notion of perception, such as perceived control of communication and the sense of time and place (McMillan, 2000b; Milojevic, Kleut, & Ninkovic, 2013). These researchers––especially within the field of marketing communications––argue that interactivity should not be measured by analyzing the process of counting features but by observing how users perceive the interactivity during the communication.

Kiousis (2002) is noted for his attempt at explicating the theory of interactivity beyond user perception. By including major conceptualizations such as the structure of medium (Steuer, 1992) and the context of communication settings (Rafaeli, 1988) to the perceptions of users (Wu 1999), Kiousis defined interactivity as “the degree to which a communication technology can create a mediated environment in which participants can communicate, both synchronously and asynchronously, and participate in reciprocal message exchanges” (2002, p. 372). Kiousis admitted that the convergence––and I add, emergence––of new technologies continually blurs the boundaries between old and new media (p. 379), giving them new affordances and thus calling for a hybrid conception for interactivity.

Thus, more recent research has focused less on defining interactivity in isolation and instead investigating the concept of interactivity within various socio-technological contexts, such as Ariel and Avidar’s (2015) study of interactivity and flow of information on social media. In their study, Ariel and Avidar argued that interactivity is an inherent attribute of communication (p. 24), and, thus, interactivity studies should concentrate on how technical and user-centered perspectives of interactivity are met in any given technological environment. Following the “hybrid” rationale, this article triangulates interactivity with technical communication and immersive media to identify characteristics of interactivity for these contexts.

Interactivity in Technical Communication

Evidently, conceptualization of interactivity in communication design and technology is a multifaceted and multidimensional construct. As noted earlier, the fuzziness in the definition of interactivity may come from the fact that interactivity is understood and operationalized differently across many fields. Table 1 shows that achieving interactivity is context-dependent. In the field of technical communication, interactivity has been studied in the contexts of content creation (Atkinson, 2008), game design (Bogost, 2007; Michael & Chen, 2006), Web authoring (Applen, 2002), and computer-based training (Cyboran, 1995; Chou, 2003). In these studies, researchers were interested in how different platforms may offer different levels of user engagement.

Table 1. Summary of interactivity definition in the past 30 years.

Study Definition of Interactivity Domain
Rafaeli, 1988 Interactivity is an expression to the extent that in a given series of communication exchanges, any third (or later) transmission (or message) is related to the degree to which previous exchanges referred to even earlier transmissions. General communication theory
Miles, 1992 An interactive communication involves responsiveness of the displayed message to the message receiver. Advertising and marketing
Steuer, 1992 Interactivity is the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time. Virtual reality
Zack, 1993 Key factors as elements of interactivity: the simultaneous and continuous exchange of information; the use of multiple nonverbal cues; the potentially spontaneous, unpredictable, and emergent progression of remarks; the ability to interrupt or preempt; mutuality; patterns of turn-taking; and the use of adjacency pairs. Organizational communication and technology
Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997 Interactivity is the extent to which messages in a sequence relate to each other, and especially the extent to which the last message recounts the relatedness of an earlier message. Group communication
Ha & James, 1998 Interactivity is the extent to which the communicator and the audience respond to, or are willing to facilitate, each other’s communication needs. Five characteristics of interactivity: playfulness, choice, connectedness, information collection, and reciprocal communication. Commercial websites
Cho & Leckenby, 1999 Interactivity is the degree to which a person actively engages in message processing by interacting with messages. Advertising
McMillan, 2000a Thirteen features that suggest a website is interactive; including: email links, registration forms, survey/comment forms, chat rooms, search engines, and games. Websites, advertising
Ahren, Stromer-Galley, & Neuman, 2000 Media interactivity was defined in terms of features such as audio and video. Human interaction was defined in terms of features such as bulletin boards and chat rooms. Political campaign websites
Lombard & Snyder-Dutch, 2001 Interactivity is defined as a characteristic of a medium in which the user can influence the form and/or content of the mediated presentation or experience. Advertising
McMillan, 2000b Individuals rated interactivity of sites based on their perceptions of two-way communication, level of control, user activity, sense of place, and time sensitivity General websites
Andrisani, Gaal, Gillette, & Steward, 2001 Effective interactivity for technical communication should place emphasis on limits, accuracy and consistency, trust, customizable hiding, and effective use of feedback. Interactivity as conversation. Online help systems
Schumann, Artis, & Rivera, 2001 Interactivity is a characteristic of the consumer, and not a characteristic of the medium. The medium simply serves to facilitate the interaction. Marketing communications on websites
Coyle & Thorson, 2001 A website that is described as interactive should have good mapping, quick transitions between a user’s input and resulting actions, and a range of ways to manipulate the content. Commercial websites
Brown & Jones, 2001 An interactive situation is one where the user directly requests to retrieve relevant documents. Interactivity should include proactive situations where documents are presented to the user automatically. Information management
McMillan, 2002 Identifies four types of interactivity based on intersection of user control and direction of communication: monologue, feedback, responsive dialogue, and mutual discourse. General websites
Liu & Shrum, 2002 Interactivity is the degree to which two or more communication parties can act on each other, on the communication media, and on the messages and the degree to which such influences are synchronized. Advertising
Kiousis, 2002 Interactivity is both a media and psychological factor that varies across communication technologies, communication contexts, and people’s perception. General communication theory
Chou, 2003 Interactivity in instructional context should focus on learner-interface, learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner interactions. Web-based learning systems
Rafaeli & Ariel, 2007 Interactivity includes a larger variety of “players” (human and “synthetic”) in an environment that might include messages for more than one specific player. Internet research
Quiring & Schweiger, 2008 Interactivity implies differentiation between action and the exchange of meaning; there are two forms of interactivity: user-system interactivity and user-user interactivity. Internet
McDaniel, 2009 Revisits Andrisani et al.’s five key guidelines for interactive technical communication, and adds familiar metaphor as a sixth factor for strong interactivity. Interactivity in technical communication can be designed with a mindset of procedural architecture. Websites
Carnegie, 2009 Interactivity is created through three primary modes: multi-directionality, manipulability, and presence. Computers and composition; rhetoric of technology
Kranz, Holleis, & Schmidt, 2010 Interactivity can be measured through the technological and conceptual phenomena of seamlessly integrating the means for interaction into everyday artifacts. Object-based interaction; Internet of Things
Milojevic, Kleut, & Ninkovic, 2013 Interactivity can be studied at the nexus of high, medium, and low levels against textual, social, and technical types of interactivity. Communication research
Pedersen, 2013 Interactivity as mediated social interaction. Wearable technology
Cummings & Bailenson, 2015 Interactivity can be studied through user perception of presence in immersive environments Virtual immersive environments

Technical communicators who were interested in interactivity have also examined online help systems and Web information architecture. In their Technical Communication article, “Making the Most of Interactivity Online,” Andrisani et al. (2001) looked at methods by which information is presented in an online help system and focused on navigability as the main principle of good interactive design. The authors recommended using adequate metaphors as a way to engage online documents users interactively. They also had identified a variety of ways technical communicators might participate in authoring effective interactive environments, such as these top five roles summarized by McDaniel (2009, p. 372):

  • Setting and defining limits
  • Providing accuracy and consistency of content and presentation
  • Helping to gain the trust of users
  • Creating information across mechanisms
  • Planning effective navigation

Eight years after Andrisani et al.’s article, McDaniel (2009) published “Making the Most of Interactivity Online Version 2.0” in the same journal, further developing Andrisani and colleagues’ (2001) descriptions of the online architecture of technical communication. McDaniel (2009) examined new developments in interactivity and suggested a metaphor of procedural architecture for authoring online interactive technical documents. He stated that technologically mediated interactivity can be traced back to the age of telegraphy, but what concerned most modern technical communicators are the forms of interactivity enabled by the Internet (p. 371). Though some authors argue that the history of interactive technologies dates much further back than the telegraph (see Dales, 2016), the focus of McDaniel’s (2009) study was on digital interactivity, and thus it was framed in that techno-historical context.

Interactivity for Mobile Technologies

With the advancement of mobile technologies and evolution of computers into hybrid devices and ubiquitous computing, the importance and meaning of interactivity have changed according to the salient characteristics of mobile communications. Compared to desktop computers, mobile devices have additional interactive characteristics (Barnes, 2002; Kannan, Chang, & Whinston, 2001; Gao, Rau, & Salvendy, 2009): ubiquitous availability (devices are almost always “on”), personal usage (devices used in personal context), context-aware ability (customized information and services at the point of need), and ease of response (short and fast responses are facilitated). In more recent studies on mobile applications, the word interactive is often used to refer to different characteristics and behaviors of the software, application, or user interface (Gao, Rau, & Salvendy, 2009).

Brown and Jones (2001) defined interactive as the situation where the user directly issues a request to retrieve relevant documents, and proactiveas the situation where documents are presented to the user automatically. Chen and Kotz (2000) defined active context-awareness in applications as the ability to change their content autonomously according to discovered contexts; in contrast, passive context-aware applications merely present the updated context to the user and let the user specify how the application should change. Based on Chen and Kotz’s model, Barkhuus and Dey (2003) added an extra level of interactivity as personalization, which refers to customizing and tailoring. These definitions focus on the classifications of interactions and technological features that allow mobile interaction to take place.

Interactivity for New Immersive Media

How might interactivity be conceptualized for wearables and IoT products? Although most principles found in mobile communication design are applicable to wearables and IoT devices (e.g., ubiquitous availability, personalization, contextual awareness, ease of response), new conceptualizations of interactivity are needed for the immersive experience these devices promise to users. In interactive mobile communications, screen resolution, computing capacity, network speed, and media bandwidth were considered higher concerns for the quality of interaction (Hoffman & Novak, 1995). In immersive media, however, interactivity goes beyond mouse clicks and screen navigation. In their analysis of wearable devices and smart objects, Cirani and Picone (2015) envisioned the interactive characteristics these devices should have, including augmentation of real-life scenarios; integration of social, cyber, and physical worlds; centralization or unification of devices; and proactiveness (automated actions with minimal or no human input). For Kortuem et al. (2010), the main building blocks for IoT interactivity are in three layers of smart-object principles: activity awareness, policy awareness, and process awareness. These layers differentiate awareness by its type, through the understanding of human activities and their relationship with the physical world (activity awareness), interpreting human activities with respect to predefined organizational and social policies (policy awareness), and ordering work based on the nature of activities and associative policies (process awareness).

For Achten (2015), the ability to communicate across different platforms is most vital for successful IoT and wearables integration. Similarly, Want, Pering, and Agarwal (2016) agreed that the challenges IoT systems face in terms of interactivity are associated with heterogeneous data, lack of standardization, and interoperability. In other words, to improve interactivity, software engineers must continue to work on multi-device interaction as a key characteristic of the new computing paradigm. Google research scientists Want, Schilit, and Jenson (2015) stated that future opportunities and challenges in IoT computing revolve around ubiquitous information, machine actions and user control, and privacy and security. These issues will determine the overall interaction users have with IoT devices. From a business standpoint, Dorner and Edelman (2015) of McKinsey & Company argued that wearables and IoT products should be evaluated based on the values they add to customer experiences. They identified four core capabilities of new digital infrastructures, such as IoT systems, to enhance user experience: proactive decision making, contextual interactivity, journey-focused innovation, and real-time automation (Dorner & Edelman, 2015).

All of these features may be added to existing conceptualizations of interactivity to create relevant guidelines for interactive design in new immersive media. Drawing from the conceptualizations explored in this section, the following section presents seven dimensions of interactivity operationalized for wearables and IoT products.

Dimensions of Interactivity for Immersive Media

The new world of immersive media––of wearables and the IoT––is the rationale for revisiting the topic of interactivity following Andrisani et al. (2001) and McDaniel’s (2009) work in technical communication. Prior to wearables and IoT, Szuprowicz (1995) had introduced a unified approach and identified three main dimensions of interactivity: user-to-user, user-to-document, and user-to-computer (user-to-system). The operationalization of interactivity through these three dimensions led to a framework that provides a larger umbrella needed for understanding the methods applied in research of interactivity. In her attempt to “clarify the murky conceptual water of ‘interactivity,’” Stomer-Galley (2004, p. 391) simplified Szuprowicz’s (1995) three dimensions into two: interactivity-as-product and interactivity-as-process. While both Szuprowicz and Stomer-Galley’s dimensions provide a foundation for research and improvements in interactivity design, their applications are limited to screen-based media.

In this section, I draw from the constructs and key elements of interactivity identified in existing literature to operationalize seven dimensions of interactivity that constitute a robust design for immersive media. In each dimension, I connect conceptualizations of interactivity in traditional, screen-based communication with ideals of interactivity for mobile and immersive technologies identified in the preceding section. Each dimension offers some practical scenarios wherein technical communicators might succeed in supporting the dimension for wearable technologies or IoT products.

1. Reciprocity/ease of Response

As most authors on screen-based communication agree, an interactive platform should allow reciprocal communication, and the messages in a sequence should relate and respond to each other (Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997). An interactive environment should allow the user to provide feedback based on the received messages (Ha & James, 1998). Although early interactivity studies focused on responsiveness of communication exchanges (Rafaeli, 1988; Miles, 1992; Ha & James, 1998), later research concentrated on features that enable such reciprocity: chat rooms, instant messaging windows, real-time document transfer, videoconferencing, etc. (Ahren, Stromer-Galley, & Neuman, 2000). In essence, an interactive interface is expected to facilitate responsive, real-time, reciprocal communication. When applied to immersive technologies, reciprocal communication is characterized by ease of response between users and devices. Based on Smart, Heersmink, and Clowes’s (2017) study, the IoT environment has the capacity to cultivate a “cognitive ecology” through which users actively participate in constructing its configuration. This participatory model has been theorized previously by Jenkins (2002, 2006) in the context of online social engagement.

In the case of wearable technology, technical communicators can work with interface designers to consider the kind of features that would allow users to communicate quickly and easily with their correspondents. For instance, how might fitness trackers like Fitbit and Samsung Gear Fit allow wearers to share their running records and receive cheers from their friends? For IoT products, how might smart home AIs let users post comments to websites with minimal effort? Would the Apple HomePod or Amazon Echo allow users to share their opinions on the curry chicken recipe that they just received from the Food Network website via Siri or Alexa? In terms of content strategy, technical communicators will need to consider how to set up digital content that can be easily read or accessed on a wearable or IoT device and how the format encourages or discourages users from responding to the content.

2. Synchronicity/context Awareness

The conventional construct of synchronicity refers to the speed at which the message can be delivered and at which people can process messages (Gao, Rau, & Salvendy, 2009). Newer applications are enabling faster responses and interactions. The faster the response is, the less inhibited the user is, and the more interactive the user perceives the system or product or process to be (Gao, Rau, & Salvendy, 2009). Synchronicity on a website can also be translated into both the actual waiting time during browsing and the user’s subjective perception of the waiting (Dellaert and Kahn, 1999; Hornik, 1984). An interactive design should strive to reduce waiting time and provide an opportunity for instant response. In immersive media, synchronicity is represented by just-in-time information presented to the user (Want, Schilit, & Jenson, 2015; Dorner & Edelman, 2015). A “smart” interaction is one that is context-aware, whereby the device proactively offers its user the right information at the right time (Chen & Kotz, 2000).

Most current wearables and IoT products excel in this dimension of interactivity. At a time of high-speed Internet and broad data coverage, users expect information at their disposal whenever and wherever they need it. For example, users expect weather and traffic information immediately upon request. Synchronicity in wearables and IoT also means automatic refreshes to keep information up-to-date and useful for users. Another example can be found in Google Now, whereby the Google AI, in sync with Google Calendar, reminds its users to leave for their next activity or meeting place 30 minutes before the event begins. Technical communicators might work with designers and developers to consider enhancing synchronicity by using the GPS functionality in the user’s mobile device (phone or wrist-worn computer) to detect the distance between the user and his or her next event location, and, considering traffic condition, alert the user and give that person ample time to leave for the event––which may well be more than 30 minutes in advance (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Google Now notifies a user about road conditions before the user begins the trip. Photo credit: Matteo Doni (public domain image retrieved from Flickr).

A context-aware smart device should also process queries by recognizing the user (who is requesting the information), the purpose (why the particular information is requested), and other contextual factors like culture and political conditions. This will help IoT products avoid mistakes like the one committed by Amazon’s Alexa that had caught both the user and his parent off guard. Amazon’s competitor, Google Home, has designed a solution to this problem by creating AI algorithms that recognize the voice of individual users, acknowledging that its device is to be shared among multiple users in a household. (See a heart-warming promo video of this feature here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZNqSy-zFXo.) It’s the first step to achieving effective interactions between users and IoT media. Technical communicators, who are experts in understanding the rhetorical situation of communication (user, audience, purpose, content, and medium), should lead the way in this journey.

3. Connectedness/ubiquity/pervasiveness

The idea of connectedness is broadened in the context of networked communication. Based on the construct proposed by Ha and James (1998b), connectedness refers to the feeling of being linked to more resources related to the individuals and the tasks they are engaged with. Features that may enable connections between individuals and their resources include social networking websites, shared network work folders, open-access project management systems, and cloud-based productivity software and applications. In mobile and immersive contexts, connectedness can be represented by ubiquitous or pervasive computing (Want, Pering, & Agarwal, 2016). Being fully connected means that users can access multiple platforms with a continuous experience. This mobile iteration of connectedness can be applied to cloud computing in screen-based communication to realize the ideal of interconnectedness (Want, Schilit, & Jenson, 2015; Cirani & Picone, 2015).

For instance, wearables users may want their social media accounts and wearable devices linked so they can share updates from their devices to their online communities easily. Pushing it a little further, wearables developers may consider creating a more seamless transition experience between a user’s personal devices such that the user might have continuous digital interactions across devices. For instance, a recent wearable startup, Token (https://tokenize.com), works with the Windows 10 platform to let users access their credit card, house keys, car key, desktop login, and work badge through a finger ring band. Such connectedness is unprecedented and is made possible by smart IoT infrastructure. Working with engineers and programmers, technical communicators can leverage this opportunity by creating a digital information experience similar to that of Token’s initiative.

4. User Control/personalization

A user’s perception of his or her control in the interactive experience has been studied by those interested in the intersection between the psychological and technical design of interaction (McMillan, 2000b). There are two constructs within user control identified by Steuer (1992): ranging and mapping. The former refers to the number of options the environment provides the user to modify the task flow and the environment (such as customization and personalization of user interface); the latter refers to the extent to which the controls and manipulations in a mediated environment are similar to controls and manipulations in the real world (Gao, Rau, & Salvendy, 2009). User control is also associated with minimizing effort in the achievement of a task and ease of adding information (Heeter, 1989). Although not limited to mobile contexts, user control is often made synonymous to the ability to personalize devices. It gives users a sense of autonomy and agency to be able to make their devices truly their own. Using Jensen’s (1998) user information and distribution patterns, Diderichsen (2006) showed that interactivity in augmented media can be characterized by 1) the ability of users to control input, 2) the consequences of user input on the expressions of message, and 3) the consequences of expression of message on information content. For Sarma and Girão (2009), immersive media such as the IoT must address what kind of control users have over self-generated content as a way to manage their digital identities.

In immersive media, it is especially important that users be able to customize their networked technologies to their liking. Users do not want to think they do not have control over their wearable devices and IoT systems. Among the greatest fears in using wearable and IoT technologies are user privacy and security (Want, Schilit, & Jenson, 2015; Roman, Zhou, & Lopez, 2013). Users need to know that they retain control over their devices and that they can personalize them to a desirable level (Barkhuus & Dey, 2003). This dimension of interactivity serves not only to heighten pleasure with a device but also to build trust within the user (Gurak, 1997). Trust is directly proportional to the degree to which users want to interact with their devices.

A textbook example in this dimension of interactivity in wearables can be found in the case of Google Glass. Most of the comments Google received about their head-mounted computer device when it first came to the market were related to the realization that users––as well as non-users––were not sure when the device was recording or capturing images. The lack of user control in that case soon led to the demise of the device. Wearables and IoT developers must pay attention to how they present control to their users. Technical communicators can play a vital role in presenting that information. For head-worn cameras, for example, technical communicators might work with interface designers to ensure there’s a distinctive on/off switch where users get to control when to turn the camera on and off. This switch must be visible and easily accessible.

5. Navigability/accessibility

Navigability on traditional screen media is defined as the efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction with which users navigate the system in order to fulfill their goals under specific conditions (Casto et al., 2007). It has a definite impact on the overall success of Web applications. Not only does the navigability of an interface facilitate the processing of information but different levels of navigability also carry detrimental effects on the perceived credibility of the Web (Boushra, 2008). The construct of navigability is also directly related to a user’s self-efficacy in completing tasks, which accounts for the user’s attitude toward the interface (as illustrated in McMillan & Hwang, 2002). An interactive website employs intuitive text hyperlink structures and elements of navigation that increase overall effectiveness in using the site (e.g. site map, search bar, header and side menus, permanent links across pages, etc.). Specific to immersive media context, navigability is translated to accessibility since products like a smartwatch and home AI have very limited screen navigation. Wearables and IoT technologies alike must pay attention to the tension around accessibility––the benefits and disadvantages these products present to users from all walks of life (Miorandi et al., 2012; Mashal et al., 2015).

In voice-activated or natural language processing interfaces of most wearables and IoT devices, navigability can be achieved by audio/verbal and visual feedback (e.g., beeping sounds, blinking lights) to indicate successful or unsuccessful navigation. It is important to keep in mind that most immersive media devices also rely on touch/haptic and gestural input to activate or navigate certain functions (see examples in Figure 4).

Figure 4. A user showing different interfaces of fitness trackers. Photo credit: Mike Lee (public domain image retrieved from Flickr).

As advocates for users, technical communicators must pay attention to the accessibility of these interfaces for those who may not have the ability to use these input methods. To create truly interactive interfaces, technical communicators and designers need to work together to make devices with multiple forms of input and feedback options such that users can choose what works best for them. As of this writing, it seems that most wearable devices in the market are lacking in this dimension. A quick survey of fitness trackers and smartwatches would yield similar results––these devices mostly allow only one or two means of navigation limited to touch and voice (Wentzel, Velleman, & van der Geest, 2016). More input/output modalities are necessary to ensure more accessible design of wearables as well as IoT products.

6. Entertainment/sensibility

In some studies, playfulness was used as a salient predictor for website popularity and served as a characteristic of interactivity (Chen & Yen, 2004; Ha & James, 1998). The entertainment construct of interactivity emphasizes intrapersonal communication–– communication within oneself––since “playful devices” or interfaces can provide the user an enjoyable inner talk with oneself (Ha & James, 1998). The importance of the entertainment dimension can be seen in how entertaining content and interface encourages participation and helps attract users to the platform (Scharl, Dickinger, & Murphy, 2005). On screen, interactive entertaining features include GIF memes, mini games, and click-activated animations. However, the kind of fun and entertainment made possible in a screen-based environment may not be available to immersive media that lack a sizable display. For that, entertainment may be characterized as sensibility of the device––that is, how the device can communicate or react to users with human-like style and personality (McCarthy et al., 2006).

In IoT systems, playfulness can be achieved by verbal feedback, light-hearted humor, and other pseudo-human sensibilities (Coulton, 2015). On a philosophical level, technical communicators may consider the ontology of objects––i.e., the being of object or what makes an object an object. Then, consider how might we make “things” more human-like, since researchers like Sloman (2009) and Bailenson & Yee (2005) have found that users put more trust in intelligent agents that present human-like traits or mimic human characteristics, whether or not the object looks like a human at all.

Many current home AIs are designed to intersperse daily activities and user interactions with jokes or blithe reactions. For example, some Siri users have shared that when asked if Siri has a boy/girlfriend, the programmed AI would respond with light sarcasm. The same goes for questions like, “Can you beatbox?” “What’s 0 divided by 0?” and “Who made you?” when they are asked to Apple’s Siri (Figure 5), Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and (OK) Google.

Figure 5. A user asked Siri “What should I be for Halloween” and Siri replied with, “You could dress up like chapstick and tell people you’re ‘the balm.’” Photo credit: H. Michael Karshis (photo domain image retrieved from Flickr).

Although not all users would like their devices to joke with them, it certainly adds an interactive element to these technologies by including something we consider to be fundamentally human––humor. While it may seem trivial, it would make for a legitimate study for technical communicators to survey user experience with devices that are more sensible and entertaining compared to those that are less so.

7. Sensory Stimulations/multimodality

Heeter (1989) demonstrated that the more logically (and realistically) mediated communication resembles analog, physical, or face-to-face communication, the more interactive the communication is. Screen-based communication tends to mimic real-life interactions but is often limited by the available modality of the technology. Typical sensory stimulations afforded by screen-based media are audio and visual. New tools and design applications allow for digital media today to be more tactile than their predecessors. Motion, visual appearance, sound, and sense of space and time are the building blocks of interactive design (Saffer, 2006). Industrial designer Jinsop Lee (2013), in his TED Talk, revealed a Five Senses Theory that prompts designers to think about ways to engage users by involving their five senses. This construct of sensory stimulation is rather new and refers to the degree to which an interface involves human senses. For IoT and wearable products, sensory stimulations can be achieved through applications of multimodality (Kranz, Holleis, & Schmidt, 2010; Lauth et al., 2012).

As discussed previously in the navigability/accessibility dimension, interactivity can be improved by multiple modality of input and output in immersive media products. While this may seem easy to achieve in wearable technology, it can be a major challenge for IoT systems. Often thought of as objects distant from the user (such as light bulbs, speakers, thermostats, and door locks), IoT devices require technical communicators’ help in achieving greater interactivity through multiple sensory stimulation. Technical communicators can be field researchers who work directly with users to understand the affordances and limitations of various modalities. Given their expertise in analyzing user needs, technical communicators can collect and report these findings to their product teams.

In today’s IoT products, the possibilities have yet to be fully actualized for stimulation beyond the visual and aural. Lauth et al. (2012) argued that, in principle, immersive media should challenge “the classical notion of human-computer interaction in that sensors can make the body as a whole an interface in technically enhanced everyday actions at any point in time at any location” (p. 24). With this development comes the enthusiasm that technical communication may cover a fuller branch of semiosis––that is, of human sign formation based on any modality in any embodied conditions.


To provide an overview of the seven dimensions, Figure 6 shows the dimensions’ connections to traditional interactivity as well as those of mobile technologies. All seven dimensions devised here are central to the richness of interactivity. However, they are not mere checklist items for wearables and IoT product designers, nor are they equally important in different contexts. Immersive media developers must consider the goals of their products and the users they are serving when deciding on the dimensions to emphasize. Ideally, all seven dimensions should be present to yield effective and engaging interactivity for the users.

Figure 6. Interactivity operationalized for immersive technical communication. Graphic created by author.

As found in much of the literature reviewed, interactivity concepts often overlap and are interrelated (McMillan & Hwang, 2002). The same goes for these seven dimensions. For instance, reciprocity/ease of response, synchronicity/context awareness, and user control/personalization overlap to lead to perceived active participation in communication. The intersection of navigability/accessibility and connectedness/ubiquity/pervasiveness can be viewed in the framework of usability of an interactive design. Entertainment/sensibility and sensory stimulation/multimodality can be paired when surveying user experience in mediated communication. The medley of these operationalizations constitutes a chorus of mixed methodologies and approaches to better, more interactive user experience in immersive media such as wearables and IoT products.

Toward Immersive Technical Communication

What is the actual role of technical communicators in all this? How might we influence the design of immersive media such as wearables and IoT products to leverage an effective interactivity? The response to these questions might be manifold. First and foremost, a majority of technical communicators in the field of information technology today work with product design and development teams that determine the final outcome of emerging technologies, including new wearables and IoT products. So knowing how interactivity is conceptualized for these immersive media, along with the operationalized dimensions of interactivity, would allow technical communicators to participate more productively in the design and development process. It is challenging to pinpoint specific technical communication genres to which we should pay more attention in immersive media since, as always, technology affects all aspects of our work. Of course, technical communicators can be experts in the existing genres that will continue to be used in immersive media environments, such as user assistance, content management, and technical documentation. All these processes, however, must be upgraded to be an integrated part of immersive media products to complement the available interactivity (Hoffman, 2015).

Second, technical communicators are called to be symbolic-analysts (Johnson-Eilola, 1996) who specialize in seeing the available means of influence in any given communicative environment, including wearables and IoT technologies. As IoT applications continue to enjoy the large diffusion and pervasive deployment of smart objects, technical communicators can help developers and users to see these devices as communication interfaces that will affect their interactions with the physical, social, and cyber worlds. Questions may arise for technical communicators to help users understand how humans and machines are bridged across these worlds (from Cirani & Picone, 2015):

  1. Which objects are around me?
  2. Do I own the right privileges to control or interact with these objects directly?
  3. What is a given object? What can it do, and what can I do with it?
  4. How can I interact with it?

To avoid mistakes like the Alexa misfortune mentioned earlier in this article, technical communicators play an important role in helping programmers develop immersive communication that look beyond the technical principles to design rhetorically sound interfaces that provide maximum interactivity, usability, and the best user experience. Although this may sound idealistic, the shift to ubiquitous computing––a driving force for the proliferation of wearables and IoT systems––is already happening, and we must work toward achieving a full interactive yet effective immersive user experience, which will be a milestone for widespread IoT adoption in time to come.

Third, technical communicators also serve as user advocates who keep watch on ethical issues in immersive media design (Sun & Getto, 2017; Tofteland-Trampe, 2017). Emerging technologies show us that the laws for regulating their production and usage are often behind the times; technical communicators must be a knowledgeable counsel to their respective teams, making sure legal and ethical choices are made. Through user research and surveys, technical communicators should also listen closely to users about their experience with new immersive technologies. They should err on the side of advocacy for users rather than supporting corporate interests.

In most cases, users lack the voice to influence corporate actions, such as the case of Oral Roberts University’s Fitbit program––where incoming freshmen were encouraged to wear a Fitbit to record their college-required daily aerobic activity (instead of keeping the traditional manual log), with the data automatically entered in ORU’s Learning Management System (“Oral Roberts University integrates,” 2016). In a case of university versus the student, an instance like this could raise ethical questions without clear-cut answers (e.g., Are “connected” students put in a privileged position? Perceived as more committed to ORU objectives? Considered more forthcoming and transparent about their aerobic activity?). Technical communicators, however, can influence the outcome of the deployment if they work with developers to provide better user control in their interaction with the Fitbit device such that users get more autonomy in their usage (e.g., a daily alert that fitness data is about to be submitted with the option to allow/disallow the submission).


In an age of immersive media and connected technologies, technical communicators need to pay attention to the profound new interactivity and user experience these technologies bring to life. Given the evolution of mobile and wearable computing, more reliable measures of interactivity are necessary. Especially in the age of wearable technology and IoT, practitioners and scholars alike should continue to expand their toolkits by broadening their understanding of interactivity to enhance user experience. As current research on interactivity remains inadequate, continued in-depth conceptualization of the constructs in interactivity would help uncover more accurate relationship between interactivity and its dependent variables (Liu, 2003).

Technical communicators play a key role in helping researchers locate and conduct evaluations of interactivity in immersive media environments. Future studies may consider investigating the effects of interactivity on user experience from multiple perspectives, including immersion and presence (Cummings & Bailenson, 2015), cultural differences (Tham, 2016), perceptional component of interactivity, or how users perceive interactivity in ways that are more specific than just positive or negative (Quiring, 2009; Rafaeli & Ariel, 2007; Milojevic, Kleut, & Ninkovic, 2013), rhetoric of immersive and embodied interfaces (Carnegie, 2009), and the distribution of interfaces creating a cognitive ecology (Smart, Heersmink, & Clowes, 2017) of immersive media experience, to name a few directions.

By way of synthesis, this article shows that existing literature provides insights into the dimensions of interactivity that can be useful in understanding the multiple facets of human-computer interaction. Although not every communicative domain supports the same assertion, the core conceptual ideas about interactivity remain true.

Bottom Line/guidelines

The overarching goal of this article is to revisit conceptualizations of interactivity for technical communication in immersive design. It has highlighted several major definitions of interactivity along with key conceptualizations of interactivity. These concepts were operationalized into seven dimensions of interactivity for immersive media. Considering the complexity of interactivity, here is a summarized set of guidelines as takeaways for practitioners. For technical communicators and communication designers––particularly those who are inventing new interfaces for emerging technologies, such as wearables and immersive technology systems––the conceptualizations and operationalizations presented in this essay could be applied to their work in the following ways:

  • Enhancing connections: Design interfaces that enable seamless connection between the user and the system, data, and actions. Ensure versatility and compatibility across digital platforms and applications.
  • Offering optimal control and customization: Allow appropriate user manipulation of media architecture to elevate user experience. Let users choose from multiple input and feedback methods.
  • Providing contextual and proactive assistance: Include smart algorithms that “learn” the behaviors of the user and supply relevant information at the right timing. This will increase the user’s sense of interactions with the device or system, and cultivate delight in the user when using the device or system.
  • Engaging users through device/system sensibility and sensory stimulations: Develop tactile interfaces that provoke and arouse emotions in users to increase the realness of communication between users and systems.

These guidelines were generated based on the seven dimensions of interactivity with an eye toward their implications for interfaces of immersive media and connected devices like the IoT. As mediated communication continues to advance, richer studies on user experience and user interface design would further aid scholars and designers’ ability in understanding the long-term implications of interactivity.


The author would like to thank Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt at the University of Minnesota––Twin Cities and the three anonymous reviewers of this journal for their helpful comments on the early drafts of this article.


  1. I use “immersive media” to refer to a condition of technology whereby users are able to experience a sensation of being surrounded by a mediated reality. For the purpose of this article, immersive media include virtual, augmented, and mixed reality; embodied devices and applications such as wearable technology; as well as connections between smart objects enabled by the IoT.
  2. Examples include The New York Times VR news storytelling (http://www.nytimes.com/marketing/nytvr/) and body-worn cameras used by law enforcement officers (https://www.nij.gov/topics/law-enforcement/technology/pages/body-worn-cameras.aspx).
  3. MNCAT Discovery features a combination of traditional library content search at the University of Minnesota along with publications from news media, e-books, and physical holdings that are not usually available on online academic databases and catalogs. For more details, see www.lib.umn.edu/about/mncat-discovery.


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About the Author

Jason Chew Kit Tham is a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication program in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota. His current research examines the viability of design thinking methodology and maker culture in technical communication training and pedagogy. His work has appeared in Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, Computers and Composition Online, and Connexions: International Professional Communication Journal. He may be reached at thamx007@umn.edu.

Manuscript received 6 May 2017, revised 24 July 2017; accepted 12 September 2017.