Engaging User Creativity: The Playful Experience

Beautiful Information

Discovering patterns in knowledge spaces

A column by Jonathan Follett
December 17, 2007

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”—Carl Jung

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”—H. G. Wells

With so many choices as to how we can spend our time in the digital age, attention is becoming the most important currency. In today’s splintered media environment, new digital products and services must compete with everything under the sun, making differentiation key to developing an audience that cares, invests, and ultimately drives value.

What makes a person want to use one particular digital product or service over its competitor? What makes one user experience more engaging, interesting, or compelling than another? An often overlooked, under-appreciated, and rarely measured component of user experience is playfulness. The digital space is conducive to play—exploration, imagination, and learning. And many successful digital products are built for play or incorporate play into their interaction design. No matter how important our jobs, serious our responsibilities, or stiff our personalities, all people need to play—whether we admit it or not. Is the boss looking?

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Playfulness, like usability, refers to a quality of user experience that can span many disciplines—information architecture, information design, interaction design, and graphic design. In our minds, however, many of us have relegated play to the realms of gaming or kids’ stuff and don’t consider play daily when designing. Though, in the digital space, satisfying the desire to play can be integral in determining the success or failure of a digital product or service. So it’s time for user experience designers to take play seriously. (And stop being so darn boring.)

The Elements of Playful UX

As a starting point, let’s loosely define playfulness in user experience as those elements of a digital design that engage people’s attention or involve them in an activity for recreation, amusement, or creative enjoyment.

Using this admittedly broad definition, it’s easy see that more than just branding determines a digital product’s playfulness. A host of other factors influence playfulness as well, including a product’s overall purpose, technological features and functionality, and how people use the product. So how does playfulness manifest itself in a digital user experience?


Often when we discuss playfulness as part of user experience, we first see it as an element of branding. And there is no doubt that branding has an important role in determining how engaging an experience can be. It sets people’s expectations. It tells them: “Hey! This is going to be fun.” If a company’s identity is whimsical or crafted to appeal to kids, its overall branding package might include such visual cues as bright colors, asymmetrical shapes, humorous text, or cartoonish images. For example, as Figure 1 shows, the look and feel of the Pixar Web site lets you know they’re a company with a playful attitude.

Figure 1—The Pixar Web site
Pixar Web site

In an interview on the Avenue A | Razorfish blog, “The Art of Play in Interaction Design and Brand ID,” Experience Director Kevin Kearney talks about how companies use playful messages to show friendliness and create a positive brand image for customers. For instance, Flickr indicates a server error and builds a playful brand by informing users it “is having a massage,” as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2—A funny Flickr error message
Flickr error message

Playful Engagement

However, while branding sets the tone, it is just a small part of an entire product—and no amount of playful branding can make up for a dull user experience.

Play is not a passive quality, but one that demands interaction, exploration, and imagination. From this perspective, the playfulness of a complex user experience, while attributable in part to its design, is heavily reliant upon users and their level of engagement. In the end, users themselves create playfulness.

It’s not hard to find examples of engaging online properties that invite people to play and capture large audiences for long periods—video games, poker, and fantasy football are some prime examples. Conversely, if a product or service is not playful, people might still use it; they just won’t spend a lot of time with it.

When we examine some of the Web 2.0 success stories—like Facebook, Flickr, Second Life, and YouTube—we can see that they all tap into the creative and imaginative qualities of their users. In fact, playfulness is so ingrained in the user experience of these sites that it’s impossible to separate it from the services they provide.

Social Interaction

The social networking aspects of these sites are one type of recreation—playfulness through interaction with other people. Whether you’re poking someone on Facebook, commenting on a photo 0n Flickr, or virtually dancing the night away with your Second Life friends, it’s clear that play is a key part of these experiences. But social interaction, in and of itself, is not necessarily playful. It requires other creative factors like sharing and customization to support it.


Sites like Flickr and YouTube leverage and build upon the creativity of their users. Creative engagement can come in many forms. One of the most important is sharing the fruits of an artistic process. Flickr provides tools for photographers to share their photos, just as YouTube does for videographers, and Second Life lets casual gamers share many kinds of creative experiences. In all of these environments, people derive personal enjoyment from being part of a loosely knit community that provides a forum for their creative talents.


The classic example of a playful learning activity from the 1950s is the build your own telescope kit that let hobbyists grind their own lenses. It was more fun to see the stars with something you had crafted yourself.

Today, we can build our own unique sneakers with NikeID (Nike Individual Design), an online service that lets users choose the colors of shoe components and add a logo or name to any of 38 styles, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3—The NikeID application engages users in building their own sneakers
NikeID application

We can create our own NFL teams, remixing our favorite players into new team configurations, then play our Fantasy Football teams against those built by our friends.

And with the Shutterfly custom book application, shown in Figure 4, we can design a hardcover photo album, laying out the pages the way we want and adding titles and captions.

Figure 4—Shutterfly custom photo album application
Shutterfly custom photo album application

Customization is not only playful, but it is also deeply intertwined with the creative process. A truly playful user experience gives users the tools to combine existing elements into something new. It lets them draw upon their own expressiveness and imaginations to create new forms. In this creative milieu, users participate for love of the task itself.

Measuring Playability

So how do we measure playfulness? Are there rules of thumb to determine whether a product is playable or engaging? Or is it completely subjective? Do we know it only it when we see it?

To my knowledge, no one has developed any fixed rules in this area of design, so this is new territory. But here are some ideas. In a playful digital product there should be:

  • lots of small rewards and positive feedback for taking action—A playful application does something you like when you interact with it. Sometimes the reward can be as simple as an amusing or useful surpriselike the shift in screen orientation from portrait to landscape that occurs when a user rotates the iPhone.
  • no negative consequences for experimentation—Users should be free to explore, discover, and possibly fail. In a game, you can try out various moves and start over again. In the Nike application for creating custom shoes, you can sample different colors and styles. The converse of this rule holds true as well. In the staid world of banking applications, which are distinctly unplayful, there are major consequences for experimentation.
  • the ability to take someone else’s work and build on it—Whether it be in the form of templates and samples to jump-start your creative work or the opportunity to comment upon, tag, or organize content others have shared, a playful experience should enable users to construct new forms from pre-existing materials.
  • frivolous interaction—Facebook has perfected digital social interaction for no good reason other than pure fun. All playful applications should have a component of interactive silliness.

The Workspace Is the New Play Space

In the digital world, we are beginning to blur the lines between social and professional—and likewise between diversion and work. One of the reasons for this blurring of boundaries is the increase in the number of creative class jobs—architects, artists, scientists, designers, developers—that drive our information economy. And another reason is that these boundaries are less useful in a digital environment. It’s no wonder then that people use Facebook as a professional networking tool or that businesses hold industry conferences on Second Life.

There are many reasons not to introduce playfulness into a digital product or service. But if we keep users focused solely on getting things done—and not on having fun while doing it—we’ll miss an opportunity to realize the full potential digital products can afford. We need not be designing a game or a children’s product to leverage the creativity and imagination of our users.

As applications evolve, all other factors being equal, people flock to the ones that are more fun to use—the ones that engage them. So, unless your application is indispensable—and even if it is—if it’s deadly boring, its days are numbered. Ultimately, it’s better if people spend time with our digital products because they want to, not because they have to. 

Principal at GoInvo

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Jonathan FollettAt GoInvo, a healthcare design and innovation firm, Jon leads the company’s emerging technologies practice, working with clients such as Partners HealthCare, the Personal Genome Project, and Walgreens. Articles in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and WIRED have featured his work. Jon has written or contributed to half a dozen non-fiction books on design, technology, and popular culture. He was the editor for O’Reilly Media’s Designing for Emerging Technologies, which came out in 2014. One of the first UX books of its kind, the work offers a glimpse into what future interactions and user experiences may be for rapidly developing technologies such as genomics, nano printers, or workforce robotics. Jon’s articles on UX and information design have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese. Jon has also coauthored a series of alt-culture books on UFOs and millennial madness and coauthored a science-fiction novel for young readers with New York Times bestselling author Matthew Holm, Marvin and the Moths, which Scholastic published in 2016. Jon holds a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising, with an English Minor, from Boston University.  Read More

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