Playful User Experiences

May 17, 2010

As user experience designers, we tend to focus on getting users to the end of the journeys we’ve designed for them as quickly and effortlessly as possible. We try to take them from point A to point B in the shortest possible time. To me, it sometimes feels a little like we’re trying to get a child to quickly undergo a blood test before he notices that it hurts.

And in many cases, this is just what we should do. People using the Tesco Web site, shown in Figure 1, for instance, just want to complete their week’s shopping quickly and easily. And that’s Tesco’s goal for its customers, too.

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Figure 1—Tesco, a UK ecommerce site where customers can buy their groceries
Tesco, a UK ecommerce site where customers can buy their groceries

However, I think that, often, this might not be the best approach.

When designing a new, somewhat complex, interactive tool or when introducing new functionality to a Web site, getting your users to complete a user journey without noticing the journey itself is an immense task.

Sometimes the challenge is convincing people to complete a task they have no clear motivation for undertaking—at least not to begin with. For example, customers’ completion of a particular task might be important to your client, but performing that task might not the primary reason why customers would decide to visit a site. In other cases, we might simply be trying to engage users and offer them an enjoyable experience.

Rather than trying to motivate users to go down routes they have no personal motivation to follow or to use a new feature they’ve never seen before and are perhaps a little wary of trying out, why not tap into people’s existing motivations and use their natural inclinations to encourage them to interact with our products?

Let Your Users Play

To me, the most evident natural motivation is play. People know how to play. They don’t have to be taught. Play is intrinsic to our nature, and we have been learning through play since childhood. We don’t need motivations or reasons to play. Play is something we take joy in.

Play is also a way of overcoming technological barriers and eliminating people’s knowledge gaps. When faced with an unfamiliar interactive tool or a new technology, many users’ first reaction is one of hesitation or anxiety. But in a playground environment, we lose our fear of the unfamiliar and are quite happy to pick up unknown objects and just experiment with them.

A playful, fun experience can go a long way toward hiding the technology behind it. For example, the user experience the iPhone offers has made it accessible to older users. I have seen elderly people use their iPhones to download and play music, interacting with their iPhone in ways they wouldn’t dare interact with their desktop computers.

Learning Through Play

If you think about how people learn to play a new game, it’s mostly by either experimentation or watching and mimicking others. Think back to the first time you watched someone play Guitar Hero or use the Wii. I bet you couldn’t wait to try it yourself. I know I couldn’t.

Learning by mimicry is not something that typically happens with interactive applications. But when people see others, who look like they’re having fun, playing with cool-looking apps, they’re bound to take a peek over their shoulder. This sort of behavior is evident when observing museum visitors interact with museum installations.

When Can You Apply Playfulness?

Music and interactive installations are perhaps obvious examples of cases where playfulness is often a good approach. However, there are many other interactive experiences that could benefit from playfulness. Converse, whose site is shown in Figure 2, and Nike, shown in Figure 3, are two early examples of brands that have created playful user experiences on their Web sites, allowing their customers to design their own shoes.

Figure 2—Converse’s Start An Original online tool
Converse’s Start An Original online tool
Figure 3—Nike’s shoe customization tool
Nike’s shoe customization tool

Magnetic North, shown in Figure 4, an interactive design company whose people clearly share my views on playful user experiences, have turned their own company portfolio into a playground.

Figure 4—Magnetic North, a UK-based interactive design company
Magnetic North, a UK-based interactive design company

What Is a Playful Experience?

Play is an activity that people engage in for enjoyment rather than a practical purpose. You can introduce the element of play to applications to different extents. For me, a playful interactive experience starts at the point when people forget for a while about their tasks and engage in interactions for the sake of the experience itself or for exploration.

People who visit the Converse Web site for the first time probably do so to buy shoes. Converse could have stopped at displaying their collection on their Web site and providing an easy checkout process. Instead, they chose to offer their customers a tool for designing their own Converse shoe. Customers initially interact with this tool just for the sake of enjoyment and exploration, much in the same way a child would pick up a new toy in a playground. Their play eventually leads them back to their original task of purchasing shoes, but for a while, they can forget about their original goal and just play.

Taking the Scenic Route from A to B

Now, getting back to Tesco, imagine a Web application that suggests recipes based on the contents of your shopping cart. If you wanted to make one of the suggested recipes, it could display an interactive guide that would help you to add and remove items from your shopping cart—and perhaps even make further shopping suggestions to enhance the recipe or help you put together an entire meal.

Or how about a real estate Web site that lets customers visually plan their ideal home, then suggests available properties that best match their plan?

Such playful features should not affect users who just want a hassle-free, quick journey to their intended goals. However, what these examples of playful user experiences demonstrate is an unobtrusive way of expanding a user experience. By introducing the element of play, we can expose customers to new products and, generally, extend their stay on a Web site, potentially strengthening their bond with a brand. Offering customers an enjoyable experience increases the likelihood they’ll return in the future. Plus, there is also the marketing benefit of increased viral potential. When people enjoy a fun, playful user experience, they tend to tell their friends about it.

Perhaps the examples I’ve given so far have convinced you that ecommerce sites could benefit from playful user experiences, but let’s go a little further afield and consider, for instance, online banking—probably not the first sector that springs to mind when discussing playfulness.

Many first-time investors prefer to seek the personal advice of a banker rather than use their bank’s Web site to make an investment on their own. They might feel lost when trying to wade through the large amounts of data available on a Web site, but would probably feel reassured by having personal contact with a banker and asking for advice directly.

In my opinion, a playful, interactive tool that a Web site initially presents as a learning aid for first-time investors could go a long way toward overcoming customers’ intimidation. The tool I have in mind might present customers with different banker personas with unique areas of expertise, who could make investment recommendations to them. Customers could perhaps visually explore the history of a certain investment and get a banker’s view on that investment, carrying on virtual conversations with the banker personas of their choice, and adding or removing bankers. A customer could ask a banker to further explain a recommendation or defend an opinion, and interact with visual representations that accompanied a banker’s explanation. Through the bankers’ explanations of their recommendations, customers could explore further investment options, at all times maintaining full control over the depth and time scale of the information they see.

While not initially presenting itself as a tool for making an actual investment, along the way, this playful tool might encourage customers to make an investment, based on a banker’s recommendation. This approach could help alleviate customers’ initial fear of making an online investment.

Even customers who ultimately choose to approach their banker in person would become better informed and more confident through using this tool, so they would likely take less of their banker’s time, thus saving the bank money.

The possibilities for applying playfulness to applications are endless. All we need is imagination and, well, some guts. Many designers have rebranded themselves in recent years, changing their job description from interaction designer to user experience designer. Let’s make our work follow suit. Instead of thinking only in terms of interaction, start designing user experiences. 

Freelance User Experience Designer

London, UK

Shira is a UX designer with a passion for creating innovative and inspiring interactive experiences. She works as a freelance UX design consultant and spends her free time tinkering with new technologies and new usability testing methods for testing different types of interactive experiences. Shira received her MA in Interactive Media from London College of Communications.  Read More

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