Saturday, November 3, 2007

Playfulness in interaction design

I recently sat in on a talk given by our very own Kevin Kearney on how we as designers can introduce playfulness into the user interface. Kevin gave some examples from brands such as Flickr, Digg and Apple who were incorporating playful elements into their interfaces and doing it well.

Did you ever notice the ‘Flickr loves you’ logo and the post-login greeting in one of several languages? This playfulness even extends to their error messaging. On the rare occasion the site is down the user is not greeted by a server error message but a cute “Flickr is having massage” message.

I recently went to and was pleasantly surprised with the following example. A site down for maintenance is an opportunity for engagement and also an opportunity to sell t-shirts!

screenshot of down for maintenance page

Why is incorporating playfulness into the interface so important one might ask? Playfulness in the user interface enhances user engagement and ultimately brand perception. This for me was the take home message from Kevin’s talk since it provides users with a memorable and rewarding experience and in turn promotes a positive image of a company as friendly and human which in turn promotes customer loyalty.

And there’s no reason why as Kevin correctly pointed out that financial institutions can;t benefit from introducing playfulness into their interfaces. A financial application does not need to be dull and boring. What matters is how well we do something and there is fine line between being playful and being annoying or redundant. I once remember a former colleague of mine coding a financial trading application. He attempted to introduce playfulness into the interface by having running legs come in when the application was busy fetching data. Much depends on how and when playful is implemented. The Mac FTP client Fetch is an example of playful being successful. It features an animation of a small dog running which signifies that the application is busy fetching files and ties in nicely with the name of the software and the real world analogy. Being playful is really about being clever, appropriate and subtley surprising whilst remaining non intrusive. The now infamous Mr. Clippy (RIP: 1997 - 2007) was an example Kevin gave for how not to do things.

Furthermore, brand playfulness can and should extend across multiple channels. Kevin gave the example of how JetBlue does this with their quirky and entertaining welcoming messages played whilst passengers are getting seated on the plane. This serves several purposes including putting passengers at ease, filling in time before take off and creating a positive brand perception. And it’s this attention to detail that really sets JetBlue apart from it’s competitors.

Google is another example of a company that incorporates playfulness in many ways from changing their logo to mark special days and holidays and conjuring up an elaborate April Fools Day prank in the form of TISP.

The sorts of playfulness we see in our interfaces and brands says a lot about the designers, engineers and managers behind a product and the extent to which they will go to connect with their users. More recently they launched their 1-800-GOOG-411 voice activated information listing service. I was encouraged to try this by the gigantic billboards I saw on a recent visit to the Bay Area and I encountered another example of playfulness. I would encourage anyone reading this to try it out. If you pick a more ‘obscure’ listing then chances are you will trigger this cute ‘look up' sound which is akin to someone muttering under their breath as they attempt to find what you’re looking for and a ‘honk honk’ sound when a result is found. This is a simple but effective example of how sound can be used to entertain the user whilst providing them with valuable feedback that they (Google) are working on it.

Apple is abound with examples of playfulness across their desktop, web properties and device designs. Kevin made the point that they didn’t need to implement the genie effect when you minimize an application within their OS – but the genie disappearing into the lamp is so much more fun and elegant an example of interaction design than simply making something go away. On the iPhone – a task such as deleting photographs is made more fun/less like work by a trash can whose lid lifts up to receive a deleted image in the from of a genie and then wobbles slightly upon task completion.

At I was recently redirected to a password retrieval page that provided an opportunity for brand building. The page title was iForgot.

Playfulness presents an opportunity for designers, product managers, strategists, engineers and as Kevin pointed out: especially copywriters to improve user experience and shape brand. The real challenge comes in convincing certain clients that incorporating playfulness into their interfaces/brand is worthy of the time, effort and risk involved. A nod to the success of pioneers such as Google and Apple plus increased user satisfaction and brand loyalty translating into real world ROI might do the trick.

What examples of brand/UI playfulness have you come across?

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