Enabling the pursuit of different goals

XVI.1 January + February 2009
Page: 58
Digital Citation

FEATURECan “wow” be a design goal?

James Hudson, Kameshwari Viswanadha

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Most product and design professionals have been directed to "wow our customers" at some point in their careers. But what does it really mean to wow customers? The business world throws around this word so often that it's become a cliché, meaning little more than "let's copy that other great company over there" or "let's show off our cool technology." It's little surprise that many designers find themselves rolling their eyes when it comes to "wow." But it shouldn't be that way. It really is a good thing for customers to literally blurt out "wow!" as a positive reaction when they're emotionally engaged. To rediscover what's good about "wow," however, we need to move beyond the cliché.

There are multiple ways in which design can wow customers. By pulling apart the generic wow and talking about multiple, precise wows, we can highlight clusters of design principles that seem to evoke different types of user engagement. Although these principles and techniques are well established, examining them in the context of multiple types of wow helps us to describe project goals more clearly and to begin building a library of design ideas useful for accomplishing those goals.

back to top  Our Motivation—A Story

Over several months, we worked (with Kay as UI designer and James as user experience researcher) along with a team of talented design professionals on a large project. As our designs evolved, we noticed something unusual happening. As the UI designer put it, the participants in our usability tests "just seemed to be having more fun" with the earlier designs. This was puzzling because our final designs seemed more desirable as a product to our participants.

When we reviewed the videotapes from multiple rounds of usability testing, we observed that participants literally said "wow" about both earlier and later designs, but this reaction came at different times and in different ways. Looking at it closely, it became clear to us that there were multiple types of wow occurring. In the early designs, our participants had wow experiences. In our final designs, however, we had a wow product. But what do these distinctions really mean? And what was it about the design that led to one type of wow over another? Before we answer these questions, however, it's useful to start with a key commonality.

back to top  Minimum Requirements for Designing Wow

Usability experts have listed ease of use as a minimum requirement when discussing emotional design or user engagement, so it comes as no surprise that every wow reaction we observed occurred with highly usable design elements. To give an example, PayPal has a project currently in an internal beta phase that will allow teenagers to learn money-management skills through a student account linked to their parent's PayPal account [1]. For this project, designers consciously applied minimalism as a design principle and removed anything that was not strictly necessary in the interface of the child account. The financial language of credits and debits, for example, has been replaced with more straightforward terms like "money in" and "money out." During testing, parents found it so easy for their children to use that they frequently asked for their own PayPal accounts to have this same interface. Although using simple language did not produce a wow reaction, it helped create an easy-to-use experience that formed the basis for a wow reaction.

back to top  Designing Wow Products

An easy-to-use product that meets user needs is not necessarily a wow product. Our analysis suggests that a wow product is one that customers strongly desire because it also (1) creates unexpected needs and (2) promotes a greater sense of control over the external world.

Creating Unexpected Needs. Wow products do more than simply meet user needs. They make us realize needs of which we may never have been aware.

In our work with PayPal's Button Designer, for example, we observed this type of needs creation when we introduced the ability to add dropdown menus to payment buttons in the user interface. A payment button is a small piece of HTML code that will redirect a customer from a merchant's website to PayPal to pay for that item. The Button Designer is a tool on our website for creating this HTML code. In a recent redesign of this tool, we provided an easy mechanism for merchants to associate a dropdown menu with a payment button so that their customers can choose from multiple options (sizes or colors). In usability testing with prototypes, we observed multiple merchants discover this feature and realize that it would allow them to vastly simplify their websites. For many of these merchants, that was the moment when they began wanting to get their hands on the real tool as soon as possible. The product wow of the Button Designer came from the way that it created and fulfilled needs that these merchants had not previously realized.

We often hear a similar refrain from owners of other wow products. Owners of cars with keyless entry, for example, talk about how they can "never go back" to using a key. Despite years of fumbling with their keys, they were unaware that they needed keyless entry until they had it. In fulfilling known needs (getting into a locked car), wow products cause their owners to realize other unmet—or unacknowledged—needs (reduce fumbling with keys).

Control Over Things External. Wow products give their users a sense of greater control over the world around them. For example, parents using student accounts were (not surprisingly) excited about their level of insight into and control over their children's spending. A little more surprisingly, however, their children were also excited about the level of control this gave them over their parents' perceptions. Rather than viewing parents' access as intrusive, many of these teens felt it offered a way to prove their trustworthiness to their parents. By establishing a documented record of wise financial decisions, teenagers felt their parents would begin giving them more freedom both in financial matters and in other aspects of their lives.

The PayPal Plug-In—a browser-based tool that generates a MasterCard number intended for one-time use anywhere online that accepts MasterCard—also offers a unique way of putting users in control over the world around them. By generating these single-use numbers, users of the PayPal Plug-In reported feeling more in control of how their financial information is distributed. For some, this is a way of minimizing risk of theft. They know their single-use credit card number will never be a problem if stolen. Others see it as a way of taking back control over "free" trials or subscriptions they wanted to try out. This product allows them to start these trials without having to constantly worry about opting out within the trial period.

In general, wow products allow their owners to take control (or at least feel in control) of aspects of their lives that were out of their control previously. Student accounts give teenagers control over how their parents perceive their level of responsibility. The PayPal Plug-In gives buyers control over the distribution of their financial information. Tivo gives television watchers control over the time they watch certain shows. Wow products put owners in control over their environments.

back to top  Designing Wow Experiences

Wow experiences are about consciously valuing the in-the-moment use of a product, not the product's overall usefulness. This is distinct from interactions that are so intuitive the interface almost disappears from consciousness. Several design factors seem to contribute to "wow" experiences: (1) providing apt feedback, (2) offering an invitation to play with the interface, and (3) creating novel forms of interaction.

Apt Feedback. Any basic HCI textbook points out that feedback is an important component of a usable design. In wow experiences, however, the feedback is perfectly tailored to the action. For example, designers of the PayPal Plug-In spent a considerable amount of time developing the experience of creating a single-use credit card number. In order to create this number, a user clicks on a button and a single-use number is generated. However, instead of seeing this number the moment it is generated, the user sees an animation of a credit card with the numbers rapidly spinning. Meanwhile, they hear a professionally engineered sound clip of clicking sounds. Only then is the single-use credit card number displayed. Strictly speaking, the number has been created by the time the animation begins, but the feedback design helps to reinforce the uniqueness of this newly generated number.

It really is a good thing for customers to literally blurt out 'wow!' as a positive reaction when they're emotionally engaged. To rediscover what's good about 'wow,' however, we need to move beyond the cliché.

In our testing, we've noticed this feedback (animation plus sound) almost always causes users to smile. They report that it makes them feel as if the number really has been generated for them—that it really has changed. We've even noticed users repeatedly generating credit card numbers just to observe this feedback mechanism.

When the feedback is exactly right, it helps produce a wow experience. Getting this feedback right, however, often takes time and requires many design iterations that may appear unnecessary to those focused strictly on functionality, but it seems to be a key piece of producing a wow experience.

Invitation to Play. Wow experiences tend to invite play. This invitation to play seems to be a result of two design details: encouraging optional activities and limiting negative consequences.

1. Optional Activities. In studies of the Button Designer, merchants had the most fun with optional aspects of the design. For example, merchants could choose to customize the payment button image and the appearance of the PayPal checkout pages for their customers. Although it wasn't required—and perhaps because it wasn't required—we found that merchants had the most fun when customizing these optional features.

If play is optional, however, this leads to some interesting design implications. Specifically, including an invitation to play in a design requires surfacing optional elements rather than burying them. This was one of the key changes as our designs evolved for the Button Designer. In our final designs, we removed certain optional features and hid others under an "optional" section. Of course, these seemed like the correct, logical decisions at the time, and it likely improved usability. We wanted to help merchants complete their task as efficiently as possible, so we surfaced required elements and downplayed optional elements. In taking a task-oriented perspective on usability, however, we may have lost some of the play that made our original designs fun to use.

It's interesting to note that these optional features in the Button Designer also involved self-expression. Users customizing their payment buttons were conscious that it would be displayed on their website, which motivated them to engage and get the customization right. This may not be the case when customization features are offered in products for personal use.

2. Avoiding Negative Consequences. Because play is optional, it rarely has lasting negative consequences. In fact, when negative consequences occur, they tend to be the reality check that ends play. In the Button Designer, we changed our notion of where play occurs between our initial designs and our final designs, and this seems to have an impact on our merchants' (perhaps unconscious) perception of consequences relating to their play. In our initial designs, merchants made customizations in a lightbox—a web UI technique that creates a new layer, similar to a pop-up window, within the same webpage. This lightbox treatment has the effect of focusing a user on a specific aspect of the task while leaving the webpage they were working on somewhat visible and completely unchanged. Our final designs incorporated these customization features inline, on the same webpage where users added required information to create a payment button.

The interesting aspect of promoting play in a lightbox is that the lightbox comes with an escape hatch in case anything goes wrong. A merchant "playing" in the lightbox can always click on the Cancel button to undo their changes and return to the previous page. Inline customization does not have this easy, one-click method of removing all changes.

Novel Interaction. Although this was not a factor in our experiences with PayPal products, novel forms of interaction can certainly contribute to wow experiences. Nintendo's Wii and Apple's iPhone, for example, both introduced novel interaction techniques to the general public. The Wii reinvented gaming by introducing a controller that understood and responded to physical motion. The iPhone reinvented mobile telephony by replacing almost all of the physical buttons on a cellular phone with software-driven, multitouch interface.

Neither the Wii nor the iPhone invented these interaction techniques. In both cases, the designers took existing interaction techniques, improved upon them, and applied them in unexpected ways. Changing the interaction paradigm in existing product categories can help produce wow experiences.

back to top  Multiple Wows

So, how do we wow our customers? Simply put, this is the wrong question. The cliché of wowing customers is an imprecise goal that provides little useful direction to designers. Moving beyond the cliché, we've suggested that there are, in fact, multiple types of wow and detailed a few different design factors that contribute to each. We've made the case for distinguishing between wow experiences and wow products, but there are still other types of wow. Don Norman, for example, has argued that wow aesthetics play an important role [2]. We could make a case for wow technologies or wow business processes. As a community, we still have much work to do if we want to fully understand the intricacies and interconnections involved in designing—and talking about—multiple wows.

back to top  Acknowledgements

Special thanks to those who contributed to the projects described in this article. Many of the design ideas belong to these incredibly collaborative teams.

back to top  References

1. Although we internally refer to these as "student accounts," it's likely that the name will change when we release the product.

2. Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. Basic Books, New York.

back to top  Authors

Dr. James M. Hudson is a senior user experience researcher at PayPal, an eBay Inc. company. Trained as a computer scientist, Jim is fascinated with how small aspects of design produce profound psychological shifts in how we interact with products and with one another in technologically mediated environments. He also spends much of his time thinking about how to develop innovative, user-centered products within corporate constraints. When he's not wearing his researcher hat, Jim teaches and dances Argentine tango.

Kameshwari Viswanadha is a senior user interaction designer at PayPal, an eBay Inc. company. With a background in building architecture, Kay now designs interactions for PayPal's payment products. Her key areas of interest include shaping products through great user experience, supporting decision making through visual communication, and connecting with users through personable design. She is also a classically trained Indian dancer and vocalist.

back to top  Footnotes

Designing "wow" must be an ongoing conversation. Those interested in joining this conversation should visit our blog at http://www.designingwow.com. We encourage all disciplines and experiences to join us online.

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1456202.1456217

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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0100  $5.00

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