A funny thing happened to me on the way to writing this column. I began to ask myself, what exactly constitutes fun in the user experience of products and services?
Naturally, games and play come to mind. The topic is explored and demonstrated in depth at major game conferences like E3, and even at more sober gatherings like the IBM Almaden Laboratory’s New Paradigms in Using Computers (NPUC) conference in 2001, which devoted its entire agenda to the theme "What can E-Biz learn from E-Games?" I recall that one of the founders of SimCity presented, and another presentation by a game developer seemed to turn usability on its head in terms of how to create just the right amount of challenge, early reward (not too much, not too little), and the continual lure of partial success to guarantee addiction. Just like a slot machine or the megabucks lottery for many losers and a few winners.
Humor comes to mind too. As a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Matthew Karnitschnig pointed out, network television marketers trying to take shows like Comedy Central’s into other countries have entered challenging cultural waters. What people laugh at or about in one country may not be considered funny in another. For example, German television viewers don’t like Seinfeld, which was wildly popular in the U.S. The Macintosh commercials currently being aired, which feature a personification of Steve Jobs talking with a personification of Bill Gates, have to undergo dramatic changes to work in countries other than the U.S., where the ad campaign originated (see Fowler et al).
But fun is more than games and jokes. In fact, it has a long history, a broad definition, and a deep connection to human experience.
On the Nature of Fun
It is often thought that kids have all the fun, at least in the developed world, where children are allowed time, toys, and spaces for play and enjoyment for many years before taking on the roles and responsibilities of adults. Such freedom and the leisurely assumption of maturity are a relatively modern phenomenon. The topic is explored in depth in an engaging history of childhood in which Philippe Aries notes that for millennia, many children did not survive for long; most children were born and raised as spare workers and were quickly introduced to the world of adult toil and obligations. Although archeologists have unearthed children’s toys, adults might engage in play and use toys as much as children. Today, numerous gadgets and even the Sharper Image catalog attest to the enduring role of toys through all ages and all eras.
In Magister Ludi, Johan Huizinga explored the evolution of toys and games, play within cultures, and the role of play in art, law, poetry, philosophy, science, and war. Herman Hesse’s masterful novel, also called Magister Ludi, is a philosophical sci-fi fantasy in which all knowledge has been transformed into music that high priests alone can appreciate, manipulate, and manage. Playing music, for some a deeply "fun experience," becomes a central experience of civilization, something for the leaders of the society to master.
Speaking of humor, John Paulos theorizes an underlying mathematics and geometry of humor, which might lead to intriguing humor visualizations other than Dilbert comics. Traditional printed compendia of jokes provide categories of humor. Lieberman’s collection of 3,000 jokes for speakers lists 15 topics, such as family and business, children, friends, money, sports, and travel. Even an old resource like Prochnow’s treasure chest for speakers contains 1,207 jokes/jests, 543 wisecracks and epigrams, and 212 amusing definitions, all of them individually numbered. Perhaps some audiences knew them by number, like one old joke goes. Web resources todaytext, audio, and videoprovide access to thousands more. Clearly, many resources are available for adding humor to any written, audio, or video statement. One no longer need rely on programmers to write jokes for the user. On the other hand, most professional producers of communication and interaction know how complex and challenging humor is for different ages, educational backgrounds, environments, cultures, and audience contexts. Yet this kind of humor can make for a powerful "fun experience."
I have written before about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, actually, about 7±2 dimensions of them, including the verbal, the physical, the social, the graphical, etc. It seems likely that for each of these dimensions there is a specific world of play and fun, which is also deeply affected by cultural preferences that differ around the world. We have just begun to untangle these threads in the user-experience space and to apply professional design skills to their synthesis.
One specialist who has devoted decades to exploring the meaning of fun, especially in group play and within corporate as well as consumer groups, is the professional funster named Bernie DeKoven, who used to go by the moniker Dr. Fun and now calls himself a funsmith. He has written reviews of games, created games for Mattel and other companies (CBS Software, Children’s Television Workshop, Ideal Toys), and written about gamesespecially the so-called new games philosophy that emphasizes cooperation among groups rather than competition, and games that enable a large number of people to play, which seems appropriate in the era of Internet-based, vast multiplayer domains that derived from multi-user dungeons (MUDs) of decades past. If you want to find out more specifically about DeKoven’s approach to "Deep Fun," his website, www.deepfun.com, provides many URLs for further exploration. Fun topics include games, health, family activities, society, and work.
Desperately Seeking Fun
It was about ten years ago that one of our clients first asked us to make a business-application user-interface "happier" or more "fun-like." A few years ago, psychologists at a vehicle manufacturer invited me to consult on how one might make the vehicle rider experience more fun. Today many researchers are looking for breakthrough techniques that provide the user experience with greater pleasure. Making the experience more fun is one key objective.
Does this mean making the experience more amusing (taking us away from thinking) or more entertaining? These are cognitive and emotional issues. For some, playing chess or go is fun. For others, fun is being a couch potato and watching video passively, or checking the latest jewelry on the Home Shopping Network. Some prefer physical activities or organized sports. The sheer movement, as well as challenge, risk, and social interaction are the sources of the endorphins that eventually suffuse our body, from which we derive great pleasure. No wonder a recent Economist article speculates that Exergaming in Silicon Valley (as one can do with the new Wii game batons) will spread as a new phenomenon. Ten to 15 years ago, I had speculated that dancing with data was a future solution to lives lived with too little movement parked in front of CRT display screens; such applications would require the careful skills of the movement therapist or personal trainer to make sure that all of our muscle groups were challenged during the course of a nine-to-five work day, and we would emerged refreshed, not exhausted.
It seems likely that we have a world of fun to explore across all design disciplines, platforms, technologies, markets, communities, and user-interface paradigms. Making user interfaces fun is a comprehensive, integrated process that emphasizes diverse disciplines, from perceptual design to usability analysis, disciplines with very different skills that are oriented to different groups. One might describe the challenge as oriented to the whole person, the whole brain, both left and right hemispheres, and the person not only alone, but in context, with people, community, and environment. There is a need for thinking about usability, but also usefulness and appeal, as vital objectives for fun-oriented, computer-based products and services.
Some R&D centers have focused on fun, like the Viktoria Institute in Sweden, which has been exploring fun and play for decades. Other centers in Europe, North America, Asia, and elsewhere are active, and new centers are arising. I have sketched briefly some of the directions of fun these centers are exploring. Every major user-interface component, the metaphors, the mental model, navigation, interaction, and appearance offer rich territory for new dimensions of fun. There are ample historical and cultural precedents to consider in adapting them for the latest technology…and ample cautions about thinking that what is fun for one group of people will be fun universally. Perhaps someday we’ll have tools to help us tune our fun correctly for the task at hand, whether it is for work or leisure, for this culture or another, or a little of each.
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DeKoven, Bernard D. The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. New York: Anchor Books, 1978.
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Tierney, John "What’s So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing," New York Times, 13 March 2007, p. D1.
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Last checked April 1, 2007
http://www.almaden.ibm.com/cs/npuc2001/; IBM NPUC conference on games
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.
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