More funology: positions

XI.5 September + October 2004
Page: 38
Digital Citation

Beyond fun

John Carroll

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One of the most interesting threads of development in human-computer interaction through the past 25 years is the field's conception of "usability." Initially, this term was taken as synonymous with "easy" or "simple." As understanding of people's experiences with technologies has developed, the concept of usability was enriched with ideas from human development to include such notions as "cognitively stimulating," "consistent with prior knowledge," and "transparently useful in the work at hand." During the 1990s, as collaboration became a major problem area for human-computer interaction, and as organizational issues became better understood, usability was further elaborated to incorporate notions like awareness of and access to other people in the performance of a work task, and support for existing workplace roles and practices.

So what about fun?

Fun is an important and obvious example of how the concept of usability has developed. In circumstances where human-computer interaction is discretionary, and especially where it involves sustained user activity, ease and simplicity are just not enough. People must want to use a system, and must continue wanting to use the system. Part of achieving this is making the system fun to use.

Incorporating fun into considerations of usability, and of user behavior and experience, makes human-computer interaction far richer from the standpoint of psychology and design. The interaction of cognition and affect is fundamental to the complexity of social behavior and everyday experience. Things are fun when they attract, capture, and hold our attention by provoking new or unusual perceptions, arousing emotions in contexts that typically arouse none, or arousing emotions not typically aroused in a given context. Things are fun when they surprise us; when they don't feel like they look, when they don't sound like they feel. Things are fun when they present challenges or puzzles to us as we try to make sense and construct interpretations, when they transparently suggest what can be done, provide guidance in the doing, and then instantaneous and adequate feedback and task closure.

Understanding how to evoke fun through design is involved. Just as a design is not ipso facto easier when its functions, displays, and command gestures are minimized, a design does not evoke fun merely because it incorporates color and animation, sound and music, or graphical fantasy content. Distractions may surprise us, may briefly capture our attention, but they are ultimately annoying, not fun. The possibility of fun arises when we are both aroused and intrigued, and at the same time recognize an intention to communicate through a design. Thus, the frontier for research and design with respect to fun is the development of insights and techniques for the management and support of hedonic arousal and the interpretations and attributions entrained.

An interesting question is whether we should think of fun as a facet of usability, or as something separate from usability. The answer depends on the definition of usability, but that does not mean it is completely arbitrary. Moreover, as I elaborate below, the question will continue to arise as the concept of usability continues to develop.

I would urge that we construct a broader, more encompassing concept of "usability," one that incorporates "fun" and other significant aspects of the experience of human interaction with technology, rather than settling for the primitive caricature of usability as synonymous with simplicity and ease, and regarding fun (and other aspects of the user experience) as something beyond or aside of usability. I propose this redefinition for two reasons: First, I think the process of constructing a more comprehensive and integrated analysis of the user's experience is likely to lead to greater technical progress than merely itemizing a variety of mutually inconsistent and incomplete facets of the user's experience. Second, articulating the roles and interactions among a variety of important components of the user's experience is itself likely to elicit a deeper and more significant consideration of each individual component (as I think it already has in the case of ease and fun).

Fun is not the culmination for usability.

As the use of computers expands into leisure activity, family interaction, and civic life, our understanding of usability may broaden further to encompass qualities like eudaimonic well-being [11], collective efficacy [2], cultural identity [5], and social capital [9]. Perhaps the most significant consequence of human-computer interaction is larger-scale and/or longer-term than those investigated so far.

In human-computer interaction, health and well-being are usually thought of with respect to workplace ergonomics—problems of physical posture and manipulation that can be long-term, and psychological stressors that are generally short-term. Technology clearly can have broader effects than this. People who report being happy when engaged in social interaction, report being bored and unhappy when watching television [7]. Television viewing is linked to reduced physical activity, and poorer physical and mental health [1, 12]. These are issues of usability-in-the-large. Indeed, concerns about impacts of Internet computing on health and well-being have already received much attention [6].

People's beliefs about their own specific capabilities exert powerful influences on learning and performance outcomes [2]. Perceptions of high self-efficacy for an activity domain cause individuals to set more challenging goals, to work harder on difficult aspects of tasks, to master new competencies, and to achieve more. Similarly, group members' beliefs about collective efficacy predict group performance. Collective efficacy is a function of interrelated personal efficacy beliefs, including both members' appraisals of personal capability for functions performed within the group (for example, the belief that there is someone you can turn to for advice about handling problems with your family) and members' appraisals of the group's capability (for example, the belief that one's community can improve the quality of public schools without help from the state government.) The tools people use, such as computers and software, can affect their perceptions of both self-efficacy and collective efficacy, and thereby enhance or impair future learning and performance.

Although it can seem like the world has been thoroughly homogenized, we are still clearly not all members of the same culture. Age, gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, residence, first language, education, occupation, family status, disabilities, and special needs—all entail folkways, mores, and concerns. Cultural identity contributes to the creativity of the self and to the diversity of society, but it is a complex social construction that must be accommodated, encouraged, and celebrated. It is under assault throughout the world by mass production of all sorts, including one-size-fits-all software and user interfaces. Although the risks of poor usability with respect to cultural identity are becoming better understood, it is still not well-understood how to manage the design of human-computer interactions to ensure preferred outcomes [8].

Social capital is a key concept in contemporary studies of the decline of civil society and the rise of utilitarian individualism [3]. The creation of social capital involves the establishment and maintenance of social networks, shared goals and values, and social norms of reciprocity. Social capital is not a transient state, like satisfaction or frustration, or a discrete achievement, either present or absent; it is the social resources that it develops. It is not an individual state or achievement; it is a collective good benefiting everyone who lives in the community. Systems and applications that enhance social capital will have greater long-term usability for the members of the community; those that diminish the social capital of organizations are less usable.

These are just a few thoughts about possible future trajectories for the concept of usability. What I want to stress is my belief that there is a future trajectory, and that usability, like human-computer interaction, is continuously under construction.

Usability is the touchstone concept of human-computer interaction. As our understanding of the phenomena of human-computer interaction grows, the concept of usability has grown. One of the important areas in which this growth has already reached fruition, as evidenced by the work presented and referred to in this issue of interactions, is in the area of affect. In 1987, John Thomas and I wrote "we continue to see, without humor, the prospect of a decade of research analysis of usability possibly failing to provide the leverage it could on designing systems people will really want to use by ignoring what could be a very potent determinant of subjective judgments of usability—fun" [4]. I no longer worry about this.

back to top  References

1. Anderson, R.E., Crespo, C.J., Bartlett, S.J., Cheskin, L.J. & Pratt, M. (1998). Relationship of activity and television watching with body weight and level of fatness among children. Journal of the American Medical Association, 279, 938-942.

2. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

3. Bellah, R., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W., Swindler, A. and Tipton, S. (1986). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. University of California Press.

4. Carroll, J.M. & Thomas, J.C. (1987). Fun. ACM SIGCHI Bulletin, 19(3), 21-24.

5. Clifford J. (1986). Introduction: Partial truths. In J. Clifford & G.E. Marcus, (Eds.), Writing cultures: The poetics and politics of writing ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press, (pp. 1-26).

6. Kraut, R., Lundmark, V., Patterson, M., Kiesler, S., Mukopadhyay, T. & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist, 53 (9), 1017-1031.

7. Kubey, R. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Television and the quality of life: How viewing shapes everyday experience. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

8. Prabhu, G.V. & delGaldo, E.M., (Eds.). (1999). Designing for Global Markets: Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Internationalization of Products and Systems. (Rochester, NY, May 20-22). Rochester, NY: Backhouse Press.

9. Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

10. Rogers, E.M., Collins-Jarvis, L. & Schmitz, J. (1994). The PEN Project in Santa Monica: Interactive communication, equality, and political action. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 45(6), 401-410.

11. Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141-166.

12. Sidney, S., Sternfeld, B., Haskell, W.L., Jacobs, D.R., Chesney, M.A. & Hulley, S.B. (1998). Television viewing and cardiovascular risk factors in young adults: The CARDIA study. Annals of Epidemiology, 6(2), 154-159.

13. Stephanidis, C., (Ed.) (2000). User interfaces for all: Concepts, methods, and tools. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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John M. Carroll
School of Information Sciences and Technology
The Pennsylvania State University

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0900  $5.00

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