More funology: design

XI.5 September + October 2004
Page: 63
Digital Citation

Taking fun seriously

Alan Dix

Have you watched a child at play? Small hands carefully pile blocks one upon another, tongue tip protruding between clenched teeth, lost totally, concentrating. Children know how to take play seriously.

Often people feel that play, fun, and aesthetic experience should not be analyzed too deeply; by dissecting them, subjecting them to formal reasoning, even just talking about them, they are somehow diminished. There can be a playfulness and a pleasure in understanding the patternings of experience, but for most this is different from being in the "flow" of that experience.

Many feel a sense that trying to uncover the "whys" and "hows" of human experience will (like some sort of Heisenberg observer effect) dissolve those experiences in the watching.

In contrast, the producers of artworks often feel less constrained. Some compose or construct in the heat of focused passion, but most craft and recraft their ideas and inspirations. The poet Stephen Spender, in his essay "the making of a poem" reflects on this long, often tortuous process and quotes Paul Valéry "une ligne donnée" (the poet is given one line from God, the rest is human graft (Spender 1946).

Some years ago, I was one of the directors of aQtive, a dotcom Internet company. It was approaching Christmas and we wanted to send something seasonal to our registered users and commercial contacts. Electronic greetings cards seemed both passé and boring; everybody does those…and they hardly reflecting the spirit of "aQtive" (pronounced "active"!).

Somehow the idea came…why not electronic Christmas crackers? Une ligne donnée!

Now for those readers without some British connection I will probably need to explain the Christmas cracker. It is party time! Around the Christmas dinner table at each place is a "cracker" (a brightly colored paper and cardboard tube with the ends pinched so that the contents do not fall out. As the food arrives you take your cracker and offer it to someone else. You each take an end and pull. The paper breaks and a small strip of gunpowder-coated card makes a loud bang as the cracker tears apart and its contents spill out onto the table: usually a paper hat, a small plastic toy, and a piece of paper with a (very bad) joke.

Now we could have simply produced a Web page with a picture of a cracker, a joke, etc. However, an attempt to produce a facsimile of a cracker on the Web would clearly be disappointing. It would fail to capture the essence of the experience and so not just be "flat," but in failing to live up to expectations be less exciting than a simple electronic card.

In order to create a fun experience, we needed to analyze the design seriously.

The first step is to understand the facets of the experience of cracker pulling. This is a deeply analytic process that teases out the different aspects of the experience (but note, this is not a reductionist step). Here we are seeking to understand the experience. Again, this is just like a poet who may examine meter, use of rhyme, sound patterns of consonants and vowels, image use, connotations of words or even consult a thesaurus. However, there is no suggestion that the poem is reduced to these facets, more that they contribute to the aesthetic effect.

Having understood these facets of crackers, we are then in a position to attempt to recreate them in a new medium, in this case the Web. Table 1 shows a summary of the way in which different aspects of the real cracker experience are mapped onto the Web version of virtual crackers. This deconstruction-reconstruction process is described in detail in (Dix 2003).

Note how some aspects do not map in a simple way. For example, the hat is replaced by a mask on a Web page that can be printed and cut out. The real party hats are often not worn, but you would be disappointed if they were missing; similarly it is likely that few masks have actually been cut out and worn, but the fact that you could wear them captures the spirit of dressing up.

Notice too that the design is not optimal from a traditional interface viewpoint. For example, to see the joke you need to click a URL in an email to a "closed cracker" page, click a link there prompting a very slow JavaScript cracker opening and an open cracker page on which the joke is in two parts: a question, and then another click for the answer (hardly minimal user actions, but capturing the elements of hiddenness and suspense of the real cracker.) Effectiveness and efficiency sacrificed for experience.

Designing for fun and engaging experience cannot be reduced to a formula, but can be supported by analysis. Just as effortless interfaces require the most effort to produce, designing fun experiences is a serious business—ask any child.

For more on this area see:

To send your own virtual crackers:


Thanks to all in the aQtive team (now in Diaspora) who contributed to virtual crackers and for the support of the EPSRC through the EQUATOR project.


1. Dix, A. (2003). Deconstructing Experience-pulling crackers apart. In M. Blythe, K. Overbeeke, A. Monk and P. Wright (Eds.), Funology: From Usability to Enjoyment (pp. 165-178). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer.

2. Spender, S. (1946). The Making of a Poem. Partisan Review. New York, Reproduced in S. Ghiselin (Ed.), The Creative Process. Berkeley, USA: University of California Press, 1952/1980.


Alan Dix


T1Table 1. Elements of the cracker experience.

©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0900  $5.00

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