Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pleasing The Brain with Magical Interfaces

I just read an extremely interesting blog by David Sherwin called Data, Delight, and User Experience Design. David talks about the emotion and feeling necessary for magic tricks to actually evoke the feeling of magic. He discusses some websites that have this quality, such as Google's I'm Feeling Lucky, Wikipedia's Random Article, and Flickr's Interesting feature.

Richard Monson-Haefel has also written about Magic Interfaces on his blog, and even started a separate website promoting the idea of Magic as a metaphor for Natural User Interface design, although his approach is a little more literal with roots in magic from fantasy stories (incantations, runes, artifacts.)

I think Richard has a good idea at the high-level, but the Magic metaphor needs to be a little more concrete for developers and designers to implement it. David's idea of designing to evoke the emotion of Magic is a little easier to do than translating fantasy magical metaphors.

Here is my take on implementing a magical metaphor, building upon the ideas above.

Human brains are pattern matching machines. Once you get past the brainstem and low-level wetware regulating our heartbeat and breathing and reflexes, the majority of our brains are dedicated to pattern matching. We detect patterns and meta-patterns and correlate them in several layers just to have vision. That feeds into higher level pattern matching that helps us do things like walk and talk at the same time without tripping.

Even higher up in our consciousnesses we put together patterns and experience in order to predict what we think will happen in the future. That allows us to anticipate the future position of a spinning ball undergoing projectile motion in the influence of wind so that we can start swinging a bat at the precise time to make contact and hit it as far as we can. At least, the professional baseball players can do that, because they have the experience from practice.

The rest of us can use that brain circuitry to, among other things, anticipate the consequences of clicking a mouse and typing keys and touching screens in order to get computing devices to do what we want. We do this dozens of times a second or more. Just watch some eye tracking videos to see how quickly our eyes can move, each time evaluating what we see and deciding if we should take action.

Our brain cells get a little kick out of every pattern they match. That's their motivation. If you design an interface that is intuitive and the users can easily predict, then as they use it, their little pattern matchers will get lots of jolts of happy juice and the user will like using the application!

On the other hand, if the user predicts that something will happen and it doesn't, then those brains cells responsible will be held accountable. Actually, they'll just get rewired a little bit and learn, and the user will get annoyed by the lack of happy juice.

Let's bring back the magic here. How can we design an interface to maximize the user's enjoyment, specifically by matching as many patterns as possible? This is exactly what magicians do during their acts. David's article talks about this, but I want to approach it a little differently.

I want to borrow a phrase from the movie "The Prestige". Watch the trailer below from about 1:05 to 1:50.

Approximate quote from the actual movie:
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge." The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn." The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret, but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige."

Now the analogy isn't perfect, but here is how this fits in:
  1. The Pledge - This is where the context is set up. The brain establishes the expectation or prediction here. If the trick is making a coin disappear, then first you have to show the coin exists. If the pressing a button is supposed to make the interface do something cool, then there has to be a button with appropriate icon or text to set that expectation. "That button is labeled 'Push for Awesome' so it will probably do something awesome."

  2. The Turn - This is where the conflict or tension is established. For the magician, it is the moment after he made the coin disappear and the audience wonders if and how it will come back. For the computer user, it is the moment between deciding to perform an action and seeing the result. "I wonder if it will be awesome if I push the button?"

  3. The Prestige - This is where the tension is resolved. The coin returns and the prediction of the audience ("coins cannot vanish") is confirmed. The interface does something awesome and the user's brain is flooded with happy. "Awe-sooome."

The greater the tension is, the more the reward will be. This doesn't mean you should make the users wait before the interface responds. Rather, it means that the larger the conflict between the Pledge that a button will do as it says and any disbelief that it will work as advertised, the more pleased the user will be when he or she finds that it does work.

Over time, the disbelief and thus the magic will go away, but our brains will still get little rewards for predicting and being correct. Peek-a-boo follows this pattern and is a highly-pleasurable activity for babies and toddlers, but eventually the fun decreases. This is also true with the Magic trick. If your job was to watch a coin trick several times a day, five days a week (as often as you check your email perhaps), would you still be as amazed the 100th time as you were the 1st time? No, but there is still a little bit of tension inside the brain. "Will it still work?" After all, we still get pleasure out of re-watching good movies, even though we know the ending, and thus the resolution of the core plot conflicts.

We can try to keep things fresh in certain ways though, by keeping the pattern but varying the inputs. (For those who have seen The Prestige, the New Transported Man was the same general idea as the Original Transported Man, but used a different technique and flourish.) Google's "I'm Feeling Lucky" button does the same thing every time -- direct you to the first result -- but the replay value comes in the game of "Will Google find the best result for this query, too?"

So as you use your computer, think about what actions you enjoy doing the most and what the Pledge, Turn, and Prestige is for them. Figure out how you can apply that to your own interface designs.

Neuron image courtesy

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