Whimsical interaction design

Let’s face it: Most interactive experiences are pretty darn serious. Of course, there are those that are appropriately so. We don’t want people having a laugh in the operating room or on the trading floor — though, who knows, the latter might have been just the thing to stop the fear-driven capitulation in the markets last week. Still, even most consumer user experiences end up feeling very straight-laced.

As what must be a bit of an escape from the general heaviness of past few weeks, I’ve found myself pondering the idea of whimsy in interaction design. Now, there are the kind of experiences that are primarily playful, like games and other kinds of entertainment (for example, around here, we’re all really loving Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers’ Bloom, a generative music toy for the iPhone), but I’m thinking more about ways to add a touch of playfulness to the everyday.

It must have been Droog, the famed Dutch industrial designers that first inspired me with how just the right touch of whimsy can bring a modern functionalist design to life without reducing its utility. (Ironically, “droog” means “dry” in Dutch — a term often used to characterized the deadpan lowlands sense of humor. As they say in their faq: “The droog mentality could be summarized as ‘dry’. ‘Dry’ as in dry wit, unadorned informality, ascetic irony. ‘Dry’ as that essentially Dutch inclination to ‘do normal’ and at the same time critically investigate what you’re doing and the way you do it.”)

droog
©Droog

The Come a Little Bit Closer Bench by Nina Farkache for Droog is both attractive and fancifully inventive — it allows people sitting on it to move closer and further away from each other as the seats glide over marbles.

So that’s certainly one kind of interaction design. What about software?While Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” button is clearly has the very functional potential to save users work by reducing clicks, it’s also has a fun and slightly irreverent sentiment that also kind of reinforces the quality of Google’s search capabilities.

Google search page

In many cases, it seems that playfulness in interface design is not just for laughs but also help users tap into a different part of themselves than the strictly rational mind. OhmForce, a bunch of slightly crazed French audio software whizzes provide “funky” skins for their products that feel designed to help users think a bit more like Lee Scratch Perry, and little less like Bill Gates.

OhmBoyz funky skin
OhmForce’s OhmBoyz delay effect

So I’m left wondering how these ideas fit with the kind of projects we do on a day-to-day basis. In some ways, playfulness is at odds with the efficiency, but in other ways, these things are the basis of the experience. The small animations in the iPhone interface make it feel more responsive and enjoyable, even when in actuality they burn CPU cycles and actually delay response. As modernist architects eschewed all ornamentation in the name of mechanical function, only to later find a vernacular of “modern” style, I hope we’re on the way to finding a vocabulary of ways to add a little joy to interactive experiences.

What d’ya think? What have you found to be a joyful interactive experience?

9 Comments

Nick Myers
I do love it when I see the dancing iphone icons on the home screen. They have a surprising amount of personality when they start jiggling.
Chris Noessel
I'm a huge fan of the work my old grad school classmate Magnus Torstensen and Eric Sandelin have been doing with Unsworn in Sweden. Specific projects worth mentioning: The Telemegaphone Dale http://www.unsworn.org/telemegaphone/ is whimsical in its concept, i.e. leave a message to be shouted across the Dalsfjord in Norway. I'm also fond of both the graphics and the whimsical interaction of the pophorn musical application for cellphones: http://www.pophorn.net/ And last but not least is their interactive exhibit Ophones, which has the simplest of interactions, but maximum of chaos and expressiveness. http://www.unsworn.org/ophones/index.html
Doug LeMoine
When I first played Sonic the Hedgehog, my mind was blown by a moment of whimsy: If you left the game alone for a few seconds, the main character (Sonic) would get upset, and he expressed his annoyance by turning his head to face you (the player), tapping his foot, and looking at his watch. I don't know what kind of face-melting event to compare it to, but it was a totally perfect encapsulation of the attitude of the game, and I would do it again and again because I just enjoyed the absurdity in it.
Greg J. Smith
Hi Dave, Some good insights. I just posted a follow up on my blog. I'm not sure if I'm exactly with you on the OhmForce front but in general, I think your attitude about design is great. :) @Doug I remember Sonic. I'm still amazed that the bonus levels never gave me a seizure - an altogether different kind of whimsy.
Doug LeMoine
Yes, I remember the crazy strobe effect of certain levels; I believe I was still in the phase where this was the definition of awesome. Another thing about Sonic that kinda blew my mind was that he would slow down as he ran up hills, and he'd pick up speed going down. As I recall, this rarely had an effect on the outcome of the game, so I presume that it was whimsically intended. Still, the connection of real-world laws of physics to a previously physics-challenged gaming world was hugely entertaining to me.
Dave Cronin
@Greg, you know, I'm not sure whether I actually agree with myself about OhmBoys. I actually personally use the non-funky version of the interface. But I do appreciate the fact that they're attempting to create a certain atmosphere so that computer-based music doesn't feel like checking email or using Excel. But I also agree with what you say on your blog that this is pretty superficial, and wouldn't it be cool if the interactions felt creative rather than the interface just looking that way. Nice post.
Neto
I love the cooper Blog! u give me inspiration for new interactive concept. Interaction design is the only wy for me to creed user friendly websites en web applications
Jeremy Yuille
great points Dave, reminds me of a comment Jonas Lowgren made once about 'ludic' qualities of interaction design, and how lots of product design often shied away from using these approaches. It's interesting how the ludic or playful aspects of a design can help with engagement; creating flow, and possibly helping move people from novice to expert (like games do so well) What's your take on why these approaches aren't taken up so much in mainstream IxD..?
Grégory Makles
Hi there, I am the designer of OhmBoyz's funky skin. It's really nice to see it discussed here, thanks! I thought maybe I could give some details on why it was made that way, the errors we made, the good things we got from it and the conclusion I personnaly made. First thing you have to keep in mind is that OhmBoyz was designed in 2000. Things were very different at that time! No AU, 16 parameters automation as a maximum in Cubase, and a quite limitated amount of audio software company, with Waves being the sole universal reference for audio plugin – thus it was obvious a lot of people were entering the plugin market with new brands and new product. Oh, and average screen resolution was 1200*800. Ohmboyz was my first work as a software designer, and as designer... and nearly my first work :P Another part of the context is that Ohmboyz, like all of our FX, was in the field of « creative effects », as opposed to « production effects ». Production effects (I explain for the ones not into computer music) are your bread and butter plug you use on every project to improve your sound (color, dynamic) by magnification rather than alteration. Creative are of the ones of the other sort ; their point is to customize your production so that it sounds really specific by finding new sounds. Not all music make use of creative effect but to us it was clear that computer based music would encourage it. The point for me was that it should attract people in need of creative FX, i.e. people in hyped label, or musician listening to hyped label. Adult-Manga imagery was on a rising popularity at the time (maybe you can link that with the rise of low brow ?) and you could see stuff like that on t-shirts quite often. So we opted for the name Spaceboyz (like Bwie's song that was on air at the time), and finally, after thinking a naming rule should help the brand to get noticed, to OhmBoyz. And from that, childish manga for adult audience's style to illustrate it. The robots were taken from my old toys, and I obviously took inspiration from Star Wars Episode 1 simple and efficient sci fi boy imagery. The cat is one of the ohm cats (we like cats and to act stupid @ ohm force, another not-so-thought-trough brand imaging strategy...). The background was scanned after my desktop inners ^^ Thus it quickly appeared that two main mistakes had been made : 1)the skin was too big, as smaller res computer could not even display it all at once (something that's not happenning anymore) 2)the audience for creative plugin actually included a lot of people in search for something neutral, either because they needed to look professionnal when the customer was in the studio, or either because it was simply enough work to get what was ther without having to deal with robots Those two decisions led us to create a smaller, simpler « classic skin » line. Our stats indicates that there's twice more user of the classics than the funky. Still, we kept on doing funky. Why ? Because, communication wise, it was very rewarding. A good exemple is that blog : there's really little chance that anyone keep speaking on a 9 years old plugin if it looks exactly like others, even if it's still very competitive sound wise (and it is ;-). All in all we had news just about our skins, we had screens that got noticed when published in paper review, we had trolls rolling on forum (« god I hate funky skins » « no, they're great ! ») and so on. We had a consistent brand imagery with our product philosophy, which can be sum up as « be unique and do it well », something I imagine to be every musician secret goal :P ... Note thus that for our last plugin, we decided to merge the two skins concept into one. This is because we decided to go for new rendering tech (3D via yafray) to do a real impressive classic skins, and this was just a way to long process to make two skins with it. So we ended up with that : http://www.ohmforce.com/media/ss_Ohmicide_funky.jpg ... which I consider as our most polished piece of craft so far. Everyone has his own preferences regarding how a GUI should be done and as we only had one skin, we tried to balance everything so while being striking and attractive, it wouldn't piss of users. Quite a challenge ! I think we did well because at first we thought about making an option to change the serigraphy to something ultimately conventionnal, and finally didn't because of lack of requests. Damn, I could write pages on every design choices made on this one ;-) I'd probably comment the other blog too but I GTG for the momment... Cheers, Greg PS : If you wank to see a really dumb skin I did: http://www.ohmforce.com/ViewProduct.do?p=Frohmage This is scultped emmental. I had to nearly freeze it, use a rotring to sculpt it, refreeze it (it was melting), then go on... And then ultimately scan it. Kept the cheese in the freezer for years until I finally had to trash it while moving place...

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