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.”)


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?

Dave Cronin

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