Hooked on a Feeling

For all of the hype around “user experience” it often feels like we struggle with what it means to actually craft an experience. Don’t get me wrong—the things we build and ship are perfectly fine. We make things that are usable, attractive, responsive, reliable and whatever else has come to be expected. And yet… there’s something missing. Something intangible. It’s not obvious what’s missing, until we contrast our own work against other mediums more established than our own.

Exhibit #1: Character Studies for Big Hero 6

I recently stumbled across these test animations for the movie Big Hero 6. In this short video, characters perform essentially the same action: Walk in, pull out a chair, and sit down. And while the action is the same in each sequence, …the feeling evoked by each character couldn’t be more profoundly different. We learn so much by observing how these characters are animated.


I love this commentary from The Mary Sue:

If an animator does their job right, animations not only move the story along but visually display a character’s personality. These Big Hero 6 test animations of the characters performing what is superficially the same action show just how much depth Disney’s animators brought to each of them.

So what kind of depth do we bring to our experiences? Yes, we iterate on different options, and choose the one with the least friction. Or maybe we offer up some different aesthetic styles. But have we explored 10 different options solely for the feeling that a particular task flow or animation might evoke? When have we added or reduced moments in the flow to elicit a specific visceral reaction? Have we reached a point yet in our craft where can confidently demonstrate options that differ only in tone and anticipated emotional reactions? Perhaps yes, if you’re doing agency and branding work. But, for the bulk of Silicon Valley startups and big companies I’ve worked with, this kind of emotional depth is a rare thing.

Exhibit #2: Board Game Design

A strong theme is often what draws people into a particular board game:

Without a theme, these thrilling games become little more than raw calculations, choice, and (to varying degrees) chance. But with the best games, “the mechanics and theme of a game often grow up together, informing and shaping each other” during the game design process. ‘Theme first’ or ‘mechanics first’ are debated within the game design community (sound familiar?), but it’s fair to say the best games find a nice blend of both. When a game succeeds at this blend you witness players drawn into a narrative, complete with all kinds of human emotions: tension, thrill, relief, anxiety, delight, pleasure…

I’m fortunate to work closely with game designer and publisher, Randy Hoyt. For his second game Lanterns: The Harvest Festival, players “act as artisans decorating the palace lake with floating lanterns.”

With this game, Hoyt spent much of his time finding the right theme to go with a mechanically sound game. In his words:

I read the first paragraph of the rulebook, which described it as a game about planting and harvesting flowers to make bouquets… we passed on printing and playing it…

[It turns out that many publishers had passed on this game for the same reason: the initial theme just wasn’t engaging.]

Some time later… I read past the opening paragraph. The way that players placed their tiles and how the cards got distributed was so unique and interesting to me. I had a feeling the game had something special, and I really wanted to play it to see if it was right.

In his two part article on “re-theming” this game, Hoyt describes borrowing a process from the design world:

The key was to go down a level deeper. At work, we were doing a branding exercise for a product, and we listed off the adjectives we wanted to describe the product. I realized that a similar exercise would work here…

I mulled over all the feedback on the mechanics: what type of experience were they creating on their own? What adjectives did players use to talk about the mechanics? Players described the game as simple and elegant. It was calming and relaxing to play. They were surprised and delighted by the richness of the decisions. They said it flowed smoothly, that they could play it over and over again.

With these feelings identified, Hoyt shares how he set about to find a theme that evoked similar emotions:

I can’t quite remember when it happened — creative sparks are so hard to pin down! — but an image from the movie Tangled crossed my path at this time. From a boat floating smoothly in the water, Rapunzel watched these simple and elegant lanterns with delight year after year.

This image captured perfectly the feeling that the playing the game produced, and I knew a theme and narrative woven around this could work to produce a great experience.

…And Lanterns: The Harvest Festival found its footing.

I could stop here and ask, “what are the feelings you’re trying to evoke with your experience(s)?” but it’s about more than knowing your theme. It’s about letting that theme guide and shape everything you do.

As an early play-tester of Lanterns, I offered suggestions that would have added more suspense and anxiety to the game, allowing players to ‘get out ahead’ of other players a bit more than the current rules allow. While these recommendations might have been right for another game, Hoyt reminded me of the Zen feelings he wants the game to evoke: You’re placing and dedicating lanterns on the water. It’s not meant to induce anxiety.

And to really make this point, let’s add a bit of contrast here: Where Lanterns is all about calm feelings, a game like Pandemic, where players cooperate to save the world from an outbreak of viruses, is all about anxiety. In the iPad version of the game, sounds and animations only serve to reinforce the feeling of mounting tension as viruses threaten to spread from city to city.

I don’t really need to explain the nerve-wracking animations. Cities that are about to have an outbreak spin at a faster pace than other cities. And the sounds, oh the sounds!

And here’s the difference between a typical branding exercise and what Hoyt and other good designers practice. We often talk of design principles. And brand associations. But how often do we truly submit to these principles and let them drive every decision, now matter how small or large? In my experience, we draft these things and they influence the superficial stuff, but rarely do these principles influence product strategy. Be honest, when was the last time you really let a set of design or brand principles drive us to do things like add or eliminate features, push back on customer requests, prioritize a backlog, or drive how we build out familiar features (if you work in an environment that does do all these things, you’re in a great place!). If we truly followed these principles, they would be the very soul of our product, the intangible values from which every decision flows. Do you have any such principles identified for your work? If so, how influential are they? Does your product have a strong and evident theme?

Exhibit #3: The Carousel

By now a familiar clip in UX circles, this short scene from TV show Mad Men perfectly captures the intangible magic I’m looking for in the things we make:

Mad Men: The Carousel from ray3c on Vimeo.

In this clip, ad man Don Draper gets to the soul of a thing. “It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ It’s called ‘The Carousel.’”

How often do we get caught up in what something does, losing sight of how it can and should move people in a profound way? This isn’t a projection device to see photos on the wall. It’s not a bunch of moving parts. It’s “a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. Takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

This is the craft of designing experiences. This is what it means to go beyond moving parts and nice aesthetics.

Protecting the Unseen

As “UXers,” we’ve done some amazing work. We’ve come a long way. But I’m looking for those experiences that reach out through the screen and grab you by the heart, making you swoon with emotion. Creating a feeling is difficult to diagnose and scientifically tease apart like so many other things we do. As with the Mad Men clip, it’s easy to focus on the parts and pieces, losing sight of the experience.

I’m going to propose at least three ways to bring more feeling to our work:

  1. Focus on the how. It’s more than what we do, it’s how something is done. There’s always a functional solution to things, but to evoke a feeling means spending as much (or more) time on the intangible quality of execution — the part that makes people actually feel something. Establish a clear set of product design principles, then make every product decision consistent with those themes. If you work someplace that prizes quality, or if you yourself often go the extra mile because it’s the right thing to do, then you’re probably practicing this to some degree (this tip is the easier of my suggestions).
  2. Focus on the whole. Our processes favor breaking things down into parts and pieces, which is necessary for managing things. However, what’s often lost in this reductionist approach is how all these tiny little decisions work together to create something more than themselves. I’ve found myself resorting to analogies like “Is this a deli tray or an assembled sandwich?” to make sure we don’t ship incomplete features sets. But this is for the functional stuff—how can we make the exact same “Sandwich” 10 different ways, until we find the best combination of parts? Great product experiences focus as much on the orchestration or parts, and seamless connections, as they do the parts themselves. Think holistically.
  3. Focus on creating awesome users. Complete credit to Kathy Sierra for this one. We tend to focus on making awesome products, or making an awesome service, or making an awesome company, but what if we focused on making awesome users? (Or “user badass” as Sierra explains in her talk Building the Minimum Badass User.) It’s a subtle but powerful reframing of all that we do (and perhaps a perspective that consumes everything I’ve written here!). Once we stop thinking about what we’re creating and we shift our focus to how to make our customers awesome, we pick up on all sorts of overlooked and nuanced details, including underlying motives, attitudes, and emotions.

I’m excited to work in such a rapidly evolving space. At times it’s terrifying trying to keep up. But, if I look around at other, more established industries, it’s easy to be inspired by the oft untapped potential in our work. Indeed we’ve come a long way over just a few decades, from requiring people to adapt to technology, to something a bit more human or activity centered. But there’s still more depth of human emotion to mine and bring back into the experiences we shape. We enjoy a rare privilege, shaping things that can move and touch people in profound and often unseen ways. But it’s precisely this quality of being felt but unseen that makes the hardest—and most rewarding—parts of our work so easily dismissed by deadlines and pragmatism. And it’s the unseen that needs our protection. We must speak up for the intangible qualities that separate good, functioning products from the great experiences that we all aspire to create.

Let’s keep challenging ourselves. The best is yet to come…

Stephen P. Anderson

Stephen P. Anderson

Stephen P. Anderson is the Chief Experience Officer at BloomBoard, where he is transforming how teachers grow as professionals. Once a high school teacher, Stephen continues to challenge and inspire people as an international speaker and trainer; he’s presented at some of the world’s largest organizations, teaching product teams about games, play, learning, interactive visualizations, and other fun topics.

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