A Golden Rule for Interactions and Life

Most of us have experienced a relationship in which the other person constantly assails you with their problems, yet when the tables are turned, their response is cursory before turning the conversation back to themselves. These relationships soon end or we put up with them because the other person is our mother.

I tweeted yesterday about judging the One Show Interactive Awards and, while I’m not going to comment on any individual entry, there is a tendency of advertising agencies to make a video with big production values, put it online with some social media gimmicks and call it interactive. This is not an interactive relationship. It’s someone shouting, “Like me! Like me! Like me!” They frequently violate a Golden Rule1 that I’ve had for interactivity for many years that I also tweeted:

The effort required to experience something should be less than or equal to the payoff of the experience.

I learned this very early on in the stone-age days of “multimedia” authoring. Back when we were creating interactive experiences that needed to fit on floppy disks or CD-ROMs, CD-ROM drives had transfer speeds of 150-300KB/s. This meant you had to make some choices or divide up the content into smaller beats. If it takes three minutes for an interactive to load, you better be sure I’m going to play with it for at least that amount of time, preferably more. We quickly learned how annoying “skip intros” were. Not that this prevented them from being re-born in every new medium.

Despite faster technology, nothing has really changed. What happens with broadband and CPU speeds is largely the same as what happens with rubbish bins, hard-drives and roads. You just fill up the available space. If you buy more of them to deal with it, you just fill those up too, making cleaning up even more of a pain. Nothing beats dealing with restrictions by using less resources in the first place.

Unfortunately, with greater bandwidth available, agencies fall back on their traditional model. Make a cool video and then deliver it big, because now they can. Instead they could use the extra bandwidth and CPU speed to make the delivery of a smaller payload quicker and make the most of the Golden Rule payoff equation. That one-minute’s worth of fun interactivity has a better experiential value ratio when it is delivered in five seconds compared to it taking three minutes to come down the pipe.

The rule of, “If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it” generally chimes with the Golden Rule, but not always. Some things do need explaining and that is okay as long as they are actually complicated and we are going to use them a lot. Most interfaces are not worth the effort of learning for the things we want or, worse, have to achieve with them. Those kinds of tasks are often short-lived. It’s annoying to have to hunt for a tool palette or preference in Microsoft’s crazy Word interface just to turn off some auto-styling crap. On the other hand, we spend a long time learning to drive a car and having someone explain it to us, because there are many variables at play when we drive, we will drive for the rest of our lives and prefer not to kill people in the process. (Dear American and Australian readers: learn to drive a stick shift – it will make you a better driver).

For many people, this is why learning maths in school feels pointless. The effort versus daily usage seems disproportionate. Programmers often appear to be the antithesis of the Golden Rule, because they give the impression of enjoying the process of learning something very complex or writing a script to achieve a task that can be done with a few mouse clicks (I’m looking at you Dr Drang and Brett Terpstra). But the rule still holds, because either the process of working something out has a long-lasting skill payoff or the script that took a while to write replaces many multiple uses of the mouse-based version.

The Golden Rule works well when thinking about service experiences too. Many services involve highly asymmetric relationships. You can usually buy something or create a contract very simply online or over the phone in a matter of minutes, for example. This side is in the service provider’s favour. Yet when something goes wrong or you want to quit your contract, you have to wait on hold for ages for customer service or, if you live in Germany, contact the company in writing. On paper. Via snail mail. Then the response time is in the order of weeks, not minutes.

You can be fined on the spot for not having a train ticket, but it might take months to receive compensation if your train is cancelled. These all feel unfair because they are unfair and, like the “friend” whose worry dumping is a one-way street, you soon feel bitter and want to get out of that relationship as quickly as possible. Companies like Amazon and Zappos put a lot of effort and money into redressing this imbalance with great success.

If you go to McDonald’s the meal experience is low-grade, but delivered quickly. If your Big Mac takes a long time to arrive, there’s no point in going to McDonald’s. Conversely, it feels fine to wait for half and hour for your food in a good restaurant, because you know the risotto is being freshly made to order. The payoff is slowly savouring the meal, ideally with a fine glass of wine and great conversation.

The Golden Rule works for most media. It’s why we do the first or 99th page test on books, why films (usually French) are frustrating when nothing seems to have happened and suddenly the credits roll.

Well-written TV series exploit the Golden Rule too. Within the space of an episode we get the story payoff for that episode, but we also teased with the promise of the next piece of drama in the larger story arc. A dangling plot line requires some effort from us to imagine what might happen next, but it is only just irritating enough to leave us wanting the next episode so we can scratch that itch.

The effort versus experience equation is why making it easy to pay for music downloads trumps the effort of downloading it illegally for most people. It’s certainly why I buy much more music than I ever used to.

The rule works for games very well too. The best games are those whose rules are easy to learn, but the gameplay is engaging for hours. As Steven Johnson points out in, Everything Bad is Good for You2, videogame designers stopped writing long instruction manuals and creating “training levels” some time ago. Instead, players are dropped directly into progressively more difficult action. Part of the pleasure of the game is finding out just what the gameplay is. In this scenario, the experience payoff is intimately bound together with the experience of gaining it.

And life? Humans are highly attuned to this kind of balance in relationships, whether work or personal. Like most animals, we instinctively make calculations about expending energy versus rewards returned, whether social or nutritional.

In our modern lives it is why a six-hour commute for a one-hour meeting is so irritating and why meetings are generally so toxic. It is why dysfunctional relationships take so much out of us and why people who are generous and open, reducing the barriers of interaction with them, are a pleasure to be around. It is why bank bailouts for people getting million dollar bonuses seem so unfair and why voting apathy is so prevalent.

The Golden Rule is really about getting the balance right at the “border between boredom and anxiety”, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously explored in his research on flow3. It is the challenge of interactivity, games, TV shows, films, music, services, food, education, sex, relationships, society and life.


  1. It probably needs a more original name than The Golden Rule, like Polaine’s Ratio of Effort vs. Experience, but it seems cocky writing that on my blog. There is absolutely no reason why you should not quote it as that though. 

  2. Amazon affiliate links. If you use them, thank you. 

  3. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers (also an affiliate link). 

O’Reilly Webcast: Designing cross-channel service experiences

A quick cross-post from our Rosenfeld Media book blog. Ben, Lavrans and I are going to be doing (giving? What does one say…?) an O’Reilly Webcast titled Service Design: Designing cross-channel service experiences on Wednesday 14th March. It’s my daughter’s birthday, so it’s an auspicious date.

The O’Reilly site has all the details and where you can register. The time of the webcast is: 10AM PT, San Francisco | 5pm – London | 1pm – New York | Fri, Mar 15th at 4am – Sydney | Fri, Mar 15th at 2am – Tokyo | Fri, Mar 15th at 1am – Beijing | 10:30pm – Mumbai. Missing from that O’Reilly list is 6pm for all of you in Central Europe (GMT+1).

Those sharp-eyed among you will also notice that the icon of our book has changed from the “Book in Progress” one to one with an actual cover and this webcast should pretty much coincide with the launch of the book, so we’re very excited.

A big thanks to O’Reilly for taking part in helping us get the word out there. It will be particularly interesting to speak to the broader audience that O’Reilly have and we anticipate everything from, “Service Design? Been there, done that!” to “Service Design? Huh?”.

If you can make it, we’d love to see you online. Or hear you or see your words or however that works. Please spread the word with a tweet/+1/like.

I’m hoping the technology holds up – we’ll all be connecting in from different countries. If not, we can all spend 60 minutes shouting, “I can’t hear you!,” “No, you go on… sorry, what? Hang on, I’ll restart my machine.”

Director 12 Publishes to iOS and Adobe’s Wallet

The new release of Director 12 publishes to iOS, which is big news to old Director hands like me. I believed that Adobe had let Director starve to death in the basement while Flash and Co. gobbled up the company’s resources. Now that Flash is dead on Android and, of course, never made it to iOS, this is some news indeed. But with a sting in the tail.

Mac4Ever pointed out (article in French) that Adobe revised its end-user license agreement to include a clause demanding, “10% of the revenue paid by Apple inc. and / or its affiliate(s) to customer in relation to such paid iOS app in a quarter.” So that’s 10% of whatever you get after Apple’s 30% cut. This only applies to revenues of over $20,000, which might not affect that many developers, but there is some noise going on in Adobe’s (probably unread by Adobe) user forums about this. With just eight comments, however, you can see how small that community has become, sadly.

Bear in mind that this an application Adobe have let languish for years and costs €1,188 for the boxed version and, weirdly, €1,228 to download (can someone explain the economics of that to me?). With Flash’s mobile demise, this could have actually seen some take up. I suspect there are quite a few ex-Director fans out there – its interface was always much more pleasant than Flash – but this feels like Adobe are actively discouraging people to use it for anything other than some small, hobby projects.

It would probably be useful for me for some quick prototyping interactive research projects, but only because I can still code in Lingo and it beats the learning curve of Objective-C for me.

Given there are so many other methods of prototyping for iOS out there that are either cheap or free, Adobe’s pricing strategy remains, as ever, an enigma. This enigma looks like it might have some light shed on it by Australia’s House of Representatives Committee on Infrastructure and Communications who have summoned Apple, Adobe and Microsoft to a public hearing in order to explain their price gouging in Australia. Director 12 costs AU$1,671, which is US$1,721. It’s US$999 in the USA store. The same massive markup happens on all Adobe software.

(If you want to see it in action with a classic “bouncing ball” exercise, Raman Pfaff has made a short screencast of publishing Director 12 to iOS if you want to see it in action.)

Self-Ethnography and the Quantified Life

Feltron daytum

(Image: Nick Felton’s public data on Daytum)

Marius Watz has put together a great compilation of “possible resources of interest in connection with the upcoming Self-Ethnography and Data Visualization module at AHO, focusing on tools and inspiration,” posted under Self-Ethnography at AHO, aka Big Data OCD.

The resources are based around the growing trend of documenting your own life, as described by Gary Wolf in Wired and also in his TED talk, The Quantified Self. Also popularised by Nick Felton’s Feltron Report.

I know Marius’s Code and Form blog from plundering his Processing code and teaching resources, which he so generously puts online. Naturally, a good section of the post is about tools and software to help document your life. Interesting to me is the obvious vein of “getting things done” and some kind of self-help aspect to many of these tools, giving rise to the obvious point that if you spent less time dicking around documenting your life, you might actually have one.

One I would add is Brett Terpstra’s Slogger, a project that is a set of scripts which “indexes various public social services and creates Day One journal entries or plain text Markdown files for them. It allows you to keep a personal journal that collects your online social life automatically, all in one place.” It’s a kind of lazy man’s self-ethnography, because it mainly harvests your social media output to automatically journal it. Brett is a master of such scripts.

I’m interested in this because of the collision of Big Data with personal data, which is in itself increasing in size. At some point we’ll all have databases on ourselves that exceed those of secret agencies and the whole system will have inverted, which is kind of an odd thought. We’ll also be dragging terabytes of data around with us on drives or in the cloud or in some data-centre on the Moon by the time we die. What are our grandchildren going to do with all that? In any case, it’s a great topic and I’m surprised none of my students are using it as the basis of an MA project (hint!).

I’m also interested in it because of a small research project I’ve been working on that looks at ways dispersed collaborators can encounter backchannel social and work information. By this I mean that most of the useful exchanges in a workplace are casual ones – the classic water-cooler conversations. In German they say “door frame” conversations, which I like because it describes the act of leaning on a doorframe as you poke your head into someone’s office and have a quick chat. We don’t have water-coolers here either. I regularly stop by colleague’s desks (yes, even when they’re not there) to see what books they’re reading and the kinds of conversations that arise from talking about these things are usually way more fruitful than scheduled meetings. But we also have a whole back-channel of digital water-cooler conversations through Twitter and blogs. The problem is that those not into those media miss out and those not in the office miss out on the physical water-cooler chats. The project looks and trying to bring those spaces together, mainly through using the building as a hub. So, people’s presence in their office is reflection physically in the space, but also tracked digitally. People’s “personal data” of Kindle highlights, tweets, etc. are also projected into the space. More on this project when we’ve actually finished the rough prototypes we only have time and budget for and I get a chance to write it up.