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