Interactivity

A Golden Rule for Interactions and Life

by Andy Polaine on February 28, 2013

in General

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). 

On Users, Customers, Interactors, Participants and Roles

by Andy Polaine on October 18, 2012

in General

Jack Dorsey’s post about reconsidering the word users and preferring the word customers has been doing the rounds of various popular tech blogs. John Gruber, naturally makes the case for Apple “always [having] human interface guidelines, not user interface guidelines”. Marco Arment goes into more detail with the linguistic problems this creates:

My challenge in this linguistic battle, though, is that not every Instapaper account is a customer, traditionally, in that not all of them give Instapaper money directly. People who buy the app are customers. People who subscribe for $1 per month are subscribers. (People who do both are awesome.) But is there a non-insulting term for everyone else who uses the service subsidized by the customers, subscribers, and Deck advertisers?

And Instapaper’s lucky enough to have directly paying customers. What about “free” or mostly-free services that are predominantly funded by ads — the most popular, growth-inducing, and profitable business model on the web by far? “Users” are deeply entrenched in our entire industry’s culture. We can’t move past that attitude without moving past that business model, too.

I discussed the “user” issue in my PhD about interactivity and playfulness in detail. The word is a hangover from the history of computers as calculators, from engineers and HCI folk (despite the H for human in that acronym) primarily seeing computers and applications as tools to be used to complete a task.

This falls apart in many situations. An interactive artwork, for example, does not really have users in the sense of the tool-goal dyadic. I prefer the term interactors because they are people — actors — who are interacting with something and sometimes each other. It also gives a sense of the action-reaction feedback loop, the kind of “conversation” an interactor has with an interface. I like it because conversations are two-way things – dialogues. Users suggest something much more isolated — a monologue at best.

I don’t think customers is the best alternative. At least not always. When we’re talking about paid services, there are usually customers, but, as Marco points out, there are a whole load of other participants in the service ecology who are neither users or customers. The example we often use in our book on service design is that of a nurse. A nurse is both a service provider (to patients and doctors) and a service user (of internal hospital services, health insurance databases, etc.).

This tendency towards words like user and customer also stems from us still thinking in product and industrial terms about things that are services. Square is a service, with an innovative product as a key part of it. Dropbox is a service, not a product, even though Dropbox has product managers (more on Dropbox’s problems at a later date). In Chapter 2 Understanding People and Relationships of our book, we discuss this difference:

“Use” and “consume” are product mindset words and we need to use different language for services. People don’t “use” a health care professional or a lawyer, and they don’t consume a train journey or a stay at a hotel. Instead, people enter into a relationship with professionals and service providers, and their interactions are an act of co-producing the service experience. Thus, we need to think in terms of designing for relationships and experiences that evolve and change over time, rather than just in terms of short moments of consumption or usage.

This is at the heart, I think, of what Square’s Director, Howard Schultz, was asking Jack Dorsey about. Dorsey’s summary is encouraging and correct:

First, I’m going to work with the support team to surface top issues at every Town Square instead of just CS inquiries per transaction percentages. And on our information radiators. We must feel our customer’s issues every day.

Second, all of our work is in service of our customers. Period. Therefore, we better damn well mention them in every conversation, review, meeting, goal, etc. I expect all of you to make certain our customers are always the first and only focus of all our efforts. If there is an egregious absence of this focus anywhere in the company, tell me and we will correct. If I ever say the word “user” again, immediately charge me $140.

But it’s not just about different words, or even being more customer-focused, although that is essential. The change is also about completing changing the industrial mindset we’ve got so used to in our culture that we hardly see it anymore. This goes for healthcare, education, politics, finance, energy, mobility and all the other lifelong services that we expect to always be there. It’s vitally important to remember there are people making them part of their lives and depending on them, as well as people behind the scenes at all levels working hard to make them happen. This is about building ongoing relationships not simply moments of selling and forgetting.

So, what do we call these people? As you’re so sharp, you will have noticed I called them participants above, but I still think interactor sounds better and has better connotations. But really they are people playing roles. Shakespeare nailed it in the famous monologue from As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Understanding Interactivity Through Play

December 28, 2010

Some months ago I officially became Dr. Polaine (Andy Polaine, PhD. for you Americans) and have been planning to write a series of posts about the main themes of my thesis, Developing A Language Of Interactivity Through The Theory Of Play, for some time. So to coincide with a post over at Core77 about the […]

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Teaching, Learning and Mazes

May 25, 2010

The COTEN project is gaining momentum and there are some excellent discussions going on. A lot of the conversation is about different teaching and institutional structures and the styles of learning they encourage or discourage. I just wrote a response to a post, which delves a little bit into my PhD subject, which is about […]

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Flap to Freedom

August 16, 2008

Flap to Freedom from Chris O'Shea on Vimeo. Battery hens flap to help battery hens in the Flap to Freedom installation that Chris O’Shea and Icodesign created for the V&A Village Fete to support freedom for farmed chickens. Contestants flap their arms and their chicken moves in sync. Quickest flapper wins the highest place on […]

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Interactive Dangerous Australians

July 23, 2008

Dangerous Australians from Lightwell on Vimeo. Let’s face it, all Australians are dangerous on the sports field, but the the Australian Museum has a new interactive installation called Dangerous Australians that allows you to interact (safely) with Australia’s deadliest top ten creatures. The saltwater crocodile, funnel web spider, box jelly fish, brown snake are among […]

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Multitouch with a cardboard box

May 23, 2008

Whilst we’re on the multitouch subject (is it multi-touch or multitouch yet?), here’s a short vid from Seth Sandler showing you how to make your very own multi-touch test set-up with a cardboard box and a webcam. Or you can use Mario Klingemann’s technique of a pair of white gloves dyed black, with just the […]

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3M Interface – Reverse Multitouch

May 22, 2008

My brother, Matt, just e-mailed a link to this interface on the 3M website. Given the multitouch hype at the moment, it’s quite a clever little riff on the theme. Basically it’s as if you are standing to the rear of a multitouch screen. Your mouse controls the finger movements of the person blurred out […]

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Core77 Broadcast interview with Troika

May 6, 2008

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Sebastien and Eva from Troika, the studio behind the Cloud and All The Time In The World installations at new Terminal 5 at Heathrow. So, if you were one of the hundreds stuck at Terminal 5 when it opened, at least you had something decent […]

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Playful Revolutions Presentation

April 27, 2008

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