in interaction design, usability, user experience

User Experience & Cognitive Pleasures (there’s easy, and then there’s *experience*)


User experience and usability are two different things. And usability does not always imply a system or interface that does not require any learning, or any enquiry, or any challenge on the part of the user.

I constantly find myself trying to walk a balance between using ‘convention’ where it is most appropriate, but also looking for ways that we can look to use new forms of interaction to solve user experience problems. I can’t understand how people who do IA and UxD can find their work fulfilling if they are constantly wheeling out the same old solutions to problems that they face on their projects.

I don’t understand how we expect our profession to develop, how we are going to create *better* user experiences if we are not always testing new approaches, giving new solutions the opportunity to prove that they are feasable, efficient, ergonomic and pleasurable, rather than ruling them out wholesale because there’s nothing in a textbook to say that the approach is ok.

‘ooh, that’s innovation for innovation’s sake’, I hear from these people who are overly besotted with convention. Well no. It’s innovation so that I can continue to do *better* work, and so I don’t become an automaton. ‘show me the research that says your approach works’. Well, there is none.. yet. Let’s do some! ‘Tags, schmags. That’s fine for Flickr, but we’re not Flickr’. It’s difficult to argue with someone as obtuse and uninterested as that.

If you’re any good at your work and if you’ve been doing this UxD stuff for a while now, then you *can* almost do it in your sleep… if you’re content with taking an uninspired and boring approach to your work. Is that very respectful of your users?

Afterall, users don’t care about convention and heuristics and all of that. Users just want to have a good experience achieving the outcomes they set out to achieve in your site/system/product.

Surely we, as experience designers, can not only design a non-problematic experience. Surely we can actually create a pleasurable experience through the way that people interact with our content or functionality.

Kathy Sierra, not for the first time, inspired me with her recent post on Cognitive Seduction. [If you’ve not read the Creating Passionate Users blog, you must get over there just as soon as you’re done with me here.]

By Cognitive Seduction, Kathy refers to:

… “experiential pleasure” that comes from solving a puzzle, overcoming a challenge, exploring new territory, becoming swept up in a narrative, interacting with others in a social framework, and discovering something new about yourself.

The premise here is that people can take pleasure from using their brains, and by having to ‘work something out’, or to engage cognitively with a challenge.

From an interface design perspective, designing game play is an obvious but excellent example of this. I’ve done quite a bit of work designing for younger audiences over the last few years and I’ve learned that in some situations (and not only pure game situations) younger users actually *enjoy* having to figure out how an interaction works, and finding something cool that was relatively (but deliberately) hidden.

Kathy’s sketched out a ‘typology of Cognitive Pleasures’, these include:

1. DiscoveryUser experience as exploration of new territory
2. Challenge – User experience as obstacles to overcome, goals lying just beyond current skill and knowledge levels
3. Narrative – User experience as story arc (user on hero’s journey) and character identification
4. Self-expression – User experience as self-discovery and creativity
5. Social framework – User experience as an opportunity for interaction/fellowship with others
6. Cognitive Arousal – User experience as brain teaser
7. Thrill – User experience as risk-taking with a safety net
8. Sensation – User experience as sensory stimulation
9. Triumph – User experience as opportunity to kick ass
10. Flow – User experience as opportunity for complete concentration, extreme focus, lack of self-awareness
11. Accomplishment – User experience as opportunity for productivity and success
12. Fantasy – User experience as alternate reality
13. Learning – User experience as opportunity for growth and improvement

Now, don’t get me wrong. Not *every* interface is appropriate for Cognitive Pleasures. I’m not interested in cognitive pleasure when I’m trying to pay my credit card online. At the same time, this Cognitive Pleasure is not solely the domain of ‘games’. I want to work in such a way that I can be *looking* for opportunities to include cognitive pleasures such as the ones that Kathy has listed above
As a bit of a segue, Jeff Veen posted a little story today that I’ve heard a few times and I think is kind of relevant to what we’ve been talking about here.

He quotes Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia:

Your new dining establishment intends to sell steaks, so therefore you’ll need to provide sharp knives to your customers. Knives are also weapons and people could stab one another with them, so rather than booths and tables, you’d better lock your customers in individual cells to prevent that behavior.

I want to give my users a little credit. I want to challenge them a little and reward them with cognitive pleasures. I want to at least give them the opportunity to surprise us. Otherwise, it could all get very boring very fast.

What do you think. Am I kidding myself and convention is the only way? Or are you having similar challenges in your work? Talk to me :)

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Image Credit: Marie-II @ Flickr


  1. Man, this post was awesome. I felt like it was written for me. Im just finishing up a usablity course in school and they taught convention like it was the holy grail. Lets make pretty graphs to show the ceo kids! Make user checklists and make sure your task analysis has a good frequency anaylsis so you can ananylize the analysis! I sat there in class and imagined myself as a robot being assembled along with my classmates to go serve the world of usability as a mindless droll.

    Ok, enough ranting on usability class. Anyways, I am building a website right now, and to give you the jist of it, its similar to, or, but with some differences. Anways, I had this conversation with my designer the other night that I wanted to process of searching for houses to be an experience. I am using a google map, and the website is only for Florida, so the geographical regions are not that large. Most website you gotta type in zip codes, cities, states, how many miles from the zip code you want to search in, the whole 11 yards. I thought, since we are using google maps, why not make the search a great “experience” for the user. Why not just throw the houses on the map and let users “fly” around to the areas they are interested in and discover their possible dream house. “Oh, but that would be kinda slow?” Slow? I watch The OC (yes I do, and Im not afraid to admit it) because of the experience, I could get a one minute synopsis, but I want the experience. “But thats a TV show Eric, your talking about a person buying a house!” That is my point exactly! Buying a house is an experience. Its long. It has many twists and turns, and is one of the most satisfying purchases you can ever make.

    Now, I read this, and BAM! Hello. My name is Eric, and you have entered my subconcious (or it could be the other way around).

    Google has engrained in many peoples minds that search should be as quick as possible. And that is true, for searching the billions of websites on the web or the millions of people on myspace. But search can also be an experience of itself. Hell, there are tons of real life searches that are experiences. How about the search for the love of your life. Or the search for your next car, house, movie at blockbuster, vacation spot.

    I find it ironic that I will be using a Google service (google maps) to contradict what google has engrained in so many web developers minds.

    Anyways awesome post. I know this is long for a comment but I tried to trackback it and the trackback address wasnt working. Oh well.

  2. hey Eric,

    what an awesome comment! thanks for that :)

    I agree, there are lots of crazy interfaces that don’t consider the user experience and how it might translate from offline to online. I reckon grocery shopping is another one that is *gagging* for someone to revolutionise.

    Having said that, we wouldn’t want *experience* (of the time consuming variety) to get in the way of people who really do just want to search. I guess it’s about supporting multiple user paths and the different outcomes that people desire from their interaction with the site. Search is reasonably well supported at the moment, browse is generally very crappy, because it is more experiential.

    good luck with your real estate site. I’d love to see what you come up with.

  3. I definitely think that conventions have their place… If I’m doing something that has a clear convention associated with it I tend to use it. It may not be that rock and roll but if people expect it then give it to them. What I relish are variations on those core themes when the conventions can be disgarded and new approaches dreamed up. I’ve got a project like that just starting and it’s going to be really exciting – plenty of visualisation and novel exploration of information.

  4. i love that people come here and write about their projects that are going to be really exciting…. that’s what this is all about – the passion and the excitement about doing new and great things. How do you get excited about a project that just agrees with all the rules :)

  5. Aaaah sorry, I think I missed your point originally… To answer properly then, I guess some projects just aren’t all that exciting! My favourite bit of a project is the very beginning when you can just sit down and nail down what the _problems_ are, before trying to solve them. At that point there aren’t any patterns or conventions to interfere. Once you have your problem defined you start to fall into patterns. It’s the same for a lot of things though. When I was coding properly it was fun for the first few weeks and then it started to switch over to more or less maintenance, which is just drudge. Still, your mind keeps turning things over and you hope for that “hang on, what if…” moment when your understanding just falls into place or your see the problem differently.

  6. are we disagreeing? i’m not sure.

    yes, we need to *use* conventions, and yes – once you get into the job, then there is often a lot of grunt work involved to get to the end.

    i guess…. as I work through the grunt work I still want to keep asking the question ‘what if we did it this way?’.

    yes – a lot of the time the answer that comes back is ‘no, this is the way we do it’, but it’s a matter of holding on to the ‘what if’, and not allowing the grunt to become a way of being.

    or have i misunderstood you?

    I know, I have had a few projects that appeared – on the surface – to be the epitome of boredom. (Are the eLearning people still here?!)

    I think there are always ways that we can try to challenge that. Even if we do get beaten back into our box. I think we should always challenge (with the knowledge of convention).

  7. i was thinking about this some more overnight and remembering an apprentice who worked with my husband (who is a builder). Every time he was given an instruction he came back with ‘ok, but how about if we do it this way…’ and would then proceed to give an alternate approach to undertaking the work.

    Not surprisingly, people found him v. annoying to work with.

    So, I just wanted to make a quick note that the majority of the discussion of ‘can we do this another way’ should really be between yourself, your pencil, and Google (for research/inspiration).

    Only once you’ve really thought it through and tested the idea a little and shown that your ‘unconventional’ solution is a better option should you open up the conversation to the larger project team/client. Otherwise, people stop listening to your ideas and think you’re a pain in the butt. Like the apprentice ;)

  8. It´s always a balance of …
    … brand and individual
    … experience design and common usability
    … stylish and accessibility

    The Web is the ultimate customer-empowering environment.
    We have to create navigational structures and processes that are easy and intuitive so users can logically find what they’re after.
    Your visitors decide where to go to gather more and further information at their own pace. And if they don’t like their experience, the competitors are just a click away.
    We also have to develop highly usable, aesthetically pleasing applications and Web sites that attract and involve customer -but how …
    … first we must accept the dare to balance on the highwire
    … the testing is one of the possible net which can save us …

  9. absolutely totally agree with you Holger.

    It’s good to get out there on the highwire… but testing is definitely the answer.

  10. Presto.

    You’ve succinctly captured the dilemna that IA’s face. Usability is HUGELY important. So is usefulness—but if you can’t view the Interaction Design process as CREATIVE—then IA’s are doomed to fall back on only executing solutions that are safe. All in in the name of usability of course.

    The model that IA’s need to look to is a hybrid of product design and experience design. These disciplines blend usefulness, usability and desirability—all in the name of providing a wonderful experience.

    All sounds fluffy I know—but it’s why we want things that work and are beautiful and happen to make a statment about ourselves. Interactive experiences are not all that different.

  11. Personally, I think it can be a creative challenge just to work convention in where it has not been applied.

    So often times you have to battle just to get a user-friendly design worked into the picture and for the real users’ needs to be considered in the design.

    We’re seeing developments and challenges in UxD like found with technologies such as Flash and AJAX, etc. But we, as good user interface designers, still need to see how best to use these technologies while still maintaining conventions. However, we still need to be working to continually improve the user experience as well.

    Conventions are conventions for a reason. It’s what works. It has been said before that conventions should be used unless there is a very strong case to break them. With that being said, a better user experience IS a reason to break them if you can provide it without the convention… And of course, thorough testing is the key for anything new and different.

Comments are closed.


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