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Dreamy Interfaces

by Joshua Allen
10 min read
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A look at what influences dreaming to understand how to harness it to make interfaces more dreamworthy.

These days, almost everything we do is digitized into discrete units. Our phone, video, and e-mail communications are digital. Economies, businesses, web searches, and even vehicle traffic are all controlled by sophisticated mathematical models performed by computers. This is the defining characteristic of the information age, and has caused much soul-searching over the past 50 years.

We build artificial environments for people to live in by digitizing the world into individual pixels, bits, and electrons. We reconstruct reality and make it better, one pixel at a time. Living in artificial environments isn’t new for humans. We’ve been doing it for about 9,000 years, since the first hunter-gatherers adopted agriculture and started building cities. But there is something unprecedented about today’s artificial environments. Instead of using natural materials to build cities, we’re using electrons to make entirely ephemeral digital environments. From Facebook and Twitter to 3D games like World of Warcraft or Minecraft, we’re increasingly detached from the natural world.

Our lives are slowly being digitized. Ironically, it is sometimes our dreams that give us the clearest wake-up calls. A few months ago, I laughed out loud at this tweet within a tweet:

@rainypixels RT @allisonsdreams “All I dream about is THE INTERNET”

I’m sure that Allison was exaggerating, but I was intrigued. Digitized experiences feature in my dream life a lot more than they used to. I’ve dreamed about Facebook, Twitter, Minecraft, Black Ops, and others. When I started asking others about their dream experiences, I found a common pattern. Across the board, artificial digital worlds are encroaching on our dream space. These dreams of artificial worlds are like a dream within a dream, one imaginary experience inside another.

When we catch ourselves dreaming about pixels, a common reaction is alarm. “OMG, I’m dreaming about Twitter! I need to go on a camping trip and get back to nature!” We react against this trend. We throw away our autotuned music and start listening to acoustic sets. We get back to more natural and sustainable basics.

But three important questions come to mind. First, is there anything really wrong with dreaming about computer-mediated experiences? Might there be a potential benefit to this trend? Second, why do we dream about some digital experiences and not about others? And finally, is this something that we can deliberately harness to make our own interfaces more dreamworthy?

Fostering Creativity

Sometimes the analytical mind gets in the way. As creative professionals, we spend a lot of time solving problems and using language and logic to communicate or persuade others. But our best insights often come when we step away, relax, and allow ourselves to think about something else. We couldn’t do our jobs without the ability for sustained, conscious focus, but sometimes we need to clean the slates and make way for creative intuition to emerge. Books like Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind and Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain emphasize this point and provide concrete techniques that can be harnessed to encourage more creative thinking.

Dreams are produced by the creative, generative, and imaginative part of the mind. When you dream about something, it’s because your creative mind has somehow been triggered to think about that subject. If the subject is a problem you’re trying to solve, dreaming is usually a good sign because it means that your creative mind is engaged. It can be tempting to take a somewhat mystical approach and say, “The subconscious mind knows what’s best, so I trust my mind to dream about the most important things.” Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t work that way. What we dream about is often completely accidental, and we typically need to use concrete tactics as described in the books above to encourage our creative minds to take charge.

When it comes to dreaming about computer experiences, then, we can make two assertions. First, if a person is dreaming about a part of the computer experience that involves problem solving, then dreaming is a good sign. Dreaming implies that you’ve activated the creative part of the brain. Second, if a computer interface deliberately does things to activate the creative part of the brain, this will increase the chances that people will incorporate that part of the interface into their dreams.

Dream States

What is it about some computer interfaces that invoke dreams, while others do not? There are quite a few mundane factors that influence our dreams. For example, we’re more likely to dream about something we spend a lot of time doing, and about things that we do immediately before bed. But I’m interested in a different question: all else being equal, what makes one interface more dreamworthy than another?

Many people intuitively assume that the more realistic an interface is, the more likely it will be incorporated into a dream—that the most photorealistic simulations, or the interfaces that blend most seamlessly into the real-world environment, will be the most likely to enter into dream space. However, this turns out to be exactly wrong. You are more likely to dream about experiences that represent a significant digression from the ordinary. Additionally, you are more likely to dream about experiences that are nested and unresolved. Let’s look at each characteristic in turn:

Phase Transition

The dreaming state represents a significant break from ordinary reality, just as the creative state of mind involves a break from the analytical. Entering the dream state is kind of like walking from the bright street into a favorite restaurant; as soon as you transition to the new environment, your mind becomes occupied with thoughts and memories of last time you were in the restaurant and you quickly forget what you were thinking about when you were on the bright street.

You can use this to your advantage if you want to trigger yourself to remember things on your to-do list. For example, if you want to remember to call your wife while you’re at the restaurant, you might visualize a bunch of cell phones hanging like leaves from the distinctive coat rack at the entrance of the restaurant. When you’re out on the bright street, your mind won’t be preoccupied with the reminder, but as soon as you arrive at the restaurant and see the coat rack, you’ll be reminded to call your wife.

So, if you want an experience to be associated with the creative or dreaming mind, you need to make the experience less realistic or ordinary and more surreal. Ideally, you’ll also make the user go through a deliberate transition that demarcates the movement from ordinary to surreal, much as when you step from the bright street into the restaurant, or when you transition from waking to sleeping.

This explains why people dream about Twitter or Minecraft, but not Outlook. With Twitter or Minecraft, the user shifts from ordinary reality to an alternate set of metaphors. To function in either environment, the user needs to get “in character” and don a whole new set of conventions for interacting with the environment. Twitter includes conventions such as @, [email protected], OH, RT, TT, and hash tags. Each system has a distinctive lingo and protocol of interaction that take some time to acquire, and the more fluent the user becomes in the lingo, the more completely she can immerse herself in the environment. And as soon as the user goes back “out of character” and into the ordinary world, it’s as if she is waking up from a dream.

The more distinct your experience is from the real world, and the more completely “in character” a user must become in order to be fluent, the more likely the experience will bleed over into the creative mind and be picked up automatically in periods of rest.

Nested Stories

A key characteristic of dreaming and creative experiences is the use of nested stories—narratives that pause momentarily and introduce a short sub-story. It is easy to understand why. When a person falls asleep, it’s as if she is hitting the “pause” button on her conscious mind. During sleep, her creative mind takes over and generates all sorts of imaginative dreams. But as soon as she awakes in the morning, her conscious mind will pick up where it left off the day before. Waking up is like hitting “play” and resuming the story that was paused the night before. In other words, the transition between conscious mind and creative mind always involves hitting “pause” on a story and starting a new sub-story. We do it every night.

Just as the conscious mind often picks up and hits “play” from the last waking moment, the creative mind often picks up and continues from the last time it was thinking about something. Your mind will sometimes pick up and continue dreams on subsequent nights, especially if your sleep was interrupted and the dream was not allowed to finish. It’s like walking out to your car after work and remembering exactly the song that was playing when you parked the car in the morning.

We can use this fact to our advantage. Storytellers have long used nested stories to influence people’s creative minds. The technique is fairly simple. At a suitably dramatic point, one of the characters will interrupt the story by telling another story. The listener will have to simultaneously keep track of the unresolved outer story, and the plot of the inner story. Eventually, the inner story will be resolved, and the outer story will continue. Interestingly, the inner story will be more likely to be forgotten by the conscious mind, but will exert a greater influence on the creative mind.

This is analogous to the way a person falling asleep must remember her outer, conscious, experience even while attending to the sleeping dream narrative. When she wakes up, it’s analogous the character in the story concluding the inner story, and the outer story continues on. Just as with nested stories, the waking dreamer is likely to forget her dreams. Shakespeare used this technique quite conspicuously in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and was known to nest subplots multiple layers deep, as in The Tempest or Love’s Labor’s Lost.

We don’t need to be playwrights to harness this technique. We simply need to interrupt the normal experience flow and present the user with a sub-experience that is distinctively different from the ordinary and engaging enough to distract until the normal experience is resumed. For this technique to be effective, the outer experience needs to be interrupted at a point where there is matter the user is trying to resolve. During the sub-experience, the user will be keeping track of the open thread. When the outer experience is finally resumed, and the open issue is finally resolved, whatever we put in the sub-experience is more likely to be forgotten but also more likely to be linked to the creative mind.

There are three advanced variations on this technique that can sometimes increase its effectiveness:

  • Distinctive sensory modes: The technique of nesting works best when the inner experience is clearly distinguished from the outer. We can do this by changing visual style, changing tone (e.g., serious to whimsical), and so on. One particularly effective way of demarcating seems to be by switching between sensory emphases; for example switching between image and text, visual and auditory, still and motion, and so on.
  • Slicing: Multiple short interruptions can often be more effective than one moderate-length interruption. Repetition trains the user to enter the sub-experience more fluidly, and reinforces the sub-experience’s link with the creative mind. However, this is difficult to control.
  • Multiple levels: It is possible to nest experiences more than one level deep, and the deeper experiences will exert a deeper influence on the creative mind. However, this is extremely difficult to do properly. Done wrongly, it just distracts and annoys the user.

Quite by accident, Twitter is a textbook example of an interface that involves nested stories and loose ends. Tracking a conversation between two of your friends involves scanning through a river of tweets and reconstructing a sequence of @ replies. As soon as you start tracking multiple conversations between multiple friends, your conscious mind is occupied with multiple unresolved open threads. It’s not uncommon to fall asleep with multiple twitter conversations unresolved, and Twitter’s interface gives you no help—you have to maintain all of the threads in your own mind.

Additionally, Twitter is naturally “sliced.” Users spend a few minutes in Twitter, then snap back to real life, and then back into Twitter when real life pauses. Between the slicing and multiple unresolved subthreads, it is no surprise that people dream about Twitter.

In the case of Twitter, these characteristics are almost entirely accidental. Twitter’s lack of threading was a matter of limiting scope and not an intentional decision to influence your dreams. As a result, when you dream about Twitter, it will usually be inane and random. But when you build your own interfaces, you can be more deliberate about how you use these techniques.

We’ve barely scratched the surface here, but if you’re interested in some real-life examples of nested stories, check out Milton Erickson’s classic book, My Voice Will Go With You.


If you’ve found yourself alarmed by dreams about Twitter, Facebook, or Minecraft, I hope I’ve set your mind at ease. These dreams are usually accidental side effects of interface design. And by using a few simple techniques, you can design your interfaces to more deliberately harness your users’ creative minds to solve the problems that matter to them. This world is now your world, and there is nothing to be afraid of.

post authorJoshua Allen

Joshua Allen, Joshua Allen is an Open Web Evangelist for Microsoft, where he was a founding member of the team that runs the MIX Conference for designers and developers and the MIX Online community of articles and open source goodies for designers and developers. Since creating his first Web startup in 1994, he has worked on advancing the Open Web, including the last 12 years at Microsoft. He is an avid reader and tinkerer, and is especially fascinated by psychology, behavioral economics, and anthropology. When he's not reading a new book or research report, he may well be conducting a surreptitious experiment on bystanders to test some new thesis about human behavior. His experiments with rock climbing, ice skating, or parkour sometimes lead to painful injuries, but he heals quickly.


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