Article No :628 | March 1, 2011 | by Joshua Allen
User interfaces are normally designed to be durable and predictable. People don’t like surprises, and they want to be able to repeat the same actions to get the same positive results. But judicious use of transience can make product experiences even more effective. As strange as it seems, creating some positive results that can’t be repeated can be a very good design strategy.
Humans are suckers for the ephemeral. Think about some of your past experiences—can you think of any pieces of music that you heard years ago and have been trying to find ever since? How about a poem or book that deeply affected you, which is now unavailable? A favorite childhood movie that is impossible to find now?
It's amazing how deeply brushes with the ephemeral can affect people. In many ways, these experiences define us and give our lives extra meaning. The ephemeral experiences that touch us most deeply have a number of characteristics in common.
For most of human history, our experiences of beauty were ephemeral. You couldn't just pull up a Mozart concerto on your iPod and play it on repeat. Pieces of music would be composed for special occasions, and those occasions would be the only opportunity to hear them. Shakespeare’s plays could only be seen when the troupe was in town, leaving behind only the ideas and memories. When the travelling bard sat down in the courtyard to sing the Iliad, the kids gathered around and listened intently because they knew they might not hear it again. Even after the invention of the printing press, it was typically only the wealthiest fraction of the population who had ready access to books.
In the past 20 years, things have changed dramatically. Today, the average person can listen to any song at any time. Books and recordings of great performance are available instantly, on demand. We can even record anything that happens to us so we can relive any moment at will. This is completely unprecedented in history.
On its face, this emergence of these new abilities would seem to be making people’s lives better—we can reliably repeat our favorite experiences. In reality, though, this capability can rob us of happiness and meaning. Some of the most meaningful experiences are the experiences that we know we can't preserve. Human nature is adapted for a very different sort of world than we find ourselves in today, and our attempts to digitize and capture every happy moment can sabotage us.
Innately, people want to hang onto experiences. Given the means, this instinct can lead to collecting behaviors. As a child, I remember looking through crates of old 45 rpm records my parents had abandoned in the basement. Later, I built up my own collections of cassette tapes for my Walkman. When VCRs first came out, one of the guys in our neighborhood dedicated an entire room of his house to a collection of thousands of videos.
It was simultaneously awesome and terrible. People who had collections of thousands of CDs embarked on a whole new collection phase when they discovered Napster. I still haven't shaken the habit; I have gigabytes of storage with several thousand songs in digital format.
Hoarding replaces enjoyment with compulsion. People spend increasing amounts of time procuring, curating, and maintaining collections of digital experiences. Rather than enjoying the moment, people organize and re-organize playlists in hopes of ensuring future enjoyment. They panic and feel pain when they lose a hard drive full of media. The experience of music, which for our ancestors was characterized by serendipity and celebration, has become a compulsive chore—at times more like hoarding than collection.
And, in the end, we never enjoy most of the experiences we hoard. How often do you hit "skip" when listening to your iPod on shuffle? It's probably proportional to the number of songs you have. This is a depressing picture, but we can't help ourselves.
You Can't Take it With You
I've always been fascinated by party flyers. Starting with the flyers for the Northern Soul movement in 1970's Manchester, to Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc's hip-hop parties in 1980s Bronx, to modern electronic dance, party flyers show a historical progression of design techniques. But more than that, every flyer is a memento of an ephemeral experience that touched hundreds or thousands of lives. I wasn't alive when the Northern Soul movement started, but I can immediately recognize the stories told by those who were there. For these survivors, the moments last a lifetime. Every attempt to describe the moment eventually ends with, "You just had to be there." All that's left of the moment is the impact it had on people's lives, and the little paper flyer.
Even the seemingly innocuous activity of taking notes in class can rob an experience of meaning. When you write something down, you're telling your subconscious mind that it's okay to forget the material. You know that you can review the material later, so it doesn't make an impact on your present. Research bears this out; taking notes in class will actually reduce your recall at test time, unless you copy the notes a second time before the test.
Dan Gilbert is a social psychologist at Harvard University's Hedonic Psychology Lab, and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness. In this TED talk, Gilbert describes some surprising experimental findings that shed light on our propensity to be happiest with experiences that we know are ephemeral. In one experiment, people were shown two paintings and allowed to choose one to take home. Some of the people were told that they could change their minds at any time and exchange the painting, while others were told that their choice was final. After a few months passed, the people in each group were asked how much they liked the painting. Surprisingly, the people who had the option of exchanging the painting at any time were significantly less happy with their choice.
Things got really interesting when Gilbert and colleagues tried this experiment on people with anterograde amnesia. People who have this disease are incapable of forming new memories. Like Drew Barrymore in the movie 50 First Dates, they don't even remember what happened the day before. As in the previous experiment, these people were given a choice of painting to take and hang in their room. Half were told that they could exchange the painting at any time in the future, and the other half were told that the decision was final. By the following day, none of them even remembered being given the painting, let alone whether or not they had the option of exchanging it. They didn't even remember speaking to the researcher. Yet, when asked to say how much they liked the painting hanging on their wall, the people who had been given the option to trade were significantly less happy!
Gilbert calls this effect "the unanticipated joy of being totally stuck" because the results are exactly the opposite of what people predict. The person being offered a free painting predicts that she'll be less happy if she is prohibited from exchanging the painting. Likewise, the new fan of the Northern Soul movement figures that his life will be happier if the parties were still regularly scheduled at a club across the street. And the person loading her iPod with music will predict that a greater variety of choices will lead to future happiness. Completely contrary to their anticipation, though, all of these people are happier when they are "stuck" with fewer options.
These results have been replicated in a variety of fascinating experiments. The effects are especially strong in experiences that are shared with other people.
Ephemera in Experience Design
Google's use of "Google Doodles" is sometimes described as a technique for "humanizing" the company via a quirky, personal touch. But I think this interpretation is wrong. Historically, the value of Google's doodles has been to create an ephemeral, shared experience for users.
At first, the doodles were few and far between, usually unexpected and clever. Delighted users would ask one another, "Did you see the Google home page today?", relishing the shared experience of something cool. The enjoyment was only made sweeter by the knowledge that the doodle would soon go away, replaced by the boring old logo. In the past two years, the doodles have become far more frequent, and consequently less enjoyable. Like the person who hoards music on her iPod or is convinced that she will be happier if she can return her paintings, Google succumbed to the temptation to make the enjoyable more predictable.
Earlier this year, Google surprised us again, though, by turning the doodle into a working version of Pac-Man. For the first time in years, breathless geeks once again asked each other, "Did you see the Google home page today? That JUST happened!" The less predictable and repeatable these experiences are, the more we enjoy them. It's just how we're wired.
Speaking of video games, most game designs are great examples of how not to incorporate the ephemeral into experiences. Games encourage and reward obsessive behaviors. Players are given clear, predictable rules and encouraged to compulsively hoard as many points as possible. The game creates an artificial feedback loop of incentives to keep the players busy, always trying to get to the next level. Comparing such games to Pachinko machines, game designer Tim Rogers suggests that this appeal to the compulsive "lowest common denominator" robs games of meaning and enjoyment.
Some games, however, are taking advantage of our deep-seated appreciation of the ephemeral to provide more meaningful experiences. The multi-player mode of the blockbuster Call of Duty: Black Ops certainly has its share of compulsion-inducing feedback loops: players chase after score, prestige levels, and k/d ratio like hopelessly addicted Pachinko players. But sprinkled throughout the game are all sorts of serendipitous achievements that pop up unexpectedly to commemorate some cool thing that the player just did. Getting from level 10 to level 20 is satisfying in the way that scratching an itch is satisfying. But accidentally discovering that the console on the ship’s bridge is running Zork and having the game reward you with a Zork badge is more than just satisfying.
Strategic use of the ephemeral is a competitive secret of Disney's Club Penguin. Club Penguin is like a social network for tweens, where members can control little penguin avatars to interact with their friends in a variety of chat and game rooms. Every now and then, regions of the online environment will be completely transformed. Once a whole room became a temporary ice-skating rink; another time a glowing underground cave, complete with fire-breathing dragon. Sometimes Club Penguin will schedule performances where members can create, rehearse, and perform original plays and compete for prizes. These ephemeral breaks from the ordinary leave the members with happy memories, and eagerly anticipating the next surprise.
Tips for Ephemeral Design
As Don Norman says, good designs are durable, predictable, and reliable. Good designs might even include some game-like feedback loops to reinforce compulsive behavior. Used in moderation, though, elements of the ephemeral can spice up designs and make them more meaningful. Experiences shouldn’t just scratch an itch; they should occasionally make users glad they were at the right place at the right time.
The experiments and examples I’ve discussed in this article suggest a few tips for how to incorporate ephemera into product designs:
Ephemeral events are time-bound, so it often makes sense to use them to commemorate some other temporal occurrence. You could commemorate an anniversary, a major world event, or something that a user has just accomplished. Celebrate some milestone in the user's mastery of your product, or commemorate an event that she cares about. If you're going to commemorate an event, try to pick something that is unique and meaningful for your users. If they are already saturated with Christmas carols and Christmas sales, doing a Christmas-themed update to your application might not stand out.
If you don't have a specific event to commemorate, create a one-time performance. Transform your normal experience into something totally fresh for just a day. Pick a theme, or invite an artist to express his or her own vision.
As soon as you make an ephemeral experience predictable, you've blunted its ability to move people. In contrast to Google Doodles, the daily photo on Bing's home page may be visually stunning, but you know that there is going to be a new image every day. Bing's images are nice, but aren't really a good example of ephemeral. If you celebrate "talk like a pirate day" the same way every year, maybe it's time to change things up. Of course, it's fine to notify people of an upcoming event ahead of time, as long as you don't give away the details. If your XBox game is going to offer a "Zombie Santas" add-on for the weekend, you'll want to promote the event. If Miley Cyrus is going to be doing a concert in a specially created Club Penguin room, you'll want to promote that event, too. The point here is simply to avoid a predictable cadence.
The ephemeral events we share with other people are usually the events that leave the most lasting impact on us. Pick events that people can experience simultaneously or, at a minimum, that they will want to talk about. Like concert tshirts or party flyers, make it easy for people to tell their friends, "I was there."
Don't get in the way
Chances are, most of your users will be excited about "Zombie Santas” weekend or the Miley Cyrus concert in the Dragon Room. But many will just want to get something done, and will resent anything that gets in the way. Transform your normal experience into something stunning and memorable, but make sure that normal things can still be done.
Good designs can be made even better through careful use of unpredictable, unexpected, and non-durable elements. I’ve touched on only a few of the ways that ephemeral design can help you connect more meaningfully with your users. I would love to hear from you. Can you think of some examples of sites, software, or other products that did an awesome job with ephemeral elements? Have you used ephemera effectively in your own work? Are there any other tips or tricks we missed here? Please join in the conversation by leaving a comment!