31 January 2012

Surprise: When the message is not the medium

The idea of hiding features for users to discover is common to both content and platform, but the execution is quite different. In software, an easter egg must be well-hidden. In content, they must also be hidden--but in plain sight.

Easter eggs in software design

When I was a GCE A level student, I used to spend hours with my classmates discussing about what easter eggs to include in our graduating programming project, rather than do some productive planning. We loved the idea of hiding signature in our finished products, like the painters of old did on their canvases.

Just as developers love to include easter eggs in software, users love to find them. Of course, users love well-designed features that are presented upfront. But hidden features that they discover for themselves are a different user experience altogether.
In Windows Phone 7, the messenger Live Tile's emoticon design changes when you have more than four unread messages. But you won't know it if you check messages frequently.

Aaron Walter, UX designer for Mailchimp, describes the connection between user and developer this way:

Sometimes the emotional connection we make with our audience through design is less visible. There’s a magic about hearing a favorite song on the radio that playing it on your iPod just doesn’t have. The difference is the surprise discovery.

It's odd when you think about it, but hidden features can be part of the UX.

Some people won't get it

The positive user experience of easter eggs is double-edged. For an easter egg to work with some users, it must necessarily exclude users who don't find it, and those who have found it but don't get it. Again, Aaron Walter:

As is true in real life, showing emotion in design has real risk. Some people won’t get it. Some people will even hate it.  

Easter eggs will inevitably confuse someone. And user confusion is always bad news in UX.
Of Jakob Nielsen's list of top 10 information mistakes, half of them are navigation related. And these navigation mistakes are often the result of "designerly" elements, such as:
  • invisible navigation elements intended to encourage user "exploration";
  • inconsistent navigation, designed to introduce "variety"
  • metaphors and unconventional labels
Do you remember all those Flash-based websites that require you to mouse across the entire screen in order to discover clickable elements? Where the entire website is a big easter egg basket? Yeah, me too.

But the worst kind of easter egg, in my mind, are those that take the form of message dialogs. Funny and clever messages can used by developers and hackers alike, and harmless messages can be indistinguishable from ominous warnings. Wordpress, for example, has a particularly pernicious specimen that's panicked developers' clients who mistook the CMS easter egg for a virus attack. It's episodes like this that highlight the wisdom of Microsoft formally excluding easter eggs in its programs as part of its Trustworthy Computing Initiative.

These are my rules for software/web easter eggs:
  • Never put easter eggs get into the way of clarity.
  • Never let easter eggs get in the way of task completion. 
  • Never confuse easter eggs with advanced productivity features. If you're adding a feature to enhance productivity, you should document it. Don't take a perverse pleasure in designing deceptively simple products (I'm looking at you, Apple), and leaving features undocumented. I'm never in the market for "missing manuals".
  • Make sure that easter eggs are recognisably easter eggs. In particular, don't leave hidden messages. Users may not be able to distinguish your clever message from that of a hacker.

What about 'easter eggs' in content?

Writers have long been including hidden references in movies and literature as a way of delighting audiences. There's something to be said about the pleasure of recognising a hidden reference in a book and movie, even in this jaded era of endless parodies and winking self-reference. Like a shared secret between writer and reader, it creates a feeling of pride and exclusivity--you're an insider, a person in the know. Those who haven't read the source material won't get it, even if they know something's there.

Concealing "easter eggs" in your copy, however, isn't the same thing as hiding them in your app or website.

A common mistake of non-professional writers is to bury their allusions and hidden references in the body copy. The result is a passing metaphor or reference that won't catch readers' attention, much less delight them.

How about making your metaphors in your body copy more obvious? Yes, you can do that. But extended metaphors are risky. And mixing metaphors is just... sad. Not only is clarity compromised, readers are distracted by your effort to impress them.

Yes, I'm saying that metaphors and allusions should be avoided (or at least, kept to a minimum) in your body copy.

Your "easter eggs" should be in the headline instead.

The caveat, of course, is that you must make your secondary meanings (allusions, puns, etc,) obvious for your secondary, "in-the-know" audience, while still catching the attention of those who won't recognise it.
Baltimore Sun's John McIntyre explains it as such:

The allusion must work on its own, not depending on the reader’s catching an echo. For the reader who does, the allusion is an additional treat, a lagniappe.

Right. A lagniappe. I guess the easter egg metaphor doesn't work that well for copywriting, after all.