It's UX mystery & surprise that develops user engagement

A little bit of surprise and mystery can help develop a long term, evangelistic user base. dissected

It's UX mystery & surprise that develops user engagement


Some resent research into gameplay for twiDAQ and UI design for Spirit 6 has lead to some great articles that look in some depth at what makes games great and what makes user interfaces effective.

It seems that great game design and great UI design share something really quite interesting in common: mystery & surprise.

Angry Birds, the massive mobile phone game dissected here by Charles Mauro, is riddled with unnecessary quirks, personality and mystery and as the game progresses the new birds revealed to the player have strange and unexpected skills.  This keeps the player engaged within each level and as the game develops.

In Helge Fredheim's great article on UI design and the importance of engaging the user he cite's Google Mail's missing attachment catcher as one of those truly great little bits of functionality that you never know is there until you need it. In a similar way to taking a user from level to level in a game, revealing all the time new and exciting toys, the appearance of this feature in gmail develops the user's experience and engagement with the product in a very positive way.

What's interesting to me is the similarity between good game design and good UI design:

  • Development: The constant drip-feed of new, useful features.
  • Timing: Bringing new features in slowly, at the right time. 
  • Mystery: Engendering a feeling that there's more to discover.

The reason these rules work for both great user interfaces and games is clear.  

The reveal of features at just the right time gives the user the feeling that the interface or game is responding to them personally.  It builds a bond, however subliminal, between the user and the system and that feeling is positively reinforced, from then on, every time that feature is encountered.

Additionally it creates a sense of mystery - a sense that there are more undiscovered features to be found - and its this aspect thats possibly the most powerful because it creates a sense of reward in the user just for sustained use. Making mundane, every day use rewarding builds an exceptionally strong bond between the user and the system.

I actually started this article to parade a couple of other apps that I thought deserved some recognition for demonstrating just the right amount of features, timing and pleasant surprise that makes them, in my opinion, truly great apps.

I list them here just in case you're not using them already.  I invite you to suggest any I've missed.  

... and wish me luck!  I'm hoping all that I've learned will put twiDAQ on this list one day:

  • Xero - simple, unobtrusive interface and not without fault but after 18 months of daily use it still rewards me by solving new problems I might face elegantly.  The Xero teams constant upgrades help no end.
  • Gmail - obviously already listed by Helge but deserves re-listing.
  • The new iPhone TweetDeck - took me a while to engage to be honest but every use is revealing a new, beautifully thought-out view of my twitter environment that has made it now my default client on my phone. 


Grow your business

Find out how Deep Blue Sky can grow your business.

  1. Digital benchmark
  2. Digital roadmap
  3. Digital engineering

Write a comment.