Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Designing for Fun: How Can We Design User Interfaces to Be More Fun - Ben Shneiderman

My first and biggest pet peeve with this short and informative little article... is his use of the word 'Fun'. He can't seem to keep his definitions straight.

Mr. Shneiderman talks about there being two different kinds of fun: fun-in-doing and fun-in-not-doing. The first is active fun, the fun one associates with performing some activity; the other is passive fun, the fun one associates with laying back and receiving something. Active fun is playing volleyball; passive fun is sun tanning.

So far, so good. But wait! Let's look at the title again. "Designing for Fun: How Can We Design User Interfaces to be More Fun?"

Hold on a second. Be more fun? An interface is neither an action nor a passive experience. How can an interface be fun? We just said that fun is event/experience-driven. Interfaces are not experiences! Interfaces may give experiences, but they are not experiences in themselves! Work with me here, take a moment and follow my train of thought.

Definition A: The word 'fun' belongs to the kingdom of the word 'experience'. It is a component to an experience, be that experience active or passive. Experiences own the word fun. Fun is an adverb applied to experience, or some kind of metaphorical substance that is extracted from experience. Fun is derived from some kind of temporal happening. Fun is derived from events. Fun belongs to verbs.

Definition B: Fun is a property of a construct, ie: a ball, a person, an interface. All nouns share the word fun, and fun is an adjective applied to a noun. Otherwise it is extracted from that noun. Fun is not uniquely bonded to the word 'experience.' Fun belongs to nouns.


Now any dictionary will tell you that there can be multiple definitions of a word, but usually when you're writing an academic paper, you want to pick one definition and stick to it. If you start mixing and matching definitions like this, you end up with conclusions that aren't valid. You might as well be mixing and matching the various definitions of the world resume: 1) to continue, 2) a curriculum vitae.  (Hah, I kinda cheated there, resume should have an accent on the e for the second definition. But work with me here!)

Strictly Speaking, I Side With Definition A
Whenever I use Definition B, I'm basically saying that an object frequently provides Definition A. I don't believe a noun can inherently be fun, only that it can provide a fun experience. When we start using fun to describe nouns... well blatant misuses of the word start to occur.

Misusing the Word Fun

If I examine Figure 1 and 2 from this article, I see that the author calls a boring chart with poor readability 'plain,' and a chart with lots of pleasant shapes, good shading, and enhanced readability 'fun.'


If I dot all of the 'i's with little hearts, will that be fun too? The author using 'fun' for this purpose is... is... I feel like I am being patronized as I read it! I feel like I just got called up by a client who wants to design a website for men's aftershave, and after reviewing my site mock-ups, he said that he thinks the website should be more 'fun.'

Is 'Fun' A Visual Style? Like 80's Rock Album Covers?

What? What does that mean?! What does it mean for a noun, an object, to be fun? Is 'fun' some kind of visual style, linked to abstract art or funk? Does fun mean enhanced readability? Does fun mean nice shading on diagram bubbles, and curvaceous shapes? Does fun mean the inclusion of animations? Goodness gracious man, I'm a video game designer, and you just used the word 'fun' to describe rounded boxes in a diagram.

The reason I have to come down so hard on his usage of fun is this: I have to stop the word 'fun' from turning into an empty word, a word that means simply 'I (the speaker) like it.' When a video game designer is designing for 'fun,' fun has to mean something real. It's not a visual art style or enhanced usability; it's not a property a game can have. It's a feeling that the game may or may not instill in its users.

This is vitally important because we are studying Human-Computer-Interaction. The users- the people on the human side of the interaction- are the ones who are either having fun or not. There are no universal principals of 'fun.' Fun is not an attribute. Fun is an interpretation of an event, it's tied to experience. I cannot sit here in a little box, with a list of things that are 'fun,' add all of them into my design, and call that design 'fun.'

Instead, what I have to do is think about the goals (active and passive) of my user and try to design my product to yield fun experiences for them.  I must go out and observe my user having fun (and having frustration) and then come back and work with my findings. I must then give my product to the users for testing, to see if they are having fun or not. I can only design my product around them. I cannot design my product around some abstract manifestation of fun.

But We Use 'Fun' To Describe Nouns, Don't We?

Using 'fun' on a noun (like saying 'hey, Bob's a fun guy!') is a colloquialism, but hardly useful for academic discourse. Fun is, as you said once, a component of an experience. Fun only occurs when a human interprets an event, and stores it internally as an experience. Something you might find boring, I find fun.

A human being cannot be fun. Assuming the existence of a person named Bob. If I frequently experience fun when interacting with Bob, I may label him 'fun' in common conversation. Nevertheless, you are completely entitled to derive a not-fun experience from interacting with Bob. Bob himself is not fun. Fun is part of my experience of interacting with Bob; Fun is one flavor of the overall spectrum of positive interpretations of an event.

Also, I'm Pretty Sure Interfaces Aren't Supposed To Be Fun

Last I heard, a good interface was practically invisible to its user. The user isn't even supposed to notice the interface; the interface just facilitates communication between the human and the product.

Fun Can Be Provided By a Noun

Let's change the meaning of this paper so that we can continue talking about it. Let's change it to, "How Can We Design User Interfaces to Yield More Fun?" Then when we think of "How Can We Design User Interfaces to Be More Fun?" we can internally know that we are really asking about ways in which the Interface will facilitate more of its users deriving fun experiences from it...

But Wait, That's Not Actually What This Paper Is About

This paper was a survey of good design techniques and interesting observations about usability. It was a great survey of design methodologies and golden rules. Remarkably, it had almost nothing to do whatsoever with fun user interfaces. Fortunately, in a few locations it has something to do with fun, or user interfaces, independent of one another.

So What Is IT ABout?

This paper is phenomenal when it comes to discussing the tools for crafting enjoyable user experiences. Some of his sources at first seem questionable; he cites Tom Malone on educational games and educational games don't have the best reputation for 'being fun'. A quick search on the man's name shows he's a MIT professor with a lot of papers and a good reputation, but he's a theorist, not a game designer. Am I sure I want to trust this kind of source? But NASA (and science centers in general) has a surprisingly good reputation for making learning fun! He makes some good points about fun, children, and learning in this section.

Yet after giving us this little background on fun, the author proceeds to go through the complete rest of the paper calling a lot of things fun, but seeming to have disregarded the original meaning of the term for something else entirely.  After rambling about shopping carts and banking, the author makes this statement:

"For these new and highly competitive markets, I believe designers must address three almost equally important goals that contribute to fun-in-doing: provide the right functions so that users can accomplish their goals, offer usability plus reliability to prevent frustration from undermining the fun, and engage the users with fun-features."

I feel demeaned again. What the heck is a fun-feature? Ugh, it sounds icky.  Let's take that sentence and replace the word 'fun' with 'desirable.' We get

"For these new and highly competitive markets, I believe designers must address three almost equally important goals that contribute to being desirable to do: provide the right functions so that users can accomplish their goals, offer usability plus reliability to prevent frustration from undermining the desirability, and engage the users with desirable-features."

Was the word fun really all that important? It looks to me like the author is confusing 'fun' for the basic HCI component of 'desirable.' Ergo, this paper is not about making interfaces fun, it's about making interfaces desirable.


After briefly explaining that there exist models of design spaces for input devices and menus, he reflects sadly that there are few higher-order models that might help with thinking outside of the box. While sprinkling his sentences with the word fun-filled (who uses the word fun-filled?) he casts a gorgeous cloak over many fields of interaction design. He talks about activities between information technologies and human relationships, about the Eight Golden Rules for Designing the User Interface, but then things start to get a little weird.

Fun... Is Not.... An Aesthetic! (Hey Haven't We Been Here Before?)

The author then proceeds to talk about the development of theories of user engagement through fun-features (What does that mean!?) According to him, these fun-features are "alluring metaphors, compelling content, attractive graphics, appealing animations, and satisfying sounds." This is the section he devotes to delighting and amusing users. He uses the example of a shimmering rainbow. At this point I honestly have no idea who he is designing for. I feel again like a child. Looking back at his reference to Tom Malone, I wonder if the author specializes in designing for children, and perhaps underestimates their sophistication. Who talks like this? Most importantly: Content is not part of the interface. The Interface is for accessing the content.

Lots of the Author's Advice Is Good (Minus His Opinion That Sparkles = Fun), He Just Has Trouble Staying On Topic

His advice isn't interface specific. While coming up with an alluring metaphor has stronger ties to interface design than to any other kind of design, he then talks about compelling content, such as first-rate writing, striking photos, and outstanding graphics. To be honest, once we're past the realm of buttons boarders and backgrounds, the realm of the interface is over. The interface contains no substantial writing, photos, or graphics.  This has almost nothing to do with interface design.

He gets back on topic by talking about attractive graphics, which he specializes to say is about spacing, balance, symmetry, and using these techniques to improve performance. By this point we have lost all reference to the word 'fun,' which is something of a relief. If I had to hear anything more about fun-features (which should never, ever, be a hyphenated word), I wasn't going to be able to get anything from this paper! He discusses the importance of utility vs. attractiveness, not going overboard, the value of some animations like smooth transitions and zooming to preserve user comprehension.

He even discusses an attribute that makes Photoshop so successful: "the direct manipulation of rapid, incremental, and reversibly actions with immediate visibility of results," and something widely considered to be very important: animations that convey the progress of a download. He even talks about sound design

His Parting Thoughts Are Just Hard To Take Seriously, And He Still Can't Stay On Topic

He uses the phrase, "Did anyone notice that fun is part of functionality?" Author! No! you were doing so well not throwing 'fun' around like a bouncy ball!

Then he randomly and haphazardly mentions user customization, which was also a phenomenal insight given the fact that this article was published in 2004 and before the massive mobile device and casual gaming boom, the freemium model, and the idea that a game like Team Fortress 2 can exist entirely off of the benefits of providing an endless variety of strange hats.  He also acknowledges the fact that some users want flourishes, and others don't.  He makes the unfortunate mistake of confusing 'fun' with 'cute animations,' yes, but he notes that even productivity tools should be fun to use- the fun aspects just shouldn't interfere with goal attainment.

Being terribly off-topic all the time, he then talks about how new guidelines are necessary for designing enjoyable interfaces - guidelines like graphical style issues, symmetry, elegance, simplicity, and distinctiveness- I wonder if he remembers basically saying that these models already existed (see his 'How can we design interfaces to be more fun?' subsection, first paragraph.), and that the problem was that models needed to be made for higher order design theory for out-of-the-box thinking.  Then he mentions that rules need to be made for creating images- wait... rules for art? Za? We don't have those? My God, Michelangelo, you mean you did art without any theoretical foundation whatsoever!? He mentions lastly that we need rules for branding. I'm sure those exist. Really.

His Last Paragraph is Phenomenal. 

Despite being a conclusion paragraph, very little of it is expressed anywhere else in the entire paper. Even his terminology is spot-on. He speaks of design as a facilitator of fun, instead of a model for it. He also describes user interfaces as playful and liberating instead of fun. He mentions testing for the first time ever.  Actually, all of it is pretty spot-on. In fact, maybe I should have just read the last paragraph.

My Final Grade: C for Confusion! (I couldn't give him an F, because F would remind me of the word 'fun', which I never want to hear in this context ever again).
This author rambled, got lost, contradicted himself, used cross definitions, and the title of this article actually had very little to do with the things in the article that were substantive. For a three-paged paper, I sure had a lot to say! I would say that if I could cut up his paper, re-edit it, and use it for my own purposes, the individual sentences of it are actually very enlightening at times.  The worst part of the essay was definitely the author's use of the word 'fun.' It made me cringe every time he used it.  I always felt like a child being told a story about a unicorn.


  1. um..I partially agree with your critique, but a thoughtful response though. Perhaps you can also look for more supporting on the matter of 'fun' in order to support your argument. Some references at the back are good though to further look into the author's thinking process. Although you have tried to tackle the fun definition, but still might be more than that too.
    If fun is a pleasurable experience/about brain feeling good, so attractive graphics and smoother UI can meets the outcome then? Some further references on p.13 and 14 here in the book 'the nature of everyday aesthetics' : http://books.google.com.hk/books?id=MaPCIS4fLNoC&pg=PA12&lpg=PA12&dq=aesthetics+of+fun&source=bl&ots=qObaRzwvKi&sig=t7J3Ct9LgLGdua0BcroIVYWTG2U&hl=zh-TW&sa=X&ei=bAyOT8-VDei1iQfc3aDsDA&ved=0CD8Q6AEwAzgK#v=onepage&q=aesthetics%20of%20fun&f=false AND game theory of fun: http://www.slideshare.net/bigyak/game-design-2-theory-of-fun

    One of my goal to set this assignment, (well basically is to generate your own thinking and critique, pt of view) but a training approach to open different doors for exploration. :)

  2. one more thing... normally when i read an article I will also google a bit on the person's bg and tried to understand his stand point from different perspective. Though any famous scholar might write weak statement, but tried to dig deeply based on the rationale, background and more of his reference reading might give you a better clue. (check out more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Shneiderman)

  3. Yeah I did a bit of research to try and figure out what his background was, and to find out what sorts of sources he was studying. One of my problems is that when I read an article I can't help but critique the writing style, the logical argument, /and/ the content.

    I felt the writing style worked when you broke his paper down sentence by sentence, but ultimately failed when he tried to string together a /point/. The paper didn't lead anywhere. It was all over the place. It was more just like listening to an informed person ramble about their favorite topic for an hour than it was about having any new insights unveiled.

    His rambling was one foul point- and it wasn't that bad because he had lots of interesting things to say. His other foul point was of course the whole 'fun' thing.

    It was just the logical fallacies in his reasoning. For example, of course attractive graphics and smoother UI can result in users having a funner experience! But he then makes a logical Non sequitur by jumping from one definition of 'fun' to another. Because he's successfully able to quote authors and successfully say that 'fun-in-doing' is a good thing, he tries to use that as a logical basis for why he ought to make 'fun (as an aesthetic)' cutesy rainbows and sparkles in his interface (Because 'fun' is a good thing)... But he's using two different definitions of the word!

    I guess I feel that the author's tone of writing made it very difficult for me to take him seriously. There's also the problem that the paper was slightly dated, and the things he cared about and worried about have largely been solved, or at least disciplines (like HCI) have arisen to address them. As a whole I just didn't feel like he had anything to say that I hadn't heard before, no new avenues for exploration.

  4. Oh, I found an article that sort of relates to this paper. It talks about designing interfaces for fun, but I felt it was just much better, even in how he chose to 'define' fun as an open-ended concept that had to be re-defined for each project and each set of users:


    He's even designing for kids products!

  5. haha see, new exploration is always around :)

  6. Oops I think that article was written by a 'she' not a 'he'. My bad. Yay for women!