Make It Fun: Chaos in Product Design

What do brutalism, wabi sabi and virtual reality have in common?

If I was given a quarter dollar every time a designer was asked to make a product fun or funny, I would already have a fortune. Fun is one word like good, love and art: it is so simple and comprehensive that it defies definition. So what do we mean when we strive to make a product more “fun”?

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Most interfaces are constrained by rigid systems that flawlessly align elements to the grid, creating a sense of rhythm and cohesion. However, in interface design, “fun” often arises from a lack of order. For example, iMessage allows users to leave stickers anywhere in the chat, or an old buddy MySpace allows users to edit the CSS on their pages. These grocery decisions are considered funny because they are chaotic. They appeal to the childish hope that the world is not really a collection of interconnected systems and rules, but a vast landscape of undiscovered possibilities that can be explored for a seemingly endless amount of time.

The trade-off is that fun is ineffective. In fact, fun is the opposite of efficiency. Fun is what happens when you lose sight of your destination. If we think of digital products as tools that need to be optimized for the fastest and most intuitive way to complete a task, then we are talking about sacrificing pleasure and weirdness in favor of efficiency and productivity.

This is the Fun Designer paradox. The more efficient and scalable the product is, the more predictable, boring – and often successful – he becomes. How do you balance fun and efficiency?

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Perhaps a good analogue of fun in product design is wabi-sabi (Wabi-sabi). If you’ve never heard of it before, it’s a Japanese worldview that stands in stark contrast to the overly-polished modern aesthetic that most designers love today. It is based on the recognition of transience and imperfection.

The characteristics of the aesthetics and principles of wabi sabi include asymmetry, rudeness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, closeness, and recognition of the forces of nature

In the context of interface design, “force of nature” is the person in control of the interface. If the pixels are the people inhabiting the Earth, the user’s thumb is the almighty weather. “Recognizing the forces of nature” in an interface means getting rid of the rigidity of the systems that control its pixels. This can make the dry experience feel unpredictable and fun.

Brutalism Is another contender for adding fun to product design. Like wabi sabi, brutalism does not apologize for its shortcomings, but revels in the chaos it creates. While the original goal of brutalism was to prioritize function over form, it contrasts so much with today’s approach to interface design that it has almost the opposite effect.

Some designers interpret brutalism as a rebellion against overly simplistic design by deliberately creating ugly, disorienting, or complex interfaces.

In brutalist design, form plays a leading role, but does so without any attempt at improvement. On the contrary, it is so raw and accessible that it invites anyone to experiment with it. This quality of collaboration in design brings an element of exploration, surprise and … fun!

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Products that empower users to create chaos are fun. This also applies to virtual reality. During my time at Facebook VR, we spent countless hours designing carefully organized systems for interacting with virtual objects, and then regularly invited people to test the results. What did people first do when interacting with a virtual object in VR? They grabbed him, threw him and laughed. If it broke, they did it again, but perhaps with more enthusiasm. They were creating chaos, probably as a protest against order in the real world, while their skeptical frowns lit up with a happy grin.

Fun is best achieved through interaction. What better way to appreciate the forces of nature and resist convention than to give control of your interface to a whim of the user?

If the serious product is the hammer, then the fun product is Play-Doh. Give users the ability to express themselves by manipulating everything around them – that’s real fun.

A fun product is a product in which the user does not need to ask permission to interact with it. This means that there are no explicit state changes to “enter edit mode”. The product reacts to the user’s touch and adapts its interface accordingly.

Want to put a sticker in the middle of a message? No problem! Want to use a shiny background to decorate your home page? Take action! Not sure how to achieve something in your application? Search around and see what happens until you find what you are looking for!

So how do we create fun products? The trick is to design systems that account for chaos: introduce users to unrelated interactions and then bring them back into a systematic order. If your goal is to make your product interesting, how will you account for chaos?

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