Friday, February 25, 2005

Doing the Leonardo

A week or so ago, I offered a pair of posts (one and two) about an article by Milton Glaser that explored Leonardo da Vinci's use of ambiguity in his The Last Supper. Glaser explains that "DaVinci clearly believed that ambiguity was a way of arriving at the truth. As a result, the painting moves us in a deeper and more profound way than any direct statement."

It led me to this thought: As interaction and visual designers, as information architects and engineers, can we "do a Leonardo?"
That is, can we use the brain's fascination with ambiguity to improve our users' experience, better facilitate their accomplishment of goals and (at the same time) interest them a bit in other services we offer?
I was thinking about this on my bike ride today and the word "misdirect" popped into mind—the genesis of this post.

The premier venue for all things magical in Los Angeles (and perhaps the world) is the famed Magic Castle. My hands-down favorite theater there is "The Close-Up Gallery." There, you sit practically on the magician's lap while he or she performs the impossible before your wondering eyes.

Now, I know the magician isn't really doing something "impossible." But he or she is employing some powerful techniques that lead us to perceive that the impossible and wondrous is being done. Misdirection is perhaps the most important. Legendary magician Jean Hugard wrote, "The principle of misdirection plays such an important role in magic that one might say that Magic is misdirection and misdirection is Magic" (found here). And what's really interesting to me is that we love being misdirected. It's essential to the entire experience.

What if we are unintentionally removing some of the magic of the Web by our efforts to make everything easy to find and use? What if Leonardo is right—that ambiguity is necessary to fully engage us in an experience? Peter Morville writes, "Ambient findability describes a world in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime." That doesn't sound very magical to me. Are we on an inexorable march to make everything on the Web plodding and pedantic?

Maybe it's time to start thinking about misdirecting our end-users once in awhile—when it's appropriate, when it will add to their experiences, even enhance their purposes for visiting a site.

Let's take an example. I'm taking a business trip next week and need to book a hotel. I could approach it in one of two ways:
  1. I could immediately go to the Web site of a hotel chain I trust, find a property in the desired area and make my reservation. Nothing wrong with that. Fast, easy, direct, findable. And workaday. No magic at all.

  2. Or I could go to Yahoo! Maps, call up a map of the area, display the hotels, explore the options and make my choice. Note that I still found what I'm looking for—but I have permitted the possibility of misdirection and serendipity into the finding experience. And I enjoy it more, too.
Admittedly, this is oversimplified. Some might say I'm just describing the difference between searching (case 1) and browsing (case 2). But if people wanted a Web that is wholly "findable," why hasn't search taken over cyberspace? My answer: It lacks magic.

I'm not saying we should mislead our users. No sirree. But I am saying that there are definite opportunities to build in some misdirection (or other perceptual techniques) that engage our users more fully than a cut-and-dried taxonomy, IA or modified-L navigation scheme. And engagement is the Magna Carta of UXCentricity.

Using misdirection and other techniques to improve UX is going to be a challenge. Heck, thus far we're having difficulty simply making things findable! But if we're serious about UXCentricity, we're going to have to take some unorthodox paths—into brain science, archetypes, myth, narrative psychology, detective fiction and even magic. Anyone ready for the journey?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a frequent lament I have about public libraries today. When I was younger, there were card catalogs, and while they might be cumbersome, slow ways to find what you were seeking, they were excellent ways to find what you were not seeking but might nonetheless find interesting. In other words, the primary goal, finding a specific book, may have been less well served, but the secondary goal, serendipitous discovery of other interesting books, was better served.

In website usability, do we want people to find the product or service or information they want quickly and efficiently, or to take the risk of their leaving and gain the benefit of discovering other hidden gems on our site. Unfortunately for me as a product vendor, a website is not like a grocery store where I can make people wade through aisles of "other stuff" before finding their milk and eggs, but there is still some room for misdirection and discovery.

6:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

n website usability, do we want people to find the product or service or information they want quickly and efficiently, or to take the risk of their leaving and gain the benefit of discovering other hidden gems on our site.I like an approach taken by Amazon. You find what you are looking for and then you have all those "Customers who bought ... also bought ..." and "Look for similar ...". Neat.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Dave Rogers said...


Yep, Amazon does it well. I find that the "Customers who bought also bought..." recommendation is much more intriguing and useful than the generic "You might also like" we see on so many other sites. The difference? Amazon's "Customers who bought..." recommendations come from users (with all of their unpredictability and humanity), not from an algorithm or metadatic formula. Hence their magic and effectiveness.

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might try surfing some *hot* sites and how they pursue people to bring to other stuff. Although, it could be a mean trap.
But the methodology looks similar.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Paula Thornton said...

So...effectively, it's both. :)

9:56 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think the important thing to note about your two examples on hotel/motel reservation (browsing specific chain vs. browsing all hotels/motels in an area) is that the user gets to make the choice, i.e., if I want to stay at a Sheraton, or Best Wester, or any other chain of my choice I can go to their site and get just those choices, and if I want a broader spectrum, I can go to the area and see what's in the vicinity. It isn't some website designer deciding which I should get.
I get to decide, as the user, how much magic I want. Perhaps a great example of this is Google Search's "I'm Feeling Lucky" button.
It is not the job of the programmer to decide how much magic to include, it is the job of the programmer to provide the USER with the opportunity to decide how much magic s/he wants in the experience. An easy-to-use interface is not boring, it is transparent. There's a big difference.

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Marcia said...

Im only 10 years late to post a comment to this blog, but then again maybe im actually on time.

Could it be possible that its not so much the web that has lost the magic but that we, the users are not connecting to our magic and he magic that surrounds us?

Could it be that in user experience design it comes back to the magic that the designer is connected to within themselves. So when they design, they are connected to the user and can feel what is needed to inspire and engage.

Could it be that simple?

7:35 PM  

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