Don't Explain: Web Design that Puts Engagement First

Editor’s note: Christopher Schmitt, event manager for the second annual In Control Web Design Conference, shares insights from the two-day event held last month.

What do an online game start-up and an email marketing service have in common? Representatives from both did speak at the In Control Web Design Conference, but their similarities stretch beyond their mutual attendance and into a shared goal: to create more playful online experiences.

As Daniel Burka, design director of Tiny Speck and former design director of Digg, highlighted in his keynote address, advancements in web browsers have made fun more possible than ever. Gone are the days of limited table-based sites, and now designers can use almost any font, color, or device they want. With this increased flexibility, designers should focus less on explanation and more on engagement, he said. To do this, Burka urges them to “play right away.”

For example, at Tiny Speck, started by Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, they are working on the multiplayer game Glitch, which allows users to start crafting characters, with names and even “implausibly large moustaches,” before prompting them to register.

The key is to throw users into the heart of your site. Don’t rush them to provide email addresses or complete forms. First allow them to experience the value of your website or application. Then ask for more information. A richer initial experience makes users more inclined to comply.

Aarron Walter, lead user experience designer at MailChimp, stressed the importance of incorporating play not only from the start but also for the duration of an interactive experience. Websites and applications should go beyond functional; they must delight and inform.

For instance, to help users through the mundane task of wrestling mailing lists, MailChimp employs a mischievous mascot that is, you guessed it, a chimp. Known as Freddie, the mascot hangs out in the upper right hand corner of the site, spouting funny one-liners—“Slap me some skin, Amanda! (oh, I don’t have hands)”—or links to monkey-related YouTube videos that update each time a new page loads. This simple random-text-link generator combo gives the web application a bit of flair that makes MailChimp, Freddie in particular, stand out.

A website or app with a pulse—even if just a cartoon chimp’s pulse—is a way to foster more meaningful relationships with your users. And, most important, encourages people to keep on “playing.”

What are some more examples of websites that are switching the focus from explaining to engaging? Do you agree that websites should be more playful?

About the Author: Christopher Schmitt is the founder of Heat Vision and author of numerous web design and digital imaging books, including Adapting to Web Standards: CSS and Ajax for Big Sites and CSS Cookbook. He is also co-lead of the Adobe Task Force for the Web Standards Project (WaSP), as well as co-lead of its Education Task Force.