Building Discovery in Web Design
Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series
Discovery is an integral part of learning. Without discovery, Franklin would have never found electricity, we probably would have never gone to the moon and my son would have never known that we store Cheetos in the bottom cabinets in our kitchen. When we design web sites, are we taking into account the user’s experience of discovery and learning? According to a recent article You Can Get There From Here: Websites for Learners by Amber Simmons, most sites today do not. Simmons talks about the lack of discoverability in many content-rich web sites. Since we all learn in different ways, "learners want to follow their curiosity rather than a prescribed path. Building discoverability in our website helps them do just that."
[caption id="attachment_1948" align="aligncenter" width="580" caption="Ben Franklin Discovering Electricity by Flying a Kite during a Storm"][/caption]
How do we foster discoverability when designing a site? Here are some factors we can take into consideration:
Incentive: Incentive plays an important role in motivating us. Without an incentive, the time and effort to perform a task would be daunting. But what happens once the user achieves the end goal? Like a game of checkers, once you win you are done. But if we look at console games, 're-playability' is an important part in the design: additional achievements, multiple modes of play: single, multiplayer with head-to-head or co-op, and downloadable content extends the overall shelf life of the game. This in turn, drives players to explore all of these facets of the game. As we design sites, we need to take into account not only the overarching incentive for reaching a particular goal but how to extend the incentive for users through additional achievements and rewards. Of course, there are examples of this already: Yelp created the Yelp Elite Squad to recognize those individuals who go beyond the ‘status-quo’ goals of the site: creating in-depth reviews (with lots of pictures), profiles with personality and a personal flair that makes them stand out from other reviewers. Their reward is a higher level of 'status' that promotes their achievements within the site along with exclusive access to Yelp Elite parties. Another subtle example of this is the progress bar on LinkedIn – as you add additional information and receive recommendations, your overall progress increases establishing a larger connection base within the LinkedIn community. Providing this incentive drives users to discover more of the site's content and functionality to achieve this goal.
Emotion: The value of emotion should always be an important factor in designing any site. If we look at the console game example again, a great console game will allow users to feel a variety of different emotions throughout their experience: happiness, frustration, defeat, anger and confidence. It is these emotions that can drive someone to explore every possible avenue in the hopes of reaching their own personal satisfaction with that game. But there’s a fine line here – one that Jesper Jull talks about in Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games. Utilizing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow, the optimal channel that runs between the two emotional states of boredom and anxiety, Jull’s research stresses the importance of how the challenge should be balanced with these emotional states. Even though players do not want to fail, failing drives the user to re-play a sequence of the game in order to succeed, exploring more options and avenues to achieve success. By doing this, the end result of winning provides gratification. But if the player never fails, there is a sense of dissatisfaction and boredom associated with game play.
[caption id="attachment_1950" align="aligncenter" width="450" caption="Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Concept of Flow in Gaming"][/caption]
When we design any site, we should incorporate incentive and emotion as exponential values not only during the first visit but as the user explores the site over time. First-time users who come to any site are beginners; they have no pre-defined knowledge or experience with the site. Therefore, the site should provide them with clear objectives, wayfinding cues (clear navigation, entrance/exit paths through given tasks, breadcrumbs, etc.) and feedback mechanisms when they make a mistake or get lost. This approach enables them to discover what the site has to offer while providing them with a safe environment to explore in as outlined in Trevor Von Gorp’s article Design for Emotion and Flow. As the user repeatedly returns, they become experienced visitors and their goals begin to change: they will move away from discoverability and focus on completion of a task. For these repeat users, the site should adapt to provide relevant functionality and content to complete their tasks as well as promote additional functionality and content to continue exploration.
Control: In the majority of web experiences, users feel empowered when they are in control of their experience. This is also true during the discovery process -- being able to forge personal paths and explore at their own pace provides the individuals with a rewarding learning experience. But with many current web site designs, control is passive; users are provided with related content through pre-described links. Discovering new content is not an active experience where the user can shape the experience. So the question becomes how? How do we provide users with the ability to learn as well as meet the individual needs of control and discovery? One emerging topic that Simmons mentions is Knowledge Cartography – providing users with interactive mapping functionality to give a visual narration of space. This allows the user to explore the different facets of the content: meaning (semantics), relation, geographic and time (temporal). Marco Quaqqiotto states the importance of this approach, "users are not limited to the interaction with the visualization, but they also can influence the visualization process." The example below is an interface prototype of ATLAS, an online research tool that allows users to create this interactive map:
[caption id="attachment_1951" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Example of Knowledge Cartography in ATLAS"][/caption]
When incentive, emotion and control are all put into place, the user is provided with necessary functionality, motivation and reward of discovery. A great example of this is Musicovery: a website that allows you to explore music based on your mood. The site provides the user with the desired balance of visual control and incentive to explore. The results are tailored based on your mood. As the end user repeatedly utilizes the site, it begins to offer incentives to register for the site to explore additional music to listen and purchase. Advanced users who rely on the site to serve music can download a plug-in for iTunes, mobile devices and game consoles to provide ubiquitous functionality.
[caption id="attachment_1952" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Musicovery Example"][/caption]
As we continue to design content rich websites, we need to factor in the importance of discoverability that provide the user with incentive, emotional outlets and control to deliver rich and rewarding online experiences.