How to make boring apps not boring

A look at how we add moments of delight within product design.

Feb 16, 2023

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6

min read

With the digital universe expanding faster than we can comprehend, there is literally an app for absolutely everything. Many apps and software products, particularly in the corporate world, have been created to perform standardised tasks and functions; task management, note taking and time tracking.

As product designers we strive to deliver great user experiences and to create moments of delight within these journeys.

What do we mean by “delight?”

To go beyond functional needs and meet or even exceed a user’s emotional needs — making this connection through any of the senses; audio, touch, visual, smell, taste. If we can access these senses then we are given the opportunity reach out beyond the digital screen and make a lasting impression.

Let’s gamify it

When designing digital products we often hear people saying things like “Let’s gamify it” — but it’s important to clarify what we should be doing in this situation. Game design is not gamification. hey

It is not simply taking your product and adding points, levels, trophies, and badges. Gamification was a big deal 10 years ago, but it didn’t work. And to understand why, we have to understand human motivation.

In the 1970s, Stanford researchers recruited 50 kids, ages 3 to 4. All of these children were previously interested in drawing. Some of the kids were told they would get a reward, a certificate with a gold seal and a ribbon. The other kids weren't told about a reward. They didn't even know one existed. The children were then invited into separate rooms to draw for 6 minutes, and they would either get a reward or not.

Over the next few days, they were observed to see how much they would continue to draw by themselves. The children who didn't get a reward spent 17% of their time drawing. But the children who did get a reward only spent 8% of their time drawing. The reward had halved their motivation.

Why?

So, what’s going on here? Well, researchers distinguished intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

  • With intrinsic motivation, we do things because we find them inherently satisfying and interesting.
  • With extrinsic motivation, we do things to achieve rewards.

And that's the problem with rewards – they massively undermine intrinsic motivation.

This is also why gamification does not work. When gamification appears to work, it is because the underlying experience is already a game.

Design for feel

Jason Yuan, who has worked as a designer for Sony Music and Apple, champions the idea of “fidgetability” where, similar to a key fob or lighter, digital actions can be designed to feel satisfying. If we can apply this to digital product design, then users will enjoy the experience of using the product before they even really know what the result is.

We often introduce delight at key moments of the user flow; colourful illustrations in our onboarding, confetti for a major milestone reached. In reality, it’s the mundane, everyday interactions that need our attention most.

Like in a form field or a checkbox…

It doesn’t get more mundane than the humble checkbox. Click. Done. Yawn. Bye.

Game feel

Interestingly we can borrow ideas from another field we’re familiar with, but probably don’t look to for design inspiration — Video games.

Take our beloved Super Mario. The button you press to make the character jump is often a simple binary input (pressed or not), and yet the output combines a very finely-tuned choreography of interactions, animations, sounds, particles, and camera shake to create a rich composition of sensations. The same jump button can feel like a dainty hop or a powerful leap.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at how we might layer up the experience of selecting a checkbox.

For this article, I was totally inspired by the amazing work of the (Not Boring) Software Inc who have taken a handful of pretty standard apps and made them, well, not boring. Definitely worth a download if you’d like a habit tracker that’s fun, or you want to enjoy the feel of using a calculator.

Let’s start with the basics.

Tap, check..

Make it look nice.

  • Tap, check.
  • Looks nice 🙂

Make it tappable.

  • Big tappy button 👍
  • Haptic feedback (mini phone vibration)

(haptic feedback can't be experienced via the video below)

Add some “Juice”.

  • Tappy, Haptic
  • Neat animation

And go all out.

  • Big ass round button
  • Hold down
  • Zoomy animation building to a crescendo…
  • …until pop! - haptic feedback plus checkmark animation with some confettiness

Over the top perhaps, but the last example is modelled on the (Not boring) habit tracker. An app where the experience is centred around checking off tasks, so it makes sense to fill it with juice.

When designing for a great User Experience we often talk about minimalism and say things like “a great design, is one you don’t notice” - but that’s not the case with game design. We’re designing products on “touch” devices, but we never actually touch the product, it’s locked up behind the glass screen. Through modern hardware features such as haptic feedback, animation, sound or perhaps screen shake we can start to break that barrier and let the user feel the experience.

As a designer, it’s up to you to apply the right amount of game feel to your product, and build up to key moments of delight, but don’t overlook the small stuff, the stuff you normally cba to do or don’t even see; form fields, scrolls, clicks, hovers, mouse cursors. Engage the senses and make your product an enjoyable place to be.

About
the author

Matt Boyle

Sr. Product Designer

Matt is a Product Designer with an eclectic skillset centred around creative problem solving. His design thinking is driven by empathy and clarity to design stand out digital experiences. With a background working as part of in-house digital teams and for agencies; he’s helped startups, brands and corporations to launch and transform their digital presence.