Designed to Linger

As user experience designers we are often trying to facilitate the user to reach their goal most efficiently. We want the fewest clicks, the fastest path, or the most targeted dive into a taxonomy to maximize performance and reduce the time taken to perform whatever task our user is attempting. It can be extremely challenging to take complex business logic, broad ranges of personas, needs and behaviors and create experiences that facilitate each user’s path to exactly where they want to be. This is our nerd-skill, what we’re good at.  It’s what we do.

Very infrequently are we asked to create an interface which would encourage lingering. Has anyone ever asked you to make a website a user would just want to be in? Probably not. Perhaps correctly we assume a website is a means to an end. A user comes to a site with something in mind and our job is to know what that something is and get them there. There are however some exceptions.

Newspaper and magazine sites attempt to give you a great reading experience.  The desire is that the user will curl up with the website the same way they curl up with the print version. Yet the experience falls short. Certainly a site is not printed matter and can never replicate the tactility, the feel, the wrinkle, the sound the smell of a printed magazine or newspaper.  What can the electronic medium lend to encourage lingering?

Sites like Facebook and Buzzfeed may have the best handle on the linger experience to date. We must however, pause here to give credit where it is due.  Facebook (and Buzzfeed to a lesser extent) are driven by content. Oodles of content. In fact it may be safe to say that the greatest appeal of Facebook is the essentially endless amount of content on the system, all touched, promoted, commented on or created by people you (more or less) know. This must not be downplayed when considering the site’s linger-appeal. However, there are some UX strategies in place that assist the experience, complimenting the content.

The first principle is “get out of the way”.  The business end of these interface – the settings, the groups, the events – are all pushed to the edges in the smallest font size still deemed reasonable. This channels to the user to the stream.  Aptly named, the stream flows straight down the center of the screen.

The second principle, we may call “get in the way”. The stream itself forms the meat of the experience, and is geared in two directions: deliver and engage. Delivery consists of a consistent and limited formatting, big pictures, and readable headlines. Slight formatting differences make it immediately clear whether one is reading a user’s comment or the content of a posted article (and sometimes blurring that line for $ purposes). Pictures and videos are the biggest draw, and you are not likely to see many posts without an accompanying image or video. This is not necessarily because of the way user’s posts, but rather the choice of which posts will feature in a stream. A discreet News Feed toggle in the business column top-left will allow you to actually see the most recent posts rather than “Top Stories”.  Looking at the most recent posts will show you that not everything is a Top Story.  In fact, most stories without an image are not Top. Delivery also means auto-playing videos. This is perhaps one of the bravest innovations at Facebook. They dampen the potential hazards by keeping the volume off.

Engaging is key to social media sites keeping their content tuned. The machine can only learn what we like and what we don’t like by asking us to engage or not. Each post on Facebook, and even each image on Buzzfeed is ‘hot’.  Like, share, comment, a gaping text field next to your picture doesn’t invite engagement so much as make it unavoidable. Stare at the site long enough and you will do something if only because you can do so at such little cost. You dont need to move your mouse far to hit Like.

Hours can be lost on these sites. But they are not hours we feel good about. They are dirty hours, filled with gossip and voyeurism. Lingering on Facebook is like lingering in Times Square behind a 2-way mirror. No one can see you and can only hear you if you talk. Meanwhile people pass by you, and you can listen to their conversations.  What’s more, you know who all these people are.

The feeling one gets from lingering over a copy of the New Yorker or the Economist is far richer. One comes away feeling enriched and stimulated while simultaneously relaxed. While the content is the same on these magazine’s website, the feeling is not.  It may be that we simply cannot linger there long enough to reap the rewards of this in-depth content. It may be that the electronic medium is not ready for deep reading. Will it ever be?

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