November 27, 2023

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Chris Higgins

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The Wizard of UX

Exploring the role of wonder, play and innovation in creating memorable online experiences. Uncovering the tricks behind not only getting users to their desired destinations but also how we make the steps in getting there pleasurable. What role does wonder play in these interactions and, when we know the end goal, how can we reverse-engineer wonder into the process to ignite curiosity and captivate users?

There’s a famous scene in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz where, in one smooth transition, Dorothy exits the sepia world of Aunt Em’s farmhouse and enters the technicolour vista of Munchkinland. The look of amazement on Dorothy’s face would have been reflected back in the faces of cinema-goers as they experienced this moment of wonder with her for the first time. In a pre-digital age you’d be left wondering how this trick was pulled off; Where did the colour come from? Was the whole scene first filmed in black-and-white and then the later-half painstakingly hand-painted? Was it, in fact, two scenes shot on two reels of film seamlessly edited together? Lighting tricks perhaps? Smoke and mirrors?

In the spirit of wonder, I’ll leave you guessing. For now.

The point is, creating a moment of wonder is as much a technical feat as it is a creative one. If the film had started in technicolour, in Munchkinland, there would have been no moment of wonder. The directors knew this was a pivotal scene, a young girl immersed in the marvel of a world unlike her own, and were set with the task of reverse-engineering the wonder.

Creating a moment of wonder is as much a technical feat as it is a creative one.

We do this all the time when building-out digital products. The challenge being, not only how do we get users to a desired destination or to perform a key action, but how do we make the steps in getting there pleasurable.

The part technical innovation plays in this shouldn’t be understated. The reality is, most websites are boring, comprising stock themes, static content and linear user journeys.They’re devoid of wonder.

Technical innovation ignites wonder and triggers our natural sense of play and curiosity. Websites featuring playful UI’s, video content, microinteractions, animation, personalisation and gamification consistently outperform their black-and-white counterparts.

It has long been recognised that video is a powerful tool in stirring up interest and engagement in a brand. Most surveys undertaken by marketeers attribute improved site usage, brand awareness, customer retention and sales to the strategic use of video*.

The same is true for interactive and user generated content. In a recent project we undertook for Verve, in collaboration with Getty Images, we created a web app [find out more here] whereby users can generate their own unique artwork to share and save on social media. This tool tapped into our natural instincts of curiosity and play to deliver core brand messaging that would, on more conventional websites, have been both harder to articulate and more readily forgotten.

We’re essentially hacking wonder to keep users engaged, form deeper connections and make this particular online experience, above all others, memorable.

Of course the counterargument is that boring websites are perfectly functional and there are instances, like making an online purchase, where boring is best. An ‘over-sprinkling’ of wonder will leave users disorientated or overwhelmed. Ultimately, the unfamiliar land of Oz proved too unsettling for Dorothy who, like an e-commerce user being aggressively funnelled down an endless yellow brick road of post-transaction upsells, concluded, “there’s no place like home”. We need to know when to use the tried-and-tested techniques and when to amp-up the wonder.

Which leads me to how Dorothy transitioned from black-and-white to technicolour. It’s a classic example of old stage tricks and modern technology working together to wonderful effect. The whole scene was filmed in colour but we have two Dorothys. Our first Dorothy, and her whole house, was physically painted and dressed in sepia tones but was filmed in colour. When the door opens there’s a little misdirection and the full-colour Dorothy steps in to frame and enters the technicolour world. Simple, when you know.

Understanding the mechanics behind wonder and the tools, old and new, at our disposal opens up a whole world of innovation in web UI and UX. As web designers and developers our sense of wonder and play is contagious and will be reflected back at us in the successes of the products we build.


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Chris Higgins, Head of Technology and UX at Wonderful Creative Agency