Engage, surprise and delight the UX way

David MacGregor took a front row seat at the Ministry of Science and Innovation’s conference UX11.

David MacGregor took a front row seat at the Ministry of Science and Innovation’s recent conference, UX11.

Alex McDowell takes the stage in a decidedly unassuming fashion. He’s dressed like a comfortable suburban father of two, maybe three, and speaks softly, with a vaguely trans- Atlantic accent. At first glance you wouldn’t imagine for a moment that he creates worlds and on the seventh day mows the lawn.

McDowell is a production designer whose credits include imagining the futuristic realm of Minority Report for Steven Spielberg, the tense, vaguely sweaty stage of Fight Club and the re-imagining of the Roald Dahl classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for director Tim Burton.

The UX11 audience is an invitation-only cadre of Kiwi motion picture and gaming gurus. The room could’ve held three times as many people and the speakers list would have attracted that many and many more.

Later in the day Zynga (creators of the Facebook phenomenon Farmville) luminary Tim Train and Hollywood insider and wild- man Jeff Okun would share their perspectives on creating unforgettable experiences.

Alex McDowell describes his work as ‘immersive design’Alex McDowell describes his work as ‘immersive design’

User experience (UX) seems a curiously broad topic for the MSI to showcase. It’s subjective and therefore variable. One person’s pleasure – say two hours of Inglourious Basterds – is another’s equivalent of being scalped. But UX is a significant concept and one the Ministry may have stumbled on serendipitously. Their focus was the game and movie industries, but UX extends further. Both industries are significant opportunities for us to develop a robust creative sector due to their capacity to be distributed digitally and earn ongoing revenues and behave as royalties- sustainable businesses.

Engaging, surprising and delighting people are the essential ingredients for success in a world where every product can perform easily to a baseline standard of efficacy. Aspiring to anything less will lead to mundane me-too results, and in turn, indifference and failure.

McDowell’s work is “immersive design”. He was asked to design the setting for the story and action before there was a story, let alone any action. Spielberg approached him with the idea of Minority Report – an orderly crime-free world, utopian on the surface, dystopian to the core, where crimes are predicted before they happen and a Precrime unit intervenes.

McDowell developed an entire vision of a city in 2054, the physical structure (vertical living) and its infrastructure, including how people would move about. He created a ‘narrative machine’ – more than a stage – a place to immerse the characters and inform the story’s development. In the process he collaborated with MIT scientists and researchers.

He conceived ideas that have become part of the science fiction vernacular so strongly that science fiction has become science fact. The gimbaled vehicles of the film – capable of moving on a conventional plane as well as travelling vertically, providing the breathtaking stage for Tom Cruise’s escape scene – may be some time off, but the interactive holographic GAP ads in the shopping mall scenes pre-empted augmented reality on smartphones.

The idea of gestural manipulation of data on a screen was fanciful in 2002, when the film was released. Today the idea is commonplace. If you use an iPhone or iPad, you’ll understand. Microsoft has gone out of its way to loosen its control over the XBox 360 Kinect controller to allow hackers around the world to innovate gestural solutions.

McDowell introduced themes that pervaded the forum: the significance of collaboration and the real need for interdisciplinary exchange.

Silos don’t work.

He also made a telling remark: “I don’t understand enough about technology to know its limitations.” Think carefully about that statement. It’s important. Sometimes people outside our realms will come to us with interesting hypotheses. Test them.

Tim Train is a senior executive with Zynga, the company that has pioneered gaming via social media – mainly leveraging the behemoth reach of Facebook. Its products include Farmville and Zynga Poker; profits are vast and there’s an IPO in the offing. Its pre-IPO valuation is in the vicinity of US$16 billion.

When Train spoke at UX11 he knew the initial float was pending and he was on a tight leash that prevented him from uttering anything that might undermine the process. His comments and insights were instructional though with regard to the principles behind making money from UX – the stuff of life.

Zynga is a game business but nil distribution costs, and by-passing discs and retailers, are game-changing differences from the models of competitors such as EA and Sony. Engaging their users online and in real time also means the process of making money from its customers is made so much smoother simply by being closer. If something isn’t working, it can be changed. Train schooled the assembly on the notion that elaborate execution doesn’t mean squat (if I might lapse into farmspeak) if it doesn’t turn a buck.

Gamification is becoming a cliché but it’s a vital concept in marketing today (even if there’s no marketing tomorrow, replaced by UX). How do we bring people to products and services, then have them return time and again, pay for the experience and recruit their friends?

Although Zynga is, possibly, at the opposite end of the spectrum in aesthetics from McDowell, its obsession with how people use its games and engage with one another socially is instructive. The company responds to feedback with developments that emphasise what works and limits what doesn’t, based on usage information. Live, real-time gaming isn’t passive. People want to play and be part of a feedback loop they are willing to pay for.

The Zynga message was reinforced by Kiwi game leaderboard champs Sidhe. Co-founder Mario Wynands believes metrics will change the culture: “We’re not a production line. We are a service provider. That’s a culture shift.”

Marketers – are you listening?

User experience (UX) is a central thought for marketing today. Products are just stuff. There is no shortage of replacements for yours.

The MSI may well have been vague in its understanding of the issue, but its contribution is important. UX is the differentiating factor for brands. It doesn’t matter how many kilowatts of power your car produces at 3,450 rpm. It does matter if I can wirelessly connect with the Aston Martin Rapide community from my dashboard.

Solving tomorrow’s problems takes imagination. In exercising his considerable creative talent to realise Spielberg’s concept, McDowell created by-products, such as gestural computer interfaces and augmented reality.

It’s easy to source ready-made or re-skinned products from China or India, but the lesson is, imagining what the future might be like can be immensely rewarding but you have to know how you’ll make a profit every day. You’re not a production line. You’re a service provider.

The MSI is new and it’s a step in the right direction. Hopefully they’ll engage with more that an “elite” few in the future. Here’s to UX12.

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