absolutely crackers
designing an experience

Alan Dix
Lancaster University, vfridge and aQtive

Full reference:
A. Dix (2001). absolutely crackers.
Computers and Fun 4. York, UK, 29th November 2001.

keywords: designing experience, virtual crackers, Christmas crackers, marketing and interface design

I have three 'use' words that I frequently use in HCI teaching. The artefacts we design must be:

users get what they need - functionality
users can do these things easily and effectively
users actually do start and continue to use it

Technical design has tended to be primarily focused on the first of these and HCI on the second. However, the third is also crucially important. No matter useful or usable it is, if a system is not used then it is useless.

Internet applications are increasingly elective - users constantly decide whether to continue using them and have relatively low barriers to change. So the interaction between usability and actually use is more closely inter-twined than with more traditional software. Many of these applications are also more about entertainment, community and day-to-day life than 'work'.

We can look at these issues from two angles.

First, we find ourselves designing for experience in order to capture and hold users' attention and use. As a case study consider virtual crackers, a form of 'augmented' electronic greeting card. These have been remarkably successful over two Christmas periods. In order to understand this success we can deconstruct the experience of a real cracker and see how the virtual crackers do not replicate the real cracker, but do capture the crucial aspects of the 'cracker experience'. For example, it is crucially important that virtual crackers do not give an optimal path to the users' goal, but instead a more tortuous navigation route thus adding to a sense of suspense.

Second is the fact that experience is as much about perception as function. This means that we cannot see marketing as something outside the remit of the user interface. In 'work' domains it is a truism of HCI that documentation and user support is part of the delivered product, not just an addendum. In the areas of pleasure and personal choice, we find this is also true of packaging and presentation.

In the case of crackers, both real and virtual, the inner functionality is not significant (a plastic toy), neither is the optimality of the interface (a flap would allow the extraction of the toy without damaging the cracker), nor even the actual physical packaging (crepe paper and cardboard), but within a particular social context the experience of using the cracker is deeply engaging. In the case of paper crackers this may be the result of accident and evolution. In the case of virtual crackers it is by design.

how crackers work


the crackers experience

real cracker virtual cracker
offered to another
sent by email, message
pulled together
sender can't see content
until opened by recipient
cheap and cheerful
simple page/graphics
contents inside
first page - no contents
cultural connotations
recruited expectation
pulling cracker
slow ... page change
bang (when it works)
WAV file (when it works)
plastic toy and joke
web toy and joke
dressing up
paper hat
mask to cut out


more ...

I've discussed in several places the radical transformation of products, economics, and society engendered by an information rich and interconnected world, including:

  • In a Strange Land: modelling and understanding cyberspace. Symposium on "Human-Computer Interaction in the 21st Century". OCG, Graz, Austria, 13th January 2001
  • Cyber-economies and the Real World. SAICSIT'2001 - South African Institute of Computer Scientists and Information Technologists Annual Conference. Pretoria, 25-28 September 2001. Unisa Press, Pretoria. pp. xi-xiii

Economists are still struggling with the different nature of information goods which means they do not satisfy traditional economic theory (for example, they can be used and not consumed) One of the most important issues are so-called 'network effects' a product is more valuable to me because you have it too. This has been used as part of the recent Microsoft anti-trust cases in the US. Two review articles in this area are:

  • Stan Liebowitz and Steve Margolis. "Network Externalities (Effects)" entry in The New Palgraves Dictionary of Economics and the Law, MacMillan, 1998.
  • Nicholas Economides. The Economics of Networks. International Journal of Industrial Organization. October 1996.

My page on Network effects and market engineering includes links to these and other resources in the area:

Virtual crackers are designed to sit alongside virtual fridge (vfridge), which even more than crackers benefits from network effects.

I recently wrote about the interaction been marketing and internet products in Interfaces:

Although I've not referred to it explicitly above, Peter Wright's presentation at Computers and Fun 3, has been a strong influence.

  • Peter Wright, John McCarthy, Tim Marsh. From Usability to User Experience. Computers and Fun 3, York, 13th December 2000. appears in Interfaces vol 46 (Spring 2001), pp.4-5

extended abstract of talk at Computers and Fun 4.


"designing a virtual fridge" my poster at last year's computers and fun

vfridge.com for virtual fridge and crackers

send a virtual cracker from vfridge.com

my eBusiness Bulletin - articles and talks on various aspects of the information economy

see more ... section at end of paper for further links and resources


events and calls

Panel at ECCE12 on Funology: The Science of Enjoyable Technology September 12, 2004 at University of York, UK

ICEC 2004: 3rd International Conference for Entertainment Computing September 1-3, 2004 at Technical University Eindhoven, The Netherlands



The Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces DPPI 2003 - June 23-26, 2003. Pittsburgh, PA USA

ICEC 2003: Second International Conference on Entertainment Computing May 8-10, 2003, Pittsburgh, USA. Submissions due 31 December, 2002

DUX2003: Designing for User Experiences conference June 5-7, 2003, San Francisco. Submissions due 1 February, 2003

TIDSE 2003 1st International Conference on Technologies for Interactive Digital Storytelling and Entertainment March 24-26, 2003 Darmstadt, Germany

FUTURE TV: adaptive instruction in your living room workshop held in conjunction with ITS 2002, Donostia/San Sebastian, Spain, June 3-4 2002

CHI 2002 Workshop - FUNOLOGY: Designing Enjoyment Minneapolis, USA, 21 April 2002

The April Fools' Day Workshop on Computational Humour ITC-irst, Trento, ITALY, April 15-16, 2002

The CHI2002 | AIGA Experience Design FORUM at CHI2002, Minneapolis, USA, 21-22 April 2002

Call for Papers: Personal and Ubiquitous Computing - Special Issue on UBIQUITOUS GAMING

IWEC 2002 International Workshop on Entertainment Computing, Makahuri, Japan, May 2002.

12@12 - TED12, Technology, Entertainment and Design. Monterey, USA, Feb 2002.

Game Developers Conference San Jose, USA, March 2002.

'Designing Ubiquitous Computing Games' workshop at UbiComp 2001 conference

CAHD 2001 - International Conference on Affective Human Factors Design. Singapore 2001

Computers and Fun 3 - York, 2000

Neglected Aspects of HCI: Fun, Beauty and Bodily Interaction, workshop at OZCHI'2000 (download notes from Tom Djajadiningrat's publiications page)

Computers and Fun 2 - York, 1999

Computers and Fun 1 - York, 1998. selected papers in special issue of Personal Technologies 3(3), 1999


AND ...

Gamasutra The art and science of making games

Nuclear Launch Website Slammed For More-Than-Three-Clicks Interface article (not quoting Jacob Neilsen) from The Untitled Document, 12, Aug 2000

Alan Dix 30/11/2001