Design is what it does and what design does is solve problems. Online, we concentrate on designing user experiences because the problems that need to be solved always come down to a single individual and the decisions they make. User experience could be pretty dispassionate work with such cold logic at its core, but in practice, it’s hard not to feel a bit protective of our users. We don’t want to do a Hansel-and-Gretel, abandoning folks in some dark forest full of dangerous critters. We want to create a relatively safe place where they can interact with content, functionality, and other users. We want to design user experiences like petting zoos.
Petting zoos are those patches of worn grass and chicken wire usually found just outside major U.S. cities where docile animals get rubbed, chased, and hand fed by young children in our weak attempt to connect the youngest American generation to the country’s mostly mythical agricultural roots.
Petting zoos are the open sewers of an otherwise sanitized kids entertainment industry. In a world of Chuck E. Cheese security checkpoints and bounce houses that get hosed down after every birthday party, petting zoos go out of their way to get little kid fingers dangerously close to sharp critter teeth and beaks. There are no hygienic animals at a petting zoo and a hundred hand wash stations can’t eliminate the bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitical hazards inherent to the petting zoo experience.
Online hazards, including fraud, identity theft, and malicious software, are just as impossible to eliminate. Petting zoos keep their animals mellow and healthy while responsible user experience designers rely on dependable services, predictable interactions, and trustworthy vendors.
The primary element for a successful petting zoo is also its greatest risk. Customers and animals wander the same small- to medium-sized pens where every combination of players interact: kid to critter, kid to kid, critter to critter, adult to kid, etc. Eliminating these interactions would certainly remove the risk of infection, but it would also remove the petting zoo’s reason for existence.
Interaction is the key to online user experiences as well. The earliest Web design helped connect users to functionality and that interaction only became more sophisticated as functionality expanded into fully realized services over the years. Facilitating the interaction between users has also been an element of online design historically, but it will soon evolve from an interesting feature to a defining characteristic of the Web. The momentum of evolution increases for service-to-service interaction as lightweight individualized mashups replace plodding universal applications.
Interactions, both in petting zoos and online, happen at two levels. All petting zoos sell themselves as family-friendly and encourage birthday parties, school field trips, and visits from scout troops. Within these group experiences, there are simultaneously one-to-one interactions happening between humans and animals. In much the same way, an online user is at all times one of many and one of one. A Netflix customer, for example, who rates a movie feeds the group experience by affecting the movie’s overall score, while also making it more likely that the Netflix recommendation engine provides useful viewing suggestions to that individual.
Every petting zoo has goats and sheep; most have miniature ponies, peacocks, chickens, and pigs. These animals satisfy an unofficial standard for petting zoo visitors’ expectations and deliver a minimum set of petting zoo experiences: goats and chickens for feeding, sheep and ponies for petting, peacocks and pigs for pictures. Every petting zoo also leverages exotic animals as market differentiators. Northern Virginia’s Reston Zoo stocks emus, llamas, and Patagonian Cavies; Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo outside Huntsville, Alabama features a Siberian lynx. Exotic animals support a perception that visitors will have interactions at the petting zoo that would be impossible in their day-to-day lives.
Unofficial standards have also developed online. Users expect shopping carts that work as well as Amazon’s, long blocks of text as readable as Wikipedia, images that load quickly, and unbroken hyperlinks. While we design user experiences, (ideally) to satisfy the goals of well-defined sets of users, we also support some edge case experiences.
Both in petting zoos and user experience design, failure to support basic expectations means an unsuccessful solution. And after basic expectations are met, failure to provide something extra (but still relevant to the overall experience) can also lead to a failed solution.
Designing a user experience, like the success of a petting zoo, hinges on easy access to interactions that that both meet and exceed customer expectations. While we do what we can to protect our users, memorable interactions take place in an environment that will always contain inherent dangers. A frustrated goat can snap at a pushy child; an aggressive computer virus can exploit an unwary user.