No, this isn’t another reference to the TV series LOST. This is the online world of Club Penguin, where millions of young children waddle around as cartoon penguin-avatars in a winter-set virtual world. You can play games, earn points and decorate your igloo. And the imminent arrival of pirate penguin Rockhopper is all my boys can talk about. Apparently with each arrival he brings rare new gifts (once he introduced a new breed of red Puffles, the fluffy little creatures you take care of). He’s a seafaring Santa Clause to the world of Club Penguin.
Plenty could be said here about self-expression, scarcity, achievements or other psychological principles which–trust me–work just as well on adults as they do on penguin playing kids. Instead, let’s focus on one idea I’ve never seen discussed: periodic events. Why is the Rockhopper narrative, and dozens of similar storylines, so enthralling? And what does this kind of a recurring event do for a community?
The significance of rituals
Think of the shared, recurring events you celebrate. Perhaps Christmas with family? A Tuesday afternoon happy hour with friends from work? Maybe there’s a birthday next month or a monthly book club discussion. Our lives are filled with these recurring beats. There is a rhythm to our lives. From the natural (breathing, seasons, menstrual cycles) to the invented (Summer break, national holidays, new movie releases), we are entertained by these periodic events. Rituals and tradition give our lives momentum. Why is this important, psychologically? These events unite people. They are a shared experience through which people can gather together. They are a chance for similar people to congregate. And even if we have very little in common with the other people, the rituals offer something to do together. Through shared, recurring events, we feel a sense of belonging. And there’s more, these rituals give us something to look forward to. There is variety in an otherwise repetitive routine. From week to week, or year after year, there is continuity, comfort, and heightened anticipation.
Businesses are no exception. You have quarterly earnings reports. There’s also an annual review. Blood drives come around from time to time. There’s the annual holiday party in December. Budgets are set on a yearly basis. Even the work day is punctuated by regular breaks. Maybe there’s a team lunch on Fridays. Periodic events are present in just about every area of our lives. And all these things work in a subtle way to unite us. The events I share at one company may not translate to another office, but within that one company, they are something we can share. These recurring events create sustained interest, anticipation and a sense of belonging.
So now, let me ask this question: What do people have to look forward to on your site? Or in the software we use? Or in the community you’ve built? For most of us, launching and maintaining a Web site is enough of a chore. But what change is there to look forward to? Once a year, a number of sites participate in a CSS reboot, where all the styles are dropped. Some sites even commit to refresh their look on this day. This gives casual visitors– especially those who rarely visit a site, reason to come back– to see what’s new. Department stores regularly have sales, seasonal offerings and other events, yet the only online equivalent seems to be cyber Monday. Excluding scheduled maintenance outings, what do your users have to look forward to or reminisce about? Are there regular, recurring events enjoyed by all? Like Rockhopper in Club Penguin, many kids games, use a narrative structure to create events, why aren’t we doing the same in our business applications and public websites?
Some (perhaps crazy) ideas
Consider some ways that all users or groups within a system could enjoy shared recurring experiences.
- One company I worked for had a monthly speaker series that brought in such luminaries as Brian Eno, Scott McCloud and John Maeda. What if a Q&A site like Quora.com made an event out of regularly hosting recognized expert, available for an afternoon to answer any questions within their area of expertise?;
- eCommerce sites routinely offer sales, but the only shared community event is cyber Monday. What about hiding surprises at Easter? Or setting up a themed specials every few weeks? Instead of a time-based event, maybe every ‘x’ sale resulted in a discount for everyone online at the same time;
- What if my time tracking app rewarded everyone on my team with a fun, bi-weekly report on how we’re doing? Instead of a chore, time tracking could become more like the Wii Fit with regular check ins, goals and feedback;
- In ancient Israel, debts were dropped during the Jubilee year. Maybe internal organizations could declare one day of the year a “reset your inbox to zero” day. All employees email inboxes would automatically empty and you’d have a clean start (don’t freak out– this could be limited to internal emails only). Much of the group pressure that results from mounting email could be removed, as this would be a shared experience for everyone;
- Imagine a hot new startup that only allowed new members to sign up at a designated time, in pairs! If you’re friend didn’t also sign up within an hour window, both of you would have to wait until the next opportunity.
Perhaps some of these ideas sound a bit far fetched? The point of all of this isn’t utility, but engagement–with each other and with a service. We’re talking about creating delightful experiences through shared events. Consider some services that have made periodic events core to their experience:
What would you think of an eCommerce site that only sells one item at a time? No inventory. No catalog to browse. Sound silly? Services such as Groupon and Woot have made the daily event a core part of their business. One deal. One day only. That’s it. We may rarely make a purchase from these sites, but we can’t stop coming back, you know, just in case. We’re curious– what will tomorrow’s deal be? And this approach to business leverages variable rewards; just as with slot machines, all it takes is a great deal every now and then keep us coming back to these sites (or subscribing to their daily emails).
750words.com is founded on one simple idea: Write at least 750 words every day for one month. The site tracks your progress with simple row of boxes, one for each day of the month. Writing at least 750 words earns you an “X” for that day. In doing so, you compete against your own best streak. How many consecutive days can you write 750 words? So where’s the periodic event? It’s the monthly reset. If you fail to write for 30 consecutive days, you can alwasy look forward to “a clean bowling-esque score card” next month. We nearing the end of January, when most of our New Year’s resolutions start to fall to the wayside. But why wait until next year to take up running or jogging again? HealthMonth(also from the same brilliant mind behind 750words.com) encourages you to make personal health goals (in the form of “do more of…” or “do less of….”) for a period of one month. You’re allowed a bit of grace and backsliding before you are out of “the game” for that month. And if you don’t succeed, don’t worry. Everyone starts over again at the 1st of the month. Why wait until next year give losing weight another shot?
We’ve also seen periodic events emerge from community groups. Think of the #followfriday hashtag on Twitter. Or the CSS resets I mentioned earlier.
Shared TV Programming
In the era of Tivo and on-demand programming, the communal bonding around “last nights episode” seems to be waning. Time shifting TV has fragmented our conversations. But perhaps this communal relic can be brought into 21st century. I recently read about a startup that wants to “connect friends in real time while watching their favorite TV shows.” A periodic event once set at a national level by broadcasters may now be agreed upon by friends.
A (real-time) challenge:
The sites that have introduced periodic events are few and far between. Here’s my challenge: Are you giving your users a reason to come back? If not, how might you build periodic events into the systems you design or use? We’d love to hear your ideas on this concept could be applied to online interactions. Here’s what we’re going to do: All your comments and ideas will be held in a queue. One week from today, we’ll publish all your suggestions. See you in a week?
UX Lisbon 2011
Stephen Anderson will be a keynote speaker at UX Lx: User Experience Lisbon, one of Europe’s premier user experience events. The second annual UX Lx conference takes place May 11-13, 2011 in Lisbon, Portugal.