Making business applications fun

In my opinion, there are 5 core elements that can make business applications more engaging:

Remember "Girls just wanna have fun"? Well, this  turns out to be a universal truth, applicable not just to girls but also to business application users. Of course, I am exaggerating slightly, but we are seeing increasingly playful features in project management tools, CRMs, and other collaborative tools. So what makes a business application more fun for the user?

In my opinion, there are 5 core elements that can make business applications more engaging:

  1. Attractive visual display: An attractive but discrete color palette, a clean, uncluttered layout and beautiful iconography help the users to feel at ease and quickly capture the nature of the content. The often oversized icons also give a playful impression, even though you might be dealing with something quite "dull", such as project management. Basecamp is a good example for that kind of design and I  have also used that approach in a recent project for a private bank.
  2. Immediate feedback: Technologies such as AJAX and Flex allow us to give the user immediate feedback upon their actions. Filling out forms is a great example that provides a challenge: How to turn something that most people apprehend and find boring into a pleasant activity? You can display a green check for fields filled in correctly - the user feels successful and good about themselves. You can also hide and display information as it becomes relevant in the process. Again, the user feels in charge and can "play" with the interface.
  3. User generated content: As wikis and micro blogging are catching ground in the business world, features that allow users to contribute are become more accepted and appreciated. From a user experience perspective, it also means that the users move from being mere recipients of information to  active contributors, and enjoy publishing their opinions in such an easy way.
  4. Ratings and progress indicators: It seems fundamental to human nature that we seek all kinds of measurements  and thrive on positive ones. When LinkedIn added a little meter above the users’ information to show how complete their profile was in percent, the number of users completing their profile increased significantly.
  5. Elements of delight: Now here's the icing on the cake: suprise users with the unexpected, put a smile on their faces. Google has tried this for a while (it may be getting a bit old by now) by changing it's logo for special days, e.g.  Harry Houdini's 137th birthday today!?). But what does this mean for business applications? A good example is drag&drop. Lets say you have a tool where you have to assign projects to programs and programs to intiatives (based again on a recent project of ours). You could have a traditional  form based interface, but you could also imagine arranging these items in a more visual "mind-mapping" way. Which way would be more fun? And which way might offer a more meaningful visualization?

This is all very nice, but why should the business owner care? First, because web 2.0ish web sites, playstations, iphone / pad applications and the likes have dramatically raised the bar of users' expectations in terms of ease of use and entertainment value.  In other words, you snooze, you lose. Second, providing applications that are enjoyable to use will give a positive image of the company in general.  And finally, because these elements, if executed well and adopted to the users' needs,  will undoubtedly increase user participation and adoption. So, just to close the loop, they should be a bit more subtle than Cyndi Lauper, if you know what I mean!

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About the author

Julia Borkenhagen
Julia Borkenhagen

Julia is a certified usability analyst by HFI (Human Factors International) with over 15 years of experience in user research, interface design, usability testing and project management.
Prior to joining blue-infinity, Julia worked several years for the San Francisco based agency Digitas on the account and as the lead web producer for NIKU, now CA Technologies.
Julia has been with blue-infinity since 2005 and is leading our in-house User Experience practice.