The art of unpredictability in product design, and how working on a personal side project can boost your creativity and happiness at work.

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n case you are not familiar with Raspberry Pi, it is a small and powerful motherboard that you can purchase for under $40: https://www.raspberrypi.org/. You could say that I am bitten by the Pi bug. If you’re into technology hacking and gadgetry then you will love the Pi universe. If you love technology and think that it beyond then fear not the Pi community is very generous and supportive one. Overall I believe that pursuing personal projects that you can be passionate about and that are outside of your day-to-day work routines is one of the best ways to nurture your happiness and creativity at work and also to test ideas.

Pursuing personal projects that are outside of your day-to-day work routines and  you can be passionate about, is one of the best ways to nurture your happiness and creativity at work.

To give you a bit of a background on my Pi project I should note that this year, I participated in exhibiting my photographic work as part of the Contact Photography Festival for the the second year in a row: http://scotiabankcontactphoto.com/exhibitions. For this year’s exhibition I wanted to do something different.  I really wanted to somehow blend and test the various aspects of my professional life into an artistic piece using the power of the Pi. My ultimate goal was to shift the viewer’s perception for a bit and create a delightful experience for them. The roots of this personal Pi project really started a year ago, when working on a pitch for a local banking institution, the team and I came up with the idea of using digital signage to display art with emotional impact. Without getting too much into the details of that pitch, I can say that it involved using art and artists work in an innovative way that would change a passerby’s perception about their day. The client loved it, however due to their own internal circumstances and changes, that pitch never saw the light of day.

I never throw out good ideas. In fact in my studio you will find every sketch, rejected design and or iteration that I ever worked on, meticulously filed in it’s respective folder. Sometimes an idea or design can be revived with some modification, to work perfectly for another project, or you may find that it can spark a new idea for a new project. In this case, an idea that didn’t get produced for work, fueled my Pi / photography project.

So the driving idea for the piece was how I could create an aesthetically pleasing work and incorporate an element of surprise in it that would delight the viewer in an unexpected way. The result was a DIY digital display that utilized my photograph of an Baroque painting and with the power of Pi and a little code magic would present a surprise to the viewers who cared to engage a little deeper with the details. The image in fact upon closer inspection revealed to have a continuous ebb and flow to it. The project was ambitious and I really wasn’t sure it would work.  The night of the exhibition I was feeling nervous – what if it fails? What if no one gets it? Opening night I stood casually in a corner and observed how viewers would react to it. Many stopped in front of it and I assume admired the beauty of the Baroque image. And then the magic happened. One viewer leaned in to look closer and suddenly jumped back with delight and a smile. More of these dedicated viewers followed. A conversation started. For me to see their smiles of joy and wonder on their faces was priceless. I filmed a few of their reactions which you can see here & here.

This confirmed for me once and for all that one should not be afraid to be different and that it’s OK if a percentage of your audience never notices that little bit of surprise element as long as they can still enjoy the overall experience then you’re good. But for that smaller percentage that are curious and engage deeper with your product you just succeeded in delighting them and creating a memorable experience that would not have been possible were it not for that element of surprise. I could have chosen to be overt about the effect but that would have removed the element of surprise.

So art imitates life, and work influences play, and play enhances work. The take-away is that by creating playful experiences in product designs and interactive experiences, you are essentially making the difference between a memorable and human interaction and a dull and boring experience.  And yet many times I come across websites or products that are just too drab or serious. Are we under estimating our users / audience or our own capabilities? Our brains are intrigued and indeed aroused by unpredictability, so why do we often shy away from building these unexpected rewards into our products? By no means am I condoning a total abandon of the principles of user interface design, nor am I suggesting to forgo stability for the price being novel, but what I am saying is that there’s something exciting about the unexpected. As designers and builders of interactive products we should be asking ourselves how we can incorporate these unexpected rewards as part of the overall product experience.

One of the biggest factors in products being boring and predictable is fear. It can be either on the client side or design side. The fear of failing or an idea not working is detrimental in guaranteeing a product being bland. While it’s true that there is no guarantee that every one of your targeted audience will discover the unexpected experience, at the same time, the ones that do notice it will be delighted by it and will love the interaction. As pointed out in the wonderfull book by Stephen P. Anderson mixing surprises with rewards can create a memorable experience for your audience and it is these little unexpected changes that make an interaction experience seem more human.

So embrace different and surprise your audience. They just might get delighted by it.

You can find details about how I built my device on my blog post here. To read more about my piece for this year’s Contact show you can read it here.

Reach out to me if any questions, and if you care to follow my photography you can link me up on Instagram. I post all original analogue imagery from around the world almost on a daily basis.

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