The Principle of Accidental Success

by Warren Buckleitner

Consider the piano -- one of the hardest musical instruments to play.

Yet if your elbow bumps any one of the 88 keys, you can make a sound. It works! It says "I am responding to you, with a sound." So you know what happens next, especially if you're a child -- initial success is like potato chips. As actively explore the keys/interface with your senses and touch, you start to notice patterns. The notes get higher when you go up, and the black keys have half pitches, and so on. The piano is an example of low MUC (minimum user competency).

I've reviewed many commercial interactive experiences -- toys, sites and video games. Unfortunately, many are weakened the missed opportunity of "accidental success." Think about it this way -- complexity -- in any form -- in the first 15 seconds of the user/software interaction results in diminished engagement. Here are some principals of accidental success.

  • Give them some "digital play doh" at the very start. In Software MacKiev's version of World Book (for the Macintosh), the designers made the entire menu metaphor a pond of water. Any click made a splash, with waves that kept on gently rocking the icons. Like the piano keyboard, you wanted to keep on clicking to make more splashes.
  • Provide multiple ways to succeed. The arrow keys or the mouse, the keyboard, or a touch screen -- all can get the same result.
  • Don't clutter the first screen with too many icons. Count the graphic elements on the first screen of Google. Power without simplicity is diminished.
  • Make it as easy to get out as it is to get in.
  • Never, never, never put looks ahead of function. Don't hide the on/off switch. Here's a challenge to prove my point. Give Disney Electronic's WALL•E robot to any adult (or child) and ask them simply to turn it on. It is challenging, because the designers put robotic aesthetics ahead of useability. The robot surface is thick with fake nuts/bolts and gadget-looking things that have no function and fool your fingers. The real button is a three way toggle (PLAY/OFF/DEMO). So even if you find the tiny switch on the lower back part of the robot, you have a 50% chance of accidently choosing the wrong mode.
  • Keep the icon patterns consistent throughout the experience. If you have your exit/back/stop/end/get out button in the lower left hand screen, keep it there, and don't change it.

GOOD EXAMPLES (feel free to add -- just give your name)
Giggles: Computer Funtime for Baby - Nursery Rhymes
Builds causality, early learning. Leveractive, LLC. $20. Ages 0-3.
THE REVIEW: If you share a home with babies or toddlers, you can't go wrong with the computerized busy box. The fourth title in the Giggles CD-ROM series for Mac or Windows computers, each title allows babies or toddlers (or adults) to merely bang on any key or move the mouse to get a theme-related graphic or sound. This "accidental success" experience not only keeps children busy, but creates a feeling of empowerment that never gets stale. In addition, the strong linkage between action and label qualifies it as an effective emergent literacy experience, in our opinion (this might easily be debated among scholars).
Content in this edition includes 10 nursery rhyme themed playgrounds including Jack and Jill, Hey Diddle Diddle, and Mary Had A Little Lamb. Each activity is an animated visual representation of the nursery rhyme so that your child can interact with it by pressing keys. For example, in Jack and Jill, each key press will lead Jack and Jill farther up the hill. In Humpty Dumpty, every key press (it doesn't matter) makes Humpty Dumpty start to loose his balance. As children play, parents can toggle between five musical styles; or opt to turn the music off. In all cases, the music and graphics are high quality, which is a big plus to this program. In addition, the words for each rhyme can be viewed on-screen.
The program contains 50 songs, as well as the songs for each nursery rhyme. It also features two modes: Baby Mode for ages six to 24 months, and Toddler Mode for ages 24 to 36 months. The bottom line? You can't go wrong with this new addition to the Giggles line, as long as you don't mind a little applesauce on the keyboard.