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Add a little more random to your product


You know the feeling: You follow a near-random trail of blog links and land on the post that solves your big business problem. You randomly flip through a physics book and find next week's sermon. You're shopping for discount dog food when you find your dream date. It's the powerful charm of the iPod Shuffle ("How did it KNOW that's just the song I needed to hear right now..."). It's serendipity. And maybe we should build more opportunities for it into our products, services, and lives.

In user experience design, especially, we often work our asses off to remove unpredictability. That's a good thing, mostly. An interface that does what you expect drops away so you can focus on whatever it is you're using the product to do. While we assume that randomness plays a big role in games, we do our best to strip it from "serious" products and services. But there are plenty of ways to keep a user experience consistent while still supporting--even encouraging--the chance for serendipity. And serendipity is delightful, astonishing, sexy, rewarding, inspiring...

When the iPod Shuffle first came out, the ads were based on the theme, "Life is random." I thought it was one of the lamest marketing spins ever. I imagined the meetings, "Let's spin the lack of display as a feature. Yeah, that's it. We'll sell the inability to choose your music as a benefit!"

But I was so so so wrong. Within a few weeks' of the Shuffle's release, the serendipity effect had kicked in. "OMG! That was the perfect song for this!" "Seriously. It can't be random. It's putting songs together that just... work*" The Shuffle was getting people out of their playlist ruts. Out of the music comfort zones we all fall into (emo, anyone?). Exposing them to songs they'd loaded onto their pre-Shuffle iPod but that never seemed to be one of The Chosen Ones. Think about it. Think about all the music on your (non-Shuffle) iPod, computer, or vintage CD rack. Now think about the subset you actually listen to regularly. For most of us, it's a pathetically small set. By literally forcing people to listen to randomly-chosen songs, the Shuffle was constantly delighting, surprising, rewarding, stretching users. And users loved it.

Filters drive a bigger need for randomness today
We're all on info overload, and filters are the best antidote. Whether it's a tech or politics aggregator like Techmeme or Memeorandum, a topic-specific blog/online news site like Slashdot or Engadget, or our own hand-crafted custom news page like My Yahoo, we're all looking for ways to narrow the funnel. Even semi-smart online shopping sites like Amazon become a filter, telling us what we're most likely to be interested in, and even letting us help tune it to be more precise. But all this filtering, tuning, and pruning keeps us stuck! We end up seeing only what we think we want to see--what we're already familiar with--and slashes our chances for serendipity. And that means slashing our ability to create and innovate, or even to be truly surprised and delighted.

How can we add more chances for serendipity into our products, services, and even lives?

Of course it depends greatly on the product, with random-by-design (like the Shuffle) on the extreme edge of the Predictable/Random continuum. But here are a few (randomly-chosen) examples:

1) Staff picks of the Day/Week/Month
The bestseller lists reflect the popularity of the many. "Recommended for you" picks reflect what people just like us have bought. Both of these narrow the funnel, but the "Staff Picks" can introduce something new, especially when the staff pickers go out of their way to introduce things you might have otherwise missed.

2) Encourage other users to post "off-label" uses of the product
Don't just showcase examples of how the product can be used in the usual way. Get users to submit stories, pictures, examples, etc. of ways they used the product to do something nobody (or at least YOU) never imagined.

3) Randomly introduce things from completely unrelated domains
If you aggregate home improvement stories, for example, have a place where you insert a semi-random--but high quality--post from a non-home-improvement field.

4) Use cards from a shuffled "idea" deck
The idea is simple: select a card from a shuffled deck, and act as though whatever the card says is directly relevant to your current problem.
Some favorites:

Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies (designed for musicians and artists, but works for anything.)

Roger von Oech's original Creative Whack Pack (a long-time favorite of mine... I started using it more than a decade ago, and it's a big part of why I'm such a fan of Roger).

The IDEO Method Cards
I've never used them, but they're visually stunning, and others have recommended them.

5) The old standby: subscribe to magazines from unrelated domains
Walk through a large newstand, and linger in some of the sections you usually skip. You just never know when Cat Lover Today is going to have that perfect answer for you.

Even more challenging--but interesting--is to go beyond newstand magazines and flip through professional journals you find at the home of a friend or business associate (or waiting in the dentist's office). Who knows how many times we 'reinvent the flat tire' simply because it's never been solved in our world, while a gazillion solutions are out there in unrelated fields.

6) Find SOME means to add randomness (or pseudo-randomness) directly into your product or service
While a random tip-of-the-day is one implementation (and just because it's so often done badly, annoyingly, intrusively, and obnoxiously doesn't mean it HAS to be that way), there are probably a lot of other ways to introduce--perhaps as a user option--some element of random or pseudo-randomness. Drum machines (and other electronic/midi music software) sometimes let you choose to automatically insert subtle, somewhat random shifts in the music to make it just a little less perfect... which means a little more real-sounding.

Google has an "I'm Feeling Lucky" button that takes you straight to the first web page returned for your search query, but there's nothing random there. And while that's a useful feature, it might be equally useful to add an "I'm feeling bored" button that takes you straight to, say, the 42nd returned hit.

Photoshop has a kind of mutation feature that while not random, lets you instantly view your current image with a variety of different color adjustments. Perhaps they could add a "apply random filter" menu item, and let you see the image with some wild--and semi-random--combination of tweaks. It might never have occurred to you that the "plastic wrap" look is exactly what you needed to use on that picture of your ex you're about to put online for the world.

One of the problems with e-books...
Another area where randomness could matter a lot is in e-books. One of the complaints you hear from dead-tree-book-lovers is that they don't get to flip through the pages. On the surface, this might sound like yet another silly argument, and indeed I've heard e-book champions tell us we'll get over it, we won't care, or--hey--they'll just add a page flipping sound+animation to make us feel better.

But it's not the sound or tactile feel of the page turning that matters... it's the chance for serendipity you lose when you can't easily, randomly flip through the pages! How many times have you flipped to a page in a non-fiction book and--viola!--as if by magic, the thing you need-but-didn't-know-it-until-you-saw-this-page appeared? And no, presenting you with a linear list of thumbnails doesn't count.

There is, however, a fairly simple and at least partial solution I've seen in older experimental prototypes, but have no idea if they're implemented in any current e-book readers: a random "flip through the pages" button. But it can't just be a sudden HERE IS PAGE 267 thing. It needs to have a visual that shuffles through the pages (like the Apple cover-art thing on iTunes) in a way that displays them large enough to see something potentially interesting. In other words, it's the serendipity of a simple flip through the book that needs to be retained.


Perhaps the best way for us all to up our chances for serendipity is to cultivate diversity wherever, however, whenever we can. Like I said earlier about filters, the bright side of efficiency and focus comes with a dark side of narrow vision. The good news? Remembering to keep a bit of random (or at least semi-random) input goes a long way. Think of the implications. You really, really, really don't want your kids to think about your music tastes (or potential music stagnation) the way you felt about your parents (who still listen to the music they played in college), do you? Seriously. Who knows which hot hipster band of today is the Barry Manilow of tomorrow... so don't get stuck.

Apple's original Shuffle promo said "Life is Random", but that's stating the obvious. Perhaps a better mantra would be, "Random is Life." We could all use more of it, and if we can give our users a few more moments of serendipity, we're giving them a wonderful gift.

Bonus related links:

*The randomness of the iPod Shuffle is hotly debated (including but not limited to the computer science issues of "random"). Read more here, here, and--if you're a math/stats geek--here.

Randomness, artificial intelligence, and art.

One of Maggie Boden's wonderful essays on unpredictability and creativity. A sample:

"With the help of this mental discipline, even flaws and accidents may be put to creative use. Oliver Sacks reports the case of a jazz drummer suffering from Tourette's syndrome.24 He is subject to sudden, uncontrollable, muscular tics. These occur, though with reduced frequency, even when he is drumming. As a result, his drumsticks sometimes make unexpected sounds. But this man's musical skill is so great that he can work these supererogatory sounds into his music as he goes along. At worst, he "covers up" for them. At best, he makes them the seeds of unusual improvisations which he could not otherwise have thought of. (Similar remarks apply to jazz musicians who use Hodgson's program to help spawn interesting musical ideas, or to artists and designers who use "evolutionary" computer-systems in developing ideas which they could not have thought up by themselves.)"

The Future of the Book

Questions to ask randomly

So... what are YOU doing to keep random input in your life and/or the lives of your users?

Posted by Kathy on January 30, 2007 | Permalink


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The iPod's shuffle feature helps you solve the problem of having 10,000 songs and having to figure out which to play next, or having to listen in order and therefore never getting around to songs 5,000-10,000. It's reducing choice, and thereby making the process less involved and less cognitively dissonant. It also favors better songs, but still mixes in a less-loved song often enough to seem exciting.

I think the key takeaway is less about randomness and more about reducing choice/fear and thinking about solving annoyance or unwieldiness factors in the customer experience. In the iPod, that just happens to manifest as pseudo-randomness.

Look at Wal-Mart's self-checkout kiosks. Sure, random digital coupons would incentivize more kiosk use, but ultimately they really need to scare people less in order to accomplish the real goal of reducing staff and improving throughput. I'm nervous using them, and I design complex SOA integration for a living.

Posted by: Justin D-Z | Jan 30, 2007 3:00:50 AM

My 40GB iRiver has about 3000 songs and has hardly been off "shuffle all" in nearly 3 years of faithful service. I kind of view it as a radio station that works off a playlist that is almost all stuff I like.

Now admittedly, this is partly because I never figured out the playlist feature, but then again I never felt like I needed it.

One of the fun things is loading a freshly-ripped CD and seeing how and when the tracks turn up.

Randomness rocks. (Quite literally in this case)

Now I need to think about throwing more randomness into my daily work, although my colleagues might assert that my code is already random enough...

Posted by: Mike Woodhouse | Jan 30, 2007 3:19:25 AM

x: categories (randomness) folksonomy

I wonder if it would still represent your vision.
And of course what would "randomness" concretely map to.
I like your graphics.

Posted by: Mario | Jan 30, 2007 3:21:58 AM

OMG it's posts like these that make me love this blog so much. You've really tapped onto something that just kinda gave me the "Aha!" moment. Really interesting piece.

Posted by: AL | Jan 30, 2007 4:06:26 AM

I believe this is one of the biggest problems in education today. Everything is so carefully planned out and teachers like to believe that we control everything that is learned in our classrooms. This is one of the greatest things about blogging with kids in classrooms and opening it up to the world, is the huge number of positive uninteded consequences that occur.

Posted by: Clarence Fisher | Jan 30, 2007 4:27:45 AM

Great post!
This one of the reason I like bookshops and libraries so much–browse the shelves and find something that hooks you up.
The blogosphere, web comics, and wikipedia are other great sources for serendipity.
And, of course, conversations with other people–face-to-face, via phone, via mail or otherwise.

Posted by: Jens | Jan 30, 2007 4:48:26 AM

Paint Shop Pro has a "Randomise Parameters" button on most of its dialogs (the icon is a dice 8-) It's great for quickly figuring out what a feature might be capable of.

Posted by: Richie Hindle | Jan 30, 2007 5:15:33 AM

My experience of your blog has been broken lately by a problem with it's feed:


The markup appears to be encoded - which means I'm looking at HTML tags instead of your finely crafted words.

The appearance of 'MsoNormal' in the code suggests your use of Microsoft Word or similar may be the root of your problem.

Hope this helps you remedy it!

Posted by: Ollie | Jan 30, 2007 5:32:23 AM

For ebooks, I want something like the coverflow album art display in itunes, but for the books pages. Very much like on the iphone, from what I've seen.

Imagine visually flipping through pages with the stroke of a finger. Then drool.

Posted by: Filip Salomonsson | Jan 30, 2007 6:21:50 AM

There is always www.stumbleupon.com if you want to be surprised/given some randomness. I have not used it very much lately, but when I first discovered it, I definitely got to know some new things. I'll just brush up on the experience there. I do remember liking the idea and links behind the site very much. Must get me some randomness ;-)

Posted by: Eric | Jan 30, 2007 6:28:18 AM

Hi Kathy,

I love everything in pdf but only because of my cataract
operation, so I don't have to switch glasses all the time.

What I miss the most about 'real' books is the smell.
I just love to put my nose in a freshly bought book, and inhale deeply.

Welcome back !


Posted by: Peter | Jan 30, 2007 7:12:33 AM

I have 500 films in my Netflix queue and the ones below about 25 never move up because I keep putting the newest whatever in the top 25. So what I do every month is go to the Research Randomizer website, have it choose 5 numbers between 25 and 500 and move those movies directly to the top of my queue. I put the films on the list for a reason and now I get to finally see them. Netflix should have a 'randomize my queue' option.

Posted by: Jason | Jan 30, 2007 8:05:40 AM

Probably like most people who read this blog I happen to be a bit more on the chaotic/creative side, BUT I know (being married to the opposite) not all people can tolerate that level of randomness.

For those who can...to encourage my Adult ADD I use the personalized Google home page with really random RSS feeds...it's a great way to put a lot of totally unrelated topics in front of you upon logging in first thing in the morning. If anyone else has feeds they use on Google, please post...always interested in adding more cool stuff. Would be really helpful if it chose one a random for you too...

Posted by: chuck | Jan 30, 2007 8:26:35 AM

I got an iPod shuffle (v1) for Christmas, and it is my favorite product ever. I didn't even ask for it, because I too scoffed at the marketing campaign. (My Mom won it at a grocery store, actually.)

In fact, I wrote a whole big thing on why it was so great and sent it to the design department at my company today. I've been a proponent of the whole "simple is better" 37signals type of idea.

The best thing about the shuffle is that it is made to do just one thing, play some good music. It's ultraportable and the playlist is made for you ahead of time (just choose what to load on it every so often and go). I only have the half-gig model, and I don't think I would ever upgrade to a gig, because I like the amount of albums it holds as it is (about 8, I think). Friggin' GREAT product... I don't use my expensive HDD player anymore.

Posted by: Karl N | Jan 30, 2007 8:34:03 AM

I think there's definitely something to be said for the random factor. We do have a lot of randomness built into our website, and we've been doing an Art of the Day feature for just over three years. But earlier this month, we changed the mailing list format from plain text to html and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One thing we heard over and over: "It's so great to see the image right there in my mailbox! A lot of times, if I'm not that interested in the theme, I'd skip viewing a week, and now I can't help but think of all the good art I might not have otherwise been exposed to!"

And because we worry people get tired of our taste in their mailbox (or feedreader) daily, we also open it up to guest editors, because, well, we like to be surprised, too! Which of course gives me an idea that hit me mid-post: any folks out there interested in curating a week of EBSQ's Art of the Day? Could be the bit of randomness you need to spark your day ;)

Posted by: Amie | Jan 30, 2007 8:37:21 AM

One other thing you might appreciate, Kathy. I nicknamed my shuffle "Flow", because whenever I'm bored or restless around the house, I pick up my shuffle and listen to some music, and it gets me going to do whatever I need to do (clean, make dinner, get ready to go somewhere...). It's truly wonderful to have music so available, and I never did that with my bulky HDD player and its large headphones and complex interface. It's hard to have fun with a product that you're afraid to drop and break; not so with my shuffle.

Posted by: Karl N | Jan 30, 2007 8:39:03 AM

Is it just me or do brains instinctively want to relate random occurrances in an attempt to rationalize them?

Posted by: Edward Ocampo-Gooding | Jan 30, 2007 8:47:26 AM

I have had Roger Van Oeck's book "A Whack in the Side of the Head" for many years, as well as "The Universal Traveler" from some other writer. I am also trying to apply to IDEO (anyone have connections?) as I am, and always have been, the kind of person they look for and write about in their articles and books.

I don't really believe in 'randomness' as much as I see 'what things fit when they are needed'. I'm not calling this determinist, but darned if something doesn't 'feel right' when it happens; I have far too many examples which can correlate this.

As a coach, I help clients use every clue possible to determine their needs, goals, and path(s). Sometimes these clues are far hidden in their hopes or desires, sometimes the clues are obvious but they 'can't see them yet'. This takes lateral thinking and systems-thinking -- both what randomness may feel like to some people.

Additionally, I also think that the 'randomness' factor [you describe] is similar to "a universal connection" -- not the determinst viewpoint, but a concept that we can see more when we have a larger picture. Call it compassion with the world (ie: the random iPod song shows us a new view of the world). Is it random when we can stand on a chair to get a higher viewpoint, and see new things (literally?) I don't think so.

Btw, I was serious about wanting to work with IDEO and other industrial-design/thinktank facilities... just putting this randomness out there, as I have already synchronicitously applied to them ;)

Posted by: Lauren Muney | Jan 30, 2007 8:55:10 AM

Right on! Jason Kottke recently rolled out a 'random' section that pieces together random posts from his archive: http://kottke.org/random

Posted by: Jack Cheng | Jan 30, 2007 9:43:51 AM

Since I create communication pieces for 18 yo students, and I'm the age of their parents, I have to keep up w/ what they look at. My strategy is a Firefox plug-in called Stumble! You can download it from the Firefox plug in site and choose what kind of sites you want to look at--including your interests or your anti-interests. When I need an idea and I'm stumped, I open Firefox and click on that Stumble! button and it brings up a random web site. I have gotten so many great ideas, some totally not connected with the site I'm looking at, just a new idea. It's da bomb!

Posted by: Kari | Jan 30, 2007 9:54:00 AM

"Is it just me or do brains instinctively want to relate random occurrances in an attempt to rationalize them?"

I love that question! I'm always doing that. I think in a lot of cases people even try to relate random occurrences to their own experiences in order to support their beliefs.

Personally, I sometimes like to read a horoscope at the end of the day so I can relate it to how my day went. I find I can more often than not do that.

If it's not just us, though, I wonder if that sort of behavior serves some actual evolutionary purpose.

Posted by: Kevin | Jan 30, 2007 10:00:18 AM

Some years back I was forced into giving up my email address because my ISP got rid of @home.com. But I kept using the email for posting on dejanews/google groups - at the time, one couldn't change the email, so this also became an anti-spam tool. I also thought google at the time kind of was weird for not having a sig for users, so I started putting semi-random things in my pasted-in sig - links or quotes - I thought of it as similar to those little sniglets at the end of Reader's Digest articles.

There is some serendipity and some function of gestalt doing that. It can be kind of funny when I hit on some mildly offensive link and whoever I was replying to think I did it on purpose. I find it most useful for simply breaking out of whatever predictable mind-tangent the thread creates. Some people are offended, saying a sig should always have contact information (I'm real easy to find with a simple google). Some people have actually become fans of it. It has taken on a life of its own, I never thought it would last more than a few months. It can be sad when the sig is more interesting than the post.

My horoscope for today: "Someone is listening to your every word. But it's up to you to decide whether this is a good thing or a problem. "

I don't have an iPod, there's some good radio stations out there (I commute 3 hours a day). Most of my favorite music is on the 16-track in my head anyways.

Posted by: joel garry | Jan 30, 2007 11:23:30 AM

A very thought-provoking article, Kathy! Another example of randomness is the use of Easter eggs in DVD menus. People hunt for them and are so excited to bump into them.

I wonder, though, how important it is for people, especially adult users, to choose randomness rather than have "it happen to them." My hunch is that choice makes a difference. Anyone else have an opinion?

Posted by: Gretchen | Jan 30, 2007 3:26:45 PM

Recent feeds from "Creating Passionate Users" (since 1/16) have been arriving to my RSS reader (NetNewsWire) as the page source instead of the actual formatted feed. I've also been getting lots of duplicates.

Anyone else having this problem?

I have 120 feeds and this is the only one doing it...and it's also my favorite blog, so it kinda sucks.

Posted by: Sergei | Jan 30, 2007 4:09:17 PM

>> Recent feeds from "Creating Passionate Users" (since 1/16) have been arriving to my RSS reader (NetNewsWire) as the page source instead of the actual formatted feed.

Same with me - but I use RSSBandit. I have almost unsubscribed...

Posted by: Matthew | Jan 30, 2007 4:14:30 PM

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