Surprise and Delight in UX… and Trash Cans

PUSH the Talking Trash Can

Something punny is happening

Except for perhaps arriving to work in the morning and finding yours displaced from your cubicle, few of us would be down in the dumps over a missing trash can. And yet, when news recently broke that a garbage can might be hauled away from Disney Parks, there were cries of despair, an obligatory hashtag/Facebook campaign, and others claiming that something smelly was going on there.

Why is news of this particular item being kicked to the curb anything special? In this case, the waste receptacle actually has a name: “PUSH.”  Simply, this is a robot that has been roaming Disney parks since 1995. It is controlled by two hidden operators, one driving, the other trash-talking guests lucky enough to encounter it.  While I am truly worried about the operators getting canned, I also would miss PUSH greatly.

Surprise and delight

It is not uncommon to hear User Experience professionals talk of surprising and delighting users of their systems. Those words even show up in the Android Design Principles. I mentioned them in a prior article about the use of easter eggs inside of user interfaces. However, finding great examples can sometimes be difficult.

I submit that PUSH is the embodiment of surprise and delight executed masterfully. During my family’s last trip to the Magic Kingdom, we likely spent more time observing PUSH (and laughing at its antics) than on any other single activity. For the uninitiated, here is my video from one of these encounters.

FYI: This contains two of my favorite Winnie The Pooh jokes.  1) Near the beginning, “I’m a pooh-pooh-head!”  2) Near the end, after seeing a women with a shirt of the bear, PUSH tells her she should wash it because it has “pooh” on it.

Contributing factors

There are a few things that make this particular example so well done and a good baseline for thinking about surprise and delight in UX.

1) Unexpected. No “surprise” here, the user/guest should be caught off-guard by the appearance of the element. In this case, an everyday, even mundane, object has been given new purpose. In Stephen Anderson’s on Seductive Interaction Design, he mentions that unpredictable surprises like this can release dopamine, a reward chemical in the brain. Not a bad treat for the user.

The PUSH interaction is unexpected in at least two ways. First, most guests are not familiar with it – a talking trash can was not on their long list of things they were planning to experience. Second, the actual appearance of PUSH may happen at a variety of locations throughout the park, often simply intruding on a guest’s day without notice.

2) Humorous. The ‘delight’ aspect in this case is accomplished through the use of humor. A trash can which gave dull requests would not be met by the same level of enjoyment. I think back to the first voice-enabled cars from the 1980s that scolded drivers with statements like, “your door is ajar.” While some kids may have found that funny (the car thinks the door is a jar!), adults were not so amused.

Engaging, surprising and delighting people are the essential ingredients for success in a world where every product can perform easily to a baseline standard of efficacy. Aspiring to anything less will lead to mundane me-too results, and in turn, indifference and failure.David MacGregory summarizing Alex McDowell

3) Engaging. The user/guest can continue the interaction; it is not a one-directional experience. Because PUSH is basically a high-tech puppet, it can carry on a conversation. The longer this experience lasts, the more emotional engagement and memories are built.

4) Effective. Perhaps most intriguing is that these elements support the primary task of the trash can – to prevent littering and encourage people to throw-away their garbage. In other designs, the danger is that some things added to surprise and delight may seem tacked-on and unnecessary, like an animation that goes on too long or a quirky bit of random text on a web site.

Not every trash can should talk!  Please use care when applying these principles…

OSX Not All Trash Cans Shoult Talk

Thanks for visiting

For those of you worried about seeing PUSH on your next park visit, do not fear, business is always picking-up when it comes to trash cans. Disney has heard that guests “refuse” to accept it getting thrown-away so simply and say that it currently plans to keep PUSH. I’m glad they cleaned-up their act.

Lead photo from Flickr user Brett Kiger
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