Lessons from Harry Potter

normal_patronusa.jpgSo tonight is the big night for all those muggles who have waited for the final installment of the Harry Potter series of books. To all those Harry Potter fans, I hope it was worth the wait and anticipation.

With the exception of the much heralded Windows 95 release, and I guess the recent iPhone release (though that technically isn’t software), I can’t recall a software product that has had people waiting in line at midnight in stores to get their hands on it. Again, not technically software, but the XBox releases did cause lineups, and in some cases, chaotic situations at retailers.

So the question is, how can a book have this kind of impact on so many people worldwide?

In short, it is the “user experience” that drives this kind of reaction. On a secondary note, it is the clever marketing that multiplies the demand.

In the case of the Harry Potter books, it is the characters, the world and the attention to detail that provide such a rich user experience for the reader. One could almost call it an “immersive environment”.

I remember playing Doom, way back when, particularly deathmatches over our internal network against coworkers. We’d play for an hour straight, but it would only seem like 15 minutes had passed by.

These kinds of experiences are not restricted to books or software. Virtually any form of interaction can become immersive in some way. I remember going to the theatre to see the Fellowship of the Ring when it came out. I had read the three Lord of the Rings books (a few times) as a teenager and loved them. I really was looking forward to seeing the movie, and it didn’t disappoint. The lush imagery of Rivendell, the battles in the mines of Moria, the ending with the battle against the Uruk Hai and the separation of the Fellowship, the personalities of the characters, and the attention to detail in the scenery were all wonderfully done.

Three hours passed, and as the movie was ending, I still wanted more. Why, because even though it was a fantasy movie, it was almost completely internally 100% consistent. I didn’t, at anytime think the Hobbits were simply actors made small through special effects. I didn’t think at anytime that the actions of the characters didn’t make sense. I was willing to suspend disbelief and accept that a fantasy world of Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Hobbits, Orcs, Wizards and the like could be real.

So getting back to software, particularly business software, can there ever be such a rich user experience that can drive demand in the way there is for books like Harry Potter? I think the answer is yes? Why can’t there be? Of all the media we have, software has the potential to be the most totally immersive. Not only can software provide rich aural and visual stimulation, it is truly interactive, responds to our actions, and can stimulate parts of our brains that books or even movies cannot. But in order to do so, like other things, it has to be internally self-consistent.

For software that means, it must be logically laid out, and intuitive to use. I shouldn’t have to move my cognitive frame of reference back and forth, from the software environment, back into the real world to figure out what to do. Once inside the software mindset, I should be able to get my job done in a natural and logical manner. Good software can be built to make that happen, but most of the time we cut corners and get a bit lazy or run out of time and expose all the rough edges to users.

Imagine if J.K. Rowling did that with the Harry Potter series. What if she decided that for the sake of time, she’d ignore aspects of characters revealed in previous books and make the characters behave differently from what the readers had come to expect? Or what if she decided to change her mind about the relationship between Harry and Voldemort, because it would take too long to write, and her publisher had a deadline to meet? The answers are obvious.

When we create software, we really need to take a step back, and get inside the users mind, and think about how to create an experience for them that has the hallmarks of a great book or a great movie or a great video game. We know what they are. The challenge is, how many of us are willing to invest the time and effort to make it happen.



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