A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Designing Fun

What is “Fun?”

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“I’ll know it when I see it.”

In 1964, in Jacobellis v. Ohio, the US Supreme Court needed to decide whether the state of Ohio could ban a film it called “obscene”—a concept people understood but were hard-pressed to define. Justice Potter Stewart, in his concurring opinion, wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

As designers, we get a lot of similarly elusive adjectives from clients, as they tell us what they want their sites to be: “The site needs to be ‘cool,’” “It should be ‘exciting,’” “I want it to ‘pop.’” When we ask them to clarify, the answer we get back sounds a lot like “I can’t tell you what it is, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Fun” is a particularly difficult concept to define. And we’re starting to hear it a lot more from clients as we design for different contexts of use.

The good news? We all have an idea of what “fun” is.  The bad news? The nuances in these ideas—among designers, clients, and most importantly, users—can mean the difference between a successful project and an unsuccessful one.

So what’s a designer to do?

Fortunately, it’s possible to create designs that are “fun” without resorting to the old “I’ll know it when I see it” method. There will always be an element of subjectivity in designing fun, but by defining, researching, building, and measuring, we can develop a long-term approach for incorporating “fun” into our designs. And maybe even have some fun in the process.

Designing for fun

In my experience designing for kids, I’ve had success designing for fun by using a specific set of activities.  While there’s no perfect formula, these steps have helped me (and my clients) move past the “I’ll know it when I see it” phenomenon.

Steps for designing fun

  • Define It
  • Rank It
  • Research It
  • Task It Out
  • Test It

Define It

In the late ’90s, I designed a kids’ website for Georgia Public Television.  We had great requirements, a motivated client, a fabulous group of kid collaborators, and super-cool content. We conducted loads of research and iterated through paper prototype tests to make sure we were on the right track. But when we showed our client—we’ll call her Barbara—the first round of design comps, she looked crestfallen. She said, “It’s nice, but it’s not ‘fun.’” We were shocked. What about our beautiful, colorful, inviting screens wasn’t “fun?”

We found out that Barbara’s definition of “fun” was different than ours. She wanted something with movement, and our designs, lovely as they were, didn’t move. Fortunately, in 1998, adding “movement” meant throwing a couple of animated GIFs on the home screen, so we were able to fix the problem pretty quickly. But the larger issue—that we didn’t agree on what “fun” meant—put us at risk of making our client (and potentially our young users) unhappy.

What we should have done at the beginning of the project was operationally define “fun”—to come up with an agreed-upon definition and set of expectations to guide us—and then evaluate that definition with users during research.

Here’s an example of what an operational definition might look like for a similar project:

Operational Definition: “FUN” means engaging six–eight year-old kids and parents in unexpected ways, using characters and videos from XYZ TV show to amuse, inform, and entertain.

For this site to be “fun” it must include:

  • motion and sound (both user generated and non-user generated),
  • bold colors and background textures,
  • imagery instead of text (where possible),
  • short, action-oriented copy blocks,
  • video clips embedded in the design,
  • opportunities for “unexpected” interaction, and
  • “game-like” exploration.

You’ll want to evolve the expectations based on what you learn from users, but defining “fun” before you start designing it helps set you up for success.

Once you agree on a definition, look for examples of sites, products, or apps that illustrate that definition, as well as examples of things that don’t. These examples will help clients understand the definition and decide if they agree. They’ll also give you materials to use during research.

Rank It

Figure out how important “fun” is to the site as a whole. Will it fail completely if it’s not fun? Or will adding fun elements distinguish it from its competitors and make it more pleasurable to use? You don’t need complex calculations and quantitative ranking here, just a quick prioritization exercise to see how much or how little you should emphasize fun during the design process.

Here are some questions to use when ranking fun:

  1. Why do you want the site to be fun?
  2. How will a fun site influence your users? (Will it help/hinder people from completing tasks or getting content?)
  3. How does “fun” fit in with the site’s content, message, and actions?
  4. How will a fun site affect how people perceive the product or brand?
  5. How will your site fare against competitors if it is (or isn’t) fun?

Based on your answers to these questions, rank “fun” on a scale of 1–3, where one is the highest priority and three the lowest.

  1. A rank of one means fun is essential to the site’s success. Conduct extensive user research to see if your definition is correct, revise if necessary, then laminate your definition and hang it on the walls of everyone involved in the project. Add the definition to your requirements and enlist project stakeholders in ensuring it is met through the design and functionality.
  2. A rank of two means fun will enhance your users’ site experience and differentiate you from competitors. Do some interviews to see if users agree with your definition, and then add it to your requirements as a medium-priority item. Make sure the team keeps the definition in mind when designing.
  3. A rank of three means fun will improve the site experience, but users won’t feel a tremendous impact if it’s not fun. Do some quick surveys to see if users define “fun” in the same way you do, and add your definition to the requirements as “nice to have.”

Research It

Once you’ve defined and prioritized “fun,” you’ll need to see if your users feel the same way. The research technique(s) you choose for this depend on your definition and ranking.

Some research options include:

  • Surveys: Surveys will give you self-reported informational trends about how people feel. You won’t get a lot of insight into how fun affects user behavior from surveys, but you’ll be able to learn if your users define fun the same way you do.  Surveys can also help you quantify and rank user attitudes.
  • Interviews: Interviews let you observe users’ reactions as you show them the examples you gathered. You’ll also be able to ask follow-up questions when you need more information. You won’t get statistically relevant results, but you’ll have a chance to see users’ thought processes in addition to understanding their definition of “fun.”
  • Observational Studies: If you’ve ranked “fun” as highly important to the site’s success, you may want to conduct observational studies.  These let you watch people use the example sites you’ve selected. You’ll be able to see first-hand how users define fun. More importantly, you’ll see how and if fun affects their behavior.

It really doesn’t matter what technique you use as long as you evaluate your definition with the people who will be using the site.

Task It Out

A design itself isn’t fun. It’s how the elements and actions come together within the design that makes it fun. If you think about fun in terms of activities that could enhance your users’ primary goals, you’ll have an easier time designing the flows and processes to fit your definition.

First, come up with a set of actions that imply fun. You’ll want to tailor these to your users and site goals, but here are some good ones to start with:

  • Play
  • Explore
  • Create

Then, figure out ways to incorporate these activities as part of the main user tasks.


Let’s look at two examples from the travel industry: Wanderfly and Orbitz.  Wanderfly does a nice job including elements of “play” in its trip-finder design. Instead of standard click-and-select drop-down menus and text entry fields, it invites users to play via selectable buttons and draggable sliders. This makes the travel-planning process easier and more enjoyable.

Wanderfly's Trip Finder Interface

Fig 1: Wanderfly’s trip finder invites users to play.

Providing opportunities to play increases Wanderfly’s “fun” quotient.  What’s important to note here, however, is that Wanderfly uses play to facilitate, as opposed to detract from, the main user goals. That’s pretty hard to do. You’ll need to evaluate, during usability testing, whether your design uses the concept of “play” to make tasks easier and doesn’t take users’ focus away from what they’re trying to do. People will come to your site for a reason; they aren’t looking to just mess around with cool interactions.

Orbitz’s trip finder, while functional, isn’t exactly “fun.” Users can easily make travel arrangements, which is the main site goal, but the site doesn’t go out of its way to make the experience pleasurable.

Orbitz Interface Design

Fig 2: In contrast, Orbitz doesn’t go out of its way to be playful.

If you’ve identified “fun” as a site goal, see which tasks (if any) would lend themselves to elements of play.


Discovering and uncovering unexpected functionality as part of a goal can make the overall experience more enjoyable for users. Let’s take a look at some examples from the world of finance.

Reuters invites exploration with its lovely world markets infographic:

Reuters World Market Data Inforgraphic

Fig 3: Reuters’ world markets data infographic invites exploration.

Reuters uses a map of the world to invite exploration. By placing data geographically on the map, the site lets users achieve their goal—seeing market stats—in a fun and engaging way. The red and green circles show users whether the markets are up or down, and by how much. Rolling over the market name reveals percentage information.  Reuters uses exploration and discovery to help users get the information they need in an easy and pleasurable way.

Let’s look at similar data from Bloomberg:

Bloomberg's World Markets Data

Fig 4: Bloomberg’s world markets data, less exploratory in design.

Nothing’s wrong with Bloomberg’s design, but it’s not especially enjoyable to use. I would argue that the absence of “discovery” here removes a layer of information available on the Reuters’ map. Users can’t as easily visualize the market area they’re looking for.

“Fun” may not seem like an important goal for a finance site, but incorporating elements of play and exploration can make it easier for people to find and understand data.


Allowing users to create something—be it a product, a service, or the site itself—introduces fun into the design. This works especially well on commerce sites, where users are looking to buy a certain product.

Let’s look at sites selling engagement rings. Blue Nile’s interface lets prospective brides and grooms create their own designs. 

Blue Nile Build Your Own Ring Interface

Fig 5: Blue Nile’s “Build Your Own Ring” interface lets users build and create.

By allowing users to build and create a product, the site adds an element of fun to what can otherwise be an overwhelming shopping experience. Fun in this instance not only helps people accomplish their goals, it also keeps them engaged by “revealing” prices as they move through the creation process.

Contrast that with Kay Jewelers’ engagement-ring commerce design:

Kay Jewelers Engagement Ring Interface Design

Fig 6: Kay Jewelers’ engagement ring display forces users to choose from existing designs.

Kay shows users page after page of row after row of engagement-ring settings. Other than filtering results by price and metal, users can’t really do anything to make the process more personal, inviting, or fun. Even if Kay just added more robust sort or filter functionality, like Tiffany’s does below, it would give a sense of creation and exploration.

Tiffany's Engagement Ring Finder

Fig 7: Tiffany’s engagement ring finder provides additional “creation” options.

Inviting people to use your site to create increases the fun factor and can make it easier for them to complete their main goals.

When designing, see how these activities can compliment the site’s key tasks and goals. If you find incorporating these actions into the interaction design makes it harder for users to accomplish tasks, you’ll want to either select different activities or re-evaluate how you’ve ranked fun in importance to the site’s success.

Test It

So, you’ve defined, ranked, evaluated, and tasked, and you’ve come up with a great design you and your clients agree is fun. How do you know if you’ve succeeded without falling into the “I’ll know it when I see it” trap?

You can evaluate “fun” along with usability during standard task-based testing. But it takes shrewd listening, observing, and questioning skills to do this without leading participants.

Since “fun” is not a behavior, it’s difficult to observe and interpret. You’ll need to lean heavily on the talk-aloud protocol. Listen to the adjectives participants are using as they’re completing the tasks you’ve given them, and watch their facial expressions. 

Context is really important here. You don’t want your site to be so much fun that users don’t accomplish their (and your) intended goals. You also don’t want the fun aspects to get in the users’ way. Ask users to complete different, yet similar, tasks multiple times, where they have to use the same mechanisms and see similar design elements. If they seem annoyed or frustrated, chances are the “fun” is holding them back from doing stuff quickly. If they enjoy the process and can complete tasks quickly, the design is probably working for them.

After you’ve finished the task-completion activities, ask follow-up questions about the site as a whole. Listen for “positive” adjectives like fun (obviously), interesting, cool, unexpected, easy, engaging, and simple, and for “negative” or “neutral” ones like boring, fine, as expected, normal, difficult, and annoying.  The adjectives won’t tell the whole story, of course, but they will give you insight into how users view the overall design.

It’s also a good idea to post a self-selecting survey when the site launches, and then again 3–6 months later. Include a question about how often respondents use the site on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, depending on site goals. This will give you initial feedback on how users respond to the fun aspects of the site and whether or not they’re still fun after several months of use.

In Conclusion

“Fun” is always going to have an emotional component. No matter how closely you follow the above process, someone is going to disagree—with your definition, ranking, tasks, or design decisions. However, by thinking critically about what it means for a site to be “fun,” and by taking the time to define, evaluate, task and test, you’ll be able to move away from “I’ll know it when I see it” to “I’m confident you’ll design something I think is fun.”

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