The Fun Theory website (thefuntheory.com) recently posted the results of a social experiment designed to change user behavior—to get commuters to take the stairs rather than the escalator. The thinking was that if they made the stairs more fun, that people would take them. So, they painted piano keys on the stairs. Did it work? See for yourself.
The Washington Post conducted a similar experiment in Washington, D.C. They asked Joshua Bell, one of the finest violinists in the world, to stand in a commuter train station during morning rush hour and play. People travel hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to hear him, and yet when he stood there playing in public, virtually no one stopped to listen. Yes, really.
So why did the two experiments have such different results? I think the biggest difference is that the piano staircase didn’t require the participants to stop and watch or listen to something–they were able to do it in the normal course of what they were doing anyway, whereas they had to stop to listen to Joshua Bell. (Personally, I would stop in the path of an oncoming train to hear Joshua Bell, but … that’s just me.)
The point is that making an experience easy for a user isn’t enough. It needs to be engaging, but that engagement can’t slow them down in the completion of a task—so please, don’t interrupt me when I’m ordering shoes online (from macys.com of course) to ask me to take a poll, or play a game, or whatever. You can do those things, and you probably should—but like everything else, they have their time and place. One more reason why user experience planning is so important.