The UX of liminal (transient) spaces

In other words, the benefits of waiting.

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It’s nothing new. Liminal experiences are already all around us: from a movie poster at the bus stop to a billboard on the highway, to an inspirational quote at the bottom of a company newsletter, to absolutely everything at the airport (except for the planes). We’re already accustomed to seeing stuff in places we don’t necessarily expect to see it. They’ve got TVs in the elevators now, telling us the weather; TVs at the gas pumps, bragging about the specials. They know we’re there. They know we’re bored. And they know we got nothing better to do than stare at our phones or look around at whatever’s hanging on the wall. In short, they got us. We’re a captive audience, albeit briefly.

The point is, taking advantage of people stuck waiting for something by providing them content to keep their minds occupied just plain makes sense. Here, we’ll take a look at some ‘traditional’ digital forms of liminal UX, followed by some interesting new ways HTML5 lets us expand upon the idea. And how AR might take these ideas to an extreme in the relatively near future.

App loading states

Waiting for an application to load represents another form of liminal space. The strategy of placing content on mobile app loading screens (upon app launch) has been around as long as the App Store—usually as a vehicle for reinforcing one’s brand. Company logo (and occasionally tagline) being the most commonly displayed assets. In the past, I’ve worked on apps that attempted to use the loading screen as an opportunity to deliver marketing and other messaging as well, with varying degrees of success. The general rule here is: keep it simple. For instance, the Feedly iPhone news reader app displays the message, “Never stop learning,” while Duolingo, shows you an interesting fact upon launch—something like, “The number one language studied in Japan is Swedish” (I made that one up). Again: varying degrees of success. Some users like them, some not so much.

Generally speaking, we’ve opted not to put anything important in this space because the length of time the loading screen will be visible tends to be unpredictable and the greater priority is getting the user into the app. As RandomTed attests in the duolingo forum: “for me they only remain for a flash of a second, and you have to be really quick to read them. I do Duolingo with my son, and when it comes on I start to read it out-loud and usually only get 4 words in before it disappears. We joke about how pointless it is.”

This technique is not just limited to mobile apps, however. The desktop version of Slack does the same thing upon app load, usually displaying a tip about how to use the application.

Occasionally the app will pay you a cheeky compliment, like, “You look nice today.” Slack even goes one step further and randomly displays custom messages you create yourself. Which is a fun way to celebrate the goofy things your coworkers say. Unfortunately, there’s no way to pause the message, so even here it’s pretty difficult to read anything longer than a few words.

Navigation menu states

Netflix (at least on 4K AppleTV) provides a sort of background auto-trailer, which is pretty nifty. When you’re still navigating through movies, and select a thumbnail for one in the main menu screen, without clicking the thumbnail—and before you’re even on that movie’s specific menu screen—Netflix starts playing the trailer in the background—full-screen, behind the movie title and the nav thumbnails and everything. Visually, it’s very effective. Why force the user to click to view a trailer when it can just start playing in the background?

Paused states

Imagine my surprise at the ingenuity of Amazon Prime Video, when I paused a movie to make some popcorn and was presented with the following:

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There’s no reason Amazon should do this, except that it’s cool. They literally provide the equivalent of an interactive mini-site that displays the actors’ names, what scene they’re in, even the music that’s playing.

It’s called X-Ray for Movies & TV Shows and it’s powered by IMDB. Access actor bios, background information, and more. CNET calls the feature “one of Amazon's unsung heroes,” and tells us everything we’d want to know about it here.

“The tool instantly provides extra information about what you're seeing on screen at any given time: the names of actors and other shows or movies they've appeared in; the name of whatever music is currently playing; even trivia about a particular scene, location, bit of dialog and so on.”

Currently, the feature requires a live internet connection (obviously) and is available only for selected Prime Video titles on the Prime Video website (HTML5 web player), Amazon Fire TV devices, and on certain Smart TVs, including our LG TV, since it apparently supports HTML5. The feature doesn’t appear on our AppleTV 4K.

Interestingly, the menus let you jump to the scene in which a certain actor or song appears. I’m not sure why someone would want to do this, but it’s fun and interesting, and probably a precursor to buying stuff.

There’s no limit to the potential of this drilling-down technique. At least a decade ago I had the idea to create an app that would let users purchase things they saw on screen. Not just in commercials, but in movies and TV shows as well—articles of clothing actors are wearing, for instance, furniture in a room, the soundtrack album playing in the background. But I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Now the feature seems simple, even inevitable. Perhaps this may eventually be used to supplement commercials. As an alternative to interrupting a show, the product may simply be placed in the scene. Those who are interested can purchase it right from the TV, using their TV remote or mobile device. Case in point: Amazon already lets you purchase songs directly from this menu, so long as they're available on Amazon.

The downside: distraction

While this sort of drilling-down into relevant information makes a lot of sense for games, since a child addicted to Minecraft would be unlikely not to return to a game after checking out some options made available on a pause screen, it remains a lousy choice for someone in the midst of an online purchase, unless options provided included the same item at a lower price, with faster shipping, or with a local pickup option that allowed the user to avoid a shipping charge altogether.

So, from a marketing standpoint, this one is a real balancing act. On the one hand, you always want to offer the user as robust an experience as possible. But on the other hand, you don’t want them to get distracted and venture down a deep wormhole, never to return to complete whatever task they were previously in the middle of!

Alexa & Google Home to AR & Google Glass

Consider where all this might be headed. The makers of a voice-activated digital assistant like Alexa or Google Home might suddenly decide their smart speakers should talk when no one else is. Maybe they’ll pipe up out of the blue to give us more detail about the items we left in our shopping cart. Maybe they’ll let us know when items in our Amazon shopping list decrease in price. Who knows?

And when it comes to AR and the digital layer—well, that’s pretty much made for this sort of ancillary information! One would almost expect an AR device like Google Glass to spontaneously provide detailed information about the world around us (as well as enabling us to purchase online anything we can see). This is the logical extension of the premise, so, get ready, folks! Hopefully, we’ll be able to turn it off.

Lastly, for those wondering how my Chatbot Law crusade is going, here’s a link to the letter my lawyer (and oldest friend) David Neumann and I sent off to Ohio Governor John Kasich and Richard Cordray, Former Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I’ll let you know as soon as we hear back!

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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