Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Playful Data: 3 Inspiring Interactive Web Sites

Immersive visualizations keep people interested ...

"When you try to imagine a cool, fun application, I'm betting managing household finances is not what comes to mind. At a cocktail party, you won't win any "cool points" when you announce you're now efficiently tracking your bills and budgeting your expenses.

Yet, when users use the new finance website, Mint.com, they get excited about it. Part of what makes Mint exciting is the site's interactive graphics. We've watched users become absorbed with the various displays, investigating different views of their financial data. Mint has managed to get users to attend to their finances the way teenagers immerse themselves in a video game.

Immersive visualizations are not new ground for us. In a previous article, we discussed how the New York Times' online interactive apps are inspiring designers to make their data more playful. Turns out the NYTimes.com designers aren't the only folks doing that.

The Magic in Comparisons

One of the most compelling parts of using Mint is seeing how you're spending. You can compare one category, such as groceries, with another, such as restaurants. You can compare it over time, such as looking at how gift spending was higher in December than January. You can also compare your spending in a category, such as Gas, to the national average or the average of folks in your hometown.

All this is done with simple pie charts and bar charts. There isn't any sophistication in the graphics (though they are nicely rendered, which seems to help), yet the data is made more "real" because it belongs to the user and is portrayed with an understated elegance.

Users tell us that all this comparing is fun. Partly, it's fun because they're exploring their data. Seeing they saved money in a category by changing their behavior is encouraging. Finding insights in where they could get further savings is exciting.

Another reason it's fun is because of the game-like nature of the application. Mint.com is very responsive, partly because the graphics are so simple -- clicking on a slice of the pie zooms into the spending of that category in just a few seconds. Nice cinematic effects make the transitions smooth and easy to watch. In many applications, cinematic effects can get annoying after the first few times. Yet, Mint's designers have done a great job of keeping them crisp and meaningful.

There is something we can learn about how to design tools that help us explore our own data in a fun and interesting way.

Bringing Hidden Data To The Surface

As they regularly book trips, frequent travelers learn common wisdom and tricks to best make their reservations. For example, they learn that flights usually get more expensive the longer you wait to make your travel arrangements. However, much of this education comes from expensive and inefficient means, such as checking fares frequently to see how they change and unknowingly buying tickets at a premium price.

Travelers who are not aware of these secrets then spend more than they have to. Those who think they have the inside scoop find out that the airlines don't always work in the way they expect, and they miss last minute bargains."    (Continued via UIE, Jared Spool)    [Usability Resources]

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