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Alice in Wonderland: User Experience

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of my favorite books. Over the years, I have thought and written about it from various angles. The imaginative children’s adventure tale (technically not a “fairy-tale” since Alice wakes up making the whole thing a dream), the satirical portrayal of victorian society and the sinister, secret world of Lewis Carroll’s perhaps unwholesome fascination with Alice Liddell are some of the themes which drew me to the book. As I make my own way down the rabbit hole of ITP, I want to take a fresh look at the adventure through the lens of user experience.

Since the moment of entering the unfamiliar world of Wonderland, Alice relies on clues from the environment to find her way. The guidance she receives is for the most part, confusing and misleading, resulting in many errors and frustrations. Miscommunication is one of Lewis Carroll’s favorite themes as he purposefully plays with nonsensical language and situations.

Many misunderstandings arise because characters native to Wonderland take the rules of their world for granted and don’t structure their advice in a way that’s comprehensive to an outsider. Bad user experiences often suffer from the same lack of “new user” awareness.

In the real world of user experience, bad labeling could set the user on a wild goose chase that ends without accomplishment of their goal. The bottle labels in the first room Alice enters are a good example. Unclear, mischievous instructions prevent Alice from entering the beautiful garden right away. Or perhaps this design was cleverer than I describe it, since it sent her on an entertaining adventure around Wonderland.

If you picture Wonderland as a traditional museum, the rabbit falls into the role of a docent / guide. Hard to catch and unhelpful, he symbolizes every museum visitor’s frustrating experience. In this scenario, the Cheshire Cat could be seen as a curator. Illusive with a mocking “better than though” attitude, he floats in and out at will, leaving no room for user-initialized interaction. The chaos at the Dutch’s house is a parallel of a weekend family morning in a poorly designed museum lobby. Analyzing the irrational behavior of the Mad Tea Party could give insight into the madness of a disorganized design process.

1 comment to Alice in Wonderland: User Experience

  • nms340

    Yulia, thanks for a very ITP look at Alice in Wonderland – the land of bad user experience – haha! Many a time I have squirmed in agonized frustration over the character’s and that world’s obtuse and opaque instructions or commands, while Alice politely tried to follow them in vain. Yet, some of those instructions I have encountered in the real world, over and over again, before I even really knew the story. Tags reading “Eat me.” “Drink me.” Simple commands like a dare. A dare to take a risk. To possibly get lost.
    Directions given in Wonderland seem not to be about guiding you or pointing you along the way, but seem more about helping you get lost. In someways that seems to be what ITP wants for us, to get lost in the world of new media. As it is one that is constantly changing, it’s not very hard to feel lost. Pcomp instructions at times felt as obtuse as a Mad Hatter’s, and an instruction to “look it up” can send you down a rabbit’s hole of possibilities.
    But there is a curious power in getting lost. It can make you feel like a child again, vulnerable. It can also help you shed preconceptions, when you don’t know what to expect, you are more open to unexpected possibilities. It can bring out survival instincts, the unfamiliar making you more alert and focused. It can be exciting, to be lost in new places or new thoughts, feeling them out and discovering what they are all about.
    When I was in college and would get very stressed I would try my own little Alice experiments to calm down. I would purposefully try to get lost. When my mind was boiling over with assignment stress and negative thoughts, I’d point myself in a direction of the city I hadn’t been before and walk quickly without thinking too much about which turns I took or where I was going. I’d usually do this for about an hour. The act of simply walking would help unravel my thoughts and once the boil in my head came down to a simmer I would turn around and find my way back at a much slower pace, taking the time to explore the new area along the way. Getting lost in this way became a very soothing exercise. Getting lost at ITP has be much more stressful, but also extremely thrilling.
    Before I’d ever read Alice in Wonderland, I’d seen a myriad of film versions, starting with the Disney cartoon of course. For me, the most powerful scene of that film was always the part where Alice is following the Mome Raths’ trail to home. She is so happy and relieved to finally be given some directions that she can follow, only to encounter the sweeping dog who’d erased the rest of the trail. When she collapsed on the little square of remaining trail and cried all the creatures of Tulgey Wood cried and I alway felt like crying to. The despair of her utter lostness was palpable. At the same time I was always disappointed that she was just trying to race through that mysterious and beautiful wood full of the most interesting and amusing creatures of the film. I would have preferred an exploratory stroll.
    My favorite film adaptation has to be Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. Instead of imaging Wonderland as a world of fantasy that is alien and outside of our own and on a cosmic scale, Svankamajer made Alice’s own home the locus of Wonderland. Everyday objects – dolls, jars, socks, playing cards – became Wonderland’s bewildering denizens. They could have been projects made from our own shop junk shelf. The familiar made unfamiliar has a particularly powerful and uncanny effect. In many ways it seems the most eerie and dangerous of all the Wodnerlands. To be lost in ones own home. Sometimes the floor feels distinctly like Syankmajer’s Wonderland.