Consider the remote control. Today, they start at maximum difficulty. But what if the layout changed as a user got more comfortable? The UI would start extremely basic.

Figure 1

This idea is based on the concept of the “flow zone,” where challenge and skill are equally balanced. Staying in this flow zone maximizes our interest in learning complex tasks, like learning how to operate a complex gadget.

Figure 2

Philip Battin uses the concept of flow to map how a user can progress to higher levels of feature difficulty for a TV. Initially, the user is a novice with 0 XP. Hence, they only see the most basic level of interactions. Actions such as turning the TV on give you more XP.

Figure 2

Eventually, more functionality is revealed. Messages inform the user about new functionalities, thus encouraging more interactions.

Figure 2

To capture the user’s attention, colorful markers flag newly introduced functionalities.

Figure 3

A map of how the levels would progress on a concept TV.

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The Next Big UI Idea: Gadgets That Adapt To Your Skill

As gadgets get more complicated, UIs must be able to teach their users over time. Philip Battin shows how.

More and more interactive products are being returned. In 2002, 48% of all returned products were technically fully functional but were rejected for failing to satisfy user needs (28%) or purely due to users’ remorse (20%). Even though a product may have all the features one can hope for, complexity and bad user experience can prevent users from integrating it into their lives.

User experiences are subjective and dynamic, but by and large, interactive products are not designed to take people’s changing capacity and experience into account. But they could. Here, I present a model for how designers can use the fundamentals of video games and the psychological principles of flow to design enhanced user experiences.

Going With The Flow

In 1975, the Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined his theory of "flow" in his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He defined the concept as ‘‘the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement.’’ When in the flow state, people become absorbed in their activity, narrowing their awareness to the activity itself, losing self-consciousness, and feeling in control of their environment. Flow is also proven to have a positive impact on learning. In skiing, novice practitioners are advised to spend the first few days at the green beginner slopes to get the best learning experience. On the other hand, experienced skiers will find themselves bored at the beginner slopes and must seek their optimal experience on the black expert slopes. This individual balance between skill and challenge is, according to Csikszentmihalyi, called the "flow zone" and staying in this flow zone is the best possible way to learn and make progress while still feeling constantly challenged and intrinsically motivated.

While flow has been extensively applied in studying a broad range of contexts, such as sports, shopping, rock climbing, dancing and others, I believe that, by drawing inspiration from video games, flow can be used to improve the user experience in interactive electronic consumer products.

Video games

Video games have evolved from simple games, where users had to bounce a ball around the screen, into advanced three-dimensional multiplayer environments. Modern video games feature social interaction, engaging cognitive processes, and complex challenges. One should think this increased complexity would result in games being too challenging for novice gamers, but the fact is that some of the best-selling games on the market are among the most complex. Some even succeed in entertaining novice as well as expert gamers in the same virtual world. One of the keys to this success is the effective implementation of the principles of flow, which has been found to have a great influence on the way players experience and value video games.

World of Warcraft (WoW), a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), has 12 million players. When entering WoW as a player on a novice level, you first encounter basic challenges that slowly introduce you to the universe and its mechanics. As you complete these quests, you gain Experience Points (XP) and your character’s level rises. Higher levels unlock new challenges, functionalities, and increasing difficulty. Eventually, you’re introduced to the full potential of the game, with challenges the involve social interactions with other players.

This system allows every player to stay in his or her individual flow zone, and progress through the game at own pace while constantly feeling challenged and intrinsically motivated. (Research confirms that playing World of Warcraft is just as cognitively challenging for novice players as for proficient ones, contributing to the long-term value of the game.) Just as computer games use the flow principles to create a user experience that reflects the skills of the user, so should interactive electronic consumer products. Can user experiences be designed to adapt responsively the challenges of product interactions to the skills of the user to enhance usability and learnability and provide the user with a pro-longed positive experience?

Complex televisions

Televisions have evolved from being signal receivers into universal multimedia hubs offering features such as Skype, Internet browsing, hard-drive recording, streaming online content, and apps, making operating a television much more complicated than it ever has been before. The complexity itself is not a bad thing. We do not buy televisions for their simplicity but for their features. However, complexity can be managed and presented in a manner that reduces clutter, confusion, and cognitive workload. In order to design a prolonged user experience, complexity has to be sequenced into challenges that match the skills of the users, giving them the chance to learn progressively and feel satisfied while doing so.

For this essay, I’ve chosen to focus on the Samsung E8005 SmartTV television. SmartTVs, also known as hybrid TVs or Connected TVs, are televisions that are integrated with the Internet. These devices have a higher focus on online interactive media, Internet TV as well as on-demand streaming media. Reviewers have described the new Samsung SmartTV’s as hard to use, clumsy, and unintuitive.

[Initially the television assumes the user is a novice based on the fact that every new user has 0 Exp. This means the user is presented only the most basic level of interactions.]

Learning how to use complex products is like learning a computer game

Just like the challenges in video games match the skills of the user, so should TV interactions. For reference, I’ve used four levels described in the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition.

Level 1: Novice
• Rigid adherence to taught rules or plans
• No exercise of "discretionary judgment"

Level 2: Advanced beginner
• Limited "situational perception"
• All aspects of work treated separately with equal importance

Level 3: Competent
• "Coping with crowdedness" (multiple activities, accumulation of information)
• Some perception of actions in relation to goals
• Deliberate planning
• Formulates routines

Level 4: Proficient
• Holistic view of situation
• Prioritizes importance of aspects
• "Perceives deviations from the normal pattern"
• Employs maxim for guidance, with meanings that adapt to the situation at hand

The skill level of a user reflects what kind of product interactions they are capable of carrying out. Simple interactions, such as turning on the television and switching channels, are universal and common interactions known to most novice users of televisions. However, installing new hardware upgrades using the Samsung Evolution Kit requires users to open a compartment in the back of the television and attach a new chip to the motherboard—a task most novice users may find confusing and too challenging. In order to match the skill level of the user, all product interactions need to be assessed for their challenge level.

Novice users are expected to be able to turn on the television, adjust the volume, switch channel, and open the "Smarthub" dashboard. Furthermore, this means an advanced beginner user with a skill level of 2, is expected to be able to carry out interactions such as recording content from broadcast TV, install applications and share content via "connect share."

Like in video games, a user can advance to the next level based on the number of XP that she has accumulated. Any successfully executed interaction results in more XP matching the level of challenge. For turning on the TV, a novice will be awarded 10 XP, for scheduling a TV recording a user would earn 40 XP. A user can advance to the next level only by reaching of the XP milestones corresponding to each level.

Different challenge levels award different amounts of XP, to prevent users from only carrying out novice interactions and eventually progressing to new skill levels. New skill levels should preferably only be reached by using more challenging features of the television.

What You See Is What You Can Do

The skill level of a user indicates how challenging the interactions can be. Based on this concept, the interface of the future television and remote control should match the appropriate level of challenge to the user’s skill level. In this future interface, the skill level of the user dictates which interactions are available. Turn on the TV, can you get 10 XP; chose "Watch Television" and you get 10 more. At that point, only the least challenging interactions, such as volume and channel, are displayed. After switching channels and adjusting the volume, the user accumulates enough Exp to advance to skill level 2, meaning he or she is now considered an advanced beginner.

To nudge the user to try out more challenging interactions, a message appears on the screen and/or remote control stating: "Did you know: You can record what you see? View an overview of all channels? Setup the television to match your needs? Try it out now!"

New buttons appear on the remote control, giving the user access to more advanced interactions, which are highlighted with a colorful ribbon labeled "Try!" The ribbon serves as a continuous reminder of the new possibilities that have yet to be explored. By completing any of the newly revealed interactions, the user is awarded 20 Exp and the ribbon disappears.

Of course, there will be users buying televisions who are already familiar with technology. They may not consider themselves novice users and may have a need to instantly unlock the full potential of the product. To address this need, an "advanced button" can be activated, which removes the sequenced presentation of increasingly challenging interactions.


The above use-case is the initial concept for a responsive user experience. Further research would test whether the map of interactions is really correct; further prototyping provide valuable insights on how different users interact to this framework. (One open question: Does the advanced button help experienced users or just make things more complicated for the impatient user?) But one of the main challenges here is that the ultimate goal of role-play gaming is progress skill acquisition. The goal of operating a television is finding the right content to watch. Progress in any UI should be fitted to the user’s goals. How do we do that for TV’s and beyond?

Add New Comment


  • Laura Martin

    Great post. It's refreshing to see familiar constructs in one medium applied to others.

    While I do see the potential value of applying a progressive tutorial system into the user experience, it may also be worthwhile to consider the opposite: a more involved user interface reducing to a slimmer one.

    By "involved", I'm referring to a user interface that deliberately has more explanatory elements. For example, a Search button could have a familiar magnifying glass icon, a Search label, all surrounded by a button border. As users become more familiar with the interface, those components slowly go away: the border disappears, then the label is removed, until the icon is left. 

    This may make most sense in more complex systems that are not as frequently used as a remote control, but could inspire some new ideas. 

  • Battin

    Thanks for all the interesting responses. It has been very exciting to follow - both here on FC, but also on Twitter.

    I think it is important to remember my article is not about gamification in the sense of making it 'fun' to use your television or rewarding the user for his actions. What i am focusing on is the flow mechanics, which represent the balance between skills and challenge in learning, and is also found in sports, education and work. I use WoW as an example, because the designers of the game succesfully managed to implement flow mechanics to introduce new players to the game without lowering general difficulty, and possibilities, in the game. 

    What i am proposing is a new way of mapping complexity to match skills of the user over time and not just hiding complexity as suggested by 'progressive disclosure' paradigms.This, of course, creates new issues as many of you has succesfully pointed out: How do we know who is using the product, what about new users who are already experts or if it is even possible to create a sequenced user experience when the journey is not the goal (as in skiing, or gaming). 

    They are all really good questions I am not able to answer now, but I hope to find the time and opportunity to explore the concept further through prototyping and user testing. As a few also mentioned, maybe this idea doesn't fit a TV - which is often shared between several users (with different 'TV skills') - which is a really good observation. Maybe it will only work for personal products, or maybe you need to figure out some kind of system to recognize the different users of the TV.

    Thank you for the comments and please keep sending suggestions and critique here  on mail or on Twitter. I can also only recommend reading my paper for more details and references on this topic:

  • Andy π

    Great article. I think "responsive user experience" is a great concept in the same way someone wrote in a comment "designing interfaces that evolved through use". It's a great starting point and I'm sure it could be helpful in more than one case(not just for TV), as I'm sure we have felt identified with this image more than once: http://noisydecentgraphics.typ...

  • Emik

    Always good to read a few sensible thoughts on adaptive interface design.

    And to some of the 'but' responses (below): Step back. Are your comments really necessary? Does the information in your comment apply to the real world, or is it simply some contrarian objection deployed to demonstrate your cleverness? Save it for the 2 or 3 other twats you hang out with.

  • Fenchurch

    This sounds awesome. But is it for me?
    There is one minor theoretical flaw to it that totally levels the advantage a "level of detail" for UI offers for me.

    A subject learning anything will rise to it's maximum capacity in approximately constant time, regardless of the specific difficulty of any given task.

    i.e. a well versed human will get accustomed to Photoshop in the same magnitude of time as he will get accustomed to painter, horseback riding or baking sourdough. As for this product: a user will get to his full potential with the novice step in roughly the same time as he would have gotten to full potential with the later steps.
    Or voiced differently, a learning curve loves to expand into all the available time. Akin to  L J Peter (1969). 

    The introduction of intermediate steps to "greatness" will - in general - only increase accessibility but doesn't contribute to how fast a user will reach the end state of his task specific evolution.

    As many autodidactic users will probably agree, the best thing to do when learning is to embrace a steep learning curve. It gets you there faster. And the challenge itself is  a gain. Prolonging that phase by limiting the horizon of users will make for a sweeter but not fasster voyage.

    Accessibility. Yes. 
    Efficiency. Mayhaps.

  • Anna

    LayerVault recently did a blog post about their attempt to implement an adaptive logic into the UI. They call their approach "Progressive Reduction", where the interface becomes less intrusive over time as the user becomes more familiar with software functionality. So it's not exactly about offering up more complex features over time, but still, it's one way to acknowledge learning progress to the user:

  • Me

    Interesting ideas. My big issue is just that there is quite a difference between the examples and the proposed applications.

    With skiing or WoW, you learn as you play. These activities are about the journey, not really the destination (as there is no final destination). The enjoyment comes out of perpetually getting better. 

    With a gadget, I'm sure this sort of system is more likely to be perceived as a roadblock and an annoyance.

    Gadgets and video games come with tutorials all the time, and more often than not, people skip right through them. It's also no mystery why the phrase "Read The F***ing Manual" exists.

    People want to skip right to the fun! Maybe there is some middle-ground--some format that helps people learn their gadget as they use it, without the experience feeling like a boring tutorial.

  • Bill

    Thanks for the well written article Philip. There are some good ideas in there. I would, however, challenge the notion that this is the next big thing. We've had adaptive design, progressive disclosure and gamification as concepts for some time. Indeed, in the web world, people have been trying (mostly badly) to gamify otherwise mundane services for at least 5 years now. Progressive disclosure goes back somewhat further (I have some very dusty textbooks that talk about it at length). 

    For my part, I don't see why we shouldn't be challenging TV a little more than we are currently. Samsung and others are simply trying to bolt an app style infrastructure onto the current experience without first establishing whether that's even appropriate. As others have noted, TV is a fundamentally different experience to using a smartphone or even a tablet. It is fundamentally a shared and social device. It is risky to assume that smartphone design patterns and models will prove effective. 

    It may well be that if we come up with a different way of interacting with TV then that experience could be gamified in some way to permit learning (indeed if it is a really novel approach then this may be essential to aid learning). However gamifying the current, flawed, experience isn't really addressing the root of the problem.

  • Gabriel

    Very interesting thoughts, but television is a good example of how this idea is likely to fail. 

    First, everyone would need to have their own remote control (i.e. smartphone) - there's little room for a shared controller if personal achievement is tracked. This includes the kids, and visitors to the house. And someone who left their smartphone charging in the kitchen.

    Second, it becomes very hard to teach others how to use the television - someone asks how to do some advanced task, and I can't show them because they haven't yet unlocked that capability. 

    And third, if someone else is controlling the set and I want them to do something for me, they might not be able to do it because they don't have the required level of access.

    I'm sure there are many examples of applications that don't have these kinds of social / practical pitfalls (personal medical technology like blood glucose monitoring systems?).

  • gbacoder

    those that think bc it is a TV it cannot be flow, have not used their imagination to see it work in action. They have just used (very) simple association logic. When using a smart phone app, I will use it for a short time to check something, then return to watching TV. I sill get better using that app, and there is a feeling of flow in those few short seconds I use it. Then I go back to TV. The flow experience does not need to be long lasting. Use your imagination or try it useful, use an app for a couple of seconds (e.g. checking on an ebay item)  then return to TV. 

    Besides whether technically flow or not according to some textbook, it's still a very nice idea / concept that we need more of, so I feel any flow or lack of is is only a side issue anyway! 

  • Marcos Zanona

    I really like the idea on how this would work.
    While there  are people neglecting learning anything new — and I think this public should be skipped because there is no way to please them — we also have a public who is willing to learn and master new skills.

    I think your idea acts directly on the self-estime and individual's moral level which is really good. Having a “badge” or knowing you are advanced or proficient in something would make users feel good about themselves knowing they can do something really good, even if — considering a small environment — it is while managing a simple TV remote control. 

    If we think in a world that would implement this scheme across many other products, adopting the same principle, such users would be surrounded by skills coming from all devices and products they use and, in this case, I am sure this would have a positive effect making people know they are capable.

    It would be like earning badges on a videogame, but doing something productive, learning how to manipulate real things which have a direct effect in their lives.

    Really great solution, Phillip.

  • Rastislav Turek

    Very good point Philip. It is a pity that most companies can not learn from other sectors. It might be able to help them with the penetration of their devices/technologies among the general population.

    However, for me the most interesting is the last part of your article, a content discovery. One huge problem today is that people are unable to find the right content. "Fortunately" we have the socialization. Because what my friends found and liked must be perfect for me, right? No. I don't choose my friends based on the content they like. They just don't have the same taste as me (even my girlfriend, parents, ...).

    So during 2011 I started Thanks personalized recommendations we're trying to solve this fundamental problem. We're far from perfect but I think (and hope) that we will get there.

  • Alec Molloy

    Philip, I think you have a really good idea here, but I have difficulty believing your use-case would survive in the real world.

    Instructional UX shouldn't assume an advanced-beginner dichotomy, or any sort of linear variation. Your use-case assumes that product UIs exist in a vacuum, and users are either very familiar with a product, or not familiar at all.

    To me the penultimate paragraph was a bit of a cop-out. The UI tutorial becomes useless as soon as the user gets frustrated enough to skip through it. What if a beginner user (who really needs this step-by-step introduction) has prior experience with an advanced feature, but not basic ones? What if they don't understand Smarthub or voice control, but want to schedule recordings like they did on their previous non-Samsung TV? They would assume that they are just too advanced for the tutorial and skip through.

    I really enjoyed reading the article, and I definitely appreciate your advocacy for instructional UX design and learning gamification, but a bifurcated learning experience doesn't do the average user much good.

  • Oxwivi

    The exp system has the potential to forever be deadlocked in a specific level because some of the features, even if the user is aware of and can use them, is simply not needed or required. For example the record function, it's easy enough to understand what it does, but it's not some universal feature used by all. Simpler features like these can remain unused, forever limiting the higher-level and complex features available to the user. (And potentially increasing the after-sales service and support costs with customers yelling at the reps for not finding the feature they bought the device for)

    Games does not face such a issues simply because accessing new abilities and features are required to progress through the game. But for features in a device or operating system there are no absolute reason compelling the users to go through each and every of them to gain the necessary exp to avail themselves of new features. There is a reason features are called features not functions, they are not the core functionality of the device itself.

    I am in agreement with idea of flow, and the gradual introduction of features, but exp leveling is not the solution. We need a different "enablement" variable for the gradual reveal.

  • Karan Shah

    Very insightfully written, so relevant! 

    The Samsung smart TV with its complex features was a good analogy to illustrate the notion of sequencing functionalities as challenges. Another vey relevant analogy, which I think most people will be able to relate to would be intimidating or less intuitive softwares. 

    I see google doing this already (to some extent) with the latest version of SU Pro, which is getting increasingly complex with its gazillion features.. but applying this to something more daunting like Processing for novices could make such a great difference.

  • Vesa M

    Yes, good games roll out challenges and functionality as the player progresses. That is why a 4 year old can learn to play surprisingly difficult games.

    With consumer electronics the challenge is to know who is using the gadgets. This progression somewhat occurs even now as user builds his HIFI system and no one else know how to operate it.

  • Best Guest

    I've been trying to conceptualize ways gamification can be used in UX for a while, but this is the first time I've encountered the idea that functionality itself could be "rolled out" - i.e., withheld until users reach higher levels. Thought provoking! Thank you.

  • James Ferrell

    This has the potential to be a really smart and rewarding paradigm, but I think it's impossible to justify watching TV as an activity where a person can experience flow.  By definition, you have to be actually doing something challenging at some level in order to experience flow, and watching TV is the antithesis of this concept. Sure, you're focused on what's happening, but you aren't making any of it happen (with the exception of choosing a channel, which doesn't really count). 

    Also, while this is a smart idea to ease users into new technology, it's probably a given that advanced users should have the option of enabling all features from the beginning.