The UX of Magic

Posted 4 years ago by Jainan Sankalia No Comments

Magic tricks delight and surprise audiences in entertaining ways. Beyond just knowing the tricks and how to execute them, there’s an art to the performance. An effective magician must know how to interact and engage with their audience; no two performances are exactly the same despite the fact the tricks performed are identical. Anytime there is an interaction between a person and an audience, there are lessons we can learn as experience designers. As a hobbyist sleight-of-hand magician, there are certain skills and techniques I’ve learned that can apply to UX Design.

But first, a magic trick. Just imagine one of the cards below in your mind:
(image from here)

Now, on to the tips! Keep that card memorized. We’ll get back to it later.

Tip 1: Know your audience
A good magician knows how to play to their audience. It’s important to gauge your audience and know how each will interact with you as the magician. Some will actively try and mess with you; not often malicious, but to really test you and your skills. Others will follow directions completely and are simply there to be entertained. While others still will look at your hands with a laser focus and truly try to admire all the subtleties.

In each case, the audience member is hoping to get something different out of the experience of the magic trick. This also relates to UX design with one word; personas. And it’s not just the backstory and personality of the persona that’s important to understand, you really need to think about what experience that particular user is hoping to achieve because it may be different for different people. Whether the end goal is a magic trick or a business function, you should ask yourself what is that particular user really hoping to experience while performing that task? To answer that, you must know your audience and how they will interact with the situation.

Tip 2: Learn from others, but know your own style
We’ve all seen great magicians cut someone in half and then put them back together in memorable ways. Some of these performances were comedic and made us laugh, while others were haunting and made us feel intrigued or disturbed. All are equally effective at engaging you and it just comes down to a style preference. As a magician working on your craft, you’ll constantly try and learn from all these great talents both past and present. But it’s up to you to determine your own personality and style that you communicate through your craft.

As a UX designer, there’s often multiple ways to present a flow for the users. While it’s incredibly important to benchmark and learn from others, including your co-workers, it’s equally important to know your style and be consistent with how you perform. Remember, no two magicians are alike and even with the great ones; neither is better or worse than the other. Learn from both and then apply that to your technique. There’s a reason why people want to see you specifically perform.

(image from here)

Now, do you remember your card from above? Good, now I’ll remove your card from that list.

Did I remove the correct one?

The answer is all in…

Tip 3: Knowing what people will notice
A common word in magic is misdirection. That’s how magicians draw your eye in one direction so you don’t notice what they’re doing in the opposite direction. Good misdirection is a key element to any trick and it all comes down to knowing what people will notice.

Here’s the trick.

ALL the cards are different.

And by placing this list below the fold of the other, it was my goal that you wouldn’t recognize that all the cards have changed because you were told to only pay attention to one card.

That’s misdirection directly applied to a web experience. So what can we learn as UX designers from this? You can’t expect users to remember and keep track of every part of your design. You might have a very particular reason for a design choice as it relates to other choices you’ve made on the page. But remember, most users (not all) will never know or understand that context. Every decision or task you aid a user to accomplish must be treated independently. Do not rely on the user to remember how other elements of your page functions or you just might be a magician that makes users disappear from your site!

Tip 4: Building your toolbox
There are multiple ‘moves’ a Magician can take to accomplish the same task, such as keeping a selected card on top of the deck. To the audience, the trick looks identical even if underneath it all, the magician has performed the trick entirely different. This is important because every ‘move’ has certain advantages and disadvantages. This way a magician always has a trick up his sleeve, pardon the pun. to accomplish an effect based on the current situation. Knowing how to address where someone is sitting or where they’re looking is critical for a Magician to keep the audience from catching the sleight.

What this means for a UX designer is you must know all the tools and ways to accomplish a task. Need to make a single selection? There are radio buttons, dropdowns, checkboxes, buttons, toggles, and more. It’s important to know when and where to use which tool based on what the user expects verses what the user needs to accomplish in order to create the best experience possible. So build your ‘moves’ and know when to use each properly.

Tip 5: Constantly test
Just like a comedian trying the same joke over and over with very slight adjustments to their delivery, a magician also makes subtle tweaks every time they perform a trick. By watching the reaction of your audience, you can gauge how each and every element of your trick is impacting your audience. Whether from the banter of your voice, to how you move and position your body, it all adds to the overall experience. Then, you can use this knowledge to enhance the rest of your tricks. That’s why two magicians performing the same trick can be vastly different in effectiveness, even if both cases fooled the audience by the magic.

It’s no different than User Testing. When you understand how your users interact with your design and make subtle adjustments as a result, it the difference between a good design and a great one. Take this lesson from a magician and learn how to adapt each and every time you perform. Keep in mind for a true magician, the trick isn’t the exciting part — it’s the performance.

Tip 6: Practice, practice, practice
There’s helpful advice covered in these tips because a magician is always thinking about every second of their performance. When all is said and done, there’s only one really effective way a magician can know their techniques, their tools, and their audience. It’s important to always practice, practice, practice. Like a UX designer, it requires careful cultivation and spending countless hours honing in on all these different skills that are required for mastery. Always remember how anything you experience can be used to enhance your abilities as a designer so you never become complacent in your abilities. Be proud of what you can do and always practice your skills. There’s always another area of the performance you can elevate to the next level and the only way to get there is with practice.

It all comes down to an experience. An experience of any kind, including observing a magician, can have meaningful impact on your work. If there’s an interaction between two things, we can learn from it. Whether you’re a magician or a designer, if you use these tips, you’ll make people believe in the impossible.

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