Earlier this year, our team at DT decided it’d be great to get out of the office for a day. We piled into a van and trekked north to Universal Studios. The idea was that, while relaxing, we could also learn something from another industry that is responsible for creating experiences.

As we approached the “Shrek 4D” attraction, a few of us rolled our eyes. We pondered, “4D? Surely, that’s one D too many. This smells like a marketing ploy…” As we were ushered into a rather normal auditorium, 3D glasses in hand, our suspicions rose higher. Yep, we’d been had. The curtain opened and the movie began…

JOLT! Our chairs rumbled forward! “Well, this is new. Interesting…kind of annoying and uncomfortable, but I guess I DO feel like I’m on a horse.” We began to realize what they meant when they billed this experience as having four dimensions. SPLAT! “Gross, Donkey just spit at us. Wait a minu…why is my face wet?!” Before we had time to collect ourselves, there was a rush of spiders on the screen. As expected by this point, the spiders on screen were paired with the physical experience of something touching our ankles that felt, appropriately, like spiders crawling up our legs. Fantastic!

It was a 3D movie with an extra dimension; it was a 4D experience. In this context, the 4D experience references the concept of adding additional layers that push an already great experience past normal expectations. In other words, 4D is like icing on a cake. Without the icing, it’s still a cake and you’re probably still going to enjoy eating it. But a nicely crafted layer of icing adds extra dimensions of texture and flavor that enhance the overall experience.

4D became the theme of the day as our expectations were met with a layer of proverbial icing. In the Simpson’s Ride, for example, we briefly experienced what it would be like to be Maggie’s pacifier. The water that splashed us during that experience smelled like baby powder, while the rest of the water that splashed throughout the ride was delivered unscented. This attention to a seemingly irrelevant detail went the extra mile in enhancing the experience of the ride. Later during the day, the Terminator 2 show created an immersive, big-picture experience from the moment we entered the waiting room. We were entertained by an energetic actress and a short film about how incredible Skynet is before we even arrived at the proper attraction. It was a great way to engage the audience and make us feel like actual characters in the story, instead of spectators.

As UX folks, we were hooked; we had blasted off into the Fourth Dimension.

So the question you’re all probably asking is: as UX specialists, how can we bring such a powerful and engaging experience like 4D to the web? Obviously, our medium has technological constraints when it comes to integrating the physical senses. We can’t make computers smell of baby powder when visiting a website about parenting, nor can we make chairs rumble when watching educational videos on horseback riding. The attractions at Universal Studios create experiences that leverage areas of the brain we tend to ignore when we think we know what to expect. When you sit down at a movie, you don’t expect to pay attention to the things you smell or touch or the motion you feel. We have to put ourselves in the users’ shoes to understand their expectations and actions so we can be a step ahead while engineering an immersive experience. Let’s take a quick gander at a few things we can employ to defy expectations and enhance experiences…

Motion and Animation

Though the web has traditionally been a pretty static place, visually, we shouldn’t be afraid to use a little motion and animation once in a while. X-doria, a fashion-forward maker of protective cases for our beloved mobile devices, uses subtle but very clever vertical parallaxing to show their products being applied to the actual devices. While we all understand what the product does, the motion on the site adds a tangible layer that encourages the user to consciously think about using the product. This subtle movement is the perfect icing for their cake.

Showing Personality

Let’s face it, often, the web is a very cold place. When users feel like they’re trying to interact with clusters of soulless pixels, they’re only reminded of this fact. Mailchimp does a great job of adding personality to the otherwise mundane task of managing an email list through their monkey mascot, Freddie. For example, as logged-in users navigate through the site, every page gets accompanied by a random speech bubble dialogue next to Freddie. He compliments and pumps up the user and shares links to things like YouTube and Vimeo videos. He’s just enough to remind us that real people are behind Mailchimp.

Attention to Detail

Finally, the little details really do matter. Even if granular attention to detail is lost on the majority of users, the handful who notice precision in crafting their experience react with delight. At Universal, the waiting room for the Simpson’s Ride (which looks loosely like Abu’s Kwik-E-Mart) is laden with crafted details like little signs and price tags. These details didn’t make or break the experience, but they certainly enhanced it. A user’s consciousness is snapped to the forefront when they notice things like witty error messaging on an input field or a favicon animating to show the progress of an upload. As we invest more attention in crafting these details, users will know to look for them and have a greater appreciation when they find them. Check out the blog Little Big Details for a great collection of these kinds of bite-size niceties.

The web is at an intriguing age where a lot of practices have been established and a lot of wheels have been invented. As users, we know what to we expect when we interact with something on the web. As experience designers, it is our job to selectively challenge expectations to keep our users consciously engaged.

Can you think of any other methods to add extra dimension to the web experience? Let us know in the comments!