The door to immersion

When we move freely in our environment, doors often separate one reality from another. Some doors are kept open, others closed. Sometimes other people open them for us and greet us with a smile. Every small detail matters in forming our initial impression.

Doors can be designed so that they suggest what the room is about or where it leads. They may be differently easy to open/close, depending on how heavy they are or how comfortable their handle is. Some doors might creak, indicating their age or level of use. Others won't open entirely or when opened might hit a person on the other side that is trying to enter. At a single point only one person can pass, which can become a bottleneck in high-traffic places.

From the moment we enter a room, we start to immerse ourselves in the environment. The further we move away from the door, the more things we can perceive and discover, but also the more steps we need to go back. We start to feel that the environment is coming to us, especially when we are in it for the first time. At the door position, distant objects appear small, but as we approach them, they become bigger until we see how these objects invite a hand to engage us. From simple observation we see how their shape is designed to fit in a hand in some way. Even if objects can engage more of our senses, they often still need hand manipulation. A monitor needs to be height-adjusted, tilted or rotated horizontally/vertically. A notebook screen becomes usable only after the case is opened. An audio system has interface elements (knobs for volume, station tuning, diverse buttons) that are manipulated by hand. It is started/stopped by hand. To feel the smell of a dish, its products need to be prepared by hand, put in an oven, baked at certain temperature for a certain time and served in a plate. To feel the smell of a deodorant, we need to push its pump. Not surprisingly, taste is possible only through the use of different utensils with a hand. We can associate some of these objects and what we want to do with certain rooms, the sign of which is the door. But we don't really have a fallback for a broken hand when our whole environment depends on it.

A website is like a door to an unexplored world. How it welcomes new visitors is what creates their first impression. When people pass through the main door, they can see a corridor and a set of shoes, to which they can add their own. Doing this indicates that they are ready to explore what hides behind other doors. The function of the homepage it to be one such corridor that doesn't distract from deepening the experience. The corridor must highlight on an abstract level what the rooms will be be about, but not in an intrusive way. It needs to send the right signals of what hides behind individual links, so people know where each door leads. Corridors at airport terminals are good at both separating people from individual flights and directing them to the waiting room or the nearest exit. The ideal corridor would make all rooms visible and leave nothing hidden. Some doors will be visible only when a transient door is opened, which makes accessing them harder. The challenge is to organize the rooms for direct access while not complicating the individual positions of the doors or requiring a deep hierarchy of choice. Every object in any room can support or suppress the willingness to see what hides beyond the next door. Every object will distract, but at the same time be part of the whole experience, so the user needs to be able to decode how individual objects from different rooms relate to each other. Immersion will be possible only when during their use no questions arise. Important is also how long people need to switch from one room to another and how easy it is to go back to the initial position. Every room must feel as a natural extension of the previous one, fulfill the current user goal with its objects, change actions based on the new context, create the right thinking patterns. The experience must be organized around details and be at the same time interesting as long as the user stays, otherwise immersion will be hard to achieve.

Every opportunity to connect people in the same room that are likely to have similar goals must be used. These connections have the potential to change individual choices and they will prevent more people from mindlessly going around. Some people will come back from where others want to go, so it makes sense to combine the knowledge to reduce everyone's effort. At the same time no person should be prevented from checking the words of others personally; the freedom to do this is essential. Screaming to people in other rooms isn't the right way of coexistence—it may also be a design problem. Still, few websites connect people once they have visited them and there is no easy and unobtrusive way to do this.

Great designs can keep users constantly engaged, maybe even in a common activity. But this can't be achieved only with bonus points and badges. We need to find other ways of doing it that go beyond the idea of greed in all its forms. This is inappropriate and undesirable on the web. Immersive experiences are possible when offering a mechanism for bite-size progress, where we think of each door as the entrance to the next bite. Links and individual pages do this similarly until we discover that people are full. Then we need to change the menu while keeping the core taste, before people forget about the site, to be able to make immersion durable. Even a site that includes unexpected elements has to remain consistent in some degree. We can add/remove doors or change the position of existing ones. We can merge/split rooms. We can spread objects differently between the rooms. We can give different mind cues. We can change the paths through which people go. We can improve the balance of the moods that different rooms generate in people. Immersion is possible to achieve, but we need to be aware of the cost of architectural changes that it will require.

It seems that interior design has at least one thing in common with web design.