UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Serendipity as user engagement. O'Brien, Heather, 1977- Sep 5, 2011

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Heather O’Brien, University of British Columbia Contact Details: Suite 470, Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, 1961 East Mall, Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z1 Email; h.obrien@ubc.ca; Tel: (604) 822-6365; Fax: (604) 822-6006 Interest in the workshop: I am interested in understanding, designing for, and evaluating serendipity.  More specifically, I would like to explore the role of novelty in serendipitous discovery and to articulate connections between serendipity and my own work in user engagement. Interest in serendipity: User experience (UX) is defined as “a person's perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service” (ISO 2008).  This framework has guided my research in user engagement over the past several years.  I define engagement as a quality of experience that is characterized by users’ perceptions of systems (e.g., aesthetic appeal, usability, novelty), the involvement and interest they feel during an interaction with a system, and their overall evaluation of the experience (O’Brien & Toms, 2008).  Engagement may be thought of as both an outcome of an experience (i.e., “That was engaging”) and as a process of interaction, where users move through stages (i.e., point of engagement, period of sustained engagement, disengagement, and re-engagement) as the experience unfolds (O’Brien & Toms, 2008). Serendipity, the fortuitous and unexpected discovery of information, is a recurring theme in my studies of user engagement, specifically when users describe their interactions with systems.  The connection between engagement and serendipity was first observed when 17 users were asked to describe their engagement with learning, shopping, searching, and gaming applications (O’Brien & Toms, 2008).  Regardless of whether searchers’ and shoppers’ goals were specific (e.g., to shop for a particular item) or general (e.g., to be up-to-date with entertainment or world news), they became engaged when the layout or aesthetics of the interface captured their attention, or when they came upon information that was new, funny, or resonated with their interests.  In some cases, the participants went purposefully to a website to “see what catches my eye,” while at other times their pursuit of information was accidental, as was the case of an e-shopper who found herself looking at products other than the one that originally motivated the shopping trip (O’Brien & Toms, 2008).   In summary, the point of engagement was rooted in how and what information was presented on the screen, and participants’ ability to identify it as meaningful to them.  More recent work in the area of news reading has more strongly articulated the connection between novelty and engagement (O’Brien, under review). Thirty people were interviewed after browsing a news website and asked to elaborate on their experiences.  They described being attracted to headlines accompanied by compelling images or that were “weird,” “shocking,” etc., and selecting articles that did not fit their typical reading patterns or interests.  While reading articles, their engagement was maintained if the news item looked at a topic from a new angle, but they disengaged when the story failed to provide anything new or enhance their curiosity about an issue. The emphasis on novelty in this study echoes the findings of Toms (2000) who indicated that choice and novelty were important to online news reading. Toms (2000) suggested that interfaces that support choice and novelty facilitate serendipity in online news interactions.  Studies of user engagement have highlighted the importance of novelty in e-shopping, web searching and news reading in facilitating engagement.  Thus novelty is a common thread between serendipity and user engagement.  As a result, it is imperative to understand the relationship between these two constructs.  Some questions we might pose are: Is serendipity part of the process model of engagement developed by O’Brien and Toms (2008) and, if so, at what stages of the model is it most salient?  Is the relationship between serendipity and engagement always positive or negative?  For example, does serendipity predict engagement or, alternatively, does it disengage the user by leading them too far away from their goals? Lastly, from a design perspective, are serendipity and engagement facilitated by the same attributes of system interfaces (e.g., aesthetic appeal) or content (e.g. novelty, resonance with personal interests)? References ISO DIS 9241-210 (2008). Ergonomics of human system interaction - Part 210: Human- centred design for interactive systems (formerly known as 13407).  International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Switzerland. O’Brien, H.L. Exploring engagement in online news interaction (under review). O’Brien, H.L. & Toms, E.G. (2008). What is user engagement? A conceptual framework for defining user engagement with technology.  Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 59(6), 938-955. Toms, E.G. (2000). Understanding and facilitating the browsing of electronic text. Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 52(3), 423-452.  


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