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by Zack on June 21, 2009


Writeroom is just about as immersive as conventional software can get. It blocks out everything —email, toolbars, even the operating system— so you can just focus on writing. It looks a lot like an older monochrome monitor. Video games like World of Warcraft and The Halo Series also immerse you in their world. They create an environment that surrounds you, a place where you want to stay, the ultimate destination.

The opposite of the immersive experience is instant messaging. IM sits unobtrusively on a small corner of your screen until it just up and interrupts you. Each type of experience has a place, but the immersive one gives you the chance to control your user’s world and create an experience they won’t forget… if you do it right.

Before you start

Before you consider creating an immersive environment be sure it’s worth it. You aren’t just asking someone to look at what you made, you are asking them to stop doing everything else and focus on only your application. This is the opposite of the multi-tasking promise of computers and it is a lot to ask.

In immersive UI the line between magical and annoying is razor-thin. Just having something important to say isn’t enough. Even the most important newspaper story has other articles around it. Just having something cool to show isn’t enough either. Don’t take up the whole screen just because you’re too lazy to make your design work in a smaller space.

Immersive environments are only worth it if you have a very good reason to need the user’s total and undivided attention. You also have to make it optional to get in and easy to get out. Covering the whole screen unexpectedly gives you all the usability of a pop-up ad.

Making immersion work

You are responsible for everything in your immersive UI. That includes basics like navigation and give them a way to turn it off. It is a lot more work than create an unobtrusive UI. Here are a few tips to help you avoid the common pitfalls.

Focus on a single task. The best kind of immersion is centered around a task. You want to write that document, play that game, or surf the Internet without anything else getting in the way. So start planning your immersive UI around a single task. If the user wanted to multi-task they wouldn’t enter your immersive UI.

Watch out for clutter. When you have an entire screen to work with the urge to throw in the kitchen sink can seem overwhelming. Resist. You’re creating an immersive environment to help the user, not show off how much you can put into it.

Make it optional. Don’t force the user to enter your immersive world. Provide them alternatives and make it crystal clear when they are about to enter.

Warn them. Entering an immersive environment without warning is the UI equivalent of a bucket of ice water dumped over your head.

Let them out. I’m sure your application is a beautiful piece of art that took a lot of work, but don’t force the user to look at it. Give them a clear and simple exit sign. Nobody likes feeling trapped. Always give them a way to turn it

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