The Halloween Principle

Published 4 Comments on The Halloween Principle

Imagine your users are normal smart people who are using your application during Halloween.

They are happily using your great product when all of the sudden, “ding Dong!”.  Oh, it must be a cute little bunch of trick or treaters.  Let’s stand up and walk over to the door.  Oh, what a cute little princess!  And must be a … hobo?  Oh well, here is some candy and some money for unicef.  Thanks for coming by!  Happy Halloween!

OK, now bring the person back down to your application.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is is clear where they were?
  2. Is it clear what they were doing?
  3. Is it clear what they should do next?

These are critical questions even if the user doesn’t stand up.  People are distracted all the time by other screens, instant messengers, emails, bathroom breaks, etc.  You have to make sure that the screen always communicates clearly to the user.  Assume they are going to get distracted.  Use this litmus test on your application and you will find plenty of places where you the user will lose track. 


Great images from Smashing Magazine on Halloween.



  1. I have an interesting tangent to your post. My fiance and I sent out our wedding invitations a few months ago, and we included two postcards for RSVPs; one for Accept and one for Decline. When we went to the post office to buy stamps for all 130 invitations, they did not have exact-postage stamps for postcards, and instead suggested that we enclose one 10-cent stamp and one 19-cent stamp. I, being the Astute User Experience Engineer, pointed out that people would most likely think that two stamps correspond with the two postcards, and would hence apply one postage stamp to their selected response. My fiance disagreed and said “Whatever! People aren’t THAT stupid. Everybody knows you can’t email a postcard with a 19cent or 10cent stamp.”

    I’m sure you can guess who ended up being correct:). It became funny when we began receiving postcards from her own family with insufficient postage.

    She was wrong in stating that the invitees who did not read the stamps were stupid; the problem was in the model and experience we presented to the invitees. It wasn’t immediately clear what response we were trying to elicit because the workflow was flawed.

    The end result is that we should have gone to another post office and bought exact-fare postage.

  2. Not a bad idea — I’m going to start using an ExtJS “statusbar” plugin I found soon. It creates a bright, very noticeable area at the bottom of the form, floating there (no matter where the document is currently scrolled to) giving context data as to what field the user is currently in.

    (I get this problem all the time in the healthcare field where I work — doctors and nurses being halfway through a document and, at that point, they’re pulled away from their desk for some reason or another.)

Whatya think?