A Lesson from the IA Summit

Elton Billings  

March 28, 2007

Related Topics

I just returned from the Information Architecture Summit in Las Vegas, where I gained some new insights. This was a great conference, featuring many informative sessions on topics such as “Usability Challenges of Web 2.0,” “Best Practices for Form Design,” “Maximum Value IA,” and “Mobile Information Architecture.” In addition to the conference sessions, the Summit was a great opportunity to share ideas among peers and exchange techniques and advice.

But one of the more interesting lessons, for me, was from the casinos.

First of all, I should explain that I don’t really gamble. I have no moral objection to gambling, but I do have a pretty thorough understanding of probability, and I’m aware of the fact that casinos make a lot of money. It must come from somewhere.

This means that if I walk through a casino, I can just observe. Casinos are designed around the user experience, with no clocks, hard-to-find exits, and an ambience that I’m sure has been carefully calculated.

On my way to check in for the Summit, I passed through the hotel casino. (Strangely enough, at many hotels going through the casino is the easiest way to enter.) Walking through the casino, I felt something was amiss, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Something just didn’t seem right. As I was leaving through the casino at the end of the day, I got the same odd feeling.

The next day, I happened to arrive at the hotel venue a bit early and had a bit of spare time.

I do have one exception to my lack of interest in gambling. If I am in a casino and have extra time and a lot of loose change in my pocket, I will pull out my change, find slot machines of the correct denominations, and donate my pocket change to the cause of casino profits. I consider the money gone as soon as I pull it from my pocket. In most cases, I am right.

On this particular day, I started looking for slot machines of the right denominations to make my contribution. I discovered that I couldn’t find any that actually accepted coins. The coin slots and been covered and the only way to play was by inserting bills, or some sort of card representing money won. On my way out in the evening, I asked one of the helpful casino people where I might find real slots that took real coins. They said to try to smaller casinos not in a hotel.

Then I realized what was missing! The sound of money. Because the slot machines didn’t accept coins, they didn’t pay out coins either. They just added to total “credits” on the machine. To cash out, you got a card representing your winnings and took it to a window. This meant that walking through the casino, there was no longer the random, “ching-ching-ching-ching” of coins crashing into the trays on the front of the machines. In fact, the noise in the casino was pretty much random crowd murmur, with a periodic outburst from someone when they won.

This seemed odd. Didn’t the casinos realize that hearing someone else getting a large number of coins was bound to be encouraging others to gamble? The sound of money. How could it not attract people? I puzzled over this for some time.

So, I observed a bit more. By not needing to reach into the payout tray, grab a coin and put it in the slot, the gambler could give the machine a spin every 2 or 3 seconds easily. The old method using coins probably meant a spin every 4 to 5 seconds. This meant that slot players could play more quickly.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if this more rapid rate of play made up for the loss of the influence from the crashing coins.

Then I remembered that everything about a casino is deliberate. This implied that research must have been done to determine which factor lead to the greater profits, and rapid play won. If “coinless” slot machines had decreased profits, they would never have been adopted.

So the real lesson is that even if we determine which option or design gives the better user experience, we should always keep business goals in mind, and test against those goals (not just raw user experience) when determining which option or design should be implemented.