case study

absolutely crackers

see page 157. Section 3.9.2 Designing experience

A few years ago Alan and Russell were directors of a (now sadly closed) internet company called aQtive. It came to one Christmas and we wondered what to send our contacts and registered users as a Christmas greeting. We thought of plain electrinic greetings cards ... passé - everyone sends those and hardly active.

Somehow or other the idea came - why not virtual Christmas crackers?

what are real crackers?

Now if you come from Britain or a country that has been influenced by British culture, you will know what Christmas crackers are (although possibly under a different name, called Christmas Bon Bons in Australia). If you don't we should explain ...

Christmas crackers are small paper tubes, usually around 20-30cm long (8-12"). Inside there is a cardbioard former that keeps the centre section firm as the ends are pinched in (see above). At the Christmas dinner table, crackers are arranged at each place and before you eat you offer one another the other end of your cracker and pull.

Although the crackers are usually made of quite thin paper, often crepe paper, it is surprisingly hard to pull them apart. When eventually they break there is a sharp 'bang!'. Inside, along the length of the cracker is a small strip of paper coated with gunpowder in the middle, as the cracker breaks the paper strip snaps and thee gunpowder explodes!

From the inside of each cracker falls three things:

  • a small plastic toy (or, if the crackers are really posh, something better!)
  • a paper hat
  • a piece of paper with a bad joke on it

Of course, describing it doesn't sound much fun, but at a party it is - really. (see the Italian students below :-)

In addition, if you live in a country using Christmas crackers they will evoke nostalgic memories of childhood Christmases.

students in rome discover real crackers!

what are virtual crackers?

Virtual crackers are web versions, a bit like electronic greetings cards. In fact our earliest design ideas (quickly rejected) were very close to electronic cards - just a page with a picture of a cracker, a joke, a link to a little web toy (an animated gif or applet) and a picture of a face with a hat on. Well, different from an eCard, but, not exactly capturing the spirit of a Christmas cracker.

However, the idea evolved and the final design works as follows...

First the person sending the cracker fills out a web form - very like an eCard. The form asks for the name and email address of the sender and recipient and a short message


In addition, the sender can, if they choose, customise the card choosing the design, the joke etc. However, with real Christmas crackers you cannot do this, so we only added this customisation reluctantly ... and only when we made a Valentine's day version with love poems and mottos - strangely people really want to know what they are sending :-)

When the form is submitted an email is sent to the recipient and a confirmation web page and email is also sent to the sender


When the recipient reads the email it includes a link to a web page (again like a standard eCard)

The link takes them to a 'closed cracker' page. This has a picture of the outside of the cracker and the greetings message, but not the contents. Instead they have to click a further button to 'pull' the cracker

Very slowly (painfully slowly) the cracker pulls open (some JavaScript) and the page is replaced with an 'open cracker' page

The open cracker page has a picture of an exploding cracker ... and a sound file plays ... bang! It also has the greetings message, the joke and links to separate pages for a mask and a web toy.


In a real cracker you tell the bad joke to one another, but this is not so good when you recieve the cracker on your own, so instead just the 'question' part of the joke is shown and the answer only revealed when you ask.

The sender meanwhile has a link that they can follow. Initially this just shows the closed cracker and only when the recipient has opened the cracker can the sender also see inside.


do they work?

Evaluating experience is a difficult area. From a simple usability metric we might not think this is a very good interface. Just count the mouse clicks needed to see the answer to the joke; it would be a lot more efficient to simply show the joke and answer on the first page ... but not much fun.

In use terms around 20-25% of crackers are never opened. Whether this is due to incorrect email addresses, recipients thinking the mail is spam, or simply not getting round to it, we don't know. It is very hard to study those who don't use things. We also don't know how this figure compares with other kinds of electronic greetings cards, but based on personal use we guess not so different. This still represents a substantial number of apparently 'failed' communications ... although the simple reciept of the email, says "She is still thinking of me", so even a 'failed' virtual cracker may be a successful personal contact.

If we are designing an information system to be installed throughout an organisation, or a 'when the next bus is coming' system to be installed at every bus stop, it is important that the system is at least usable by everyone to some extent. However, for an 'experience' product like crackers the criteria change. If crackers are 'OK' for everyone then they are probably a failure, who wants to send something that is just OK. Ideally we'd like everyone to love virtual crackers, but it is better for some people to love them and some people hate them than for them to be just 'OK' for everyone.

By this measure virtual crackers come out very well as we have had a significant amount of 'fan' mail. Typically the only feedback you get for a product is to complain about bugs! So positive feedback is not just gratifying, but also strong evidence that something is working ... at least for some people!

Some of the feedback is quite general, for example these two:

I love this site!!!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
And Merry Christmas to everyone involved!!

I think your crackers are fantastic !!
These are very cool! Well done!

However there is a considerable amount of feedback from people now living in non-cracker countries, who clearly had their childhood memories awakened by the cracker.

Thank you for putting a smile on my face and bringing back some funny memories!
My mother is from England and I grew up pulling the "real" crackers during the holidays.

This is such a great idea! As an ex-pat Brit' I have missed Christmas crackers
all the years that I have lived in the USA

These are particualrly significant as they mean not only that the design was successful in that (some) people liked it, but also in that it in some way captured sufficient of the real crackers experience to induce nostalgia.

Of course, one of our aims in producing crackers was as PR for the company. For this crackers needed to be not only liked, but also shared. In fact, this was the case and each year we tend to see a week by week doubling in the use of crackers in the run-up to Christmas as some of those receiving crackers decide to pass them on to others (remember useful, usable and used).

As one email put it ...

your virtual crackers are the bomb!
they are too cool to be kept to myself

If not for the fact that usage drops to near zero after Christmas, they would probably have been enough to keep aQtive afloat on their own :-/

why do they work?

The success of virtual crackers was not just happenstance.

In order to understand this success we must see how the virtual crackers do not replicate the real cracker, but do capture the crucial aspects of the 'cracker experience'. For example, it is important that virtual crackers do not give an optimal path to the users' goal, but instead a more tortuous navigation route thus adding to a sense of suspense.

Note that experience is as much about perception as function. In the case of crackers, both real and virtual, the inner functionality is not significant (a plastic toy), neither is the optimality of the interface (a flap would allow the extraction of the toy without damaging the cracker), nor even the actual physical packaging (crepe paper and cardboard), but within a particular social context the experience of using the cracker is deeply engaging. In the case of paper crackers this may be the result of accident and evolution. In the case of virtual crackers it is by design.

The design worked because it took the real crackers experience and deconstructed it into individual elements of the experience. the table below and on page 157 lists these elements. You can see how each real crackers element is in some way recreated in the virtual crackers experience, but it is not a simple facsimilie of the real cracker (impossible on the web!). Some mappings are fairly obvious, the bad joke on the paper inside the cracker becomes bad joke on the web page. However, others are not so straight forward.

real cracker   virtual cracker
surface elements    
cheap and cheerful
simple page/graphics
plastic toy and joke
web toy and joke
dressing up
paper hat
mask to cut out
experienced effects    
offered to another
sent by email, message
pulled together
sender can't see content
until opened by recipient
contents inside
first page - no contents
cultural connotations
recruited expectation
pulling cracker
slow ... page change
bang (when it works)
WAV file (when it works)

the crackers experience

The element of sharing in the real cracker is not the same in the virtual cracker. In a way the sending of the email has some of the essence of the offered cracker. However, there is a strong sense of co-experience with real crakers - you are there together as you pull. With virtual crackers this is much weaker, but the way that the sender can only see the open cracker until the recipient has opened it adds a little of this sense. In an instant messenger variant of virtual crackers it may be possible to make this stronger.

Why not try to sketch a design for yourself of what instant messenger crackers might be like?

Another example where the real and virtual crackers differ is in the mask. As mentioned real crackers have a paper hat inside and our first idea was to have a little smilie face with a hat one. Cute possibly, but hardly fun!

However, the mask link takes you to a page where you have a mask that is big enough to print and cut out. Although few (if any) crackers users may actually cut out the mask to wear, the fact that you could wear it gives it some of the feeling of dressing up that the hat does. Even with real crackers many people do not actually put the hat on, but would feel hard done by if theor cracker did not have one. With experience what you could do may be as important as what you do do!

more ...

The design of crackers is discussed in a number of articles:

Deconstructing Experience - pulling crackers apart. In Funology: From Usability to Enjoyment. M. Blythe, K. Overbeeke, A. Monk and P. Wright (eds.) Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer, 2003. pp. 165-178
more ...

Absolutely crackers.
Compters and Fun 4. York, UK, 29th November 2001.
more ...

... and of course you can try them yourself!

send a cracker


Alan Dix, 2004