#7 UX lessons from designing After Dark (screensavers II)

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How I learned that features and functions don’t matter if the quality of experience isn’t great.


I am known as the designer of the world’s best screensavers, including After Dark, the #1 selling product in the world. I learned a lot over the course of designing 80 screensaver animations, two different product lines, several screensavers for Microsoft, a version of Pointcast for AOL Time Warner and the Inner Space screensaver game.

Not all screensavers were distracting novelties.  In fact, my work has been displayed in three design museums. It is currently on display at Het Nieuwe Instituut, a design museum in the Netherlands.

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In remembering screen savers, many people accept the following myths:

The myths of screensavers

1. Nobody needed a screensaver

2. Screensavers were for home use

3. Screensavers weren’t that great

4. Screensavers were toys

Myth #1 Nobody needs a screensaver

The common saying “nobody needed a screensaver” is wrong. Users have shared burn in horror stories for decades! Every screen used to be vulnerable to to burn in if you didn’t buy a screen saver.  It’s also a waste of energy to to keep all of the pixels powered when you’re not using a screen. When I developed screensavers, everyone needed them. Modern devices are less susceptible, but screens still burn in, such as the 2015 smartphone shown below:

Myth #2 Screensavers were for home use

Home users loved screensavers, but my screensavers were the #1 business utility in the world because they were designed for business. We sold more copies than people bought Microsoft Word, Mac computers or even Windows itself. Businesses spent a lot of money buying and replacing hardware. They wasted a lot of money replacing $300-$600 computer screens when *somebody* inevitably forgot to turn them off and a static image burned in.  Every screen was vulnerable to burn in.

Years before lock screens were added to the OS, I introduced screen locking as part of screensavers. Protecting sensitive data on office computers was worth even more than the cost of replacing a monitor. Any business could easily see a 10-20x return on investment (ROI) from buying a small screensaver to save all those expensive screens from burn-in and lock down company data. It was a no-brainer buying decision. The tricky part was making it something that users actually wanted to install. Ergo, we made it entertaining, amusing and with a super-smooth user experience.

Yes, home users loved it and bought After Dark as well. I’ve received a lot of fan mail from individuals. However, it was also the world’s most pirated software, estimated at 8:1. Business users always paid for it, but some portion of home and student users pirated it. Therefore, home users weren’t the focus until years later when screensavers became “entertainment software”.

Myth #3 Old screensavers weren’t that great

1989-1993 was the golden age of screensavers that were actually useful. Not the funniest or most distracting screensavers, but the most useful (ie most VALUABLE).

The ideal screensaver:

A. blanked the screen when you weren’t using it

B. animated something to let you know the computer is still on

C. did NOT distract everyone in the office from working

Magic and After Dark were designed with restraint for a business context. Home users liked to be amazed and amused, but business use required restraint. Imagine a huge office full of computers, some in use, but many inactive and running a screensaver. If half the screens showed scenes from The Simpsons or Jurassic Park with sound blaring, it would drive everyone crazy. No business wanted to buy, much less site license, an anti-productivity distraction tool.

After Dark for Windows was the #1 selling business utility, which engendered a loyal following. Getting into an office allowed the product to spread virally. After Dark offered a variety of experiences that felt premium but would let people zone it out. Everybody got a chuckle out of my Aquatic Realm or Jack’s Flying Toasters, but these things were relatively innocuous once you’d seen them a few times. The trick was to make something cool, but not so cool that you couldn’t stop staring at it.

Myth #4 Screensavers were toys

Screensavers were utilities that were fun to toy with, but not toys per se in the early years. A toy’s only purpose is to be played with. Screensavers were like a funny, likable co-worker. A funny co-worker is great, as long as he has a reason to be there (ie. actually does useful work and doesn’t stop others from working).  When millions bought After Dark, they were inviting a part of me into their daily lives. I loved the opportunity to lighten up the drudgery of computer work, but there’s a line between engaging and providing a toy. Most users enjoyed customizing the fish in Aquatic Realm or the darkness of their toast. The magic of it was that you didn’t have to guess at the effect of changes; the animation changed as you tinkered. It was designed to be magical for a few minutes, but not interesting enough to waste your day.

The Magic story so far..

Now that we’ve dealt with the myths, let’s pick up the story so far. In Part I, Ian MacDonald and I already knew what we were doing because we’d created the successful Magic screensaver from 1989-1990.

  • Magic saved screens from burning in with animation
  • It was the first password system to lock a PC
  • We received thousands of fan letters and sold 85,000 copies to individuals, companies and governments around the world
  • Magic 1.x went through 24 versions to perfect the product. We were working on Magic 2.0 with modular animations

For the full story, read Part I, the Magic of Screensavers

Go big or go to silicon valley

We were already doing huge business, but it was the tip of the iceberg. I had a clear vision of the future:

If we can get this into stores, I’m certain it will sell MILLIONS.

We succeeded with Magic despite the fact that anyone could download and use it for free. Back then, few users went online, so we needed to become a marketing and sales company to reach the masses. Since we were about to complicate it with 20-30 animations, a developer’s kit and additional features, we needed to focus. We outsourced sales and marketing so we could stay awesome as a CREATIVE COMPANY that designed and developed.

Outsourcing sales – get with the program

We dreamed of Microsoft, but selected Berkeley Systems for sales because they were in the right niche and small enough to appreciate what we were handing them. While we sold Magic for Windows, they sold a limited Mac After Dark 1.0, so I felt they would be easy to convince. They weren’t. As a Mac designer who’d struck a goldmine in Windows, I couldn’t comprehend their defensive elitist attitude, especially when you’re talking money. Berkeley didn’t BELIEVE a Windows screensaver could be successful since “nobody cool would use a PC”.

Up to now, everything had come easy. This was the first time I’d had to convince anyone of anything.  I thought we needed them, so I set out to convince them to “please let me make you a ton of money”. My points were:

  • No computer is cool or uncool. Great software makes any computer cool.
  • People are the same. People with PCs deserve and appreciate great software. (Duh!)
  • I know that Windows users will love and appreciate screensavers because I’m already selling to them hand over fist WITHOUT EVEN TRYING.

Berkeley got on board, but they still weren’t convinced. I love solving problems for people. I loved Macs, but 90% of all users had PCs. With our success to this point, I knew we had the goose that lays the golden eggs. When it went to the next level, we needed to get the eggs in stores everywhere.

Creativity unleashed

Now freed from sales, we focused on making the ULTIMATE SCREENSAVER. We expanded the Magic 2.0 modular design with many animations and worked on the developer’s kit so that anyone could make their own.

Divide & conquer

While I concentrated on the interface and creating standards for the animations, Ian had to overcome many technical problems including a special hell called DOS under Windows. At that time, most PC apps were still DOS apps, so we had to build a dangerous DOS TSR to do DOS blanking. A comprehensive Windows screensaver had to cover two OSs, with separate Windows and DOS code hooking every input event on the same machine without interfering with each other. Fun, but hard work.

Fun teamwork

At the suggestion of some Berkeley staff, the working title was “Magic After Dark” and I mocked up the UI around that. While Berkeley’s Mac After Dark 1.0 wasn’t that amazing, I did like the name. I decided to drop Magic from the name to better sync up product teams. There was good synergy with the work on Magic 2.0, aka After Dark for Windows 1.0.

Each of the animations presented challenges. I pushed to get the best visual effects with lighter, quicker code so that it would work for all users, not just the ones with fast, new hardware.  It was one reason we kept Magic as an agile moire pattern instead of something more complex. As computers got faster, we started doing more with bitmapped graphics.

The psychology of screensavers

Armed with our knowledge of the screensaver purchasing cycle gained from Magic, I designed around the psychology of the buyer.

  1. USERS NEEDED IT

    Screensavers served two needs, saving the screen from burn in and locking a PC. CRTs with phosphors could definitely burn in. The ability to lock a PC from prying eyes made it a “must-have” utility.

  2. USERS WANTED IT

    Configurable animation brings an elevated experience and fun into the workplace. Office work or doing your taxes at home is often drudgery forced upon you. Back then, most software sucked. To be desired by users, the product had to be simple and fun to use, not just nice to look at.

  3. USERS COULD JUSTIFY IT

    The ability to lock down a PC with a password was more pivotal than saving the screen. IT Managers and CEOs were happy to approve purchase orders for a product that protected company data. I addressed three personas: the worker, the IT administrator and the owner/decision maker. For home users, all three were one person.

The design credo

The psychology of the screensaver customer led to my design manifesto and guidelines:

Manifesto: Zero cost of ownership software

For most software, 90% of the cost of ownership occurs after the purchase.  My goal was to produce software that offered value with almost no cost of ownership at all.

High maintenance people and things have a high cost of ownership. Most software was painfully technical and unforgiving back then. It wasn’t easy to install, learn, use, recover from mistakes, upgrade or maintain most software.

The average person felt you had to be a genius to work a computer. After Dark showed that normal people could enjoy software.

Therefore, After Dark was designed to please even those who hated computers, software, technical jargon and complexity. To do that, it needed to offer zero cost of ownership. You bought it, it worked, and everything was easy, fun, engaging and painless. Valuable features with no pain. What a concept! It’s a common theme for today’s modern apps, but it was a unique approach at the time.

After the easy installation, After Dark just worked. It autostarted with the computer, did a cool animation when it detected inactivity and disappeared with a wave of the mouse. When software is effortless to use, users are empowered. Therefore, almost everyone customized After Dark’s animation settings, not because they needed to, but because it was fun.

By letter, email and in person, thousands of users have told me a) they loved my screensavers and b) it was the only software they didn’t hate.

From my fan mail and in-person discussions with users, I know that people loved After Dark primarily because it was fun and effortless to use, unlike everything else on a computer. That is why competitors with superior animation never made any headway. It’s like people. You may love that your partner is good-looking, but it is the way they treat you that engenders love and opens you to their beauty. My design focus was quality of experience.

Design guidelines

Staying on target meant having guidelines:

  1. ASK NOTHING, BUT GIVE A LOT
    Design software that even people who hate computers and software can’t resist.
  2. DO NO HARM
    Screensavers run 24/7. Any flaw will show up eventually, possibly crashing the whole system. Therefore, no feature was worth keeping if it couldn’t be completely safe.
  3. BE QUICK, AGILE
    Aside from not crashing, don’t EVER slow the computer down. Users love screensavers, but not if it screws up or slows down anything else.
  4. SIMPLIFY
    Write less code. Don’t just make something work. Elegance is not just how it looks, but how you build it.
  5. APPEAL TO DIFFERENCES
    The point of different animations is to appeal to different tastes. When you make 40+ animations, the artistic goal is for the collection to offer a wide range of very specific visual experiences.

The creative process

Designing the animations was fun. Getting them just right was tough. They may seem simple now, but we had to pull a lot of tricks to make the animated fish for Aquatic Realm, lightning bolts in Starry Night and the airborne appliances in Flying Toasters. I enjoyed animating cityscapes and light shows. It took everything we had to finesse each one to be perfect.  1990 saw the release of Mac After Dark 2.0, the first really good Mac version, and the public showing of the even more advanced Windows After Dark at Fall COMDEX.

Engaging with users at COMDEX

After Dark was introduced to the world at COMDEX, the world’s largest trade show. As a sales event, Ian and I were told we weren’t needed. That made sense, but I wanted to get authentic feedback from users, so we went. When we arrived, there wasn’t much traffic at our small After Dark booth. When attendees asked tech questions that sales couldn’t answer, I stepped forward to answer. Engaging users went better than I expected.

Sharing my passion with an audience

I was thrilled to speak directly to users about what I’d devoted my life to. I gave concise answers to technical, usability, and even purchasing questions by demoing features and asking questions. A half hour later, the same guys were asking me to show more things. I looked up to see dozens of people behind them glued to my demo. I kept drawing bigger and bigger crowds that wanted to buy it, write about it or distribute it.

When I was “putting on a show”, I was really doing user interviews. It was a loosely guided improv that looked like this: I answered attendees questions with a concise answer, demo’d a relevant feature and then asked a question about their work life that segued into the next question.

Eventually a journalist came over to see what the buzz was about. He said “How can you even have a booth? A screensaver is not a real product!” Thirty minutes later, he was so impressed that he left and soon came back with a bunch of other journalists to WATCH IT ALL OVER AGAIN and see what they thought. I got better at connecting with crowds at each trade show we went to.

I think I connected with audiences because I was just as interested in them as I was to show what the product could do. My experience has shown that show and tell isn’t as good as listen and learn. 

Launch – we have liftoff

I knew that After Dark would sell millions, but I swear that I wanted it to start small. It’s easier to find and patch bugs when something is small. Things didn’t work out that way. After the buzz at trade shows, it exploded upon first release, topping sales charts within months. I was concerned that our incredibly complex 1.0 product was now being used 24/7 EVERYWHERE, hooked into every app on every computer. We couldn’t hot patch it over the internet. A fatal flaw in After Dark could have killed it right there.

We freaked when Jerry Pournelle, a major reviewer, said he found such a flaw. His ultimatum was to fix it in 24 hours or he would trash us in his review. It took a long 23 hrs of work to determine that another app was at fault and that he had MISTAKENLY ASSUMED it was our fault.

After Dark for Windows boomed like no other product. With PCs outnumbering Macs 10:1, it dominated a huge market as the #1 selling utility. After Dark was featured in movies, TV shows, comic strips and as a pop culture thing everyone knew about. For a number of years, I saw my work everywhere I went. I couldn’t cash a cheque, visit the dentist, meet a new client or go to a bistro in Verona without seeing it doing its thing.

Competition

At the time, After Dark had a strong competitor called Intermission. Before After Dark was released, I got offers from ICOM Simulations and Microsoft to head up screensavers for them based on Magic. They were both better deals, but I told both companies that I wasn’t a capricious deal breaker, so I was sticking with Berkeley. BIG MISTAKE.  ICOM went on to make Intermission as a competitor to After Dark. It was a very good product with similar features and animations, but it always came up as second best.

All the comparative reviews touched on the same thing. Similar product, similar features, similar animations, but there was a level of finesse and magic to the user interface, animation, and feel of After Dark that made it the clear winner. The difference was an obsessive attention to details of the user experience, including the out of box experience, UI, error prevention\handling and giving good defaults. Offering simpler options, clean lines and instant results was rare back then, but it’s still relevant to app and website design today.

We tried to kill Magic, but it wouldn’t die

When After Dark was released, we were happy to upgrade all Magic users with a free After Dark upgrade. We were so busy finessing After Dark that we rarely had time to open the stacks of Magic fan mail. We sent every Magic user a letter that said, “Thanks for being our loyal Magic customer. All promised coming attraction features have been rolled into our new product, Magic 2.0, which is now called After Dark. Please accept our free upgrade as Magic will not be continued.” When Magic orders still poured in, we told them all to get After Dark instead. That was supposed to be that.

Life isn’t that neat and tidy. Most users gladly upgraded to After Dark, but after trying it, quite a few switched back to Magic. I felt bad that my new work failed some of my customers. The consensus seemed to be that After Dark was awesome, but “all a bit too much” for their needs. Magic was smaller, simpler and less distracting.  Not only did many users stick with Magic, but we couldn’t talk companies out of placing large site license orders. We reluctantly kept selling Magic for years without upgrading it or doing a damn thing to encourage it. That’s what I call Magic.

Cultural influence

Over time, screensavers became toys and just an entertaining waste of time. The products I worked on were not. They served a purpose and made people happy. I saw my work everywhere. One outstanding experience was when Ian and I saw the movie Malice. In a particularly tense scene, the screen filled with After Dark’s Flying Toasters to establish a plot point. We broke out laughing at the absurdity of seeing our work fill the screen in a big box office movie. Other patrons could not understand why we were laughing at a murder scene.

Lessons learned

Through developing screensavers, I learned the value of understanding customers and delivering great software. The same design principles apply to every site and app designed today.

LESSON 1:

Awesome is not a feature list. Awesome products are designed to be awesome.

My experience with screensavers underscores what you can do with great design, even when the base deliverable seems trivial. To the casual observer, it seems to just animate the screen when you aren’t there. The way we delivered it made it the compelling must-have product that topped the sales charts.

LESSON 2:

Users are empowered to do more when the experience is designed.

By offering a zero cost of ownership product, users could install it and just let it do its thing. By making it fun to tinker, people tinkered to customize it. When users customized it, they created a strong bond with the product and brand.  These ideas apply to any product.

LESSON 3:

Simple is great. For some, even simpler is better.

Competitively, the UX design of After Dark was the reason it always came out on top. We did the best we could artistically at the time, but it didn’t have the best or funniest animation. It was simply easier and more fun to use than any other product. However, some users preferred the even more simple Magic. We tend to think of features as purely positive. They aren’t. Every feature adds complexity, and that needs to be accounted for. This is why design is so important at early stage project planning.

BONUS LESSON:

Don’t try to sell the same thing to everyone.

A mistake that got bigger with successive versions was the gap between the needs of business and home users. We should have offered separate product lines. You may fondly remember the wilder animations of Star Trek, Disney, Simpsons and Twisted After Dark. It was super fun for home users, but really pissed off business managers who didn’t want to pay to distract everyone at work. I believed that products like that should have been separated into their own home product line to avoid confusion with the business utility. The reason people look back on screensavers as “useless toys that I don’t know why people paid for” is because the product became more jokey while still marketed to business and home users alike. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment software. I made a game in 1992 that people still buy in 2017, but I wouldn’t market it to businesses.

Entertainment software is great, but it would have been better to just make toys and games and not pretend they are “screen savers” when they do not save the screen.

Postscript: where it began

If you missed it, read Part I, the Magic of Screensavers.

About Bill Stewart

Bill Stewart is the founder and Senior UX Architect/Designer of UX Factor Design. His views on UX are informed by 29 years of experience in product strategy, development, visual design and team leadership. He’s designed products used by more than 450M people and his inventions are currently used by more than 1 billion users.

Whether he’s redesigning products to increase value, lindy hop dancing, or teaching kung fu, he looks to maximize the value in every experience.

Contact him at UX Factor Design (uxfactor.ca) for UX design consultation.

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