The case for Easter eggs and other delicacies
HWITH YOU have you ever read a terms and conditions document? WordPress, a website building service whose clients include the White House and Disney, thinks anyone deserves kudos. Its terms of service are the usual endless scroll of legalese, until you reach section 14, on disclaimers. Buried in verbiage about warranties and non-infringement is a short, odd phrase: “If you’re reading this, here’s a treat.” Click on the link and you’ll see a picture of an appetizing Texan beef brisket. Properly revived, you can then move on to things about jurisdictions and applicable law.
Stumbling upon an Easter egg, the name given to unexpected messages or features hidden somewhere in a product, isn’t like seeing a funny advertisement or following a humorous corporate social media account. Easter eggs are winks, not gags; asides rather than stand-up. A new article on their use in software, by Matthew Lakier and Daniel Vogel of the University of Waterloo in Canada, describes a variety of motivations, ranging from user curiosity, to recognition of developers’ work, to creating hype and recruiting employees. But their main characteristic is that they are playful.
On the Google search engine, there is no shortage of treats: if you search for the word “askew”, for example, the results page is somewhat off. Tesla cars are full of pop culture references: entering 007 in a text box on the car’s console, for example, will change the image of the car to that used by James Bond in “The Spy Who Loved Me “. Repeatedly tapping the software version number in an Android phone’s settings menu will usually open a game (on version 11 the game is unlocked by repeatedly turning a dial that goes to this number, a joke nestled within a joke).
Not everyone likes the fun aspect of their products. Microsoft got rid of its software easter eggs in 2002, when it launched an initiative called Trustworthy Computing. He feared they would introduce vulnerabilities, raise questions among users about what else might be hiding in his code, or just people asking why his engineers didn’t have anything better to do. ” Its a question of confidence. It’s about being professional,” explained a blog post by one of its developers in 2005.
Obviously, playfulness has limits, especially when it applies to products that should not be mistaken or to services whose reputation is based on sobriety. You probably don’t want the engineers at Airbus or Boeing spending too much time laughing. The idea of a dashing listener sounds more like a fetish than a recipe for commercial success. Unleashing employees’ creativity carries risks: jokes can easily backfire. But Easter eggs don’t need to be embedded in code to have an impact: play is a state of mind that can show up in design choices or wording tweaks. And in many contexts, irreverence can foster loyalty rather than weaken it.
Making referrals that build on users’ knowledge of a product is one way to add to a sense of community. Click on a broken page on Marvel’s website and you’ll be taken to one of the original 404-page sets; one shows a grimacing Captain America and the slogan ” HYDRA currently attacking this page! Elon Musk regularly uses playfulness to signal his anti-establishment credentials to his army of fans: By including the number “420” in his recent Twitter quote, he appears to be referring to marijuana. (If you find this funny, you’ll be glad to know that Tesla vehicles can make fart noises, too.)
Jokes can be used to reinforce brands. While readers of New Yorker wait for their app to load, messages such as “Cartoon closed captioning” and “Fact check” appear at the bottom of the screen. On an iPhone’s web browser, Apple uses circular-rimmed glasses as an icon for its Reading List feature, in an apparent homage to Steve Jobs.
Being playful is above all a way of humanizing companies and their products. Slack, a messaging platform, offers users the option to choose different notification sounds. The explanation for the one marked “hummus” is that a British employee said the word in a way that tickled her colleagues: it’s her voice you can hear.
There’s no point in this feature, or knowing the story behind it. But far from eroding trust, the decision to include this sound in the product gives the impression that a bunch of real humans are behind it. Playfulness can seem unprofessional. It can be seriously useful.
Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
Startups for the Modern Workplace (April 23)
How to sign an email (April 16)
How to Make Hybrid Work a Success (April 9)
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Easter eggs and other treats”