Well, that's Christmas done, now for the Easter eggs

Shortly before Christmas, regular users of the VLC media player will have noticed that the program’s little orange traffic cone icon sprouted a tiny Santa hat – indeed, it still has one.

The original image can be found here.

What I’ve found myself wondering since is, firstly, why exactly did this little touch make me smile so much, and, secondly, why don’t more of the (non-entertainment) programs and web applications we use every day contain more of these kind of hidden surprises, or Easter eggs? I mean, let’s face it, we need all the smiles we can get in life.

An initial answer to the first question, of course, is that it was an especially incongruous and unexpected addition – when a program’s noted for being so stripped-back and basic in appearance, the sudden whimsical appearance of a Santa hat is about the last thing you’d expect. It can’t help but be a pleasant surprise.

More than that, though, there’s something genuinely cheering about happening upon a sudden little touch of warmth and humanity in the often sterile digital world of computers, about seeing that a program’s creator genuinely has in mind those who use it, and about them being bothered to offer an otherwise totally pointless and unnecessary little something extra to raise a smile.

As for the second question; well, doesn’t all this remind you of another organisation?

VLC might have its Santa hat, but Google is a company that gives out all manner of Easter eggs and surprises – from its logo doodles to its April Fool’s pranks, to iGoogle wallpaper surprises, to all those bizarre autocomplete suggestions, and more besides. On one level, it could arguably get away without doing any of these things – they’re not practical, integral parts of its services; they’re mere fripperies. But on an another level, it’s those very moments of unpredictability, playfulness and creativity that humanise the organisation, make it seem accessible, benign, exciting, and add to the sense of discovery. They build goodwill – and not just of a seasonal kind. If Google offer Easter eggs, and benefit from them, shouldn’t other companies consider it?

By way of contrast, let’s take Microsoft; which formally stopped including Easter eggs in its software in 2002.

If you read the Wikipedia entry, admittedly you can see, to an extent, the reasoning behind such a policy; but what the decision seems to mean in practice is that Microsoft programs no longer contain much that will (pleasantly) surprise, little that joyously rewards or positively encourages discovery and doing the unexpected, no real suggestions of humanity, humility, fallibility, play, exploration or openness – and if Google, or Apple, is far more strongly associated with discovery and creativity than Microsoft, if people see truth in those Mac vs. PC ads, and indeed if the Windows strapline “Where do you want to go today?” tends to ring hollow, maybe a lack of Easter eggs is at least a small part of the reason why?

The human touch, of course, extends even further with Google, into the somewhat quirky way it routinely chooses to release its products and services. Calling them betas or experimental Labs features, despite their often being perfectly useful and usable already, admits fallibility, suggests humility, invites input, gives Google valuable leeway to get things wrong without overly alienating its users. Microsoft, on the other hand, by taking its more formal approach, gives the impression of offering a finished article, so that any updates feel (perhaps misleadingly) less like improvements, more like tacit admissions that the original release was rushed and incomplete, flawed rather than evolving.

Adopting a more human touch and the inclusion of Easter eggs isn’t without pitfalls, of course: if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s disagreeing with other humans, and if there’s another, it’s being offended. Even VLC’s Santa hat initially led to a complaint (later partially rescinded) – never mind that a Santa hat is hardly a religious symbol, or that it didn’t even seem to be the commercialisation/secularisation of Christmas the user was at odds with!

On the upside, though, by being human and open, at least any offence, or actual misjudgements, can perhaps be more easily and reasonably addressed, should they occur – as above. And wouldn’t a few people being offended be more than compensated for?

Whatever the case, though, there are surely plenty of companies, not just Microsoft, that might see their image benefit from a less staid approach; from every now and then doing tiny unexpected things to brighten our day; and generally, from seeing users of their products as fellow human beings, rather than captive consumers. Handing out Easter eggs at Christmas might seem an odd way of going about it, but it could be one of the easiest ways to start trying.

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