Finding playful patterns at dConstruct 2007

Fortune cookie with design wisdom and dConstruct 2007 bag

I didn’t announce it on this blog, but if you’re following me on Twitter or Jaiku, took a look at the Upcoming event page or share trips with me on Dopplr you’re probably aware that I attended dConstruct 2007 in Brighton.

By way of a short conference report I’d like to list some of the references to games and play that jumped out at me during the day. It might be that I’m slowly but surely going a little crazy or that have really discovered the secret order of the universe, but either way I was pleasantly surprised that most talks suggested that successful experience design benefits from an understanding of the dynamics of play. Here goes:

  1. Game design is a second order design problem, meaning you cannot directly design the experience of play but only the ‘stuff’ that facilitates it. Jared Spool pointed out that successful experience design is invisible, it’s only when it’s done wrong that we notice it. This makes good experience design hard to sell, and I would say the same goes for great game design.
  2. The practice of game design is very much a multidisciplinary one, with a lot of specialties on board. Similarly, there is no way you’ll be able to do good experience design when you use a relay-race-like proces. You need to have people from a lot of different backgrounds solving problems collaboratively (or a few people who can do a lot of different stuff really well.) Jared Spool briefly pointed this out, Leisa Reichelt gave a lot of good suggestions on how to facilitate this with washing-machine methodologies and Tom Coates finished his talk encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration too.
  3. Because good experience design (like game design) is a second order design problem, and it can only be done multidisciplinary, you can only do it in an iterative and incremental way. Good games get play-tested to death to ensure they’re fun, good experiences (on the web or wherever) need the same treatment. Leisa Reichelt had some interesting ideas on how to actually pull this off: Introducing UX to Agile, by having design and development teams both working in the same rhythm, but handling different stuff in their own iterations, with a lot of hand-over and communication back and forth. Well worth trying out I think.
  4. More thoughts on the invisible nature of experience was provided by Peter Merholz, who used a quote from Tim O’Reilly: “Designing from the outside in”. Start with the UI and then figure out the data and logic. I wouldn’t equate user experience with user interface (because – again – the experience cannot be directly designed) but I think it’s a good quote nonetheless. I liked Merholz’s emphasis on the importance of an experience vision most of all.
  5. I was great to hear Denise Wilton and George Oates talk about B3ta and Flickr. A lot of people are probably aware of the gamey origins of Flickr but it was enlightening to finally see some of it on the big screen. It came as no surprise to hear that Ludicorp‘s process in making Flickr was very much washing-machine style (although they did 0 user testing for a long time!)
  6. Matt Webb was perhaps the speaker who most explicitly drew parallels between game design and experience design. (He mentioned Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, for instance.) He also pointed out that customisation is vital to any experience, that a product should be able to recombine with others in its ecosystem, as well as allow for personalisation. Both customisation and personalisation encourage play. Tom Coates later mentioned something very similar – that your product (which as he was eager to point out is more than just your website) should be re-combinable and extendable with and by others.
  7. One of the major themes in interaction and game design for me is behaviour, the way products encourage behaviour in their users and the kinds of behaviours they have embedded in themselves. Matt Webb also mentioned that people love to tell stories about the experiences they’ve had. This is very true of gaming, which is all about verbs, actions, doing stuff. Game design is not storytelling, the storytelling happens after the game.
  8. I had completely forgotten about Disco, the CD burning app with simulated smoke effects that serve no purpose besides play. So thanks to Matt Webb I now have an example to complement the Wii Help Cat! (Come to think of it, the discussions surrounding Stamen Design‘s Twitter Blocks might be another good one.)

In conclusion, I think it’s great that Clearleft used this year’s edition to introduce the web development community to the wonderful world of experience design. I was also very happy to see a few people on stage I had not seen present before, but knew had a lot of good stuff to say. The pre- and after-party were both a lot of fun (thanks to Media Temple, Yahoo! Developer Network and the BBC for sponsoring those with free drink and food.) And if you’re curious, I understand there will be podcasts of all the sessions online soon, so keep an eye on the site.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is an independent interaction and game designer who makes things with technology for play, learning and creativity.

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  • Hey Kars, glad you had a good time. Hope to see you at the next one.

  • Hi Kars, good to meet you there. Good ’round up and interesting take on behavior the experience cascade as I always think of it. Be good to keep in touch – I hope Copenhagen’s being good to you!

  • Thanks Jon, it was nice meeting you too! Took a look at your site, sweet typography going on there. If you ever find your way to CPH drop me a line.

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  • The secret order of the universe is often found inside our fortune cookies! Watch out for flickr, the movie. Did you stay around for barcamp?

  • Hi Stuart. Sadly I could not stay around for Barcamp but I hear it was great.

  • Barcamp was another, perhaps more geekey, fun success.

    What i really liked about both these events was the follow on thats been happening. backnetwork social network tool allowed us to keep in contact with all the people we met, see what they were saying after, see there pics etc without all that chasing from business cards we normally have.

    I guess reading the backnetwork stuff is the next best thing to being there –

    nice to meet you, even if we didn’t in the flesh!

  • Hey Stuart thanks for returning to do a follow-up. The Backnetwork is certainly a useful tool for keeping tabs on people after the event. I think every conference I visit should have something like it (with portable network connections of course).

    I’m sure we’ll meet physically at an event sometime. :-)