Sketching the experience of toys

A frame from the Sketch-A-Move video

“Play is the highest form of research.”

—Albert Einstein1

That’s what I always say when I’m playing games, too.

I really liked Bill Buxton‘s book Sketching User Experiences. I like it because Buxton defends design as a legitimate profession separate from other disciplines—such as engineering—while at the same time showing that designers (no matter how brilliant) can only succeed in the right ecosystem. I also like the fact that he identifies sketching (in its many forms) as a defining activity of the design profession. The many examples he shows are very inspiring.

One in particular stood out for me, which is the project Sketch-A-Move by Anab Jain and Louise Klinker done in 2004 at the RCA in London. The image above is taken from the video they created to illustrate their concept. It’s about cars auto-magically driving along trajectories that you draw on their roof. You can watch the video over at the book’s companion website. It’s a very good example of visualizing an interactive product in a very compelling way without actually building it. This was all faked, if you want to find out how, buy the book.2

The great thing about the video is not only does it illustrate how the concept works, it also gives you a sense of what the experience of using it would be like. As Buxton writes:3

“You see, toys are not about toys. Toys are about play and the experience of fun that they help foster. And that is what this video really shows. That, and the power of video to go beyond simply documenting a concept to communicating something about experience in a very visceral way.”

Not only does it communicate the fun you would have playing with it, I think this way of sketching actually helped the designers get a sense themselves of wether what they had come up with was fun. You can tell they are actually playing, being surprised by unexpected outcomes, etc.

The role of play in design is discussed by Buxton as well, although he admits he needed to be prompted by a friend of his: Alex Manu, a teacher at OCAD in Toronto writes in an email to Buxton:4

“Without play imagination dies.”

“Challenges to imagination are the keys to creativity. The skill of retrieving imagination resides in the mastery of play. The ecology of play is the ecology of the possible. Possibility incubates creativity.”

Which Buxton rephrases in one of his own personal mantras:5

“These things are far too important to take seriously.”

All of which has made me realize that if I’m not having some sort of fun while designing, I’m doing something wrong. It might be worth considering switching from one sketching technique to another. It might help me get a different perspective on the problem, and yield new possible solutions. Buxton’s book is a treasure trove of sketching techniques. There is no excuse for being bored while designing anymore.

  1. Sketching User Experiences p.349 []
  2. No, I’m not getting a commission to say that. []
  3. Ibid. 1, at 325 []
  4. Ibid., at 263 []
  5. Ibid. []

Tools for having fun

ZoneTag Photo Friday 11:40 am 4/18/08 Copenhagen, Hovedstaden

One of the nicer things about GDC was the huge stack of free magazines I took home with me. Among those was an issue of Edge, the glossy games magazine designed to look good on a coffee table next to the likes of Vogue (or whatever). I was briefly subscribed to Edge, but ended up not renewing because I could read reviews online and the articles weren’t all that good.

The january 2008 issue I brought home did have some nice bits in it—in particular an interview with Yoshinori Ono, the producer of Street Fighter IV. This latest incarnation of the game aims to go back to what made Street Fighter II great. What I liked about the interview was Ono’s clear dedication to players, not force feeding them what the designers think would be cool. Something often lacking in game design.

“”First of all, the most important thing about SFIV is ‘fair rules’, and by that I mean fair and clear rules that can be understood by everyone very easily.” A lesson learned from the birth of modern videogaming: ‘Avoid missing ball for high score’.”

This of course is a reference to PONG. Allan Alcorn (the designer of the arcade coin operated version of PONG) famously refused to include instructions with the game because he believed if a game needed written instructions, it was crap.

Later on in the same article, Ono says:

“[…] what the game is — a tool for having fun. A tool to give the players a virtual fighting stage — an imaginary arena, if you like.”

(Emphasis mine.) I like the fact that he sees the game as something to be used, as opposed to something to be consumed. Admittedly, it is easier to think of a fighting game this way than for instance an adventure game—which has much more embedded narrative—but in any case I think it is a more productive view.

While we’re on the topic of magazines. A while back I read an enjoyable little piece in my favorite free magazine Vice about the alleged clash between ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’ gamers:

“Casual games are taking off like never before, with half of today’s games being little fun quizzes or about playing tennis or golf by waving your arms around. The Hardcore crowd are shitting themselves that there might not be a Halo 4 if girls and old people carry on buying simple games where everyone’s a winner and all you have to do is wave a magic wand around and press a button every few times.”

Only half serious, to be sure, but could it be at least partly true? I wouldn’t mind it to be so. I appreciate the rise of the casual game mainly for the way it brings focus back to player centred game design. Similar to Yoshinori Ono’s attitude in redesigning Street Fighter.

Spectra of learnability

They gave us Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things1 to read in interaction design school. I remember reading it and—being young an cocky—finding it all very common sense and “Why do they ask us to read this stuff?” And so on.2

I am rereading it now, in the hopes of sharpening my argument for playful user experiences.

(There are a lot of things I want to blog about actually, such as how Hill and Webb‘s adaptive design reminds me of Salen & Zimmerman‘s transformative play, why Cook rejects MDA while Saffer embraces it and more.)

Anyway, my new copy of DOET has a nice introduction by Norman in which he summarizes a few core concepts form the book. On page xi—writing on conceptual models—he writes:

“[G]ood design is … an act of communication between the designer and the user, … all the communication has to come about by the appearance of the device itself.”

In other words, if you can’t figure “it” out by just looking at it, it’s not well designed. Where “figure it out” basically means understand how to operate “it” successfully. Of course this is an important concept, but I think something’s missing.

In games, it’s not enough just to be able to figure out how to make Mario jump—for instance—you want to learn how to jump well.

It’s about skill and mastery in other words. A “Norman Door” (a door that is difficult to open) can be fixed so that people can open the door easily. But a door has a narrow spectrum of learnability. Or as Koster would probably say: The pattern to “grok” is really simple.

Figure 1: A door’s spectrum of learnability

And anyway, why would you want to become a master at opening doors, right?

But a lot of the things I’m working on (for instance creative tools, but also toy-like environments) have more complex patterns and therefore (wether I like it or not) have a wider spectrum of learnability. And that’s where usability alone is not enough. That’s where in testing, I’d need to make sure people don’t just understand how to do stuff by looking at it. (That’s the start, for sure.) But I also want to be able to tell if people can get better at doing stuff. Because if they get better at it, that’s when they’ll be having fun.

Figure 2: A toy’s spectrum of learnability

  1. Or The Psychology of Everyday Things as it was then titled. []
  2. I still consider myself young, only slightly less cocky. []

Game player needs and designing architectures of participation

How do you create a corporate environment in which people share knowledge out of free will?1 This is a question my good friends of Wemind2 are working to answer for their clients on a daily basis.3 We’ve recently decided to collaboratively develop methods useful for the design of a participatory context in the workplace. Our idea is that since knowledge sharing is essentially about people interacting in a context, we’ll apply interaction design methods to the problem. Of course, some methods will be more suited to the problem than others, and all will need to be made specific for them to really work. That’s the challenge.

Naturally I will be looking for inspiration in game design theory. This gives me a good reason to blog about the PENS model. I read about this in an excellent Gamasutra article titled Rethinking Carrots: A New Method For Measuring What Players Find Most Rewarding and Motivating About Your Game. The creators of this model4 wanted to better understand what fundamentally motivates game players as well as come up with a practical play testing model. What they’ve come up with is intriguing: They’ve demonstrated that to offer a fun experience, a game has to satisfy certain basic human psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness.5

I urge anyone interested in what makes games work their magic to read this article. It’s really enlightening. The cool thing about this model is that it provides a deeper vocabulary for talking about games.6 In the article’s conclusion the authors note the same, and point out that by using this vocabulary we can move beyond creating games that are ‘mere’ entertainment. They mention serious games as an obvious area of application, I can think of many more (3C products for instance). But I plan on applying this understanding of game player needs to the design of architectures of participation. Wish me luck.

  1. Traditionally, sharing knowledge in large organisations is explicitly rewarded in some way. Arguably true knowledge can only be shared voluntarily. []
  2. Who have been so kind to offer me some free office space, Wi-Fi and coffee since my arrival in Copenhagen. []
  3. They are particularly focused on the value of social software in this equation. []
  4. Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan of Immersyve []
  5. To nuance this, the amount to which a player expects each need to be satisfied varies from game genre to genre. []
  6. Similar to the work of Koster and of Salen & Zimmerman. []

Summary of my Playful IAs argument

I thought I’d post a short summary of the argument I made in my Euro IA Summit 2007 talk, for those who weren’t there and/or are too lazy to actually go through the notes in the slides. The presentation is basically broken up into three parts:

  1. Future web environments are becoming so complex, they start to show emergent properties. In this context a lot of traditional IA practice doesn’t make sense anymore. Instead of directly designing an information space, you’re better off designing the rules that underly the generative construction of such spaces. In other words, IA is becoming a second order design problem.
  2. IAs tend to argue for the value of their designs based solely on how well they support users in achieving their end goals. I propose supporting experience goals is just as important. From there I try to make the case that any powerful experience is a playful one, where the user’s fun follows from the feeling that he or she is learning new stuff, is kicking ass, is in flow.
  3. Game design is not black magic (anymore). In recent years a lot has become understood about how games work. They are built up out of game mechanics that each follow a pattern of action, simulation, feedback and modelling. Designing playful IAs means taking care that you encourage discovery, support exploration and provide feedback on mastery.

Get the the slides, and a list of sources for the talk in this earlier post.

Playful IAs — slides for my Euro IA Summit 2007 talk

After a considerable amount of fiddling with SlideShare I’ve finally managed to upload a version of the slides that go with my Playful IAs presentation. This more or less as I presented it at the Euro IA Summit 2007 and includes an approximate transcript of my talk. I hope to get an audio/video recording of most of it in the near future as well. When I do I’ll update this page.

Update: I’ve posted a short summary of the central argument of my talk.

Download a version including an approximate transcript (14,5 MB).

I had some great reactions to this talk and I want to thank all the people who engaged with me in discussions afterwards. It’s given me a good picture of what areas I should develop further in future subsequent talks. I’m also pleasantly surprised to see that contrary to what some people think, the IA community (the European one at least) is very much open to new ideas. That’s really nice to experience firsthand.

A lot of people asked for a list of books and other good sources on the topics I covered. Here’s an incomplete list of stuff I’ve used at some stage to inform my thinking:

If that doesn’t keep you busy for a while, you could always have a dig through my links. There’s plenty of good stuff there. Of course of if you ever find anything you think would be of interest to me, do let me know. Just tag it for:kaeru.

Game mechanics in web apps

A while ago there was a discussion on the IAI members list about game mechanics on web sites. Andrew Hinton pointed to the Google Image Labeler and LinkedIn‘s ‘profile completeness’ status bar and asked: “Can anyone else think of a use of a game mechanic like this to jump-start this kind of activity?” (Where “this kind of activity” is basically defined as something people wouldn’t normally do for its own sake, like say tagging images.)

I was thinking about this for a while the past week and seem to have ended up at the following:

Profile completeness status bar on LinkedIn

On LinkedIn, having a (more or less complete) profile presumably serves some extrinsic goal. I mean, by doing so you maybe hope you’ll land a new job more easily. By slapping a status bar onto the profile that gives feedback on its completeness, the assumption is that this will stimulate you to fill it out. In other words, LinkedIn seems unsure about the presence of extrinsic motivations and is introducing an intrinsic one: getting a 100% ‘complete’ profile and as such making a game (in a very loose sense of the term) out of its professional network service. A good idea? I’m not sure…

Screenshot of Google Image Labeler

On Google Image Labeler, the starting point for its design was to come up with a way to have people add meta-data to images. Google actually ‘bought’ the game (originally called The ESP Game) from CAPTCHA inventor Luis von Ahn, who before that did reCAPTCHA and after went on to create Peekaboom and Phetch. Anyway, in the case of the Image Labeler (contrary to LinkedIn) there was no real extrinsic goal to begin with so a game had to be created. Simply having fun is the only reason people have when labelling images.

Note that Flickr for instance has found other ways to get people to tag images. What happened there is (I think) a very nice way of aligning extrinsic goals with intrinsic (fun, game-like) ones.

‘Pure’ games by their very nature have only intrinsic goals, they are artificial and non-utilitarian. When you consider introducing game-like mechanics into your web site or application (which presumably serves some external purpose, like sharing photos) think carefully about the extrinsic motivations your users will have and come up with game-like intrinsic ones that reinforce these.

Update: Alper finished the LinkedIn profile completeness game and was disappointed to find there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, mirroring the experience many players of real games have when finishing a game.