Play, story and recombination

A bunch of Lego bricks

“Dominant models in IA: space + story” was one of the notes I took while at this year’s Euro IA Summit. I’ll get into space some other time. Concerning story: Basically it strikes me that for a discipline involved with an interactive medium, so often designing is likened to storytelling. I’m not sure this is always the most productive way to approach design, I actually think it is very limiting. If you approach design not as embedding your story in the environment, but as creating an environment wherein users can create their own stories, then I’d say you’re on the right track. An example I tend to use is a game of poker: The design of the game poker was certainly not an act of storytelling, but a play session of poker is experienced as (and can be retold as) a story. Furthermore, the components of the game can be recombined to create different variations of the basic game, each creating different potentials for stories to arise. I’d like to see more designers approach interactive media (digital, physical or whatever) like this: Don’t tell a story to your user, enable them to create their own.1 Realize users will want to recombine your stuff with other stuff you might not know about (the notion of seamful design comes into play here). When you’ve done a proper job, you’ll find them retelling those stories to others, which I would say is the biggest compliment you can get.

1. Or to put this in Marc LeBlanc‘s terms: Don’t embed narrative, let it emerge through play.

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 del.icio.us 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.

Mirroring mental models — games modelling players

Will Wright demoing Spore at TED 2007

Today I sent in the slides of my Euro IA Summit presentation for the proceedings. The rough outline of my talk is done, the most important thing now is to find the proper examples to illustrate all the fuzzy theoretical thinking. That means (at least for me) doing a lot of Flickr photo searches. This time I’ll also be experimenting with using some short video-clips. Games are better seen in motion after all (and best experienced through play of course). Chronicling my thinking on the subject of playful IAs on this blog has been very helpful in organising my thoughts by the way, I’ll definitely try it again the next time I need to do a talk.

On mental models

One idea I managed to squeeze into the presentation in addition to the stuff I’ve been blogging about so far is about mental models. I think it was Ben Cerveny who mentioned in his Reboot 7.0 talk (MP3) that some of the pleasure of playing games is derived from the gradual mental model building a player goes through. The player uses the visual layer of a game to learn about the underlying structures. When a player masters a game, the visual layer more or less fades away and becomes a symbolic landscape through which he manipulates a far richer model of the game in his mind.

From a UX perspective because usually when designing web sites and apps we try to adhere to existing mental models as much as possible to prevent confusion and frustration. This is a very valid approach of course. However, regardless of how well done the UX design, there will always be some mental modelling on the user’s part. Best make this as engaging as possible I guess. This, again, is where games come in.

Will Wright acknowledges the fact that players build models of a game but he proposes to take it one step further. In an old(ish) talk at Accelerating Change 2004 he proposed the idea that a game can construct a model of the player as well. Parallels with online recommendation engines are apparent here. As Wright points out, in games (as in web environments) everything can be measured. This way, the experience can be tailored to a player/user. He’s applying this principle in the upcoming Spore, where game content (created by other players) is dynamically included based on inferred player preferences.

It can be argued that certain web professionals are way ahead of the games industry in this field. Perhaps there are some interesting opportunities for collaboration or career moves here?

The experience of playful IAs

Solving a Rubik's Cube

It’s time for a short update on my thinking about Playful IAs (the topic of my Euro IA Summit talk). One of the under-served aspects so far is the actual user experience of an architecture that is playful.

Brian Sutton-Smith describes a model describing the ways in which games are experienced in his book Toys as Culture. I first came across this book in (not surprisingly) Rules of Play. He lists five aspects:

  1. Visual scanning
  2. Auditory discrimination
  3. Motor responses
  4. Concentration
  5. Perceptual patterns of learning

Of most importance to my subject is the 5th one.

Game design, like the design of emergent IAs is a 2nd order design problem. You can only shape the user’s experience indirectly. One of the most important sources of pleasure for the user is the way you offer feedback on the ways he or she has explored and discovered the information space.

Obviously, I’m not saying you should make the use of your service deliberately hard. However, what I am saying is that if you’re interested in offering a playful experience on the level of IA, then Sutton-Smith’s perceptual patterns of learning is the best suited experiential dimension.

Learning about emergence from games

A game of Go

I’m still trying to get a grip on why I think games are such a good reference point for IAs and IxDs. I’ll try to take another stab at it in this post. Previously I wrote about how games might be a good way to ‘sell’ algorithmic architectures to your client. Even if you’re not actively pushing your clients to adopt ideas such as on-the-fly creation of site navigation, sooner or later I’m convinced you’ll find yourself confronted with a project where you’re not asked to develop a definitive information architecture. Instead you’ll be charged with the task to come up with mechanisms to generate these procedurally. When this is this case, you’re truly facing a second-order design problem. How can games help here?

One of the defining characteristics of games are their complexity. A few years ago Ben Cerveny gave a brilliant talk on play (MP3) at Reboot 7.0 and mentioned this specifically — that much of the pleasure derived from game-play is the result of the player coming to terms with complex patterns. This complexity is something different from pure randomness and most certainly different from a ‘mere’ state machine. In other words, games show emergence.

There are many examples of emergent systems. The Game of Life springs to mind. This system isn’t really a game but shows a remarkable richness in patterns, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it is based on a set of deceptively simple rules (which apparently took its creator, John Conway, over 2 years to perfect!) The thing is though, The Game of Life is not interactive.

A wonderful example of a complex emergent system that is interactive is the real game Go. It has a set of very simple rules, but playing it well takes a huge amount of practice. The joy of playing Go for me (an absolute beginner) is largely due to discovering the many different permutations play can go through.

So getting back to my earlier remark: If you’re convinced you’ll need to get a better handle on solving the second-order design problems presented by the design of complex emergent systems, games are an excellent place to start learning. They are emergent first and interactive second, the perfect twin to the web environments we’ll be shaping in the future.

UX and the aesthetics of interactivity

Tetris cookies

I’ve been trying to regularly post some thoughts on the topic of playful IA here. Previously I blogged about how games could be a useful frame for thinking about complex algorithmic architectures. Last week I posted some thoughts on the application of game mechanics in web apps. There, Rahul was kind enough to point me to the fascinating blog of ‘Danc’ Daniel Cook, titled Lost Garden, where there is one post in particular that resonates with my own pre-occupations lately.

In ‘Short thoughts on games and interaction design‘ (which honestly isn’t that short) Danc Cook looks at some of the ways game design techniques can be applied to the interaction design of web apps. In summary, according to Danc Cook game design techniques allow you to:

  1. Create an engaging experience that goes beyond simply completing a task efficiently.
  2. Support free and deep exploration and introduce and teach new interactions that violate conventions.

Some things you shouldn’t borrow from games without giving it a lot of thought are:

  1. Spatial metaphors
  2. Visual themes

These are some of the things most people think of first as characteristic of games but really, they are only surface, superficial, not determinant of the actual interactivity of the system.

I think one of the greatest arguments for a deeper understanding of games by interaction designers, information architects and other user experience specialists is that they are the medium that is all about the aesthetics of interactivity. It is true that they have no utilitarian character, they aim to create a pleasurable experience through systems of risks and rewards, restraints and freedoms, nested feedback loops and on and on. As a UX practitioner, it can never hurt to have a deep appreciation of the aesthetics of the medium you work in daily (beyond simply supporting user goals, or selling product, or whatever).

Possibility spaces and algorithmic architectures

A screenshot of Sim City.

One of the concepts I plan on exploring in my talk at the Euro IA Summit in Barcelona is ‘possibility spaces’. It’s a term used by Will Wright to describe his view of what a game can be – a space that offers multiple routes and outcomes to its explorer. That idea maps nicely with one definition of play that Zimmerman and Salen offer in Rules of Play: ‘free movement within a rigid structure’. Some examples of possibility spaces created by Wright are the well-known games Sim City and The Sims.

I think the idea of possibility spaces can help IAs to get a firmer grip on ways to realize information spaces that are multi-dimensional and (to use a term put forward by Jesse James Garrett) algorithmic. Algorithmic architectures according to Garrett are created ‘on the fly’ based on a set of rules (algorithms) that get their input (ideally) from user behaviour. The example he uses to explain this concept is Amazon.

I’ve found myself in several projects recently that would have benefited from an algorithmic approach. The hard thing is to explain its charms to clients and to get a unified vision of what it means across to the design team. I believe games might be a useful analogy. What do you think?

Interface design — fifth and final IA Summit 2007 theme

(Here’s the fifth and final post on the 2007 IA Summit. You can find the first one that introduces the series and describes the first theme ‘tangible’ here, the second one on ‘social’ here, the third one on ‘web of data’ here and the fourth one on ‘strategy’ here.)

It might have been the past RIA hype (which according to Jared Spool has nothing to do with web 2.0) but for whatever reason, IAs are moving into interface territory. They’re broadening their scope to look at how their architectures are presented and made usable by users. The interesting part for me is to see how a discipline that has come from taxonomies, thesauri and other abstract information structures approaches the design of user facing shells for those structures. Are their designs dramatically different from those created by interface designers coming from a more visual domain concerned with surface? I would say: at least a little…

I particularly enjoyed Stephen Anderson’s presentation on adaptive interfaces. He gave many examples of interfaces that would change according to user behaviour, becoming more elaborate and explanatory or very minimal and succinct. His main point was to start with a generic interface that would be usable by the majority of users, and then come up with ways to adapt it to different specific behaviours. The way in which those adaptations were determined and documented as rules reminded me a lot of game design.

Margaret Hanley gave a solid talk on the “unsexy side of IA”, namely the design of administration interfaces. This typically involves coming up with a lot of screens with many form fields and controls. The interfaces she created allowed people to edit data that would normally not be accessible through a CMS but needed editing nonetheless (product details for a web shop, for instance). Users are accustomed to thinking in terms of editing pages, not editing data. The trickiest bit is to find ways to communicate how changes made to the data would propagate through a site and be shown in different places. There were some interesting ideas from the audience on this, but no definite solution was found.

Strategy — fourth of five IA Summit 2007 themes

(Here’s the fourth post on the 2007 IA Summit. You can find the first one that introduces the series and describes the first theme ‘tangible’ here, the second one on ‘social’ here and the third one on ‘web of data’ here.)

Like other design disciplines, IAs are typically brought in to solve a problem. The extent to which the design problem is defined and explicated is a huge determining factor in the success of their undertaking. More often than not, an IA would take a problem and run with it, not thinking whether this is the right problem to solve, or even a problem at all!

This has always seemed like a silly situation to me. Some of the most enjoyable sessions at the summit therefore were the ones that discussed ways in which IAs can join in on strategic thinking. This way, we can help discover the actual problem that needs solving, which gives us a better chance of actually delivering a successful and valuable solution.

Gene Smith and Matthew Milan discussed conceptual models (which I’ve been playing around with for a while) and the more involved rich mapping, from soft systems thinking. Key takeaway for me was when modelling a system we should also describe its context (including the project itself). Other good stuff by people of Critical Mass (Milan again together with Sam Ladner) was provided in the form of ‘backcasting’, a very visual brainstorming method to be used in a workshop session with a client in order to envision desired project outcomes and map paths from the current situation to those outcomes (notes at The Chicken Test).

People from Avenue A Razorfish (Garrick Schmitt, Marisa Gallagher) talked about their framework for tying together lots of different user research such as click stream analysis, search logs, eye tracking and others. This reminded me of Jared Folkmann’s excellent talk at last year’s Euro IA Summit in Berlin.

Finally, I attended one nice talk (by James Robertson) on the value of contextual enquiries, which if nothing else has made me all the more determined to try this myself the next time an opportunity presents itself.