Nobody does thoroughly argued presentations quite like Sebastian. This is good stuff on ethics and design.

I decided to share some thoughts it sparked via Twitter and ended up ranting a bit:

I recently talked about ethics to a bunch of “behavior designers” and found myself concluding that any designed system that does not allow for user appropriation is fundamentally unethical because as you rightly point out what is the good life is a personal matter. Imposing it is an inherently violent act. A lot of design is a form of technologically mediated violence. Getting people to do your bidding, however well intended. Which given my own vocation and work in the past is a kind of troubling thought to arrive at… Help?

Sebastian makes his best point on slides 113-114. Ethical design isn’t about doing the least harm, but about doing the most good. And, to come back to my Twitter rant, for me the ultimate good is for others to be free. Hence non-prescriptive design.

(via Designing the Good Life: Ethics and User Experience Design)

On sketching

Catching up with this slightly neglected blog (it’s been 6 weeks since the last proper post). I’d like to start by telling you about a small thing I helped out with last week. Peter Boersma1 asked me to help out with one of his UX Cocktail Hours. He was inspired by a recent IxDA Studio event where, in stead of just chatting and drinking, designers actually made stuff. (Gasp!) Peter wanted to do a workshop where attendees collaborated on sketching a solution to a given design problem.

Part of my contribution to the evening was a short presentation on the theory and practice of sketching. On the theory side, I referenced Bill Buxton’s list of qualities that define what a sketch is2, and emphasized that this means a sketch can be done in any material, not necessarily pencil and paper. Furthermore I discussed why sketching works, using part of an article on embodied interaction3. The main point there, as far as I am concerned is that when sketching, as designers we have the benefit of ‘backtalk’ from our materials, which can provide us with new insights. I wrapped up the presentation with a case study of a project I did a while back with the Amsterdam-based agency Info.nl4 for a social web start-up aimed at independent professionals. In the project I went quite far in using sketches to not only develop the design, but also collaboratively construct it with the client, technologists and others.

The whole thing was recorded; you can find a video of the talk at Vimeo (thanks to Iskander and Alper). I also uploaded the slides to SlideShare (sans notes).

The second, and most interesting part of the evening was the workshop itself. This was set up as follows: Peter and I had prepared a fictional case, concerning peer-to-peer energy. We used the Dutch company Qurrent as an example, and asked the participants to conceptualise a way to encourage use of Qurrent’s product range. The aim was to have people be more energy efficient, and share surplus energy they had generated with the Qurrent community. The participants split up in teams of around ten people each, and went to work. We gave them around one hour to design a solution, using only pen and paper. Afterwards, they presented the outcome of their work to each other. For each team, we asked one participant to critique the work by mentioning one thing he or she liked, and one thing that could be improved. The team was then given a chance to reply. We also asked each team to briefly reflect on their working process. At the end of the evening everyone was given a chance to vote for their favourite design. The winner received a prize.5

Wrapping up, I think what I liked most about the workshop was seeing the many different ways the teams approached the problem (many of the participants did not know each other beforehand). Group dynamics varied hugely. I think it was valuable to have each team share their experiences on this front with each other. One thing that I think we could improve was the case itself; next time I would like to provide participants with a more focused, more richly detailed briefing for them to sink their teeth in. That might result in an assignment that is more about structure and behaviour (or even interface) and less about concepts and values. It would be good to see how sketching functions in such a context.

  1. the Netherlands’ tallest IA and one of several famous Peters who work in UX []
  2. taken from his wonderful book Sketching User Experiences []
  3. titled How Bodies Matter (PDF) by Klemer and Takayama []
  4. who were also the hosts of this event []
  5. I think it’s interesting to note that the winner had a remarkable concept, but in my opinion was not the best example of the power of sketching. Apparently the audience valued product over process. []

A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

A while ago I was interviewed by Sam Warnaars. He’s researching people’s conference experiences; he asked me what my most favourite and least favourite conference of the past year was. I wish he’d asked me after my trip to Playful ’08, because it has been by far the best conference experience to date. Why? Because it was like Toby, Richard and the rest of the event’s producers had taken a peek inside my brain and came up with a program encompassing (almost) all my fascinations — games, interaction design, play, sociality, the web, products, physical interfaces, etc. Almost every speaker brought something interesting to the table. The audience was composed of people from many different backgrounds, and all seemed to, well, like each other. The venue was lovely and atmospheric (albeit a bit chilly). They had good tea. Drinks afterwards were tasty and fun, the tapas later on even more so. And the whiskey after that, well let’s just say I was glad to have a late flight the next day. Many thanks to my friends at Pixel-Lab for inviting me, and to Mr. Davies for the referral.

Below is a transcript plus slides of my contribution to the day. The slides are also on SlideShare. I have been told all talks have been recorded and will be published to the event’s Vimeo group.

Perhaps 1874 words is a bit too much for you? In that case, let me give you an executive summary of sorts:

  1. The role of design in rich forms of play, such as skateboarding, is facilitatory. Designers provide tools for people to play with.
  2. It is hard to predict what people will do exactly with your tools. This is OK. In fact it is best to leave room for unexpected uses.
  3. Underspecified, playful tools can be used for learning. People can use them to explore complex concepts on their own terms.

As always, I am interested in receiving constructive criticism, as well as good examples of the things I’ve discussed.

Continue reading A Playful Stance — my Game Design London 2008 talk

Reboot 10 slides and video

I am breaking radio-silence for a bit to let you know the slides and video for my Reboot 10 presentation are now available online, in case you’re interested. I presented this talk before at The Web and Beyond, but this time I had a lot more time, and I presented in English. I therefore think this might still be of interest to some people.1 As always, I am very interested in receiving constructive criticism Just drop me a line in the comments.

Update: It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to briefly summarize what this is about. This is a presentation in two parts. In the first, I theorize about the emergence of games that have as their goal the conveying of an argument. These games would use the real-time city as their platform. It is these games that I call urban procedural rhetorics. In the second part I give a few examples of what such games might look like, using a series of sketches.

The slides, posted to SlideShare, as usual:

The video, hosted on the Reboot website:

  1. I did post a transcript in English before, in case you prefer reading to listening. []

Slides and summary for ‘More Than Useful’

Update: The video and slides are now available on the conference site.

The conference From Business to Buttons 2008 aimed to bring together the worlds of business and interaction design. I was there to share my thoughts on the applicability of game design concepts to interaction design. You’ll find my slides and a summary of my argument below.

I really enjoyed attending this conference. I met a bunch of new and interesting people and got to hang out with some ‘old’ friends. Many thanks to InUse for inviting me.

Diagram summarizing my FBTB 2008 talk

The topic is pretty broad so I decided to narrow things down to a class of product that is other-than-everyday — meaning both wide and deep in scope. Using Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things as a starting point, I wanted to show that these products require a high level of explorability that is remarkably similar to play. After briefly examining the phenomenon of play itself I moved on to show applications of this understanding to two types of product: customizable & personalizable ones, and adaptive ones.

For the former, I discussed how game design frameworks such as MDA can help with sculpting the parameter space, using ‘experience’ as the starting point. I also looked at how games support players in sharing stories and speculated about ways this can be translated to both digital and physical products.

For the latter — adaptive products — I focussed on the ways in which they induce flow and how they can recommend stuff to people. With adaptation, designers need to formulate rules. This can be done using techniques from game design, such as Daniel Cook’s skill chains. Successful rules-based design can only happen in an iterative environment using lots of sketching.

The presentation was framed by a slightly philosophical look at how certain games subliminally activate cognitive processes and could thus be used to allow for new insights. I used Breakout and Portal as examples of this. I am convinced there is an emerging field of playful products that interaction designers should get involved with.

Sources referenced in this presentation:1

As usual, many thanks to all the Flickr photographers who’ve shared their images under a CC license. I’ve linked to the originals from the slides. Any image not linked to is probably mine.

  1. Most of these are offline books or papers, those that aren’t have been hyperlinked to their source. []

Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

This is a transcript of my presentation at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility in Amsterdam on 22 May. Since the majority of paying attendees were local I presented in Dutch. However, English appears to be the lingua franca of the internet, so here I offer a translation. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video recording of the whole thing soon.

Update: I have uploaded a video of the presentation to Vimeo. Many thanks to Almar van der Krogt for recording this.

In 1966 a number of members of Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam carrying blank banners. Provo was a nonviolent anarchist movement. They primarily occupied themselves with provoking the authorities in a “ludic” manner. Nothing was written on their banners because the mayor of Amsterdam had banned the slogans “freedom of speech”, “democracy” and “right to demonstrate”. Regardless, the members were arrested by police, showing that the authorities did not respect their right to demonstrate.1

Good afternoon everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a freelance interaction designer. Today I’d like to talk about play in public space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiquitous computing in the city new forms of play will be made possible. The technologies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gibson writes in Burning Chrome:

“…the street finds its own uses for things”

For example: Skateboarding as we now know it — with its emphasis on aerial acrobatics — started in empty pools like this one. That was done without permission, of course…

Only later half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘vertical’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skateboarding is tolerated. Skateboarding would not be what it is today without those first few empty pools.2

Continue reading Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

  1. The website of Gramschap contains a chronology of the Provo movement in Dutch. []
  2. For a vivid account of the emergence of the vertical style of skateboarding see the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys. []

Blank banners — see me speak at TWAB 2008

Provo protesting with blank banner

In 1966 Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam with blank protest banners.1 The use of rousing slogans had been outlawed by the city’s mayor. The ‘protesters’ were arrested. Provo achieved their goal of making the authorities look silly by playing at protesting.

They took existing rules and decided to play within them, to see how far they could push the limits of those rules. They were not allowed to use actual slogans, so they decided to use unwritten banners. They made use of the ambiguous nature of play: They were protesting, but at the same time not protesting. There were no forbidden slogans on their banners, but at the same time, the slogans were ever so present through their absence.

The police were not willing to take on Provo’s ludic attitude. They refused to step into their magic circle and play at opposing them. In stead they broke the rules, arrested them for real, and by doing so, lost—at least in the public’s eye.

This example—and hopefully a few others—I will discuss at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility. In 20 minutes or so, I hope to inspire designers to think about what the near future’s blank banners could be. My session is titled ‘Mobile components for playful cultural resistance’ (an unwieldy title in desperate need of improvement) and will probably be in Dutch.

The conference is organised by Chi Nederland and will take place May 22 in the beautiful Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam. Keynote speakers include Ben Cerveny, Jyri Engeström and Adam Greenfield. It looks like this will be a very special conference indeed.

Image source: Gramschap.

  1. Provo was a Dutch counterculture movement in the mid-1960s that focused on provoking violent responses from authorities using non-violent bait. Read more about them at Wikipedia. []

Designing a mobile social gaming experience for Gen-C

Update 21-03-2008: I’ve added some images of slides to allow for some more context when reading the text.

This is a rough transcript of my lecture at GDC Mobile 2008. In short: I first briefly introduce the concept of experience design and systems and then show how this influences my views of mobile casual games. From there I discuss the relation of casual games with the trend Generation C. Wrapping up, I give an overview of some social design frameworks for the web that are equally applicable to mobile social gaming. As a bonus I give some thoughts on mobile game systems mobile metagames. The talk is illustrated throughout with a case study of Playyoo—a mobile games community I helped design.

  • I’ve included a slightly adjusted version of the original slides—several screenshot sequences of Playyoo have been taken out for file size reasons.
  • If you absolutely must have audio, I’m told you will be able to purchase (!) a recording from GDC Radio sometime soon.
  • I’d like to thank everyone who came up to me afterwards for conversation. I appreciate the feedback I got from you.
  • Several aspects of Playyoo that I use as examples (such as the game stream) were already in place before I was contracted. Credits for many design aspects of Playyoo go to David Mantripp, Playyoo’s chief architect.
  • And finally, the views expressed here are in many ways an amalgamation of work by others. Where possible I’ve given credit in the talk and otherwise linked to related resources.

That’s all the notes and disclaimers out of the way, read on for the juice (but be warned, this is pretty long).

Continue reading Designing a mobile social gaming experience for Gen-C

GDC and another interview

This Saturday I’ll be jumping on a plane to San Francisco. As mentioned earlier, I’ll be attending the Game Developers Conference. I have a session at the GDC Mobile sub-conference elegantly titled “Designing a Casual Social Gaming Experience for Generation C”. Read more about my session on the conference site. It’ll basically be 1/3 crash course on the social web, 1/3 rant on mobile gaming and 1/3 talk about enabling creative expression through games. We’ll see how it goes.

I’ll be in SF the full week (flying back the next weekend) so if you happen to be around, and feel like hanging out, do drop me a line. (Your best bet is an email to “kars” at this domain or d-ing me on Twitter.)

Finally, if that isn’t enough self-promotion for one post, (I’m risking a mass unsubscribe here) I was interviewed a second time for the Playyoo blog. Head over there for some talk about the Game Creator—a tool I designed for them that allows people to customise classic games and publish them to mobile:

“And then there are the games that are entirely personal. They make no sense to you or me, only to the person who created it and their friends. For example, I saw one variation of Lunar Lander where you need to land a crab on someone’s, let’s say Debbie’s, head. Now, I have no idea who Debbie is, but I can imagine Debbie is a friend or sister of the game’s creator. And it must have been a lot of fun for them to include the picture, and then have an easy way to distribute it to their friends.”

Slides for my Oslo UXnet meetup talk

Last night I presented at the January UXnet meetup in Oslo. When Are invited me to come over I thought I’d be talking to maybe 60 user experience people. 200 showed up—talk about kicking off the year with a bang. I think the crew at Netlife Research may just have written UXnet history. I’m not sure. (Don’t believe me? Check out the RSVPs on the event’s page at

The talk went OK. I had 20 minutes, which is pretty short. I finished on time, but I had to leave out a lot of examples. The original talk on which this was based is a 2 hour lecture I deliver at UX companies. (I did this last year for instance at InUse.)

The lack of examples was the biggest point of criticism I got afterwards. I’ll try to make up for that a bit in a later post, listing some examples of web sites and apps that I would call in some way playful. Stay tuned.

For now, here are the slides (no notes I’m afraid, so it’ll be hard to make any sense of them if you weren’t there). Thanks to Are Halland for inviting me. And greetings to all my friends in Oslo. You’ve got a beautiful UX thing going on there.