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 designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

9 thoughts on “Finding playful patterns at dConstruct 2007”

  1. Pingback: rodcorp
  2. 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!

  3. 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.

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

    What i real­ly liked about both these events was the fol­low on thats been hap­pen­ing. http://www.madgex.com 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. http://dconstruct07.backnetwork.com/feeds/post.aspx?postid=401

    I guess read­ing the back­net­work stuff is the next best thing to being there — http://barcampbrighton.backnetwork.com/

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

  5. 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. :-)

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