Adaptive design and transformative play

2006APR201648 by bootload on Flickr

Allow­ing peo­ple to change parts of your prod­uct is play­ful. It has also always ‘just’ seemed like a good thing to do to me. You see this with with peo­ple who become pas­sion­ate about a thing they use often: They want to take it apart, see how it works, put it back togeth­er again, maybe add some stuff, replace some­thing else… I’ve always liked the idea of pas­sion­ate peo­ple want­i­ng to change some­thing about a thing I designed. And it’s always been a dis­ap­point­ment when I’d find out that they did not, or worse—wanted to but weren’t able to.

Appar­ent­ly this is what peo­ple call adap­tive design. But if you Google that, you won’t find much. In fact, there’s remark­ably lit­tle writ­ten about it. I was put on the term’s trail by Matt Webb and from there found my way to Dan Hill’s site. There’s a lot on the top­ic there, but if I can rec­om­mend one piece it’s the inter­view he did for Dan Saffer’s book on inter­ac­tion design. Read it. It’s full of won­der­ful ideas artic­u­lat­ed 100 times bet­ter than I’ll ever be able to.

So why is adap­tive design con­ducive to the play­ful­ness of a user expe­ri­ence? I’m not sure. One aspect of it might be the fact that as a design­er you explic­it­ly relin­quish some con­trol over the final expe­ri­ence peo­ple have with your…stuff.1 As Matt Webb not­ed in an end-of-the-year post, in stead of say­ing to peo­ple: “Here’s some­thing I made. Go on—play with it.” You say: “Here’s some­thing I made—let’s play with it togeth­er.”

This makes a lot of sense if you don’t think of the thing under design as some­thing that’ll be con­sumed but some­thing that will be used to cre­ate. It sounds easy but again is sur­pris­ing­ly hard. It’s like we have been infect­ed with this hard-to-kill idea that makes us think we can only con­sume where­as we are actu­al­ly all very much cre­ative beings.2 I think that’s what Gen­er­a­tion C is real­ly about.

A side­track: In dig­i­tal games, for a long time devel­op­ments have been towards games as media that can be con­sumed. The real changes in dig­i­tal games are: One—there’s a renewed inter­est in games as activ­i­ties (par­tic­u­lar­ly in the form of casu­al games). And two—there’s an increase in games that allow them­selves to be changed in mean­ing­ful ways. These devel­op­ments make the term “replay val­ue” seem ready for extinc­tion. How can you even call some­thing that isn’t inter­est­ing to replay a game?3

In Rules of Play, Salen and Zim­mer­man describe the phe­nom­e­non of trans­for­ma­tive play—where the “free move­ment with­in a more rigid struc­ture” changes the men­tioned struc­ture itself (be it intend­ed or not). They hold it as one of the most pow­er­ful forms of play. Think of a sim­ple house rule you made up the last time you played a game with some friends. The fact that on the web the rules that make up the struc­tures we designed are cod­i­fied in soft­ware should not be an excuse to dis­al­low peo­ple to change them.

That’s true lit­er­a­cy: When you can both read and write in a medi­um (as Alan Kay would have it). I’d like to enable peo­ple to do that. It might be hope­less­ly naive, but I don’t care—it’s a very inter­est­ing chal­lenge.

  1. That’s a com­fort­able idea to all of the—cough—web 2.0 savvy folk out there. But it cer­tain­ly still is an uncom­fort­able thought to many. And I think it’d sur­prise you to find out how many peo­ple who claim to be “hip to the game” will still refuse to let go. []
  2. Note I’m not say­ing we can all be design­ers, but I do think peo­ple can all cre­ate mean­ing­ful things for them­selves and oth­ers. []
  3. Yes, I am a ludol­o­gist. So shoot me. []

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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. []

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