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 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 form s 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.
- 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. [↩]
- Note I’m not saying we can all be designers, but I do think people can all create meaningful things for themselves and others. [↩]
- Yes, I am a ludologist. So shoot me. [↩]
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