links for 2008-07-31

Embodied interaction and improvised information displays

Recent­ly a good friend of mine became a dad. It made me feel real­ly old, but it also lead to an encounter with an impro­vised infor­ma­tion dis­play, which I’d like to tell you about, because it illus­trates some of the things I have learnt from read­ing Paul Dourish’s Where the Action Is.

My friend’s son was born a bit too ear­ly, so we went to see him (the son) at the neona­tol­ogy ward of the local hos­pi­tal. It was there that I saw this white­board with stick­ers, writ­ing and the famil­iar mag­nets on it:

Tracing of a photo of an improvised information display in a hospital neonatology ward consisting of a whiteboard, magnets, stickers and writing

(I decid­ed to trace the pho­to I took of it and replace the names with fic­tion­al ones.)

Now, at first I only noticed parts of what was there. I saw the patient names on the left-hand side, and recog­nised the name of my friend’s son. I also noticed that on the right-hand side, the names of all the nurs­es on duty were there. I did not think much more of it.

Before leav­ing, my friend walked up to the white­board and said some­thing along the lines of “yes, this is cor­rect,” and touched one of the green mag­nets that was in the mid­dle of the board as if to con­firm this. It was then that my curios­i­ty was piqued, and I asked my friend to explain what the board meant.

It turns out it was a won­der­ful thing, some­thing I’ll call an impro­vised infor­ma­tion dis­play, for lack of a bet­ter word. What I had not seen the first time around, but were point­ed out by my friend:

  1. There is a time axis along the top of the board. By plac­ing a green mag­net at the height of a child’s name some­where along this axis, par­ents can let the staff know when they intend to vis­it. This is impor­tant for many rea­sons. One being that it helps the nurs­es time the moment a child will be fed so that the par­ents can be present. So in the exam­ple, the par­ents of ‘Fara­mond’ will be vis­it­ing around 21:00 hours.
  2. There are dif­fer­ent colour mag­nets behind the children’s names, and behind the nurs­es’ names. This shows which nurse is respon­si­ble for which child. For instance, ‘Char­lotte’ is in charge of ‘Once’s’ care.

Dourish’s book has influ­enced the way I look at things like this. It has made me more aware of their unique val­ue. Where­as before I would think that some­thing like this could be done bet­ter by a prop­er design­er, with dig­i­tal means, I now think the grasp-able aspect of such a dis­play is vital. I also now believe that the promi­nent role of users in shap­ing the dis­play is vital. Dour­ish writes:1

What embod­ied inter­ac­tion adds to exist­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al prac­tice is the under­stand­ing that rep­re­sen­ta­tions are also them­selves arte­facts. Not only do they allow users to “reach through” and act upon the enti­ty being rep­re­sent­ed, but they can also them­selves be act­ed upon—picked up, exam­ined, manip­u­lat­ed and rearranged.”

Par­ents and nurs­es reach through the dis­play I saw in the neona­tol­ogy ward to act upon the infor­ma­tion about vis­it­ing times and respon­si­bil­i­ty of care. But they also act on the com­po­nents of the dis­play itself to manip­u­late the mean­ing they have.

In fact, this is how the dis­play was con­struct­ed in the first place! The role of the design­er in this dis­play was lim­it­ed to the com­po­nents them­selves. Design­ers were respon­si­ble for the affor­dances of the white­board, the mag­nets, the erasable mark­ers and stick­ers, which enabled users to pro­duce the infor­ma­tion dis­play they need­ed. In the words of Dour­ish:2

Prin­ci­ple: Users, not design­ers, cre­ate and com­mu­ni­cate mean­ing.”

Prin­ci­ple: Users, not design­ers, man­age cou­pling.”

It is the nurs­es and the par­ents and the social prac­tice they togeth­er con­sti­tute that gives rise to the mean­ing of the dis­play. What the board means is obvi­ous to them, because they have ‘work’ that needs to be done togeth­er. It was not obvi­ous to me, because I am not part of that group. It was not a design­er that decid­ed what the mean­ing of the dif­fer­ent colours of the mag­nets were. It was a group of users who cou­pled mean­ing to the com­po­nents they had avail­able to them.

It might be a rad­i­cal exam­ple, but I think this does demon­strate what peo­ple can do if the right com­po­nents are made avail­able to them, and they are allowed to make their own mean­ing with them. I think it is impor­tant for design­ers to realise this, and allow for this kind of manip­u­la­tion of the prod­ucts and ser­vices they shape. Clear­ly, Dourish’s notion of embod­ied inter­ac­tion is a key to design­ing for adap­ta­tion and hack­ing. When it comes to this, today’s white­boards, mag­nets and mark­ers seem to do a bet­ter job than many of our cur­rent dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies.

  1. Page 169 []
  2. Page 170 []

links for 2008-07-30

links for 2008-07-25

Chris Crawford on design suggestions

I have a con­sid­er­able amount of books with dog-eared pages lying around the office. One such book is The Game Design Read­er, which con­tains a large and var­ied col­lec­tion of essays on (yes) game design. This book prob­a­bly has the largest num­ber of dog-ears. Part­ly because it is quite thick, but also because it is filled to the brim with good stuff.

One essay is writ­ten by Chris Craw­ford. He is with­out a doubt one of the best known game design­ers out there, a real vet­er­an of the indus­try. He is also a con­tro­ver­sial char­ac­ter, often voic­ing unpop­u­lar opin­ions. I guess you could call him an icon­o­clast.

This icon­o­clasm shines through in his essay for TGDR. Craw­ford shares the sto­ry behind the design of East­ern Front (1941) his “first big hit”. Towards the end, he devotes some atten­tion to game tun­ing, and has this to say about how you as a design­er should approach sug­ges­tions from oth­ers:1

Your job is to build a great design, not grat­i­fy your co-work­ers.”

Accord­ing to him, a good design­er has thought the sys­tem through so thor­ough­ly, that the vast major­i­ty of sug­ges­tions have already passed through his mind. There­fore, these can all be reject­ed with­out much thought. If you are swamped with sug­ges­tions you have not thought of before, this is an indi­ca­tion you have not prop­er­ly done your job.

I can only agree, but I think the real chal­lenge is in reject­ing these ideas in a per­sua­sive man­ner. It is hard to make appar­ent the fact that you have thought all these things through.

One strat­e­gy I am pur­su­ing is to be rad­i­cal­ly trans­par­ent in my process. I try to doc­u­ment every sin­gle con­sid­er­a­tion using quick and dirty sketch­es, and share all of these. This way, I hope to make appar­ent the think­ing that has gone into the design.

What Chris Craw­ford makes clear is that design isn’t a pop­u­lar­i­ty con­test:2

This isn’t noble; it’s stu­pid. Seri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing every idea that drifts by isn’t a sign of open mind­ed­ness; it’s an indi­ca­tor of inde­ci­sive­ness. […] Be cour­te­ous, but con­cen­trate on doing your job.”

Some time ago, Craw­ford more or less turned his back on the games indus­try and focussed his atten­tion on the thorny prob­lem of inter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling. The out­comes of this are final­ly see­ing the light of day in the shape of Sto­ry­tron; a com­pa­ny that offers a free author­ing tool as well as ready-to-play ‘sto­ry­worlds’.

I wasn’t too impressed with the inter­ac­tion design of the author­ing tool, but the con­cept remains intrigu­ing. We’ll see where it goes.

If this has piqued your curios­i­ty; Chris Craw­ford will be speak­ing at IDEA 2008 in Chica­go, 7–8 Octo­ber. Rea­son enough to attend, in my hum­ble opin­ion.

  1. Page 723 []
  2. Ibid. []

links for 2008-07-17