Playful Design for Workplace Change Management’ at PLAYTrack conference 2017 in Aarhus

Lase defender collab at FUSE

At the end of last year I was invit­ed to speak at the PLAY­Track con­fer­ence in Aarhus about the work­place change man­age­ment games made by Hub­bub. It turned out to be a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to recon­nect with the play research com­mu­ni­ty.

I was very much impressed by the pro­gram assem­bled by the organ­is­ers. Peo­ple came from a wide range of dis­ci­plines and cru­cial­ly, there was ample time to dis­cuss and reflect on the mate­ri­als pre­sent­ed. As I tweet­ed after­wards, this is a thing that most con­fer­ence organ­is­ers get wrong.

I was par­tic­u­lar­ly inspired by the work of Ben­jamin Mardell and Mara Krechevsky at Harvard’s Project ZeroMak­ing Learn­ing Vis­i­ble looks like a great resource for any­one who teach­es. Then there was Reed Stevens from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty whose project FUSE is one of the most sol­id exam­ples of play­ful learn­ing for STEAM I’ve seen thus far. I was also fas­ci­nat­ed by Cia­ra Laverty’s work at PEDAL on observ­ing par­ent-child play. Miguel Sicart deliv­ered anoth­er great provo­ca­tion on the dark side of play­ful design. And final­ly I was delight­ed to hear about and expe­ri­ence for myself some of Amos Blan­ton’s work at the LEGO Foun­da­tion. I should also call out Ben Fin­cham’s many provoca­tive con­tri­bu­tions from the audi­ence.

The abstract for my talk is below, which cov­ers most of what I talked about. I tried to give peo­ple a good sense of:

  • what the games con­sist­ed of,
  • what we were aim­ing to achieve,
  • how both the fic­tion and the play­er activ­i­ties sup­port­ed these goals,
  • how we made learn­ing out­comes vis­i­ble to our play­ers and clients,
  • and final­ly how we went about design­ing and devel­op­ing these games.

Both projects have sol­id write-ups over at the Hub­bub web­site, so I’ll just point to those here: Code 4 and Rip­ple Effect.

In the final sec­tion of the talk I spent a bit of time reflect­ing on how I would approach projects like this today. After all, it has been sev­en years since we made Code 4, and four years since Rip­ple Effect. That’s ages ago and my per­spec­tive has def­i­nite­ly changes since we made these.

Participatory design

First of all, I would get even more seri­ous about co-design­ing with play­ers at every step. I would recruit rep­re­sen­ta­tives of play­ers and invest them with real influ­ence. In the projects we did, the pri­ma­ry vehi­cle for play­er influ­ence was through playtest­ing. But this is nec­es­sar­i­ly lim­it­ed. I also won’t pre­tend this is at all easy to do in a com­mer­cial con­text.

But, these games are ulti­mate­ly about improv­ing work­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. So how do we make it so that work­ers share in the real-world prof­its yield­ed by a suc­cess­ful cul­ture change?

I know of the exis­tence of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry design but from my expe­ri­ence it is not a com­mon approach in the indus­try. Why?

Value sensitive design

On a relat­ed note, I would get more seri­ous about what val­ues are sup­port­ed by the sys­tem, in whose inter­est they are and where they come from. Ear­ly field research and work­shops with audi­ence do sur­face some val­ues but val­ues from cus­tomer rep­re­sen­ta­tives tend to dom­i­nate. Again, the com­mer­cial con­text we work in is a poten­tial chal­lenge.

I know of val­ue sen­si­tive design, but as with par­tic­i­pa­to­ry design, it has yet to catch on in a big way in the indus­try. So again, why is that?

Disintermediation

One thing I con­tin­ue to be inter­est­ed in is to reduce the com­plex­i­ty of a game system’s phys­i­cal affor­dances (which includes its code), and to push even more of the sub­stance of the game into those social allowances that make up the non-mate­r­i­al aspects of the game. This allows for spon­ta­neous rene­go­ti­a­tion of the game by the play­ers. This is dis­in­ter­me­di­a­tion as a strat­e­gy. David Kanaga’s take on games as toys remains huge­ly inspi­ra­tional in this regard, as does Bernard De Koven’s book The Well Played Game.

Gamefulness versus playfulness

Code 4 had more focus on sat­is­fy­ing the need for auton­o­my. Rip­ple Effect had more focus on com­pe­tence, or in any case, it had less empha­sis on auton­o­my. There was less room for ‘play’ around the core dig­i­tal game. It seems to me that mas­ter­ing a sub­jec­tive sim­u­la­tion of a sub­ject is not nec­es­sar­i­ly what a work­place game for cul­ture change should be aim­ing for. So, less game­ful design, more play­ful design.

Adaptation

Final­ly, the agency mod­el does not enable us to stick around for the long haul. But work­place games might be bet­ter suit­ed to a set­up where things aren’t thought of as a one-off project but more of an ongo­ing process.

In How Build­ings Learn, Stew­art Brand talks about how archi­tects should revis­it build­ings they’ve designed after they are built to learn about how peo­ple are actu­al­ly using them. He also talks about how good build­ings are build­ings that its inhab­i­tants can adapt to their needs. What does that look like in the con­text of a game for work­place cul­ture change?


Play­ful Design for Work­place Change Man­age­ment

Code 4 (2011, com­mis­sioned by the Tax Admin­is­tra­tion of the Nether­lands) and Rip­ple Effect (2013, com­mis­sioned by Roy­al Dutch Shell) are both games for work­place change man­age­ment designed and devel­oped by Hub­bub, a bou­tique play­ful design agency which oper­at­ed from Utrecht, The Nether­lands and Berlin, Ger­many between 2009 and 2015. These games are exam­ples of how a goal-ori­ent­ed seri­ous game can be used to encour­age play­ful appro­pri­a­tion of work­place infra­struc­ture and social norms, result­ing in an open-end­ed and cre­ative explo­ration of new and inno­v­a­tive ways of work­ing.

Seri­ous game projects are usu­al­ly com­mis­sioned to solve prob­lems. Solv­ing the prob­lem of cul­tur­al change in a straight­for­ward man­ner means view­ing games as a way to per­suade work­ers of a desired future state. They typ­i­cal­ly take videogame form, sim­u­lat­ing the desired new way of work­ing as deter­mined by man­age­ment. To play the game well, play­ers need to mas­ter its sys­tem and by extension—it is assumed—learning hap­pens.

These games can be be enjoy­able expe­ri­ences and an improve­ment on pre­vi­ous forms of work­place learn­ing, but in our view they decrease the pos­si­bil­i­ty space of poten­tial work­place cul­tur­al change. They dimin­ish work­er agency, and they waste the cre­ative and inno­v­a­tive poten­tial of involv­ing them in the inven­tion of an improved work­place cul­ture.

We instead choose to view work­place games as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to increase the space of pos­si­bil­i­ty. We resist the temp­ta­tion to bake the desired new way of work­ing into the game’s phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal affor­dances. Instead, we leave how to play well up to the play­ers. Since these games are team-based and col­lab­o­ra­tive, play­ers need to nego­ti­ate their way of work­ing around the game among them­selves. In addi­tion, because the games are dis­trib­uted in time—running over a num­ber of weeks—and are playable at play­er dis­cre­tion dur­ing the work­day, play­ers are giv­en license to appro­pri­ate work­place infra­struc­ture and sub­vert social norms towards in-game ends.

We tried to make learn­ing tan­gi­ble in var­i­ous ways. Because the games at the core are web appli­ca­tions to which play­ers log on with indi­vid­ual accounts we were able to col­lect data on play­er behav­iour. To guar­an­tee pri­va­cy, employ­ers did not have direct access to game data­bas­es and only received anonymised reports. We took respon­si­bil­i­ty for play­er learn­ing by facil­i­tat­ing coach­ing ses­sions in which they could safe­ly reflect on their game expe­ri­ences. Round­ing out these efforts, we con­duct­ed sur­veys to gain insight into the play­er expe­ri­ence from a more qual­i­ta­tive and sub­jec­tive per­spec­tive.

These games offer a mod­el for a rea­son­ably demo­c­ra­t­ic and eth­i­cal way of doing game-based work­place change man­age­ment. How­ev­er, we would like to see efforts that fur­ther democ­ra­tise their design and development—involving work­ers at every step. We also wor­ry about how games can be used to cre­ate the illu­sion of work­er influ­ence while at the same time soft­ware is deployed through­out the work­place to lim­it their agency.

Our exam­ples may be inspir­ing but because of these devel­op­ments we feel we can’t con­tin­ue this type of work with­out seri­ous­ly recon­sid­er­ing our cur­rent process­es, tech­nol­o­gy stacks and busi­ness practices—and ulti­mate­ly whether we should be mak­ing games at all.

Adapting intelligent tools for creativity

I read Alper’s book on con­ver­sa­tion­al user inter­faces over the week­end and was struck by this para­graph:

The holy grail of a con­ver­sa­tion­al sys­tem would be one that’s aware of itself — one that knows its own mod­el and inter­nal struc­ture and allows you to change all of that by talk­ing to it. Imag­ine being able to tell Siri to tone it down a bit with the jokes and that it would then actu­al­ly do that.”

His point stuck with me because I think this is of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance to cre­ative tools. These need to be flex­i­ble so that a vari­ety of peo­ple can use them in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances. This adapt­abil­i­ty is what lends a tool depth.

The depth I am think­ing of in cre­ative tools is sim­i­lar to the one in games, which appears to be derived from a kind of semi-ordered­ness. In short, you’re look­ing for a sweet spot between too sim­ple and too com­plex.

And of course, you need good defaults.

Back to adap­ta­tion. This can hap­pen in at least two ways on the inter­face lev­el: modal or mod­e­less. A sim­ple exam­ple of the for­mer would be to go into a pref­er­ences win­dow to change the behav­iour of your draw­ing pack­age. Sim­i­lar­ly, mod­e­less adap­ta­tion hap­pens when you rearrange some pan­els to bet­ter suit the task at hand.

Return­ing to Siri, the equiv­a­lence of mod­e­less adap­ta­tion would be to tell her to tone it down when her sense of humor irks you.

For the modal solu­tion, imag­ine a humor slid­er in a set­tings screen some­where. This would be a ter­ri­ble solu­tion because it offers a poor map­ping of a con­trol to a per­son­al­i­ty trait. Can you pin­point on a scale of 1 to 10 your pre­ferred amount of humor in your hypo­thet­i­cal per­son­al assis­tant? And any­way, doesn’t it depend on a lot of sit­u­a­tion­al things such as your mood, the par­tic­u­lar task you’re try­ing to com­plete and so on? In short, this requires some­thing more sit­u­at­ed and adap­tive.

So just being able to tell Siri to tone it down would be the equiv­a­lent of rear­rang­ing your Pho­to­shop palets. And in a next inter­ac­tion Siri might care­ful­ly try some humor again to gauge your response. And if you encour­age her, she might be more humor­ous again.

Enough about fun­ny Siri for now because it’s a bit of a sil­ly exam­ple.

Fun­ny Siri, although she’s a bit of a Sil­ly exam­ple, does illus­trate anoth­er prob­lem I am try­ing to wrap my head around. How does an intel­li­gent tool for cre­ativ­i­ty com­mu­ni­cate its inter­nal state? Because it is prob­a­bilis­tic, it can’t be eas­i­ly mapped to a graph­ic infor­ma­tion dis­play. And so our old way of manip­u­lat­ing state, and more specif­i­cal­ly adapt­ing a tool to our needs becomes very dif­fer­ent too.

It seems to be best for an intel­li­gent sys­tem to be open to sug­ges­tions from users about how to behave. Adapt­ing an intel­li­gent cre­ative tool is less like rear­rang­ing your work­space and more like coor­di­nat­ing with a cowork­er.

My ide­al is for this to be done in the same mode (and so using the same con­trols) as when doing the work itself. I expect this to allow for more flu­id inter­ac­tions, going back and forth between doing the work at hand, and meta-com­mu­ni­ca­tion about how the sys­tem sup­ports the work. I think if we look at how peo­ple col­lab­o­rate this hap­pens a lot, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and meta-com­mu­ni­ca­tion going on con­tin­u­ous­ly in the same chan­nels.

We don’t need a self-aware arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to do this. We need to apply what com­put­er sci­en­tists call super­vised learn­ing. The basic idea is to pro­vide a sys­tem with exam­ple inputs and desired out­puts, and let it infer the nec­es­sary rules from them. If the results are unsat­is­fac­to­ry, you sim­ply con­tin­ue train­ing it until it per­forms well enough.

A super fun exam­ple of this approach is the Wek­ina­tor, a piece of machine learn­ing soft­ware for cre­at­ing musi­cal instru­ments. Below is a video in which Wekinator’s cre­ator Rebec­ca Fiebrink per­forms sev­er­al demos.

Here we have an intel­li­gent sys­tem learn­ing from exam­ples. A per­son manip­u­lat­ing data in stead of code to get to a par­tic­u­lar desired behav­iour. But what Wek­ina­tor lacks and what I expect will be required for this type of thing to real­ly catch on is for the train­ing to hap­pen in the same mode or medi­um as the per­for­mance. The tech­nol­o­gy seems to be get­ting there, but there are many inter­ac­tion design prob­lems remain­ing to be solved.

Play in social and tangible interactions

Now that the IxDA has post­ed a video of my pre­sen­ta­tion at Inter­ac­tion 09 to Vimeo, I thought it would be a good idea to pro­vide a lit­tle back­ground to the talk. I had already post­ed the slides to SlideShare, so a full write-up doesn’t seem nec­es­sary. To pro­vide a lit­tle con­text though, I will sum­ma­rize the thing.

Sum­ma­ry

The idea of the talk was to look at a few qual­i­ties of embod­ied inter­ac­tion, and relate them to games and play, in the hopes of illu­mi­nat­ing some design oppor­tu­ni­ties. With­out dwelling on what embod­i­ment real­ly means, suf­fice to say that there is a school of thought that states that our think­ing orig­i­nates in our bod­i­ly expe­ri­ence of the world around us, and our rela­tion­ships with the peo­ple in it. I used the exam­ple of an impro­vised infor­ma­tion dis­play I once encoun­tered in the pae­di­atric ward of a local hos­pi­tal to high­light two qual­i­ties of embod­ied inter­ac­tion: (1) mean­ing is social­ly con­struct­ed and (2) cog­ni­tion is facil­i­tat­ed by tan­gi­bil­i­ty.1

ix09-lightning-talk-presented012

With regards to the first aspect — the social con­struc­tion of mean­ing — I find it inter­est­ing that in games, you find a dis­tinc­tion between the offi­cial rules to a game, and the rules that are arrived at through mutu­al con­sent by the play­ers, the lat­ter being how the game is actu­al­ly played. Using the exam­ple of an impro­vised manège in Hab­bo, I point­ed out that under-spec­i­fied design tends to encour­age the emer­gence of such inter­est­ing uses. What it comes down to, as a design­er, is to under­stand that once peo­ple get togeth­er to do stuff, and it involves the thing you’ve designed, they will lay­er new mean­ings on top of what you came up with, which is large­ly out of your con­trol.

ix09-lightning-talk-presented015

For the sec­ond aspect — cog­ni­tion being facil­i­tat­ed by tan­gi­bil­i­ty — I talked about how peo­ple use the world around them to offload men­tal com­pu­ta­tion. For instance, when peo­ple get bet­ter at play­ing Tetris, they start back­track­ing more than when they just start­ed play­ing. They are essen­tial­ly using the game’s space to think with. As an aside, I point­ed out that in my expe­ri­ence, sketch­ing plays a sim­i­lar role when design­ing. As with the social con­struc­tion of mean­ing, for epis­temic action to be pos­si­ble, the sys­tem in use needs to be adapt­able.

ix09-lightning-talk-presented025

To wrap up, I sug­gest­ed that, when it comes to the design of embod­ied inter­ac­tive stuff, we are strug­gling with the same issues as game design­ers. We’re both posi­tion­ing our­selves (in the words of Eric Zim­mer­man) as meta-cre­ators of mean­ing; as design­ers of spaces in which peo­ple dis­cov­er new things about them­selves, the world around them and the peo­ple in it.

Sources

I had sev­er­al peo­ple come up to me after­wards, ask­ing for sources, so I’ll list them here.

  • the sig­nif­i­cance of the social con­struc­tion of mean­ing for inter­ac­tion design is explained in detail by Paul Dour­ish in his book Where the Action Is
  • the research by Jean Piaget I quot­ed is from his book The Moral Judge­ment of the Child (which I first encoun­tered in Rules of Play, see below)
  • the con­cept of ide­al ver­sus real rules is from the won­der­ful book Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zim­mer­man (who in turn have tak­en it from Ken­neth Goldstein’s arti­cle Strate­gies in Count­ing Out)
  • for a won­der­ful descrip­tion of how chil­dren social­ly medi­ate the rules to a game, have a look at the arti­cle Beyond the Rules of the Game by Lin­da Hugh­es (col­lect­ed in the Game Design Read­er)
  • the Will Wright quote is from an inter­view in Tra­cy Fullerton’s book Game Design Work­shop, sec­ond edi­tion
  • for a dis­cus­sion of prag­mat­ic ver­sus epis­temic action and how it relates to inter­ac­tion design, refer to the arti­cle How Bod­ies Mat­ter (PDF) by Scott Klem­mer, Björn Hart­mann and Leila Takaya­ma (which is right­ful­ly rec­om­mend­ed by Dan Saf­fer in his book, Design­ing Ges­tur­al Inter­faces)
  • the Tetris research (which I first found in the pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned arti­cle) is described in Epis­temic Action Increas­es With Skill (PDF), an arti­cle by Paul Maglio and David Kirsh
  • the “play is free move­ment…” quote is from Rules of Play
  • the pic­ture of the guy skate­board­ing is a still from the awe­some doc­u­men­tary film Dog­town and Z-Boys
  • for a lot of great think­ing on “loose fit” design, be sure to check out the book How Build­ings Learn by Stew­art Brand
  • the “meta-cre­ators of mean­ing” quote is from Eric Zimmerman’s fore­word to the afore­men­tioned Game Design Work­shop, 2nd ed.

Thanks

And that’s it. Inter­ac­tion 09 was a great event, I’m hap­py to have been a part of it. Most of the talks seem to be online now. So why not check them out? My favourites by far were John Thackara and Robert Fab­ri­cant. Thanks to the peo­ple of the IxDA for all the effort they put into increas­ing inter­ac­tion design’s vis­i­bil­i­ty to the world.

  1. For a detailed dis­cus­sion of the infor­ma­tion dis­play, have a look at this blog post. []

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 []

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. []

Notes on play, exploration, challenge and learning

(My read­ing notes are pil­ing up so here’s an attempt to clear out at least a few of them.)

Part of the play expe­ri­ence of many dig­i­tal games is fig­ur­ing out how the damn thing works in the first place. In Rules of Play on page 210:

[…] as the play­er plays with FLUID, inter­ac­tion and obser­va­tion reveals the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of the sys­tem. In this case the hid­den infor­ma­tion grad­u­al­ly revealed through play is the rules of the sim­u­la­tion itself. Part of the play of FLUID is the dis­cov­ery of the game rules as infor­ma­tion.”

(Sad­ly, I could not find a link to the game men­tioned.)

I did not give Don­ald Nor­man all the cred­it he was due in my ear­li­er post. He doesn’t have a blind spot for games. Quite the con­trary. For instance, he explains how to make sys­tems eas­i­er to learn and points to games in the process. On page 183 of The Design of Every­day Things:

One impor­tant method of mak­ing sys­tems eas­i­er to learn and to use is to make them explorable, to encour­age the user to exper­i­ment and learn the pos­si­bil­i­ties through active explo­ration.”

The way to do this is through direct manip­u­la­tion, writes Nor­man. He also reminds us that it’s not nec­es­sary to make any sys­tem explorable.1 But (on page 184):

[…] if the job is crit­i­cal, nov­el, or ill-spec­i­fied, or if you do not yet know exact­ly what is to be done, then you need direct, first-per­son inter­ac­tion.”

So much writ­ten after DOET seems to have added lit­tle to the con­ver­sa­tion. I’m sur­prised how use­ful this clas­sic still is.

I’m remind­ed of a sec­tion of Matt Jones’s Inter­ac­tion 08 talk—which I watched yes­ter­day. He went through a num­ber of infor­ma­tion visu­al­i­sa­tions and said he’d like to add more stuff like that into Dopplr, to allow peo­ple to play with their data. He even com­pared this act of play to Will Wright’s con­cept of pos­si­bil­i­ty space.2 He also briefly men­tioned that eas­i­ly acces­si­ble tools for cre­at­ing infor­ma­tion visu­al­i­sa­tions might become a valu­able tool for design­ers work­ing with com­plex sets of data.

Nor­man actu­al­ly points to games for inspi­ra­tion, by the way. On page 184 just before the pre­vi­ous quote:

Some com­put­er sys­tems offer direct manip­u­la­tion, first-per­son inter­ac­tions, good exam­ples being the dri­ving, fly­ing, and sports games that are com­mon­place in arcades and on home machines. In these games, the feel­ing of direct con­trol over the actions is an essen­tial part of the task.”

And so on.

One of the most use­ful parts of Dan Saffer’s book on inter­ac­tion design is where he explains the dif­fer­ences between cus­tomi­sa­tion, per­son­al­i­sa­tion, adap­ta­tion and hack­ing. He notes that an adap­tive sys­tem can be designed to induce flow—balancing chal­lenge with the skill of the user. In games, there is some­thing called dynam­ic dif­fi­cul­ty adjust­ment (DDA) which has very sim­i­lar aims.

Salen and Zim­mer­man have their doubts about DDA though. In Rules of Play on page 223 they write:

Play­ing a game becomes less like learn­ing an expres­sive lan­guage and more like being the sole audi­ence mem­ber for a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, impro­vi­sa­tion­al per­for­mance, where the per­form­ers adjust their actions to how you inter­act with them. Are you then play­ing the game, or is it play­ing you?”

Per­haps, but it all depends on what DDA actu­al­ly adjusts. The tech­nique might be objec­tion­able in a game (where a large part of the point is over­com­ing chal­lenge) but in oth­er sys­tems many of these objec­tions do not apply.

With a suc­cess­ful adap­tive design, the prod­uct fits the user’s life and envi­ron­ment as though it were cus­tom made.”

(Design­ing for Inter­ac­tion, page 162.)

Adap­tive sys­tems explic­it­ly antic­i­pate trans­for­ma­tive play. They allow them­selves to be changed through a person’s inter­ac­tions with it.3

A char­ac­ter­is­tic of good inter­ac­tion design is play­ful­ness, writes Mr. Saf­fer in his book on page 67:

Through seri­ous play, we seek out new prod­ucts, ser­vices and fea­tures and then try them to see how they work. How many times have you pushed a but­ton just to see what it did?”

The fun­ny thing is, the con­di­tions for play accord­ing to Saf­fer are very sim­i­lar to some of the basic guide­lines Nor­man offers: Make users feel com­fort­able, reduce the chance for errors and if errors do occur, make sure the con­se­quences are small—by allow­ing users to undo, for instance.

Mr. Nor­man writes that in games “design­ers delib­er­ate­ly flout the laws of under­stand­abil­i­ty and usabil­i­ty” (p.205). Although even in games: “[the] rules [of usabil­i­ty] must be applied intel­li­gent­ly, for ease of use or dif­fi­cul­ty of use” (p.208).

By now, it should be clear mak­ing inter­ac­tions play­ful is very dif­fer­ent from mak­ing them game-like.

  1. Appar­ent­ly, “explorable” isn’t a prop­er Eng­lish word, but if it’s good enough for Mr. Nor­man it’s good enough for me. []
  2. I blogged about pos­si­bil­i­ty space before here. []
  3. Yes, I know I blogged about adap­tive design before. Also about flow and adap­ta­tion, it seems. []

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. []