Design without touching the surface

I am prepar­ing two class­es at the moment. One is an intro­duc­tion to user expe­ri­ence design, the oth­er to user inter­face design. I did not come up with this divi­sion, it was part of the assign­ment. I thought it was odd at first. I wasn’t sure where one dis­ci­pline ends and the oth­er begins. I still am not sure. But I made a prag­mat­ic deci­sion to have the UX class focus on the high lev­el process of design­ing (soft­ware) prod­ucts, and the UI class focus on the visu­al aspects of a product’s inter­face. The UI class deals with a product’s sur­face, form, and to some extent also its behav­iour, but on a micro lev­el. Where­as the UX class focus­es on behav­iour on the macro lev­el. Sim­ply speaking—the UX class is about behav­iour across screens, the UI class is about behav­iour with­in screens.

The solu­tion is work­able. But I am still not entire­ly com­fort­able with it. I am not com­fort­able with the idea of being able to prac­tice UX with­out ‘touch­ing the sur­face’, so to speak. And it seems my two class­es are advo­cat­ing this. Also, I am pret­ty sure this is every­day real­i­ty for many UX prac­ti­tion­ers. Notice I say “prac­ti­tion­er”, because I am not sure ‘design­er’ is the right term in these cas­es. To be hon­est I do not think you can prac­tice design with­out doing sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing of some sort. (See Bill Buxton’s ‘Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences’ for an expand­ed argu­ment on why this is.) And when it comes to design­ing soft­ware prod­ucts this means touch­ing the sur­face, the form.

Again, the real­i­ty is, ‘UX design­er’ and ‘UI design­er’ are com­mon terms now. Cer­tain­ly here in Sin­ga­pore peo­ple know they need both to make good prod­ucts. Some prac­ti­tion­ers say they do both, oth­ers one or the oth­er. The lat­ter appears to be the most com­mon and expect­ed case. (By the way, in Sin­ga­pore no-one I’ve met talks about inter­ac­tion design.)

My con­cern is that by encour­ag­ing the prac­tice of doing UX design with­out touch­ing the sur­face of a prod­uct, we get shit­ty designs. In a process where UX and UI are seen as sep­a­rate things the risk is one comes before the oth­er. The UX design­er draws the wire­frames, the UI design­er gets to turn them into pret­ty pic­tures, with no back-and-forth between the two. An iter­a­tive process can mit­i­gate some of the dam­age such an arti­fi­cial divi­sion of labour pro­duces, but I think we still start out on the wrong foot. I think a bet­ter prac­tice might entail includ­ing visu­al con­sid­er­a­tions from the very begin­ning of the design process (as we are sketch­ing).

Two things I came across as I was prepar­ing these class­es are some­how in sup­port of this idea. Both result­ed from a call I did for resources on user inter­face design. I asked for books about visu­al aspects, but I got a lot more.

  1. In ‘Mag­ic Ink’ Bret Vic­tor writes about how the design of infor­ma­tion soft­ware is huge­ly indebt­ed to graph­ic design and more specif­i­cal­ly infor­ma­tion design in the tra­di­tion of Tufte. (He also men­tions indus­tri­al design as an equal­ly big prog­en­i­tor of inter­ac­tion design, but for soft­ware that is main­ly about manip­u­la­tion, not infor­ma­tion.) The arti­cle is big, but the start of it is actu­al­ly a pret­ty good if unortho­dox gen­er­al intro­duc­tion to inter­ac­tion design. For soft­ware that is about learn­ing through look­ing at infor­ma­tion Vic­tor says inter­ac­tion should be a last resort. So that leaves us with a task that is 80% if not more visu­al design. Touch­ing the sur­face. Which makes me think you might as well get to it as quick­ly as pos­si­ble and start sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing aimed not just at struc­ture and behav­iour but also form. (Hat tip to Pieter Diepen­maat for this one.)

  2. In ‘Jump­ing to the End’ Matt Jones ram­bles enter­tain­ing­ly about design fic­tion. He argues for pay­ing atten­tion to details and that a lot of the design he prac­tices is about ‘sig­na­ture moments’ aka micro-inter­ac­tions. So yeah, again, I can’t imag­ine design­ing these effec­tive­ly with­out doing sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing of the sort that includes the visu­al. And in fact Matt men­tions this more or less at one point, when he talks about the fact that his team’s deliv­er­ables at Google are almost all visu­al. They are high fideli­ty mock­ups, ani­ma­tions, videos, and so on. These then become the start­ing points for fur­ther devel­op­ment. (Hat tip to Alexan­der Zeh for this one.)

In sum­ma­ry, I think dis­tin­guish­ing UX design from UI design is non­sense. Because you can­not prac­tice design with­out sketch­ing and pro­to­typ­ing. And you can­not sketch and pro­to­type a soft­ware prod­uct with­out touch­ing its sur­face. In stead of tak­ing visu­al design for grant­ed, or talk­ing about it like it is some innate tal­ent, some kind of mag­i­cal skill some peo­ple are born with and oth­ers aren’t, user expe­ri­ence prac­ti­tion­ers should con­sid­er being less enam­oured with acquir­ing more skills from busi­ness, mar­ket­ing and engi­neer­ing and in stead prac­tice at the skills that define the fields user expe­ri­ence design is indebt­ed to the most: graph­ic design and indus­tri­al design. In oth­er words, you can’t do user expe­ri­ence design with­out touch­ing the sur­face.

Buildings and Brains at the Nijmegen Design Platform (NOP)

It’s been a few weeks since I pre­sent­ed at the Nijmegen Design Plat­form (NOP), but I thought it would still be use­ful to post a sum­ma­ry of what I talked about here.

Update: it took me a while, but the slides that accom­pa­nied this talk are now up at SlideShare.

A lit­tle con­text: The NOP run fre­quent events for design­ers in the region. These design­ers most­ly work in more tra­di­tion­al domains such as graph­ic, fash­ion and indus­tri­al design. NOP asked Jeroen van Mas­trigt — a friend and occa­sion­al col­league of mine — to talk about games at one of their events. Jeroen in turn asked me to play Robin to his Bat­man, I would fol­low up his epic romp through game design the­o­ry with a brief look at per­va­sive games. This of course was an offer I could not refuse. The event was held at a love­ly loca­tion (the huge art-house cin­e­ma LUX) and was attend­ed by a healthy-sized crowd. Kudos to the NOP for orga­niz­ing it and many thanks to them (and Jeroen) for invit­ing me.

So, what I tried to do in the talk was to first give a sense of what per­va­sive games are, what char­ac­ter­izes them. I drew from the Hide & Seek web­site for the list of char­ac­ter­is­tics and used The Soho Project as a run­ning exam­ple through­out this part. I also tied the char­ac­ter­is­tics to some the­o­ry I found inter­est­ing:

  • Mix­ing dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy with real world play — I empha­sized that ulti­mate­ly, tech­nol­o­gy is but a means to an end. At Inter­ac­tion ‘09 Robert Fab­ri­cant said the medi­um of inter­ac­tion design is human behav­ior. I think the same holds true for the design of per­va­sive games.
  • Social inter­ac­tionRaph Koster once said sin­gle play­er games are a his­tor­i­cal aber­ra­tion. It is clear much of the fun in per­va­sive games is social. In a way I think they bridge the gap between the “old” board games and con­tem­po­rary video games.
  • Using the city as a play­ground — Here I could not resist bring­ing in Jane Jacob’s notions of the city as an enti­ty that is organ­ised from the bot­tom up and Kevin Lynch’s work on the men­tal maps we cre­ate of cities as we move through them. Cities play a vital role in facil­i­tat­ing the play of per­va­sive games. At best they are the main pro­tag­o­nist of them.
  • Trans­form­ing pub­lic spaces into the­atri­cal stage­sets — This is relat­ed to the pre­vi­ous one, but here I made a side­step into the embod­ied nature of play­er inter­ac­tions in per­va­sive games and how embod­i­ment facil­i­tates read­ing at a dis­tance of such actions. In a sense, the social fun of embod­ied play is due to its per­for­ma­tive qual­i­ty.

After this, I tried to show why design­ers out­side the domain of games should care about per­va­sive games. This I did by talk­ing about ways they can be used for pur­pos­es oth­er than ‘mere’ enter­tain­ment. These were:

  • Enlarg­ing per­ceived real­i­ty; you can cre­ate games that play with the way we cus­tom­ar­i­ly per­ceive real­i­ty. This was inspired by the talk Kevin Slavin of Area/Code deliv­ered at MIND08. Exam­ples I used were Cross­roads and The Com­fort of Strangers.
  • Chang­ing human behav­ior for the bet­ter; think of the Toy­ota Prius dashboard’s effect on people’s dri­ving behav­ior. Exam­ples of games that use feed­back loops to steer us towards desir­able goals are Cryp­to­Zoo and FourSquare.
  • Crowd­sourc­ing solu­tions; games can sim­u­late pos­si­ble futures and chal­lenge play­ers to respond to their prob­lems. Here I used Jane McGo­ni­gal’s ideas around col­lec­tive intel­li­gence gam­ing. The exam­ple game I talked about was World With­out Oil.
  • Con­vey­ing argu­ments pro­ce­du­ral­ly; Ian Bogost’s con­cept of pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric isn’t spe­cif­ic to per­va­sive games, but I think the way they get mixed up with every­day life make them par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive chan­nels for com­mu­ni­cat­ing ideas. I used The Go Game, Cru­el 2B Kind and Join the Line1 as exam­ples.

By talk­ing about these things I hoped to pro­vide a link to the audience’s own design prac­tice. They may not deal with games, but they sure­ly deal with com­mu­ni­cat­ing ideas and chang­ing people’s behav­ior. Come to think of it though, I was doing a very old media style pre­sen­ta­tion in attempt to achieve the same… Oh well.

  1. Join the Line is a game stu­dents con­cep­tu­al­ized dur­ing a work­shop I ran. []