Second order design and play in A Pattern Language

Accord­ing to Mol­ly, archi­tects hate Christo­pher Alexander’s guts. Along with a lot of oth­er inter­ac­tion design­ers I hap­pen to think his book A Pat­tern Lan­guage is a won­der­ful resource. It has some inter­est­ing things to say about design­ing for emergence—or sec­ond order design—and also con­tains some pat­terns relat­ed to play. So fol­low­ing the exam­ple of Michal Migurs­ki (and many oth­ers after him) I’ll blog some dog eared pages.

In the intro­duc­tion Alexan­der encour­ages read­ers to trace their own path through the book. The idea is to pick a pat­tern that most close­ly fits the project you have in mind, and from there move through the book to oth­er ‘small­er’ pat­terns. It won’t sur­prise fre­quent read­ers of this blog that my eye was imme­di­ate­ly caught by the pat­tern ‘Adven­ture Play­ground’ (pat­tern num­ber 73). Let’s look at the prob­lem state­ment, on p.368:

A cas­tle, made of car­ton, rocks and old branch­es, by a group of chil­dren for them­selves, is worth a thou­sand per­fect­ly detailed, exact­ly fin­ished cas­tles, made for them in a fac­to­ry.”

And on the fol­low­ing two pages (p.369–370), the pro­posed solu­tion:

Set up a play­ground for the chil­dren in each neigh­bor­hood. Not a high­ly fin­ished play­ground, with asfalt and swings, but a place with raw mate­ri­als of all kinds—nets, box­es, bar­rels, trees, ropes, sim­ple tools, frames, grass, and water—where chil­dren can cre­ate and re-cre­ate play­grounds of their own.”

In the sec­tions enclosed by these two quotes Alexan­der briefly explains how vital play is to the devel­op­ment of chil­dren. He states that neat­ly designed play­grounds lim­it children’s imag­i­na­tion. In the coun­try­side, there is plen­ty of space for these adven­ture play­grounds to emerge with­out inter­ven­tion, but in cities, they must be cre­at­ed.

I’m remind­ed of the rich range of play­ful activ­i­ties teenagers engage in on Hab­bo Hotel, despite the lack of explic­it sup­port for them. At GDC 2008 Sul­ka Haro showed one exam­ple in par­tic­u­lar that has stuck with me: Teens enact­ed a manege by hav­ing some of them dress up in brown out­fits (the hors­es), and oth­er stand­ing next to them (the care­tak­ers).

What would the online equiv­a­lent of an adven­ture play­ground look like? What are the “kinds of junk” we can pro­vide for play (not only by chil­dren but by any­one who cares to play). In the phys­i­cal world, what hap­pens when con­nect­ed junk enters the play­ground? Food for thought.

Adven­ture play­ground is a pat­tern “of that part of the lan­guage which defines a town or a com­mu­ni­ty.” (p.3)

What I like the most about A Pat­tern Lan­guage is its almost frac­tal nature. Small pat­terns can be imple­ment­ed by one indi­vid­ual or a group of indi­vid­u­als. These small­er ones flow into ever larg­er ones, etc. Alexan­der does not believe large scale pat­terns can be brought into exis­tence through cen­tral plan­ning (p.3):

We believe that the pat­terns in this sec­tion [the largest scale pat­terns of towns] can be imple­ment­ed best by piece­meal process­es, where each project built or each plan­ning deci­sion made is sanc­tioned by the com­mu­ni­ty accord­ing as it does or does not help to form cer­tain large-scale pat­terns. We do not believe that these large pat­terns, which give so much struc­ture to a town or of a neigh­bor­hood, can be cre­at­ed by cen­tral­ized author­i­ty, or by laws, or by mas­ter plans. We believe instead that they can emerge grad­u­al­ly and organ­i­cal­ly, almost of their own accord, if every act of build­ing, large or small, takes on the respon­si­bil­i­ty for grad­u­al­ly shap­ing its small cor­ner of the world to make these larg­er pat­terns appear there.”

So to build an adven­ture play­ground, you’ll need small­er-scale pat­terns, such as ‘bike paths and racks’ and ‘child caves’. Adven­ture play­ground itself is encap­su­lat­ed by pat­terns such as ‘con­nect­ed play’. It is all beau­ti­ful­ly inter­con­nect­ed. On page xiii:

In short, no pat­tern is an iso­lat­ed enti­ty. Each pat­tern can exist in the world, only to the extent that is sup­port­ed by oth­er pat­terns: the larg­er pat­terns in which it is embed­ded, the pat­terns of the same size that sur­round it, and the small­er pat­terns which are embed­ded in it. This is a fun­da­men­tal view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you can­not mere­ly build that thing in iso­la­tion, but must repair the world around it, and with­in it, so that the larg­er world at the one place becomes more coher­ent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.”

Won­der­ful. A sol­id descrip­tion of sec­ond order design and anoth­er piece of the Play­ful IAs puz­zle. The only way to know if some­thing “does or does not help to form cer­tain large-scale pat­terns” is by hav­ing a lan­guage like Alexander’s. The online equiv­a­lent of the largest scale pat­terns would be encom­pass more than just sin­gle sites, they would describe huge chunks of the inter­net.

In social soft­ware, in play­ful spaces, the large scale pat­terns can­not be designed direct­ly, but you must be able to describe them accu­rate­ly, and know how they con­nect to small­er scale pat­terns that you can design and build direct­ly. Final­ly, you need to be aware of even larg­er scale pat­terns, that make up the online ecosys­tem, and play nice­ly with them (or if your agen­da is to change them, con­scious­ly cre­ate pro­duc­tive fric­tion).

A great book. I would rec­om­mend any­one with a pas­sion for emer­gent design to buy it. As Adap­tive Path say:

This 1977 book is one of the best pieces of infor­ma­tion design we’ve come across. The book’s pre­sen­ta­tion — the lay­out of each item of the lan­guage, the nodal nav­i­ga­tion from item to item, the mix of text and image — is as inspir­ing as the top­ic itself.”

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. []

Notables in the overlapping area of interaction and game design

With the Euro IA Sum­mit soon approach­ing and my pre­sen­ta­tion more or less done, I think it might be a good time to post a list of peo­ple I’ve found inspir­ing while work­ing on it. These are all per­sons who one way or the oth­er are work­ing in the over­lap­ping area of inter­ac­tion and game design (at least as far as I’m con­cerned.)

Katie Salen and Eric Zim­mer­man are the authors of the excel­lent book Rules of Play. This is arguably the foun­da­tion­al text on game design the­o­ry. It is so good even that much of it is read­i­ly applic­a­ble to the broad­er domain of inter­ac­tive media.

Daniel Cook has writ­ten some thought-pro­vok­ing pieces on his blog regard­ing the appli­ca­tion of game design to inter­ac­tion design. I admire the way he com­bines an ana­lyt­i­cal mind with con­sid­er­able skill in visu­al arts, allow­ing him to com­mu­ni­cate his ideas in a very engag­ing way.

Raph Koster is the author of A The­o­ry of Fun for Game Design, a book I have yet to read. He’s the design­er of the ear­ly MMOG Ulti­ma Online and has since gone on to found his own com­pa­ny that is appar­ent­ly focussed on deliv­er­ing games every­where. He’s recent­ly pre­sent­ed some worth­while talks on the area where the games and inter­net indus­try meet.

There are more, but I’d just like to high­light these three because they’ve all pro­vid­ed their own frame­work for think­ing about games in such a way that it can be under­stood and used by rel­a­tive out­siders like me. Take a look at their work, and let me know what you think.

UX designers should get into everyware

I’ve been read­ing Adam Greenfield’s Every­ware on and off and one of the things that it has me won­der­ing the most late­ly is: are UX pro­fes­sion­als mak­ing the move to design for ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing?

There’re sev­er­al places in the book where he explic­it­ly men­tions UX in rela­tion to every­ware. Let’s have a look at the ones I man­aged to retrieve using the book’s trusty index…

On page 14 Green­field writes that with the emer­gence of ubi­comp at the dawn of the new mil­len­ni­um, the user expe­ri­ence com­mu­ni­ty took up the chal­lenge with “vary­ing degrees of enthu­si­asm, scep­ti­cism and crit­i­cal dis­tance”, try­ing to find a “lan­guage of inter­ac­tion suit­ed to a world where infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing would be every­where in the human envi­ron­ment.”

So of course the UX com­mu­ni­ty has already start­ed con­sid­er­ing what it means to design for ubi­comp. This stuff is quite dif­fer­ent to inter­net appli­ances and web sites though, as Green­field points out in the­sis 09 (pp.37–39):

Con­sis­tent­ly elic­it­ing good user expe­ri­ences means account­ing for the phys­i­cal design of the human inter­face, the flow of inter­ac­tion between user and device, and the larg­er con­text in which that inter­ac­tion is embed­ded. In not a sin­gle one of these dimen­sions is the expe­ri­ence of every­ware any­thing like that of per­son­al com­put­ing.” (p.37)

That’s a clear state­ment, on which he elab­o­rates fur­ther on, men­tion­ing that tra­di­tion­al inter­ac­tions are usu­al­ly of a “call-and-response rhythm: user actions fol­lowed by sys­tem events.” Where­as every­ware inter­ac­tions “can’t mean­ing­ful­ly be con­struct­ed as ‘task-dri­ven.’ Nor does any­thing in the inter­play between user and sys­tem […] cor­re­spond with […] infor­ma­tion seek­ing.” (p.38)

So, UX design­ers mov­ing into every­ware have their work cut out for them. This is vir­gin ter­ri­to­ry:

[…] it is […] a rad­i­cal­ly new sit­u­a­tion that will require the devel­op­ment over time of a doc­trine and a body of stan­dards and con­ven­tions […]” (p.39)

Now, UX in tra­di­tion­al projects has been prone to what Green­field calls ‘val­ue engi­neer­ing’. Com­mer­cial projects can only be two of these three things: fast, good and cheap. UX would sup­port the sec­ond, but sad­ly it is often sac­ri­ficed for the sake of the oth­er two. Not always though, but this is usu­al­ly depen­dent on who is involved with the project:

[…] it often takes an unusu­al­ly ded­i­cat­ed, per­sis­tent, and pow­er­ful advo­cate […] to see a high-qual­i­ty design project through to com­ple­tion with every­thing that makes it excel­lent intact. […] the painstak­ing­ly detailed work of ensur­ing a good user expe­ri­ence is fre­quent­ly hard to jus­ti­fy on a short-term ROI basis, and this is why it is often one of the first things to get val­ue-engi­neered out of an extend­ed devel­op­ment process. […] we’ve seen that get­ting every­ware right will be orders of mag­ni­tude more com­pli­cat­ed than achiev­ing accept­able qual­i­ty in a Web site, […] This is not the place for val­ue engi­neers,” (p.166)

So if tra­di­tion­al projects need UX advo­cates on board with con­sid­er­able influ­ence, com­pa­ra­ble to Steve Jobs’s role at Apple, to ensure a descent user expe­ri­ence will it even be pos­si­ble to cre­ate ubiq­ui­tous expe­ri­ences that are enjoy­able to use? If these projects are so com­plex, can they be even got­ten ‘right’ in a com­mer­cial con­text? I’m sor­ry to say I think not…

Design­ers (used broad­ly) will be at the fore­front of decid­ing what every­ware looks like. If you don’t think they will, at least I’m sure they should. They’re not the only ones to deter­mine its shape though, Green­field points out that both reg­u­la­tors and mar­kets have impor­tant parts to play too (pp.172–173):

[…] the inter­lock­ing influ­ences of design­er, reg­u­la­tor, and mar­ket will be most like­ly to result in ben­e­fi­cial out­comes if these par­ties all treat every­ware as a present real­i­ty, and if the deci­sion mak­ers con­cerned act accord­ing­ly.” (p.173)

Now there’s an inter­est­ing notion. Hav­ing just come back from a pre­mier venue for the UX com­mu­ni­ty to talk about this top­ic, the IA Sum­mit, I’m afraid to say that I didn’t get the impres­sion IAs are tak­ing every­ware seri­ous­ly (yet.) There were no talks real­ly con­cerned with tan­gi­ble, per­va­sive, ubiq­ui­tous or ambi­ent tech­nolo­gies. Some basic fare on mobile web stuff, that’s all. Wor­ry­ing, because as Green­field points out:

[UX design­ers] will best be able to inter­vene effec­tive­ly if they devel­op appro­pri­ate insights, tools, and method­olo­gies ahead of the actu­al deploy­ment of ubiq­ui­tous sys­tems.” (pp.173–174)

This stuff is real, and it is here. Green­field points to the exis­tence of sys­tems such as Octo­pus in Hong Kong and E-ZPass in the US. Hon­est­ly, if you think beyond the tools and meth­ods we’ve been using to com­mu­ni­cate our designs, IxDs and IAs are well-equipped to han­dle every­ware. No, you won’t be required to draw wire­frames or sitemaps; but you’ll damn well need to put in a lot of the think­ing design­ers do. And you’ll still need to be able to com­mu­ni­cate those designs. It’s time to get our hands dirty:

What ful­ly oper­a­tional sys­tems such as Octo­pus and E-ZPass tell us is that pri­va­cy con­cerns, social impli­ca­tions, eth­i­cal ques­tions, and prac­ti­cal details of the user expe­ri­ence are no longer mat­ters for con­jec­ture or sup­po­si­tion. With ubiq­ui­tous sys­tems avail­able for empir­i­cal enquiry, these things we need to focus on today.” (p.217)

So, to reit­er­ate the ques­tion I start­ed with: are there any UX design­ers out there that have made the switch from web-work to ubi­comp? Any­one con­sid­er­ing it? I’d love to hear about your expe­ri­ences.

Dan

Please peo­ple. Lay off the Dan Brown. I can’t com­mute with­out see­ing at least one per­son read­ing a book of his. If you’re inter­est­ed in crack­pot the­o­ries about tem­plars, Jesus and San­gre­al – just pick up Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Brown stole bor­rowed all his Da Vin­ci Code ‘rev­e­la­tions’ from that book any­way). If you’re real­ly inter­est­ed in what con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries can do to a per­son, read Foucalt’s Pen­du­lum – a much, much bet­ter way to spend your time read­ing.

Tech­no­rati: ,