Move 37

Design­ers make choic­es. They should be able to pro­vide ratio­nales for those choic­es. (Although some­times they can’t.) Being able to explain the think­ing that went into a design move to your­self, your team­mates and clients is part of being a pro­fes­sion­al.

Move 37. This was the move Alpha­Go made which took every­one by sur­prise because it appeared so wrong at first.

The inter­est­ing thing is that in hind­sight it appeared Alpha­Go had good rea­sons for this move. Based on a cal­cu­la­tion of odds, basically.

If asked at the time, would Alpha­Go have been able to pro­vide this rationale?

It’s a thing that pops up in a lot of the read­ing I am doing around AI. This idea of trans­paren­cy. In some fields you don’t just want an AI to pro­vide you with a deci­sion, but also with the argu­ments sup­port­ing that deci­sion. Obvi­ous exam­ples would include a sys­tem that helps diag­nose dis­ease. You want it to pro­vide more than just the diag­no­sis. Because if it turns out to be wrong, you want to be able to say why at the time you thought it was right. This is a social, cul­tur­al and also legal requirement.

It’s inter­est­ing.

Although lives don’t depend on it, the same might apply to intel­li­gent design tools. If I am work­ing with a sys­tem and it is offer­ing me design direc­tions or solu­tions, I want to know why it is sug­gest­ing these things as well. Because my rea­son for pick­ing one over the oth­er depends not just on the sur­face lev­el prop­er­ties of the design but also the under­ly­ing rea­sons. It might be impor­tant because I need to be able to tell stake­hold­ers about it.

An added side effect of this is that a design­er work­ing with such a sys­tem is be exposed to machine rea­son­ing about design choic­es. This could inform their own future think­ing too.

Trans­par­ent AI might help peo­ple improve them­selves. A black box can’t teach you much about the craft it’s per­form­ing. Look­ing at out­comes can be inspi­ra­tional or help­ful, but the process­es that lead up to them can be equal­ly infor­ma­tive. If not more so.

Imag­ine work­ing with an intel­li­gent design tool and get­ting the equiv­a­lent of an Alpha­Go move 37 moment. Huge­ly inspi­ra­tional. Game changer.

This idea gets me much more excit­ed than automat­ing design tasks does.

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. 

Artificial intelligence, creativity and metis

Boris point­ed me to Cre­ativeAI, an inter­est­ing arti­cle about cre­ativ­i­ty and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. It offers a real­ly nice overview of the devel­op­ment of the idea of aug­ment­ing human capa­bil­i­ties through tech­nol­o­gy. One of the claims the authors make is that arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is mak­ing cre­ativ­i­ty more acces­si­ble. Because tools with AI in them sup­port humans in a range of cre­ative tasks in a way that short­cuts the tra­di­tion­al require­ments of long prac­tice to acquire the nec­es­sary tech­ni­cal skills. 

For exam­ple, Shad­ow­Draw (PDF) is a pro­gram that helps peo­ple with free­hand draw­ing by guess­ing what they are try­ing to cre­ate and show­ing a dynam­i­cal­ly updat­ed ‘shad­ow image’ on the can­vas which peo­ple can use as a guide.

It is an inter­est­ing idea and in some ways these kinds of soft­ware indeed low­er the thresh­old for peo­ple to engage in cre­ative tasks. They are good exam­ples of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence as part­ner in stead of mas­ter or servant. 

While read­ing Cre­ativeAI I wasn’t entire­ly com­fort­able though and I think it may have been caused by two things. 

One is that I care about cre­ativ­i­ty and I think that a good under­stand­ing of it and a dai­ly prac­tice at it—in the broad sense of the word—improves lives. I am also in some ways old-fash­ioned about it and I think the joy of cre­ativ­i­ty stems from the infi­nite­ly high skill ceil­ing involved and the nev­er-end­ing prac­tice it affords. Let’s call it the Jiro per­spec­tive, after the sushi chef made famous by a won­der­ful doc­u­men­tary.

So, claim­ing that cre­ative tools with AI in them can short­cut all of this life-long joy­ful toil pro­duces a degree of pan­ic for me. Although it’s prob­a­bly a Pas­toral world­view which would be bet­ter to aban­don. In a world eat­en by soft­ware, it’s bet­ter to be a Promethean.

The sec­ond rea­son might hold more water but real­ly is more of an open ques­tion than some­thing I have researched in any mean­ing­ful way. I think there is more to cre­ativ­i­ty than just the tech­ni­cal skill required and as such the Cre­ativeAI sto­ry runs the risk of being reduc­tion­ist. While read­ing the arti­cle I was also slow­ly but sure­ly mak­ing my way through one of the final chap­ters of James C. Scott’s See­ing Like a State, which is about the con­cept of metis.

It is prob­a­bly the most inter­est­ing chap­ter of the whole book. Scott intro­duces metis as a form of knowl­edge dif­fer­ent from that pro­duced by sci­ence. Here are some quick excerpts from the book that pro­vide a sense of what it is about. But I real­ly can’t do the rich­ness of his descrip­tion jus­tice here. I am try­ing to keep this short.

The kind of knowl­edge required in such endeav­ors is not deduc­tive knowl­edge from first prin­ci­ples but rather what Greeks of the clas­si­cal peri­od called metis, a con­cept to which we shall return. […] metis is bet­ter under­stood as the kind of knowl­edge that can be acquired only by long prac­tice at sim­i­lar but rarely iden­ti­cal tasks, which requires con­stant adap­ta­tion to chang­ing cir­cum­stances. […] It is to this kind of knowl­edge that [social­ist writer] Lux­em­burg appealed when she char­ac­ter­ized the build­ing of social­ism as “new ter­ri­to­ry” demand­ing “impro­vi­sa­tion” and “cre­ativ­i­ty.”

Scott’s argu­ment is about how author­i­tar­i­an high-mod­ernist schemes priv­i­lege sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge over metis. His explo­ration of what metis means is super inter­est­ing to any­one ded­i­cat­ed to hon­ing a craft, or to cul­ti­vat­ing organ­i­sa­tions con­ducive to the devel­op­ment and appli­ca­tion of craft in the face of uncer­tain­ty. There is a close link between metis and the con­cept of agility.

So cir­cling back to arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent tools for cre­ativ­i­ty I would be inter­est­ed in explor­ing not only how we can dimin­ish the need for the acqui­si­tion of the tech­ni­cal skills required, but to also accel­er­ate the acqui­si­tion of the prac­ti­cal knowl­edge required to apply such skills in the ever-chang­ing real world. I sug­gest we expand our under­stand­ing of what it means to be cre­ative, but with­out los­ing the link to actu­al practice.

For the ancient Greeks metis became syn­ony­mous with a kind of wis­dom and cun­ning best exem­pli­fied by such fig­ures as Odysseus and notably also Prometheus. The lat­ter in par­tic­u­lar exem­pli­fies the use of cre­ativ­i­ty towards trans­for­ma­tive ends. This is the real promise of AI for cre­ativ­i­ty in my eyes. Not to sim­ply make it eas­i­er to repro­duce things that used to be hard to cre­ate but to cre­ate new kinds of tools which have the capac­i­ty to sur­prise their users and to pro­duce results that were impos­si­ble to cre­ate before.

My plans for 2016

Long sto­ry short: my plan is to make plans.

Hub­bub has gone into hiber­na­tion. After more than six years of lead­ing a bou­tique play­ful design agency I am return­ing to free­lance life. At least for the short term.

I will use the flex­i­bil­i­ty afford­ed by this free­ing up of time to take stock of where I have come from and where I am head­ed. ‘Ori­en­ta­tion is the Schw­er­punkt,’ as Boyd says. I have def­i­nite­ly cycled back through my meta-OODA-loop and am firm­ly back in the sec­ond O.

To make things more inter­est­ing I have exchanged the Nether­lands for Sin­ga­pore. I will be here until August. It is going to be fun to explore the things this city has to offer. I am curi­ous what the tech­nol­o­gy and design scene is like when seen up close. So I hope to do some work locally.

I will take on short com­mit­ments. Let’s say no longer than two to three months. Any­thing goes real­ly, but I am par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in work relat­ed to cre­ativ­i­ty and learn­ing. I am also keen on get­ting back into teaching.

So if you are in Sin­ga­pore, work in tech­nol­o­gy or design and want to have a cup of cof­fee. Drop me a line.

Hap­py 2016!

Blog All Kindle-clipped Locations: Destruction and Creation

I fin­ished my pre­vi­ous post on why design­ers should be inter­est­ed in John Boyd with the rec­om­men­da­tion to read his essay “Destruc­tion and Cre­ation”. I thought I’d share the bits I high­light­ed in my copy. It is part of Osin­ga’s Sci­ence, Strat­e­gy and War, to which the loca­tions below refer.

Loca­tion 3176 – Boyd intro­duces a very sim­ple but fun­da­men­tal rea­son for why we should care about deci­sion making:

… a basic aim or goal, as indi­vid­u­als, is to improve our capac­i­ty for inde­pen­dent action

Loca­tion 3183 – the same applies to design and design­ers. We do not want to be con­trolled by our cir­cum­stances. Boyd was talk­ing to a mil­i­tary audi­ence, but the descrip­tion below is true of any social sit­u­a­tion, includ­ing the design practice:

In a real world of lim­it­ed resources and skills, indi­vid­u­als and groups form, dis­solve and reform their coop­er­a­tive or com­pet­i­tive pos­tures in a con­tin­u­ous strug­gle to remove or over­come phys­i­cal and social envi­ron­men­tal obstacles.

Loca­tion 3190

Against such a back­ground, actions and deci­sions become crit­i­cal­ly important.

Loca­tion 3192

To make these time­ly deci­sions implies that we must be able to form men­tal con­cepts of observed real­i­ty, as we per­ceive it, and be able to change these con­cepts as real­i­ty itself appears to change.

Loca­tion 3195 – design­ers are asked to do noth­ing but the above. The suc­ces of our designs hinges on our under­stand­ing of real­i­ty and our skill at inter­ven­ing in it. So the ques­tion below is of vital impor­tance to us:

How do we gen­er­ate or cre­ate the men­tal con­cepts to sup­port this deci­sion-mak­ing activity?

Loca­tion 3196 – in the next sec­tion of the essay Boyd starts to pro­vide answers:

There are two ways in which we can devel­op and manip­u­late men­tal con­cepts to rep­re­sent observed real­i­ty: We can start from a com­pre­hen­sive whole and break it down to its par­tic­u­lars or we can start with the par­tic­u­lars and build towards a com­pre­hen­sive whole.

Loca­tion 3207

… gen­er­al-to-spe­cif­ic is relat­ed to deduc­tion, analy­sis, and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, while, spe­cif­ic-to-gen­er­al is relat­ed to induc­tion, syn­the­sis, and integration.

Loca­tion 3216

… such an unstruc­tur­ing or destruc­tion of many domains – to break the cor­re­spon­dence of each with its respec­tive con­stituents – is relat­ed to deduc­tion, analy­sis, and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. We call this kind of unstruc­tur­ing a destruc­tive deduction.

Loca­tion 3225

… cre­ativ­i­ty is relat­ed to induc­tion, syn­the­sis, and inte­gra­tion since we pro­ceed­ed from unstruc­tured bits and pieces to a new gen­er­al pat­tern or con­cept. We call such action a cre­ative or con­struc­tive induction.

Loca­tion 3227 – here Boyd starts to con­nect the two ways of cre­at­ing con­cepts. I have always found it grat­i­fy­ing to immerse myself in a design’s domain and to start teas­ing apart its con­stituent ele­ments, before mov­ing on to acts of creation:

It is impor­tant to note that the cru­cial or key step that per­mits this cre­ative induc­tion is the sep­a­ra­tion of the par­tic­u­lars from their pre­vi­ous domains by the destruc­tive deduction.

Loca­tion 3230

… the unstruc­tur­ing and restruc­tur­ing just shown reveals a way of chang­ing our per­cep­tion of reality.

Loca­tion 3237 – so far so fair­ly straight-for­ward. But Boyd gets increas­ing­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed about this cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation. For exam­ple, he sug­gests we should check for inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy of a new con­cept by trac­ing back its ele­ments to the orig­i­nal sources:

… we check for reversibil­i­ty as well as check to see which ideas and inter­ac­tions match-up with our obser­va­tions of reality.

Loca­tion 3240 – so this is not a two-step lin­ear act, but a cycli­cal one, where we keep tun­ing parts and wholes of a con­cept (or design) and test them against reality:

Over and over again this cycle of Destruc­tion and Cre­ation is repeat­ed until we demon­strate inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy and match-up with reality.

Loca­tion 3249 – in the next sec­tion, Boyd prob­lema­tis­es the process he has pro­posed by show­ing that once we have formed a con­cept, its matchup to real­i­ty imme­di­ate­ly starts to deteriorate:

… at some point, ambi­gu­i­ties, uncer­tain­ties, anom­alies, or appar­ent incon­sis­ten­cies may emerge to sti­fle a more gen­er­al and pre­cise match-up of con­cept with observed reality.

Loca­tion 3257 – the point below is one I can’t help but iter­ate often enough to clients and cowork­ers. We must work under the assump­tion of mis­match­es occur­ring soon­er or lat­er. It is an essen­tial state of mind:

… we should antic­i­pate a mis­match between phe­nom­e­na obser­va­tion and con­cept descrip­tion of that observation.

Loca­tion 3266 – he brings in Gödel, Heisen­berg and the sec­ond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics to explain why this is so:

Gödel’s Proof indi­rect­ly shows that in order to deter­mine the con­sis­ten­cy of any new sys­tem we must con­struct or uncov­er anoth­er sys­tem beyond it.

Loca­tion 3274

Back and forth, over and over again, we use obser­va­tions to sharp­en a con­cept and a con­cept to sharp­en obser­va­tions. Under these cir­cum­stances, a con­cept must be incom­plete since we depend upon an ever-chang­ing array of obser­va­tions to shape or for­mu­late it. Like­wise, our obser­va­tions of real­i­ty must be incom­plete since we depend upon a chang­ing con­cept to shape or for­mu­late the nature of new inquiries and observations.

Loca­tion 3301 – so Gödel shows we need to con­tin­u­ous­ly cre­ate new con­cepts to main­tain the use­ful­ness of pri­or ones due to the rela­tion­ship between observed real­i­ty and men­tal con­cepts. Good news for design­ers! Our work is nev­er done. It is also an inter­est­ing way to think about cul­ture evolv­ing by the build­ing of increas­ing­ly com­plex net­works of pri­or con­cepts into new ones. Next, Boyd brings in Heisen­berg to explain why there is uncer­tain­ty involved when mak­ing obser­va­tions of reality:

… the mag­ni­tude of the uncer­tain­ty val­ues rep­re­sent the degree of intru­sion by the observ­er upon the observed.

Loca­tion 3304

… uncer­tain­ty val­ues not only rep­re­sent the degree of intru­sion by the observ­er upon the observed but also the degree of con­fu­sion and dis­or­der per­ceived by that observer.

Loca­tion 3308 – Heisen­berg shows that the more we become intwined with observed real­i­ty the more uncer­tain­ty increas­es. This is of note because as we design new things and we intro­duce them into the envi­ron­ment, unex­pect­ed things start to hap­pen. But also, we as design­ers our­selves are part of the envi­ron­ment. The more we are part of the same con­text we are design­ing for, the less able we will be to see things as they tru­ly are. Final­ly, for the third move by which Boyd prob­lema­tis­es the cre­ation of new con­cepts, we arrive at the sec­ond law of thermodynamics:

High entropy implies a low poten­tial for doing work, a low capac­i­ty for tak­ing action or a high degree of con­fu­sion and dis­or­der. Low entropy implies just the opposite.

Loca­tion 3312 – closed sys­tems are those that don’t com­mu­ni­cate with their envi­ron­ment. A suc­cess­ful design prac­tice should be an open sys­tem, lest it suc­cumb to entropy:

From this law it fol­lows that entropy must increase in any closed system 

… when­ev­er we attempt to do work or take action inside such a sys­tem – a con­cept and its match-up with real­i­ty – we should antic­i­pate an increase in entropy hence an increase in con­fu­sion and disorder.

Loca­tion 3317 – it’s impor­tant to note that Boy­d’s ideas are equal­ly applic­a­ble to design plans, design prac­tices, design out­comes, any sys­tem involved in design, real­ly. Con­fused? Not to wor­ry, Boyd boils it down in the next and final section:

Accord­ing to Gödel we can­not – in gen­er­al – deter­mine the con­sis­ten­cy, hence the char­ac­ter or nature, of an abstract sys­tem with­in itself. Accord­ing to Heisen­berg and the Sec­ond Law of Ther­mo­dy­nam­ics any attempt to do so in the real world will expose uncer­tain­ty and gen­er­ate disorder.

Loca­tion 3320 – the bit below is a pret­ty good sum­ma­ry of why “big design up front” does not work:

any inward-ori­ent­ed and con­tin­ued effort to improve the match-up of con­cept with observed real­i­ty will only increase the degree of mismatch.

Loca­tion 3329 – when­ev­er we encounter chaos the instinct is to stick to our guns, but it is prob­a­bly wis­er to take a step back and recon­sid­er our assumptions:

we find that the uncer­tain­ty and dis­or­der gen­er­at­ed by an inward-ori­ent­ed sys­tem talk­ing to itself can be off­set by going out­side and cre­at­ing a new system.

Loca­tion 3330 – cre­ativ­i­ty or explo­rative design under pres­sure can seem like a waste of time but once we have gone through the exer­cise in hind sight we always find it more use­ful than thought before:

Sim­ply stat­ed, uncer­tain­ty and relat­ed dis­or­der can be dimin­ished by the direct arti­fice of cre­at­ing a high­er and broad­er more gen­er­al con­cept to rep­re­sent reality.

Loca­tion 3340

I believe we have uncov­ered a Dialec­tic Engine that per­mits the con­struc­tion of deci­sion mod­els need­ed by indi­vid­u­als and soci­eties for deter­min­ing and mon­i­tor­ing actions in an effort to improve their capac­i­ty for inde­pen­dent action.

Loca­tion 3341

the goal seek­ing effort itself appears to be the oth­er side of a con­trol mech­a­nism that seems also to dri­ve and reg­u­late the alter­nat­ing cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation toward high­er and broad­er lev­els of elaboration.

Loca­tion 3347 – chaos is a fact of life, and as such we should wel­come it because it is as much a source of vital­i­ty as it is a threat:

Para­dox­i­cal­ly, then, an entropy increase per­mits both the destruc­tion or unstruc­tur­ing of a closed sys­tem and the cre­ation of a new sys­tem to nul­li­fy the march toward ran­dom­ness and death.

Loca­tion 3350 – one of Boy­d’s final lines is a fine descrip­tion of what I think design should aspire to: 

The result is a chang­ing and expand­ing uni­verse of men­tal con­cepts matched to a chang­ing and expand­ing uni­verse of observed reality.

John Boyd for designers

The first time I came across mil­i­tary strate­gist John Boy­d’s ideas was prob­a­bly through Venkatesh Rao’s writ­ing. For exam­ple, I remem­ber enjoy­ing Be Some­body or Do Some­thing.

Boyd was clear­ly a con­trar­i­an per­son. I tend to have a soft spot for such fig­ures so I read a high­ly enter­tain­ing biog­ra­phy by Roger Coram. Get­ting more inter­est­ed in his the­o­ries I then read an appli­ca­tion of Boy­d’s ideas to busi­ness by Chet Richards. Still not sat­is­fied, I decid­ed to final­ly buck­le down and read the com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of his mar­tial and sci­en­tif­ic influ­ences plus tran­scripts of all his brief­in­gs by Frans Osinga.

It’s been a huge­ly enjoy­able and reward­ing intel­lec­tu­al trip. I feel like Boyd has giv­en me some pret­ty sharp new tools-to-think-with. From his back­ground you might think these tools are lim­it­ed to war­fare. But in fact they can be applied much more broad­ly, to any field in which we need to make deci­sions under uncer­tain circumstances. 

As we go about our dai­ly lives we are actu­al­ly always deal­ing with this dynam­ic. But the stakes are usu­al­ly low, so we most­ly don’t real­ly care about hav­ing a thor­ough under­stand­ing of how to do what we want to do. In war­fare the stakes are obvi­ous­ly unusu­al­ly high, so it makes sense for some of the most artic­u­late think­ing on the sub­ject to emerge from it.

As a design­er I have always been inter­est­ed in how my pro­fes­sion makes deci­sions. Design­ers usu­al­ly deal with high lev­els of uncer­tain­ty too. Although lives are rarely at stake, the con­tin­ued via­bil­i­ty of busi­ness­es and qual­i­ty of peo­ples lives usu­al­ly are, at least in some way. Fur­ther­more, there is always a leap of faith involved with any design deci­sion. When we sug­gest a path for­ward with our sketch­es and pro­to­types, and we choose to pro­ceed to devel­op­ment, we can nev­er be entire­ly sure if our intend­ed out­comes will pan out as we had hoped.

This uncer­tain­ty has always been present in any design act, but an argu­ment could be made that tech­nol­o­gy has increased the amount of uncer­tain­ty in our world.

The way I see it, the meth­ods of user cen­tred design, inter­ac­tion design, user expe­ri­ence, etc are all attempts to “deal with” uncer­tain­ty in var­i­ous ways. The same can be said for the tech­niques of agile soft­ware development. 

These meth­ods can be divid­ed into rough­ly two cat­e­gories, which more or less cor­re­spond to the upper two quad­rants of this two-by-two by Venkatesh. Bor­row­ing the dia­gram’s labels, one is called Spore. It is risk-averse and focus­es on sus­tain­abil­i­ty. The oth­er is called Hydra and it is risk-savvy and about anti-fragili­ty. Spore tries to lim­it the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of unex­pect­ed events, and Hydra tries to max­imise their pos­i­tive consequences. 

An exam­ple of a Spore-like design move would be to insist on thor­ough user research at the start of a project. We expend sig­nif­i­cant resources to dimin­ish the amount of unknowns about our tar­get audi­ence. An exam­ple of a Hydra-like design move is the kind of playtest­ing employed by many game design­ers. We leave open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sur­pris­ing acts from our tar­get audi­ence and hope to sub­se­quent­ly use those as the basis for new design directions. 

It is inter­est­ing to note that these upper two quad­rants are strate­gies for deal­ing with uncer­tain­ty based on syn­the­sis. The oth­er two rely on analy­sis. We typ­i­cal­ly asso­ciate syn­the­sis with cre­ativ­i­ty and by exten­sion with design. But as Boyd fre­quent­ly points out, inven­tion requires both analy­sis and syn­the­sis, which he liked to call destruc­tion and cre­ation. When I reflect on my own way of work­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the ear­ly stages of a project, the so-called fuzzy front end, I too rely on a cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation to make progress. 

I do not see one of the two approach­es, Spore or Hydra, as inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or. But my per­son­al pref­er­ence is most def­i­nite­ly the Hydra approach. I think this is because a risk-savvy stance is most help­ful when try­ing to invent new things, and when try­ing to design for play and playfulness.

The main thing I learned from Boyd for my own design prac­tice is to be aware of uncer­tain­ty in the first place, and to know how to deal with it in an agile way. You might not be will­ing to do all the read­ing I did, but I would rec­om­mend to at least peruse the one long-form essay Boyd wrote, titled Destruc­tion and Cre­ation (PDF), about how to be cre­ative and deci­sive in the face of uncertainty.

The real­ly good cre­ative peo­ple are always orga­nized, it’s true. The dif­fer­ence is effi­cien­cy. If you have an agenda—a schedule—you will be bet­ter. In order to have moments of chaos and anar­chy and cre­ativ­i­ty, you have to be very ordered so that when the moment arrives it doesn’t put things out of whack.”

Rem­i­nis­cent of “play is free move­ment with­in a more rigid sys­tem” – I always enjoy using pro­fes­sion­al cook­ing as source of inspi­ra­tion for improv­ing design.

(via The Stan­dard — Can the Brains Behind elBul­li Take the Chaos Out of Cre­ativ­i­ty?)

Where social software should go next — Habitat’s lessons

MMOGs have not pro­gressed since 1990. Nei­ther has social software.

Well maybe a lit­tle, but not much. At least that’s what I’m lead to believe after read­ing anoth­er won­der­ful essay in The Game Design Read­er—a book I like to dip into once in a while to read what­ev­er catch­es my fancy.

In The Lessons of Lucas­film’s Habi­tat1 Messrs Farmer and Morn­ingstar share their expe­ri­ences build­ing pos­si­bly one of the first graph­i­cal MMOGs ever. The game’s front-end ran on a Com­modore 64 and looked some­thing like this:

Screenshot of Lucasfilm's Habitat

It’s strik­ing how many of the lessons summed up by the authors have not been (ful­ly) tak­en to heart by MMOG design­ers. Bitch­ing aside, their arti­cle offers as much use­ful advice to game design­ers as to design­ers of any piece of social soft­ware. Since this post has grown unex­pect­ed­ly long (again). I’ll sum them up here:

  • The imple­men­ta­tion plat­form is rel­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant.” — on loose­ly cou­pling a world’s con­cep­tu­al mod­el and its representation
  • Detailed cen­tral plan­ning is impos­si­ble; don’t even try.” — on relin­quish­ing con­trol as design­ers, co-design and evo­lu­tion­ary systems
  • Work with­in the sys­tem.” — on facil­i­tat­ing world cre­ation by play­ers and mod­er­a­tion from with­in the world

Let’s look at each in more detail:

Loosely coupled

The imple­men­ta­tion plat­form is rel­a­tive­ly unimportant.”

Mean­ing that how you describe the world and how you present it can or should be loose­ly cou­pled. The advan­tage of this is that with one world mod­el you can serve clients with a wide range of (graph­i­cal) capa­bil­i­ties and scale into the future with­out hav­ing to change mod­el. Their exam­ple is of a tree, which can be ren­dered to one user as a string of text: “There is a tree here.” And to anoth­er user as a rich high res­o­lu­tion 3D ani­mat­ed image accom­pa­nied by sound.

And these two users might be look­ing at the same tree in the same place in the same world and talk­ing to each oth­er as they do so.”

When I read this I instant­ly thought of Raph Koster’s Meta­place and won­dered if the essay I was read­ing served as some sort of design guide­line for it. What I under­stood from Raph’s GDC 2008 pre­sen­ta­tion2 was that they are try­ing to achieve exact­ly this, by apply­ing the archi­tec­tur­al mod­el of the inter­net to the design of MMOGs.

Look­ing at social soft­ware in gen­er­al, how many exam­ples can you give of the cur­rent wave of social web apps that apply this prin­ci­ple? I’m remind­ed of Tom Coates’s Native to a Web of Data pre­sen­ta­tion—in which he argues that a ser­vice’s data should ide­al­ly be acces­si­ble through any num­ber of chan­nels.3

Sim­i­lar­ly, web 2.0 poster child Dopplr is designed to be “a beau­ti­ful part of the web”, “a fea­ture of a larg­er ser­vice, called the inter­net”.4 And they want to be every­where, adding a lit­tle bit of val­ue where it is most need­ed. Per­haps not exact­ly the same thing as what Farmer and Morn­ingstar are allud­ing to, but based on sim­i­lar principles.

As an aside, in MMOG land, there is one oth­er major con­cern with this:

Mak­ing the sys­tem ful­ly dis­trib­uted […] requires solv­ing a num­ber of dif­fi­cult prob­lems. The most sig­nif­i­cant of these is the pre­ven­tion of cheating.”

Cheat­ing might be of less con­cern to social soft­ware than to games (although there are excep­tions, take Digg for exam­ple). For those inter­est­ed in more about this, Raph Koster recent­ly post­ed an elab­o­rate exam­i­na­tion of hack­ing and cheat­ing in MMOGs.

Control, co-design, evolution

Cheat­ing aside, there is more use­ful (albeit famil­iar) advice for social soft­ware design­ers in the piece. For instance on the need to hand over (part of) the con­trol over the sys­tem’s design to its users:

Again and again we found that activ­i­ties based on often uncon­scious assump­tions about play­er behav­iour had com­plete­ly unex­pect­ed out­comes (when they were not sim­ply out­right failures). ”

They go on to say that they found it was more pro­duc­tive to work with the community:

We could influ­ence things, we could set up inter­est­ing sit­u­a­tions, we could pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for things to hap­pen, but we could not dic­tate the out­come. Social engi­neer­ing is, at best, an inex­act sci­ence […] we shift­ed into a style of oper­a­tions in which we let the play­ers them­selves dri­ve the direc­tion of the design.”

Again, famil­iar advice per­haps, but they describe in some detail how they actu­al­ly went about this, which makes for enlight­en­ing read­ing. That this prac­tice of co-design goes against ‘com­mon’ soft­ware devel­op­ment prac­tices is not left unad­dressed either:

[…] the chal­lenge posed by large sys­tems are prompt­ing some researchers to ques­tion the cen­tral­ized, plan­ning dom­i­nat­ed atti­tude that we have crit­i­cized here, and to pro­pose alter­na­tive approach­es based on evo­lu­tion­ary and mar­ket prin­ci­ples. These prin­ci­ples appear applic­a­ble to com­plex sys­tems of all types […]”

(Empha­sis mine.) I am intrigued by this evo­lu­tion­ary mod­el of web devel­op­ment. In the abstract for Move­ment, Matt Webb writes:

the Web in 2008 has some entire­ly new qual­i­ties: more than ever it’s an ecol­o­gy of sep­a­rate but high­ly inter­con­nect­ed ser­vices. Its fierce­ly com­pet­i­tive, rapid devel­op­ment means dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing inno­va­tions are quick­ly copied and spread. Atten­tion from users is scarce. The fittest web­sites sur­vive.

(Again, empha­sis mine.) I think the chal­lenge that now lies before us is to not only as design­ers prac­tice co-design with our users, but to go one step fur­ther, and encode rules for autonomous evo­lu­tion into our sys­tems. These are the adap­tive sys­tems I’ve been blog­ging about recent­ly. An impor­tant note is that sys­tems can adapt to indi­vid­ual users, but also—in the case of social software—to aggre­gate behav­iour of user groups.5

This can be extend­ed to a world’s gov­er­nance. Here is one of the ideas I find most excit­ing in the con­text of social soft­ware, one I have seen very few exam­ples of so far. 

[…] our view is that a vir­tu­al world need not be set up with a “default” gov­ern­ment, but can instead evolve as needed.”

I can­not think of one MMOG that is designed to allow for a mod­el of gov­er­nance to emerge from play­er inter­ac­tions. The best exam­ple I can think of from the world of social soft­ware is this arti­cle by Tom Coates at the Bar­be­lith wiki. Bar­be­lith is a some­what ‘old school’ online com­mu­ni­ty com­prised of mes­sage boards (remem­ber those?). In the piece (titled TriPo­lit­i­ca) he writes:

Imag­ine a mes­sage board with three clear iden­ti­ties, colour-schemes and names. Each has a gener­ic set of basic ini­tial forums on a clear­ly defined range of sub­jects (say — Pol­i­tics / Sci­ence / Enter­tain­ment). Each forum starts with a cer­tain struc­ture — one Monar­chic, one Par­lia­men­tary Democ­ra­cy and one Dis­trib­uted Anar­chy. All the rules that it takes to run each com­mu­ni­ty have been suf­fi­cient­ly abstract­ed so that they can be turned on or off at will BY the com­mu­ni­ty con­cerned. More­over, the rules are self-reflex­ive — ie. the com­mu­ni­ty can also cre­ate struc­tures to gov­ern how those rules are changed. This would oper­ate by a bill-like struc­ture where an indi­vid­ual can pro­pose a new rule or a change to an exist­ing rule that then may or may not require one or more forms of rat­i­fi­ca­tion. There would be the abil­i­ty to cre­ate a rule gov­ern­ing who could pro­pose a new bill, how often and what areas it might be able to change or influence.”

He goes on to give exam­ples of how this would work—what user types you’d need and what actions would need to be avail­able to those users. I’m pret­ty sure this was nev­er imple­ment­ed at Bar­be­lith (which, by the way, is a fun com­mu­ni­ty to browse through if you’re into counter cul­tur­al geek­ery). Actu­al­ly, I’m pret­ty sure I know of no online space that has a sys­tem like this in place. Any inter­ac­tion design­ers out there who are will­ing to take up the gauntlet?

Creativity, moderation

Work with­in the system.”

This is the final les­son offered in the essay I’d like to look at, one that is mul­ti­fac­eted. On the one hand, Messrs Farmer and Morn­ingstar pro­pose that world build­ing should be part of the sys­tem itself (and there­fore acces­si­ble to reg­u­lar players):

One of the goals of a next gen­er­a­tion Habi­tat-like sys­tem ought to be to per­mit far greater cre­ative involve­ment by the par­tic­i­pants with­out requir­ing them to ascend to full-fledged guru-hood to do so.”

And, fur­ther on:

This requires find­ing ways to rep­re­sent design and cre­ation of regions and objects as part of the under­ly­ing fantasy.”

I do not think a MMOG has achieved this in any mean­ing­ful sense so far. Sec­ond Life may offer world cre­ation tools to users, but they are far from acces­si­ble, and cer­tain­ly not part of the “under­ly­ing fan­ta­sy”. In web based social soft­ware, sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief is of less con­cern. It can be argued that Flickr for instance suc­cess­ful­ly offers world cre­ation at an acces­si­ble lev­el. Each Flickr user con­tributes to the pho­to­graph­ic tapes­try that is the Flickr ‘pho­to­verse’. Wikipedia, too offers rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple tools for con­tri­bu­tion, albeit text based. In the gam­ing sphere, there are exam­ples such as SFZe­ro, a Col­lab­o­ra­tive Pro­duc­tion Game, in which play­ers add tasks for oth­ers to com­plete, essen­tial­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly cre­at­ing the game with the designers.

Like I said, the les­son “work with­in the sys­tem” applies to more than one aspect. The oth­er being mod­er­a­tion. The authors share an amus­ing anec­dote about play­ers exploit­ing a loop hole intro­duced by new char­ac­ters and objects (the play­ers gained access to an unusu­al­ly pow­er­ful weapon). The anec­dote shows that it is always bet­ter to mod­er­ate dis­putes with­in the shared fan­ta­sy of the world, in stead of mak­ing use of exter­nal mea­sures that break the play­er’s sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. Play­ers will con­sid­er the lat­ter cheat­ing on the part of administrators:

Oper­at­ing with­in the par­tic­i­pants’ world mod­el pro­duced a very sat­is­fac­to­ry result. On the oth­er hand, what seemed like the expe­di­ent course, which involved vio­lat­ing this mod­el, pro­voked upset and dismay.”

Design­ers should play with users, not against them. This applies to social soft­ware on the web equal­ly. It is this atti­tude that sets Flickr apart from many oth­er online com­mu­ni­ties. Flickr’s design­ers under­stand the prin­ci­ple of “oper­at­ing with­in the par­tic­i­pants’ world mod­el”. For exam­ple, look at how they han­dled con­fu­sion and irri­ta­tion around the last Talk Like A Pirate Day gag.6


In sum­ma­ry, dear read­er, if you got this far, I would love to see exam­ples of social soft­ware that:

  • Are acces­si­ble in a num­ber of ‘rep­re­sen­ta­tions’
  • Are co-designed with users, or bet­ter yet, apply evo­lu­tion­ary prin­ci­ples to its design
  • Allow users to devel­op their own mod­el of governance
  • Allow users to eas­i­ly add to the sys­tem, in an inte­grat­ed way
  • Are mod­er­at­ed from with­in the system

If you—like me—can’t think of any, per­haps it’s time to build some?

Image cred­its: © 1986 LucasArts Enter­tain­ment Com­pa­ny.

  1. The essay can be read online over here. []
  2. More about my GDC 2008 expe­ri­ences. []
  3. This prin­ci­ple is now being applied to the extreme in Yahoo!‘s Fire Eagle. []
  4. The for­mer quote I first encoun­tered in Matt Jones’s pre­sen­ta­tion Rule­Space, the lat­ter is from this BBC arti­cle on Reboot 9.0. []
  5. For more on aggre­gat­ing user behav­iour in social soft­ware also see Greater than the sum of its parts by Tom Coates (yes him again). []
  6. Tom Armitage has some good thoughts on the Talk Like A Pirate Day deba­cle. []

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. []

Playyoo goes beta

Today Playy­oo went beta. Playy­oo is a mobile games com­mu­ni­ty I have been involved with as a free­lance inter­ac­tion design­er since july of this year. I don’t have time for an elab­o­rate post-mortem, but here are some pre­lim­i­nary notes on what Playy­oo is and what part I’ve played in its conception.

Playyoo's here

Playy­oo brings some cool inno­va­tions to the mobile games space. It allows you to snack on free casu­al mobile games while on the go, using a per­son­al­ized mobile web page. It stores your high scores and allows you to inter­act with your friends (and foes) on an accom­pa­ny­ing reg­u­lar web site. Playy­oo is a plat­form for indie mobile game devel­op­ers. Any­one can pub­lish their Flash Lite game on it. Best of all — even if you’re not a mobile games devel­op­er, you can cre­ate a game of your own.

It’s that last bit I’ve worked on the most. I took care of the inter­ac­tion design for an appli­ca­tion imag­i­na­tive­ly called the Game Cre­ator. It allows you to take well known games (such as Lunar Lan­der) and give them your own per­son­al twist. Obvi­ous­ly this includes the game’s graph­ics, but we’ve gone one step fur­ther. You can change the way the game works as well.

Screenshot of my lolcats pairs game on Playyoo

So in the exam­ple of Lunar Lan­der you can make the space­ship look like what­ev­er you want. But you can also change the grav­i­ty, con­trol­ling the speed with which your ship drops to the sur­face. Best of all, you can cre­ate your own plan­et sur­face, as easy as draw­ing a line on paper. This is why Lunar Lan­der in the Playy­oo Game Cre­ator is called Line Lan­der. (See? Anoth­er imag­i­na­tive title!)

At the moment there are six games in the Game Cre­ator: Tic-Tac-Toe, Pairs, Revenge, Snake, Ping-Pong, and the afore­men­tioned Line Lan­der. There’s long list of oth­er games I’d like to put in there. I’m sure there will be more to come.

Since today’s launch, peo­ple have already start­ed cre­at­ing crazy stuff with it. There’s a maze-like snake game, for instance. And a game where you need to land a spi­der crab on the head of some per­son called Rebec­ca… I decid­ed to chip in with a pairs game full of lol­cats (an idea I’ve had since doing the very first wire­frame.) Any­way, the mind bog­gles to think of what peo­ple might come up with next! That’s the cool part about cre­at­ing a tool for cre­ative expression.

Screenshot of a Line Lander game in progress in the Playyoo Game Creator

So although mak­ing a game is very dif­fer­ent from play­ing one, I hope I man­aged to make it fun nonethe­less. My ambi­tion was to cre­ate a toy-like appli­ca­tion that makes ‘cre­at­ing’ a game a fun and engag­ing way to kill a few min­utes — much like Mii cre­ation on the Nin­ten­do Wii, or play­ing with Spore’s edi­tors (although we still haven’t had the chance to actu­al­ly play with lat­ter, yet.) And who knows, per­haps it’ll inspire a few peo­ple to start devel­op­ing games of their own. That would prob­a­bly be the ulti­mate compliment.

In any case, I’d love to hear your com­ments, both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive. And if you have a Flash Lite com­pat­i­ble phone, be sure to sign up with Playy­oo. There is no oth­er place offer­ing you an end­less stream of snack sized casu­al games on your phone. Once you’ve had a taste of that, I’m sure you’ll won­der how you ever got by with­out it.