It’s time to start revealing the speakers for This happened – Utrecht #1. First up is Fabian Akker, co-founder of the independent studio Ronimo Games. The studio was funded with money Fabian and his colleagues earned by selling the concept behind one of their games to THQ.1 The game is called De Blob, and the new version is now available on the Nintendo Wii and DS.2 As part of a 3rd year assignment at the Utrecht School of the Arts’ Game Design and Development course, De Blob was created for the municipality of Utrecht. The aim was to allow people to explore the city’s future station area, which is under heavy reconstruction. You could therefore call De Blob a serious game — a game that is not only fun but also useful. It is not often that a serious game makes the transition to a title aimed purely at entertainment. It is more often the case that an entertainment concept gets injected with some ‘serious’ content, with usually disappointing results. At This happened – Utrecht #1 Fabian, who was the original game’s lead designer, will share the story of how it came to be.
I announced This happened – Utrecht #1 last week. The event takes place on Monday 3 October at 20:30. Registration will open next Monday (20 October) — space is limited so mark your calendars!
Curious about the rest of the line-up? Tomorrow, Ianus will announce our second speaker.
I’m happy to announce This happened – Utrecht; a series of events for interaction designers that I have been working on together with Ianus Keller and Alexander Zeh. On Monday 3 November we’ll have our first edition at Theater Kikker. I’m keeping the line-up to myself for now, but I can assure you it is awesome.
At This happened, you’ll get four to five short lectures by interaction designers about the process behind one of their projects. Each lecture is followed by ample time for discussion. We invite speakers from many different domains, such as products, web, software, games, architecture and art. This way, we hope to show that although the outcomes are different, there is a lot to learn from fellow designers working in areas other than your own.
This happened has been going on in London for some time now, with great success. I can’t remember when exactly I first came across the concept, but I do know that from the start I wanted to introduce it in the Netherlands. Imagine my excitement when I received an enthusiastic response to my proposal from the guys in London.
I believe This happened really adds something to the design event landscape. It isn’t often you get to go somewhere to hear about the hard work that went into finished projects. Usually, you either get a demo of what has been achieved, or you hear someone talk about what it is he would like to work on, not what he’s actually done. Neither is very informative for practising designers. At This happened, the focus is firmly on process, not on outcome, and on making & doing, not (only) on thinking.
Registration is free and will open around two weeks before the event starts. Watch this space, or keep an eye on the official This happened – Utrecht website (in Dutch).
I am breaking radio-silence for a bit to let you know the slides and video for my Reboot 10 presentation are now available online, in case you’re interested. I presented this talk before at The Web and Beyond, but this time I had a lot more time, and I presented in English. I therefore think this might still be of interest to some people.1 As always, I am very interested in receiving constructive criticism Just drop me a line in the comments.
Yesterday I attended my first Mobile Monday in Amsterdam. The theme was “value” and in my mind, I had already equated the term with “user experience”. This was a mistake. Contrary to my expectations, the event was well outside of my comfort zone. Discussions were dominated by business and technology perspectives. I found the experience frustrating at times, but I guess this is good. Frustration often leads to new insights. Therefore, although this may not sound as a recommendation, I would say MoMo is an event worth visiting for any designer interested in mobility. It will remind you that in this industry, many ideas you take for granted are far from accepted.
I thought I’d share some thoughts concerning the salient points of the evening.
Context was often equated with location. To me, these two are far from the same. Location is, at best, a component of context, which also involves what people are doing, who else is there, what objects are present, etc. But, more importantly: Context arises from interactions, it is relational and therefore cannot be objectified. Coincidentally, Adam Greenfield has posted some valuable insights on this topic.
As an example, consider a person present in the White House, in the possession of a firearm, in clear sight of the president. The meaning of this situation (i.e. the context) depends completely on who this person is and what his motivations are. He might be working (bodyguarding the president), he might be at war (making an attempt at the president’s life) or he might be playing around (the gun isn’t real, he’s the president’s son).
Anyway — I subscribe to the view that we should not attempt to guess context, the above example has hopefully shown that this is an impossible task. (At least, as long as we cannot reliably read the minds of people.) In stead, we should ‘limit’ ourselves to giving places, things, etc. a voice in the conversation (making them self-describing, and accountable) and having context arise those voices, as determined by the people involved.
Ajit Jaokar posited that open source mobile software (such as Android) will lead to new device manufacturers entering the arena. The analogy was made to the PC industry with the emergence of white-label boxes. I wonder though, for this to truly happen, shouldn’t the hardware be open-sourced too, not (just) the software?
In any case, I think having more handset manufacturers is wonderful. Not in the least for the fact that it will open the door for a more diverse offering, one potentially tailored to regions so far under-served by device manufacturers. Which brings me to my next point.
Local, global, diversity, relevance…
Several speakers alluded to the fact that mobile is a global market, and that businesses shouldn’t be shy about launching world-wide. I see several issues with this. First of all, without wanting to sound too anti-globalistic, do we really want to continue on making stuff that is the same no matter where you go? I find diversity a vital stimulus in my life and would hate to see software experiences become more and more the same the world over.
Let’s in stead consider the following: A service that might make perfect sense in one locale very likely does not offer any distinctive value in another. I think the example of the now defunct Skoeps1, which was discussed at the event, illustrates this perfectly. It did not work in the Dutch market, but offers real value in ‘developing’ countries, where the amount of video crews on the ground is limited and images captured by locals using mobile phones are therefore a welcome addition to the ‘official’ coverage.
Which brings me back to the question of context, but in this case, the role it plays not as a component of a service, but in the design and development process itself. I was sad to see the most important point of Rachel Hinman’s video message go unnoticed (at least, judging from the fact that it was not discussed at all). She said that starting point for any new service should be to go out “into the wild” and observe what people are doing, what they want, what they need, what they enjoy and so on.2 From this real and deep understanding of people’s contexts, you can start making meaningful choices that will help you create something that offers true value.
It was this notion of starting from people’s context that I found most lacking at MoMo AMS. Besides Hinman, I was surprised to find only Yme Bosma of Hyves3 alluding to it. Who’d have thought?
Skoeps — pronounced “scoops” — was a social video site focused on citizen journalism. It went out of business because not enough “users” were “generating content”. Ugh. [↩]
Not surprisingly, Hinman works at Adaptive Path. Athough I very much agree with her presentation’s premise, I felt her example was a bit disingenuous. I find it hard to believe Apple designed iTunes to fit the mixtape usage scenario. This, I think, is more of a happy coincidence than anything else. [↩]
Hyves is the biggest social networking site of the Netherlands. [↩]
It’s been a while since I finished reading Steven Berlin Johnson’s Emergence. I picked up the book because ever since I started thinking about what IxDs can learn from game design, the concept of emergence kept popping up.
Johnson’s book is a pleasant read, an easy-going introduction to the subject. I started and finished it over the course of a weekend. There were a few passages I marked as I went a long, and I’d like to quote them here and comment on them. In order, they are about:
Principles that are required for emergence to happen
How learning can be unconscious
Unique skills of game players
Gardening as a metaphor for using (and making) emergent systems
“If you’re building a system designed to learn from the ground level, a system where macrointelligence and adaptability derive from local knowledge, there are five fundamental principles you need to follow.”
These principles together form a useful crib sheet for designers working on social software, MMOGs, etc. I’ll summarise each of Johnson’s principles here.
“More is different.”
You need to have a sizeable amount of low-level elements interacting to get patterns emerging. Also, there is a difference between the behaviour you will observe on the microlevel, and on the macrolevel. You need to be aware of both.
“Ignorance is useful.”
The simple elements don’t have to be aware of the higher-level order. In fact, it’s best if they aren’t. Otherwise nasty feedback-loops might come into being.
“Encourage random encounters.”
You need chance happenings for the system to be able to learn and adapt.2
“Look for patterns in the signs.”
Simply put, the basic elements can have a simple vocabulary, but should be able to recognise patterns. So although you might be working with only one signal, things such as frequency and intensity should be used to make a range of meanings.
“Pay attention to your neighbours.”
There must be as much interaction between the components as possible. They should be made constantly aware of each other.
Now with these principles in mind look at systems that successfully leverage collective intelligence. Look at Flickr for instance. They are all present.
I liked the following passage because it seems to offer a nice metaphor for what I think is the unique kind of learning that happens while playing. In a way, games and toys are like chicken pox.3
“[…] learning is not always contingent on consciousness. […] Most of us have developed immunity to the varicella-zoster virus—also known as chicken pox—based on our exposure to it early in childhood. The immunity is a learning process: the antibodies of our immune system learn to neutralize the antigens of the virus, and they remember those neutralization strategies for the rest of our lives. […] Those antibodies function as a “recognition system,” in Gerald Edelman’s phrase, successfully attacking the virus and storing the information about it, then recalling that information the next time the virus comes across the radar. […] the recognition unfolds purely on a cellular level: we are not aware of the varicella-zoster virus in any sense of the word, […] The body learns without consciousness, and so do cities, because learning is not just about being aware of information; it’s also about storing information and knowing where to find it. […] It’s about altering a system’s behaviour in response to those patterns in ways that make the system more successful at whatever goal it’s pursuing. The system need not be conscious to be capable of that kind of learning.”
Emphasis on the last sentence mine, by the way.
Johnson writes about his impression of children playing video games:4
“[…] they are more tolerant of being out of control, more tolerant of that exploratory phase where the rules don’t all make sense, and where few goals have been clearly defined.”
This attitude is very valuable in today’s increasingly complex world. It should be fostered and leveraged in areas besides gaming too, IMHO. This point was at the core of my Playing With Complexity talk.
“Interacting with emergent software is already more like growing a garden than driving a car or reading a book.”5
Yet, we still tend to approach the design of systems like this from a tradition of making tools (cars) or media (books). I not only believe that the use of systems like this is like gardening, but also their creation. Perhaps they lie in each other’s extension, are part of one never-ending cycle? In any case, when designing complex systems, you need to work with it “live”. Plant some seeds, observe, prune, weed, plant some more, etc.
I am going to keep a garden (on my balcony). I’m pretty sure that will teach me more about interaction design than building cars or writing books.
The following quotes are taken from pages 77–79. [↩]
This reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, wherein he writes about maximising your chance of having serendipitous encounters. [↩]
Last Saturday I attended a RoomWare workshop. The people of CanTouch were there too, and brought one of their prototype multi-touch tables. The aim for the day was to come up with applications of RoomWare (open source software that can sense presence of people in spaces) and multi-touch. I attended primarily because it was a good opportunity to spend a day messing around with a table.
Attendance was multifaceted, so while programmers were putting together a proof-of-concept, designers (such as Alexander Zeh, James Burke and I) came up with concepts for new interactions. The proof-of-concept was up and running at the end of then day: The table could sense who was in the room and display his or her Flickr photos, which you could then move around, scale, rotate, etc. in the typical multi-touch fashion.
The concepts designer came up with mainly focused on pulling in Last.fm data (again using RoomWare’s sensing capabilities) and displaying it for group-based exploration. Here’s a storyboard I quickly whipped up of one such application:
The storyboard shows how you can add yourself from a list of people present in the room. Your top artists flock around you. When more people are added, lines are drawn between you. The thickness of the line represents how similar your tastes are, according to Last.fm’s taste-o-meter. Also, shared top artists flock in such a way as to be closest to all related people. Finally, artists can be acted on to listen to music.
When I was sketching this, it became apparent that orientation of elements should follow very different rules from regular screens. I chose to sketch things so that they all point outwards, with the middle of the table as the orientation point.
By spending a day immersed in multi-touch stuff, some interesting design challenges became apparent:
With tabletop surfaces, stuff is closer or further away physically. Proximity of elements can be unintentionally interpreted as saying something about aspects such as importance, relevance, etc. Designers need to be even more aware of placement than before, plus conventions from vertically oriented screens no longer apply. Top-of-screen becomes furthest away and therefore least prominent in stead of most important.
With group-based interactions, it becomes tricky to determine who to address and where to address him or her. Sometimes the system should address the group as a whole. When 5 people are standing around a table, text-based interfaces become problematic since what is legible from one end of the table is unintelligible from the other. New conventions need to be developed for this as well. Alexander and I philosophized about placing text along circles and animating them so that they circulate around the table, for instance.
Besides these, many other interface challenges present themselves. One crucial piece of information for solving many of these is knowing where people are located around the table. This issue can be approached from different angles. By incorporating sensors in the table, detection may be automated and interfaces could me made to adapt automatically. This is the techno-centric angle. I am not convinced this is the way to go, because it diminishes people’s control over the experience. I would prefer to make the interface itself adjustable in natural ways, so that people can mold the representation to suit their context. With situated technologies like this, auto-magical adaptation is an “AI-hard” problem, and the price of failure is a severely degraded user experience from which people cannot recover because the system won’t let them.
All in all the workshop was a wonderful day of tinkering with like-minded individuals from radically different backgrounds. As a designer, I think this is one of the best way be involved with open source projects. On a day like this, technologists can be exposed to new interaction concepts while they are hacking away. At the same time designers get that rare opportunity to play around with technology as it is shaped. Quick-and-dirty sketches like the ones Alexander and I came up with are definitely the way to communicate ideas. The goal is to suggest, not to describe, after all. Technologists should feel free to elaborate and build on what designers come up with and vice-versa. I am curious to see which parts of what we came up with will find their way in future RoomWare projects.
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:
(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:
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.
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.
When the NLGD Foundation invited me to speak at their anual Festival of Games I asked them what they would like me to discuss. “Anything you like,” was what they said, essentially. I decided to submit an abstract dealing with data visualization. I had been paying more and more attention to this field, but was unsuccessful in relating it the other themes running through my work, most notably play. So I thought I’d force myself to tackle this issue by promising to speak about it. Often a good strategy, I’ve found. If it worked out this time I leave for you to judge.
In brief, in the presentation I argue two things: one — that the more sophisticated applications of interactive data visualization resemble games and toys in many ways, and two — that game design can contribute to the solutions to several design issues I have detected in the field of data visualization.
Below are the notes for the talk, slightly edited, and with references included. The full deck of slides, which includes credits for all the images used, is up on SlideShare.
Hello everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink. I am a Dutch interaction designer and I work freelance. At the moment I work in Copenhagen, but pretty soon I will be back here in Utrecht, my lovely hometown.
In my work I focus on three areas: mobility, social interactions, and play. Here is an example of my work: These are storyboards that explore possible applications of multitouch technology in a gated community. Using these technologies I tried to compensate for the negative effects a gated community has on the build-up of social capital. I also tried to balance ‘being-in-the-screen’ with ‘being-in-the-world’ — multitouch technologies tend to be very attention-absorbing, but in built environments this is often not desirable.1
I am not going to talk about multitouch though. Today’s topic is data visualization and what opportunities there are for game designers in that field. My talk is roughly divided in three parts. First, I will briefly describe what I think data visualization is. Next, I will look at some applications beyond the very obvious. Third and last, I will discuss some design issues involved with data visualization. For each of these issues, I will show how game design can contribute.
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.
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.
This is a transcript of my presentation at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobility in Amsterdam on 22 May. Since the majority of paying attendees were local I presented in Dutch. However, English appears to be the lingua franca of the internet, so here I offer a translation. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video recording of the whole thing soon.
In 1966 a number of members of Provo took to the streets of Amsterdam carrying blank banners. Provo was a nonviolent anarchist movement. They primarily occupied themselves with provoking the authorities in a “ludic” manner. Nothing was written on their banners because the mayor of Amsterdam had banned the slogans “freedom of speech”, “democracy” and “right to demonstrate”. Regardless, the members were arrested by police, showing that the authorities did not respect their right to demonstrate.1
Good afternoon everyone, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a freelance interaction designer. Today I’d like to talk about play in public space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiquitous computing in the city new forms of play will be made possible. The technologies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gibson writes in Burning Chrome:
“…the street finds its own uses for things”
For example: Skateboarding as we now know it — with its emphasis on aerial acrobatics — started in empty pools like this one. That was done without permission, of course…
Only later half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘vertical’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skateboarding is tolerated. Skateboarding would not be what it is today without those first few empty pools.2