Design without touching the surface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are games media or design objects?

In a recent post on the Edge blog — which, if you con­sid­er your­self a games design­er, you absolute­ly must read — Matt Jones asks:

Why should pock­et cal­cu­la­tors be put on a pedestal, and not Peg­gle?”

He writes about the need for games to be appre­ci­at­ed and cri­tiqued as design objects. He points out that the cre­ation of any suc­cess­ful game is “at least as com­plex and coor­di­nat­ed as that of a Jonathan Ive lap­top”. He also spec­u­lates that rea­sons for games to be ignored is that they might be seen pri­mar­i­ly as media, and that main­stream design crit­ics lack lit­er­a­cy in games, which makes them blind to their design qual­i­ties.

Read­ing this, I recalled a dis­cus­sion I had with Dave Mal­ouf on Twit­ter a while back. It was sparked by a tweet from Matt, which reads:

it’s the 3rd year in a row they’ve ignored my sub­mis­sion of a game… hmmph (L4D, fwiw) — should games be seen as design objects? or media?”

I prompt­ly replied:

@moleitau design objects, for sure. I’m with mr Lantz on the games aren’t media thing.”

For an idea of what I mean by “being with Mr. Lantz”, you could do worse that to read this inter­view with him at the Tale of Tales blog.

At this point, Dave Mal­ouf joined the fray, post­ing:

@kaeru can a game be used to con­vey a mes­sage? We know the answer is yes, so doesn’t that make it a form of media? @moleitau”

I could not resist answer­ing that one, so I post­ed a series of four tweets:

@daveixd let me clar­i­fy: 1. some games are bits of con­tent that I con­sume, but not all are

@daveixd 2. ulti­mate­ly it is the play­er who cre­ates mean­ing, game design­ers cre­ate con­texts with­in which mean­ing emerges.

@daveixd 3. think­ing of games as media cre­ates a blind spot for all forms of pre-videogames era play”

@daveixd that’s about it real­ly, 3 rea­sons why I think of games more as tools than media. Some more thoughts: @moleitau”

To which Dave replied:

@kaeru re: #2 all mean­ing regard­less of medi­um or media are derived at the human lev­el.”

@kaeru maybe this is seman­tics, but any chan­nel that has an ele­ment of com­mu­ni­cat­ing a mes­sage, IMHO is media. Tag & tic-tac-toe also.”

@kaeru wait, are you equat­ing games to play to fun? But I’m lim­it­ing myself to games. I.e. role play­ing is play, but not always a game.”

At this point, I got frus­trat­ed by Twitter’s lack of sup­port for a dis­cus­sion of this kind. So I wrote:

@daveixd Twit­ter is not the best place for this kind of dis­cus­sion. I’ll try to get back to your points via my blog as soon as I can.”

And here we are. I’ll wrap up by address­ing each of Dave’s points.

  1. Although I guess Dave’s right about all mean­ing being derived at the human lev­el, what I think makes games dif­fer­ent from, say, a book or a film is that the thing itself is a con­text with­in which this mean­ing mak­ing takes place. It is, in a sense, a tool for mak­ing mean­ing.
  2. Games can car­ry a mes­sage, and some­times are con­scious­ly employed to do so. One inter­est­ing thing about this is on what lev­el the mes­sage is car­ried — is it told through bits of lin­ear media embed­ded in the game, or does it emerge from a player’s inter­ac­tion with the game’s rules? How­ev­er, I don’t think all games are made to con­vey a mes­sage, nor are they all played to receive one. Tic-Tac-Toe may be a very rough sim­u­la­tion of ter­ri­to­r­i­al war­fare, and you could argue that it tells us some­thing about the futil­i­ty of such pur­suits, but I don’t think it was cre­at­ed for this rea­son, nor is it com­mon­ly played to explore these themes.
  3. I wasn’t equat­ing games to play (those two con­cepts have a tricky rela­tion­ship, one can con­tain the oth­er, and vice-ver­sa) but I do feel that think­ing of games as media is a prod­uct of the recent video game era. By think­ing of games as media, we risk for­get­ting about what came before video games, and what we can learn from these toys and games, which are some­times noth­ing more than a set of social­ly nego­ti­at­ed rules and impro­vised attrib­ut­es (Kick the can, any­one?)

I think I’ll leave it at that.

Notes on play, exploration, challenge and learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

(Design­ing for Inter­ac­tion, page 162.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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