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.
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.
Or The Psychology of Everyday Things as it was then titled. [↩]
I still consider myself young, only slightly less cocky. [↩]
Today I sent in the slides of my Euro IA Summit presentation for the proceedings. The rough outline of my talk is done, the most important thing now is to find the proper examples to illustrate all the fuzzy theoretical thinking. That means (at least for me) doing a lot of Flickr photo searches. This time I’ll also be experimenting with using some short video-clips. Games are better seen in motion after all (and best experienced through play of course). Chronicling my thinking on the subject of playful IAs on this blog has been very helpful in organising my thoughts by the way, I’ll definitely try it again the next time I need to do a talk.
On mental models
One idea I managed to squeeze into the presentation in addition to the stuff I’ve been blogging about so far is about mental models. I think it was Ben Cerveny who mentioned in his Reboot 7.0 talk (MP3) that some of the pleasure of playing games is derived from the gradual mental model building a player goes through. The player uses the visual layer of a game to learn about the underlying structures. When a player masters a game, the visual layer more or less fades away and becomes a symbolic landscape through which he manipulates a far richer model of the game in his mind.
From a UX perspective because usually when designing web sites and apps we try to adhere to existing mental models as much as possible to prevent confusion and frustration. This is a very valid approach of course. However, regardless of how well done the UX design, there will always be some mental modelling on the user’s part. Best make this as engaging as possible I guess. This, again, is where games come in.
Will Wright acknowledges the fact that players build models of a game but he proposes to take it one step further. In an old(ish) talk at Accelerating Change 2004 he proposed the idea that a game can construct a model of the player as well. Parallels with online recommendation engines are apparent here. As Wright points out, in games (as in web environments) everything can be measured. This way, the experience can be tailored to a player/user. He’s applying this principle in the upcoming Spore, where game content (created by other players) is dynamically included based on inferred player preferences.
It can be argued that certain web professionals are way ahead of the games industry in this field. Perhaps there are some interesting opportunities for collaboration or career moves here?