Second order design and play in A Pattern Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The experience of playful IAs

Solving a Rubik's Cube

It’s time for a short update on my think­ing about Play­ful IAs (the top­ic of my Euro IA Sum­mit talk). One of the under-served aspects so far is the actu­al user expe­ri­ence of an archi­tec­ture that is play­ful.

Bri­an Sut­ton-Smith describes a mod­el describ­ing the ways in which games are expe­ri­enced in his book Toys as Cul­ture. I first came across this book in (not sur­pris­ing­ly) Rules of Play. He lists five aspects:

  1. Visu­al scan­ning
  2. Audi­to­ry dis­crim­i­na­tion
  3. Motor respons­es
  4. Con­cen­tra­tion
  5. Per­cep­tu­al pat­terns of learn­ing

Of most impor­tance to my sub­ject is the 5th one.

Game design, like the design of emer­gent IAs is a 2nd order design prob­lem. You can only shape the user’s expe­ri­ence indi­rect­ly. One of the most impor­tant sources of plea­sure for the user is the way you offer feed­back on the ways he or she has explored and dis­cov­ered the infor­ma­tion space.

Obvi­ous­ly, I’m not say­ing you should make the use of your ser­vice delib­er­ate­ly hard. How­ev­er, what I am say­ing is that if you’re inter­est­ed in offer­ing a play­ful expe­ri­ence on the lev­el of IA, then Sutton-Smith’s per­cep­tu­al pat­terns of learn­ing is the best suit­ed expe­ri­en­tial dimen­sion.

Thinking about IxD patterns

Hav­ing just post­ed about a new pat­tern library; my mind has been occu­pied a bit by the role of pat­terns in design. I’ve noticed that for a lot of IxD prob­lems, I tend to first try to tack­le the issue myself. Then, I usu­al­ly refer to some exam­ples and / or pat­terns, to see if I’ve missed any obvi­ous caveats. After that, I usu­al­ly fine-tune the solu­tion. What I like about pat­terns is that they give a clear out­line of the most com­mon way of han­dling a giv­en prob­lem. I do think that they’ll nev­er be a replace­ment for some gen­uine inspired design – stuff that no one has come up with before. I doubt we’ll ever see the day when inter­ac­tion design­ers will be replaced by a huge pat­tern library…

Yahoo! opens up some more

Some great new resources are now avail­able, cour­tesy of everyone’s favorite web 2.0 com­pa­ny: Yahoo!

The Design Pat­tern Library con­tains a whole bunch of pat­ters for user inter­face design­ers to use and abuse. Mar­ti­jn van Welie final­ly has some com­pe­ti­tion.

Of more inter­est to devel­op­ers is the UI Library, con­tain­ing “a set of util­i­ties and con­trols, writ­ten in JavaScript, for build­ing rich­ly inter­ac­tive web appli­ca­tions”. These code exam­ples are fre­quent­ly linked to from the pat­tern library.

I must say, these look like some excel­lent addi­tions to the cur­rent body of knowl­edge avail­able to design­ers and devel­op­ers. Thanks a bunch Yahoo!

How­ev­er, my para­noid mind can’t help but think: what’s the catch?

Via Jere­my Zawod­ny.