I thought I’d post a short summary of the argument I made in my Euro IA Summit 2007 talk, for those who weren’t there and/or are too lazy to actually go through the notes in the slides. The presentation is basically broken up into three parts:
Future web environments are becoming so complex, they start to show emergent properties. In this context a lot of traditional IA practice doesn’t make sense anymore. Instead of directly designing an information space, you’re better off designing the rules that underly the generative construction of such spaces.
IAs tend to argue for the value of their designs based solely on how well they support users in achieving their end goals. I propose supporting experience goals is just as important. From there I try to make the case that any powerful experience is a playful one, where the user’s fun follows from the feeling that he or she is learning new stuff, is kicking ass, is in flow.
Game design is not black magic (anymore). In recent years a lot has become understood about how games work. They are built up out of game mechanics that each follow a pattern of action, simulation, feedback and modelling. Designing playful IAs means taking care that you encourage discovery, support exploration and provide feedback on mastery.
After a considerable amount of fiddling with SlideShare I’ve finally managed to upload a version of the slides that go with my Playful IAs presentation. This more or less as I presented it at the Euro IA Summit 2007 and includes an approximate transcript of my talk. I hope to get an audio/video recording of most of it in the near future as well. When I do I’ll update this page.
I had some great reactions to this talk and I want to thank all the people who engaged with me in discussions afterwards. It’s given me a good picture of what areas I should develop further in future subsequent talks. I’m also pleasantly surprised to see that contrary to what some people think, the IA community (the European one at least) is very much open to new ideas. That’s really nice to experience firsthand.
A lot of people asked for a list of books and other good sources on the topics I covered. Here’s an incomplete list of stuff I’ve used at some stage to inform my thinking:
Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman — Possibly the best book on game design out there. Big and meaty — not at all what you would expect from a games-related book perhaps.
If that doesn’t keep you busy for a while, you could always have a dig through my del.icio.us links. There’s plenty of good stuff there. Of course of you ever find anything you think would be of interest to me, do let me know. Just tag it for:kaeru.
I didn’t announce it on this blog, but if you’re following me on Twitter or Jaiku, took a look at the Upcoming event page or share trips with me on Dopplr you’re probably aware that I attended dConstruct 2007 in Brighton.
By way of a short conference report I’d like to list some of the references to games and play that jumped out at me during the day. It might be that I’m slowly but surely going a little crazy or that have really discovered the secret order of the universe, but either way I was pleasantly surprised that most talks suggested that successful experience design benefits from an understanding of the dynamics of play. Here goes:
Game design is a second order design problem, meaning you cannot directly design the experience of play but only the ‘stuff’ that facilitates it. Jared Spool pointed out that successful experience design is invisible, it’s only when it’s done wrong that we notice it. This makes good experience design hard to sell, and I would say the same goes for great game design.
The practice of game design is very much a multidisciplinary one, with a lot of specialties on board. Similarly, there is no way you’ll be able to do good experience design when you use a relay-race-like proces. You need to have people from a lot of different backgrounds solving problems collaboratively (or a few people who can do a lot of different stuff really well.) Jared Spool briefly pointed this out, Leisa Reichelt gave a lot of good suggestions on how to facilitate this with washing-machine methodologies and Tom Coates finished his talk encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration too.
Because good experience design (like game design) is a second order design problem, and it can only be done multidisciplinary, you can only do it in an iterative and incremental way. Good games get play-tested to death to ensure they’re fun, good experiences (on the web or wherever) need the same treatment. Leisa Reichelt had some interesting ideas on how to actually pull this off: Introducing UX to Agile, by having design and development teams both working in the same rhythm, but handling different stuff in their own iterations, with a lot of hand-over and communication back and forth. Well worth trying out I think.
More thoughts on the invisible nature of experience was provided by Peter Merholz, who used a quote from Tim O’Reilly: “Designing from the outside in”. Start with the UI and then figure out the data and logic. I wouldn’t equate user experience with user interface (because — again — the experience cannot be directly designed) but I think it’s a good quote nonetheless. I liked Merholz’s emphasis on the importance of an experience vision most of all.
I was great to hear Denise Wilton and George Oates talk about B3ta and Flickr. A lot of people are probably aware of the gamey origins of Flickr but it was enlightening to finally see some of it on the big screen. It came as no surprise to hear that Ludicorp’s process in making Flickr was very much washing-machine style (although they did 0 user testing for a long time!)
Matt Webb was perhaps the speaker who most explicitly drew parallels between game design and experience design. (He mentioned Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, for instance.) He also pointed out that customisation is vital to any experience, that a product should be able to recombine with others in its ecosystem, as well as allow for personalisation. Both customisation and personalisation encourage play. Tom Coates later mentioned something very similar — that your product (which as he was eager to point out is more than just your website) should be re-combinable and extendable with and by others.
One of the major themes in interaction and game design for me is behaviour, the way products encourage behaviour in their users and the kinds of behaviours they have embedded in themselves. Matt Webb also mentioned that people love to tell stories about the experiences they’ve had. This is very true of gaming, which is all about verbs, actions, doing stuff. Game design is not storytelling, the storytelling happens after the game.
I had completely forgotten about Disco, the CD burning app with simulated smoke effects that serve no purpose besides play. So thanks to Matt Webb I now have an example to complement the Wii Help Cat! (Come to think of it, the discussions surrounding Stamen Design’s Twitter Blocks might be another good one.)
In conclusion, I think it’s great that Clearleft used this year’s edition to introduce the web development community to the wonderful world of experience design. I was also very happy to see a few people on stage I had not seen present before, but knew had a lot of good stuff to say. The pre- and after-party were both a lot of fun (thanks to Media Temple, Yahoo! Developer Network and the BBC for sponsoring those with free drink and food.) And if you’re curious, I understand there will be podcasts of all the sessions online soon, so keep an eye on the site.
I’ve been meaning to write about this for quite a while: I think a lot of social media are like toys. I think what we see with people (adults!) using them is a lot like the open-ended play we know from playground games in school. A lot of these games are about exploring (the possibilities of) social relationships in a ‘safe’ context. Social media offer this same potential. In playground games there is a natural understanding that what happens within the magic circle of the game is not really real (but the notion is blurred.) A lot of discussion about the virtuality of relationships in social media does not acknowledge the existence of such a thing: Either the relationship you have with someone is real (he’s a real friend, or even real family) or not, in which case the relationship is often seen as value-less. I’d argue that a lot of people use social media to explore the potential of a relationship in a more or less safe way, to later either transition it into realness or not (note that I do not mean it needs to be taken offline into meat-space to make it real!)
I think social media are so compelling to so many people for this reason. They allow them to play with the very stuff social relations are made of. I think this fascination is universal and virtually timeless. At the same time I think the notion of using social play as the stuff of entertainment has seen a tremendous rise over the past decade. (I tend to illustrate this point with the rise of reality TV.)
If you think of the design of social software as the design of a toy (in contrat to thinking of it as a game) you can design for open-ended play. Meaning there is no need for a quantifiable end-state where one person (or a number of people) are said to be the winner. You can however create multiple feedback mechanisms that communicate potential goals to be pursued to the player. Amy Jo Kim has a worthwhile presentation on the kind of game mechanics to use in such a case (and also in the more game-like case.)
Finally, two things to think about and design for:
Play in social media happens according to rules encoded in the software, but also very much following external rules that players agree upon amongst themselves.
You will have people gaming te game. Meaning, there will be players who are interested in creating new external rules for social interactions. Think of the alternative rules players enforce in games of street soccer, for instance.
“There are plenty of but-useless things in the world that serve as emotional bonding points, amusements, attractions, and macguffins. Practically all of social media falls under this category for me, a form of mediated play that requires a suspension of disbelief in rational purpose to succeed.”
I’ve just finished reading an excellent series of post by two video game journalists on the apparent revival of short-session games. (What’s not to love about an article that finishe by asserting that Desktop Tower Defense beats BioShock at its own mechanic?) It’ll be in tomorrow’s link post but here’s the link anyway. Being involved with a casual gaming project myself lately, I’ve spent a some time thinking about what the design challenges for this sub-genre are. In other words: what make short-session games hard to pull off? I think it breaks down to these things:
You need to get the player in flow as soon as possible. This means you can’t bother him with lengthy intros (or even menus). It also means the game’s mechanics should be as self-explanatory as possible. I’m reminded of the first time I started up Elite Beat Agents the other day and was given a super-short tutorial on how to play the game, then was dumped into the action right away (this is good).
No stories please. Short-session gaming forces you to design for play, not for narrative (as it should be, in my opinion). It’s about giving the player an engaging activity and interesting choices, nothing more.
Traditional distribution models make no sense for small games. Luckily, we now have network connectivity on virtually all gaming devices (not to mention PCs and mobile phones). The wait is for an open platform for game developers to experiment on while at the same time being able to make a buck. But even now, networked marketplaces on consoles have encouraged experimentation.
The visual layer does not have to be retro. Although most short-session game experiences remind us of the good old games from the beginning days of electronic gaming, there’s no reason why these games should look retro.
Throw some of that processing at the rules, not the visuals. Short-session, small and simple don’t necessarily mean crude. Don’t go all-out on my 4th point’s visuals without forgetting about all the cool complex behaviours you can create with today’s processors.
There’s much more to think and talk about, but I think these are the highlights. Particularly getting people into flow ASAP and coupling this with interesting distribution mechanisms is I think worth some more discussion.
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?
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:
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.
I’m still trying to get a grip on why I think games are such a good reference point for IAs and IxDs. I’ll try to take another stab at it in this post. Previously I wrote about how games might be a good way to ‘sell’ algorithmic architectures to your client. Even if you’re not actively pushing your clients to adopt ideas such as on-the-fly creation of site navigation, sooner or later I’m convinced you’ll find yourself confronted with a project where you’re not asked to develop a definitive information architecture. Instead you’ll be charged with the task to come up with mechanisms to generate these procedurally. When this is this case, you’re truly facing a second-order design problem. How can games help here?
One of the defining characteristics of games are their complexity. A few years ago Ben Cerveny gave a brilliant talk on play (MP3) at Reboot 7.0 and mentioned this specifically — that much of the pleasure derived from game-play is the result of the player coming to terms with complex patterns. This complexity is something different from pure randomness and most certainly different from a ‘mere’ state machine. In other words, games show emergence.
There are many examples of emergent systems. The Game of Life springs to mind. This system isn’t really a game but shows a remarkable richness in patterns, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it is based on a set of deceptively simple rules (which apparently took its creator, John Conway, over 2 years to perfect!) The thing is though, The Game of Life is not interactive.
A wonderful example of a complex emergent system that is interactive is the real game Go. It has a set of very simple rules, but playing it well takes a huge amount of practice. The joy of playing Go for me (an absolute beginner) is largely due to discovering the many different permutations play can go through.
So getting back to my earlier remark: If you’re convinced you’ll need to get a better handle on solving the second-order design problems presented by the design of complex emergent systems, games are an excellent place to start learning. They are emergent first and interactive second, the perfect twin to the web environments we’ll be shaping in the future.
I’ve been trying to regularly post some thoughts on the topic of playful IA here. Previously I blogged about how games could be a useful frame for thinking about complex algorithmic architectures. Last week I posted some thoughts on the application of game mechanics in web apps. There, Rahul was kind enough to point me to the fascinating blog of ‘Danc’ , titled Lost Garden, where there is one post in particular that resonates with my own pre-occupations lately.
In ‘Short thoughts on games and interaction design’ (which honestly isn’t that short) Danc looks at some of the ways game design techniques can be applied to the interaction design of web apps. In summary, according to Danc game design techniques allow you to:
Create an engaging experience that goes beyond simply completing a task efficiently.
Support free and deep exploration and introduce and teach new interactions that violate conventions.
Some things you shouldn’t borrow from games without giving it a lot of thought are:
These are some of the things most people think of first as characteristic of games but really, they are only surface, superficial, not determinant of the actual interactivity of the system.
I think one of the greatest arguments for a deeper understanding of games by interaction designers, information architects and other user experience specialists is that they are the medium that is all about the aesthetics of interactivity. It is true that they have no utilitarian character, they aim to create a pleasurable experience through systems of risks and rewards, restraints and freedoms, nested feedback loops and on and on. As a UX practitioner, it can never hurt to have a deep appreciation of the aesthetics of the medium you work in daily (beyond simply supporting user goals, or selling product, or whatever).
A while ago there was a discussion on the IAI members list about game mechanics on web sites. Andrew Hinton pointed to the Google Image Labeler and LinkedIn’s ‘profile completeness’ status bar and asked: “Can anyone else think of a use of a game mechanic like this to jump-start this kind of activity?” (Where “this kind of activity” is basically defined as something people wouldn’t normally do for its own sake, like say tagging images.)
I was thinking about this for a while the past week and seem to have ended up at the following:
On LinkedIn, having a (more or less complete) profile presumably serves some extrinsic goal. I mean, by doing so you maybe hope you’ll land a new job more easily. By slapping a status bar onto the profile that gives feedback on its completeness, the assumption is that this will stimulate you to fill it out. In other words, LinkedIn seems unsure about the presence of extrinsic motivations and is introducing an intrinsic one: getting a 100% ‘complete’ profile and as such making a game (in a very loose sense of the term) out of its professional network service. A good idea? I’m not sure…
On Google Image Labeler, the starting point for its design was to come up with a way to have people add meta-data to images. Google actually ‘bought’ the game (originally called The ESP Game) from CAPTCHA inventor Luis von Ahn, who before that did reCAPTCHA and after went on to create Peekaboom and Phetch. Anyway, in the case of the Image Labeler (contrary to LinkedIn) there was no real extrinsic goal to begin with so a game had to be created. Simply having fun is the only reason people have when labelling images.
Note that Flickr for instance has found other ways to get people to tag images. What happened there is (I think) a very nice way of aligning extrinsic goals with intrinsic (fun, game-like) ones.
‘Pure’ games by their very nature have only intrinsic goals, they are artificial and non-utilitarian. When you consider introducing game-like mechanics into your web site or application (which presumably serves some external purpose, like sharing photos) think carefully about the extrinsic motivations your users will have and come up with game-like intrinsic ones that reinforce these.