John Boyd for designers

The first time I came across mil­i­tary strate­gist John Boyd’s ideas was prob­a­bly through Venkatesh Rao’s writ­ing. For exam­ple, I remem­ber enjoy­ing Be Some­body or Do Some­thing.

Boyd was clear­ly a con­trar­i­an per­son. I tend to have a soft spot for such fig­ures so I read a high­ly enter­tain­ing biog­ra­phy by Roger Coram. Get­ting more inter­est­ed in his the­o­ries I then read an appli­ca­tion of Boyd’s ideas to busi­ness by Chet Richards. Still not sat­is­fied, I decid­ed to final­ly buck­le down and read the com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of his mar­tial and sci­en­tif­ic influ­ences plus tran­scripts of all his brief­in­gs by Frans Osin­ga.

It’s been a huge­ly enjoy­able and reward­ing intel­lec­tu­al trip. I feel like Boyd has giv­en me some pret­ty sharp new tools-to-think-with. From his back­ground you might think these tools are lim­it­ed to war­fare. But in fact they can be applied much more broad­ly, to any field in which we need to make deci­sions under uncer­tain cir­cum­stances.

As we go about our dai­ly lives we are actu­al­ly always deal­ing with this dynam­ic. But the stakes are usu­al­ly low, so we most­ly don’t real­ly care about hav­ing a thor­ough under­stand­ing of how to do what we want to do. In war­fare the stakes are obvi­ous­ly unusu­al­ly high, so it makes sense for some of the most artic­u­late think­ing on the sub­ject to emerge from it.

As a design­er I have always been inter­est­ed in how my pro­fes­sion makes deci­sions. Design­ers usu­al­ly deal with high lev­els of uncer­tain­ty too. Although lives are rarely at stake, the con­tin­ued via­bil­i­ty of busi­ness­es and qual­i­ty of peo­ples lives usu­al­ly are, at least in some way. Fur­ther­more, there is always a leap of faith involved with any design deci­sion. When we sug­gest a path for­ward with our sketch­es and pro­to­types, and we choose to pro­ceed to devel­op­ment, we can nev­er be entire­ly sure if our intend­ed out­comes will pan out as we had hoped.

This uncer­tain­ty has always been present in any design act, but an argu­ment could be made that tech­nol­o­gy has increased the amount of uncer­tain­ty in our world.

The way I see it, the meth­ods of user cen­tred design, inter­ac­tion design, user expe­ri­ence, etc are all attempts to “deal with” uncer­tain­ty in var­i­ous ways. The same can be said for the tech­niques of agile soft­ware devel­op­ment.

These meth­ods can be divid­ed into rough­ly two cat­e­gories, which more or less cor­re­spond to the upper two quad­rants of this two-by-two by Venkatesh. Bor­row­ing the diagram’s labels, one is called Spore. It is risk-averse and focus­es on sus­tain­abil­i­ty. The oth­er is called Hydra and it is risk-savvy and about anti-fragili­ty. Spore tries to lim­it the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of unex­pect­ed events, and Hydra tries to max­imise their pos­i­tive con­se­quences.

An exam­ple of a Spore-like design move would be to insist on thor­ough user research at the start of a project. We expend sig­nif­i­cant resources to dimin­ish the amount of unknowns about our tar­get audi­ence. An exam­ple of a Hydra-like design move is the kind of playtest­ing employed by many game design­ers. We leave open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sur­pris­ing acts from our tar­get audi­ence and hope to sub­se­quent­ly use those as the basis for new design direc­tions.

It is inter­est­ing to note that these upper two quad­rants are strate­gies for deal­ing with uncer­tain­ty based on syn­the­sis. The oth­er two rely on analy­sis. We typ­i­cal­ly asso­ciate syn­the­sis with cre­ativ­i­ty and by exten­sion with design. But as Boyd fre­quent­ly points out, inven­tion requires both analy­sis and syn­the­sis, which he liked to call destruc­tion and cre­ation. When I reflect on my own way of work­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the ear­ly stages of a project, the so-called fuzzy front end, I too rely on a cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation to make progress.

I do not see one of the two approach­es, Spore or Hydra, as inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or. But my per­son­al pref­er­ence is most def­i­nite­ly the Hydra approach. I think this is because a risk-savvy stance is most help­ful when try­ing to invent new things, and when try­ing to design for play and play­ful­ness.

The main thing I learned from Boyd for my own design prac­tice is to be aware of uncer­tain­ty in the first place, and to know how to deal with it in an agile way. You might not be will­ing to do all the read­ing I did, but I would rec­om­mend to at least peruse the one long-form essay Boyd wrote, titled Destruc­tion and Cre­ation (PDF), about how to be cre­ative and deci­sive in the face of uncer­tain­ty.

Mirroring mental models — games modelling players

Will Wright demoing Spore at TED 2007

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?