Sketching the experience of toys

A frame from the Sketch-A-Move video

Play is the high­est form of research.”

—Albert Ein­stein1

That’s what I always say when I’m play­ing games, too.

I real­ly liked Bill Bux­ton’s book Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences. I like it because Bux­ton defends design as a legit­i­mate pro­fes­sion sep­a­rate from oth­er disciplines—such as engineering—while at the same time show­ing that design­ers (no mat­ter how bril­liant) can only suc­ceed in the right ecosys­tem. I also like the fact that he iden­ti­fies sketch­ing (in its many forms) as a defin­ing activ­i­ty of the design pro­fes­sion. The many exam­ples he shows are very inspir­ing.

One in par­tic­u­lar stood out for me, which is the project Sketch-A-Move by Anab Jain and Louise Klink­er done in 2004 at the RCA in Lon­don. The image above is tak­en from the video they cre­at­ed to illus­trate their con­cept. It’s about cars auto-mag­i­cal­ly dri­ving along tra­jec­to­ries that you draw on their roof. You can watch the video over at the book’s com­pan­ion web­site. It’s a very good exam­ple of visu­al­iz­ing an inter­ac­tive prod­uct in a very com­pelling way with­out actu­al­ly build­ing it. This was all faked, if you want to find out how, buy the book.2

The great thing about the video is not only does it illus­trate how the con­cept works, it also gives you a sense of what the expe­ri­ence of using it would be like. As Bux­ton writes:3

You see, toys are not about toys. Toys are about play and the expe­ri­ence of fun that they help fos­ter. And that is what this video real­ly shows. That, and the pow­er of video to go beyond sim­ply doc­u­ment­ing a con­cept to com­mu­ni­cat­ing some­thing about expe­ri­ence in a very vis­cer­al way.”

Not only does it com­mu­ni­cate the fun you would have play­ing with it, I think this way of sketch­ing actu­al­ly helped the design­ers get a sense them­selves of wether what they had come up with was fun. You can tell they are actu­al­ly play­ing, being sur­prised by unex­pect­ed out­comes, etc.

The role of play in design is dis­cussed by Bux­ton as well, although he admits he need­ed to be prompt­ed by a friend of his: Alex Manu, a teacher at OCAD in Toron­to writes in an email to Bux­ton:4

With­out play imag­i­na­tion dies.”

Chal­lenges to imag­i­na­tion are the keys to cre­ativ­i­ty. The skill of retriev­ing imag­i­na­tion resides in the mas­tery of play. The ecol­o­gy of play is the ecol­o­gy of the pos­si­ble. Pos­si­bil­i­ty incu­bates cre­ativ­i­ty.”

Which Bux­ton rephras­es in one of his own per­son­al mantras:5

These things are far too impor­tant to take seri­ous­ly.”

All of which has made me real­ize that if I’m not hav­ing some sort of fun while design­ing, I’m doing some­thing wrong. It might be worth con­sid­er­ing switch­ing from one sketch­ing tech­nique to anoth­er. It might help me get a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the prob­lem, and yield new pos­si­ble solu­tions. Buxton’s book is a trea­sure trove of sketch­ing tech­niques. There is no excuse for being bored while design­ing any­more.

  1. Sketch­ing User Expe­ri­ences p.349 []
  2. No, I’m not get­ting a com­mis­sion to say that. []
  3. Ibid. 1, at 325 []
  4. Ibid., at 263 []
  5. Ibid. []

Spectra of learnability

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.

Figure 1: A door’s spectrum of learnability

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.

Figure 2: A toy’s spectrum of learnability

  1. Or The Psy­chol­o­gy of Every­day Things as it was then titled. []
  2. I still con­sid­er myself young, only slight­ly less cocky. []

The toy-like nature of social media

A Barbie doll

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 con­trast 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Update: Just thought this small quote of Michal Migurs­ki defend­ing the recent Twit­ter Blocks nice­ly com­ple­ments my argu­ment:

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.”

Surprises in Animal Crossing: Wild World

20070112T155404

So I’ve been play­ing AC: WW for over a weeks now and I must say it has lived up to my expec­ta­tions. It’s a cute and quirky game that does not fol­low con­ven­tion­al game design rules. There is no way to die, no (real) way to loose or even win. In a sense it’s more like a toy than a game; you can play with it end­less­ly, there is no goal to reach (apart from dis­cov­er­ing all it’s lit­tle secrets).

Cockroaches

One of those secrets was par­tic­u­lar­ly fun to dis­cov­er. After a few days of play I con­vinced my girl­friend to give it a try. So she put the car­tridge in her pink DS Lite. While I was cook­ing din­ner, she went through the begin­ning stages (dri­ving to the town in a taxi, get­ting a job with Tom Nook). A bit lat­er, I picked it up again and went about my busi­ness (I think it was fish­ing, I still have a large loan to pay off after the first house expan­sion).

After a while I went back into the house and found (shock! hor­ror!) a bunch of cock­roach­es run­ning around my care­ful­ly kempt inte­ri­or. “We have cock­roach­es!” I shout­ed to my girl­friend while run­ning around the house try­ing to squash them. The appar­ent source was some apples lying around. “Didn’t the ani­mals tell you don’t leave stuff lying around the house?” I asked her. They had, but where should she put them (the apples) oth­er­wise? Good point.

We had a good laugh after that episode. Be care­ful who you play this game with; it might be a chal­lenge liv­ing togeth­er in the real world – Ani­mal Cross­ing is no dif­fer­ent! But the real genius of the game is in these things. It’s a rules based world for sure (leave apples around the house, get cock­roach­es) but the mini-nar­ra­tives that it allows you to build in this way is crazy.

Letters

Anoth­er exam­ple is the let­ters I find myself writ­ing to the ani­mals. I’m sure they’d be hap­py with any kind of let­ter, as long as I men­tion some spe­cif­ic words maybe (like ‘hap­py’ and ‘friend’). In stead, I’m writ­ing ful­ly formed sen­tences, and include lit­tle details that would be appre­ci­at­ed by real peo­ple. In that way, it’s allow­ing for sub­tle role-play­ing.

Charity

On the sub­ject of role-play­ing (and there not being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to play the game); I know I should be hard at work pay­ing off the afore­men­tioned loan (to progress to the next ‘lev­el’). But in stead I find myself spend­ing a lot of time and mon­ey on present for the ani­mals, and dona­tions to the muse­um. That might be role-play­ing (or that might be my real per­son­al­i­ty influ­enc­ing what I find plea­sur­able in the game) but the coolest bit is that it doesn’t mat­ter; any way of play­ing is valid.

Have any oth­er peo­ple had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences with the game? Are there ways to apply this log­ic (the pat­terns inher­ent in the game) to oth­er domains?

Some closing links: