Returning from SXSW I wanted to write something about my experience but to focus on what I learnt and have since had time to reflect on and formulate ‘loosely’ into some sort of ordered perspective that I can use to improve my creative practice and further my business.
SXSWi was immense but there were a few common themes underlying both the products demonstrated at the tradeshows and in the majority of the talks I attended. One strand which I picked up on, of particular relevance to me, was the effect that gaming has had on the design of web applications.
Web designers are looking to gaming for ways to motivate and retain users; XBOX Live style achievements are becoming a standard feature in modern web applications and while scoring mechanisms have been used before — most forums have reputation and scoring system — we can see that the design of these systems is now being given a lot more attention. There is however a danger here because not every game is a good game, in fact I can name more bad games than I can good, so there is a real need for good game designers — I like to believe I am part of this group — to play a more active role in the design of these systems. This also extends beyond web applications into real-life where gaming mechanics will begin to creep — I wonder how long it will be before I can unlock the ‘frugal shopper’ achievement on my Sainsbury’s nectar card.
Reflecting on the importance of play; in my own work I see a huge opportunity to really expand what it means to say we develop games. When asked what technology/platforms we develop for I always respond saying that we focus on the purpose of our projects not the platforms, which are decided on afterwards to best suit the purpose; I still stand by this but think my notion of platforms has been further disrupted. Some of the guys in our delegation work with what I guess you would class as non conventional mediums such as theatre, the street, or people; I took part in Duncan’s Subtle Mob and was enlightened by its ability to remove you from a space where you still were physically and particularly interesting was the use of other people playing a role but not in an obvious multi-player game sense but in a much more subtle way.
Like all good relationships, the exchange between gaming and the web is not one-way; there is a lot which gaming is also learning from the web and social media. Social games as an example have embraced many web design principles. One principle in particular is the reduction of barriers to entry and reduced friction. The social game experience starts in seconds and the user can dip in and out with relative ease, additionally the focus of the game mechanism is more about getting users to return frequently than it is about encouraging them to stay for prolonged periods of time.
A second principle social games have picked up is the release cycle, web applications are notorious for releasing products in often very incomplete Beta versions and building them with real users, this approach has been adopted by social games and makes developing one more like delivering a service than a product.
Perhaps the most interesting principle social games have adopted from social media and a key differentiator from where casual games have gone before is the distribution methods. Social games use invitations, gifts and recommendations as the user’s primary game discovery method, the Facebook App Store is not the way people find Facebook Apps, contrasted with Apple’s iPhone where the App Store plays a major part in an App’s success.
– On a slight tangent — There is some interesting overlap here into the area of social search, Google is fantastic for objective searches but as soon as the query becomes subjective it fails because the way we value a result is considerably different. With subjective queries we tend to focus more on intimacy as an evaluator than we do on authority — I will trust my brother’s game recommendations over those of a review site. What makes this interesting is how when then build people centered systems that understand and respect these relationships. Analysis of our networks as a collective can give us a great insight into trends, while our close friends are the perfect filtering system but neither are the best sources for factual information. I think these differences in our social relationships still have much scope for exploration and contribution to design.
– Back to the game — A lot of core game designers will say that the majority of social games are not games and will equally dismiss applications like foursquare, and in many ways the emphasis in these examples is not the game but rather the social interactions that the gameplay can facilitate. I believe that what we are seeing here is the death of the gamer. If we consider everything that uses gaming mechanics as a game, then who doesn’t play games? Who isn’t a gamer? I am of the opinion that moving forward gaming will be better compared to video than to film (to which it is often compared now). A video is just a medium used for a variety of purposes one of which is film and gaming is a medium used for a variety of purposes one of which is core gaming.
One speaker summed up the difference in gaming and user experience design well, saying that good UX design seeks to create a frictionless experience, whereas game mechanics are all about creating motivated experiences. These points were echoed in some of the psychology talks and the way in which neuroscience is allowing us to better understand users. So I wanted to finish up with a short list of pointers that are worth us considering when designing our next experiences. I’d like to add a caveat here; there are ethical questions we need to ask ourselves: At what point does our great design become manipulation? And as our content gains the ability to better relate with our users, how do we make sure we have their permission to get close?
- We are curious, we like surprises and novelty. Useful to consider when designing captivating first points of contact for a new user but these are very short-term effects so we need to consider how to retain users once they wear off.
- We are afraid of change, we like control and reassurance. Danah Boyd made a point saying that privacy is equivalent to control and making something public does not mean wanting it to be publicised. Also seeing others do something makes us more comfortable and increases the chances that we will participate – using the number of ratings an eBay seller has to judge risk is a good example of this. We need to consider how we manage and reassure our users of their control and minimise the risk of change/disruption to their life that we might cause.
- We don’t like to miss opportunity. Limited editions, invitation only, time restricted, there are numerous ways we can temporarily increase the perceived value of our offering but as with the first pointer these effects are temporary.
- We like rewards and recognition. This is very obvious but worth considering is who we value this recognition from, this changes for different people, in different situations and at different points in our life.
- We are lazy and we get bored easily. We need to design content which is easy for the user but adversely the easier it is for a user to get to the content the lower their commitment and the easier it is for them to leave it – the cost of a cinema ticket affects how often I will go to a cinema but also how likely I am to walk out of a bad film. We need to consider how we get users to make a commitment to our content and build relationships which increase in value over time.
- Design for the brain as well as the user. Our brains don’t like edges, they try to find patterns, they dislike counting more than 3-5 items, they can only remember on average 7 items and they are better at recognising what we know than they are at recalling it from memory.
And a few pointers possibly specific to young people:
- They live for the moment. Content and experiences are throwaway; they pick up, learn, use, get bored and move on to the next.
- They are results driven. They want to achieve something and use only the parts of the tools they need to achieve it. They will use mentors as a means of quickly getting to the desired result and will seek honest feedback on the result.
- They like to co-design and remix. Tying in with the points above they do not see the need to start from scratch and will use what they can to quickly get to the desired result.
All of these pointers are open to dispute they are only intended to serve as catalyst for designing good experiences.
…One more thought
There was another point from the conference which struck a chord with me but I have not yet processed it to the point of knowing what to do with it; so I wanted to mention it and maybe in a few months time I will be able to make a more informed observation.
The phrase ‘Intellectual Waste’ was used in a talk by Jeffrey kalmikoff & Scott Belsky, in relation to the crowd sourcing of ideas; design competitions where budding designers compete to design a logo or in our case the calls for proposals which we often complete as a digital agency. At the end of these idea sourcing activities there are maybe 10s, 100s, 1000s or more ideas which will go completely unused. Flicking through the ideas folder in the office I can see numerous projects which never came to fruition and instead gathered dust in the c:\graveyard. I not sure what the remedy is to this, I am a big fan of the crowd sourcing and even though learning is in itself a result perhaps we still need to consider better ways of recycling this intellectual waste.
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