Thursday, July 8, 2010

Vacation & Looking Back

I'm going off on vacation for about two and half weeks. Most likely there will be no updates until I'm back. Unless I feel some strange urge. Anyway, now's a good time to recap what's been going on since I started.

A lot of progress has been done in the reading department. 8 trade books on usability or game design related topics, and I'm now going through Rules of Play (Salen & Zimmerman) I've also been digging through any articles I was able to find about combining games and HCI. There were some, but not that many. So definitely there is still work to be done in this area.

In this blog, I've been outlining things about playful usability, and bits and pieces about interactive spaces as well. The ideas are at this point still all over the place and I haven't landed on an actual topic for my doctoral thesis. But I have time, and I think I should explore a bit of everything just to get a feel of things. I do have a much stronger idea now than I did three months ago, so clearly there's been some progress.

Experimental interfaces are raising their heads. After vacation, I'll try to find some time to work with prototypes using various kinds of controllers. I'm not going to unveil which ones at this point, but I'll be sure to make some noise here once I get to work. At the moment though, these are mostly something I have to do on my own time, and on my own computer at home which is a bit lacking. Probably I'll need to get a new one sooner than later.

At my actual job we're going to finish our prototype in August, and during Autumn there will be user tests and paper writing. And of course, there's the XNA programming course looming ahead, which I'm really looking forward to. If that experiment goes well, we can try and introduce other game related courses. And I do like teaching as well, although I don't have that much experience, yet.

So that's it for the recap. More posts will follow after vacation.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Emotionality of Fuzzy Things

As you might be able to guess from the title, I've also been reading Emotional Design (Don Norman). Like with the other book, this was my second read-through. What I realized while reading this time around, is that this particular book is perhaps the most essential one for my research. Indeed, most of the things I have been writing about can be derived from what Norman presents in these pages.

Playful usability definitely builds upon the emotional side of human thought. It doesn't even pretend to be functionally optimal. Highly functional interfaces are effective. They take the shortest route. Playful interfaces on the other hand are more creative. Or, using the travel metaphor, they take the scenic route. Or maybe the route that is just more entertaining to drive. Really straight, long roads are effective. They are also really boring to drive, which is why I usually don't pick them. So today, I'll take a look at playful interfaces, through the lenses of the three levels of human thought presented in the book.

I guess before that, a really quick recap of the said levels is in order. For a more complete description, read the book. The three levels of human thought are visceral, behavioral and reflective. The first two are sub-conscious while the last one is conscious thought. Visceral level is the most basic input-output system built into us. It excels at giving out immediate responses. The behavioral level is where activity is performed. It handles any activity that doesn't require conscious thought to perform. While I'm writing this, the movements of my hands on the keyboard are controlled by the behavioral level, leaving my consciousness free to think ahead what I'll write next. And of course, that is what I'm doing on the reflective level. Here I am making decisions how to express myself and my ideas through this text.

Playful interfaces are by nature likely to be more novel than highly functional ones. Sure, functional interfaces can be decorated, but the methods of interaction follow convention. Playful or fuzzy interfaces can surprise the user with more than just visual decorations. At this point, we are clearly working on the visceral level. And I think it's really important to be affective here. It's the wow-effect, "hey, I wanna try that", that should be achieved. Applications and services need to advertise themselves, especially in interactive spaces where high personalization is not affordable (i.e. same services are generally offered for everyone). Often one glimpse at the UI is all you're ever going to get from your potential users, so that glimpse better bring them over. This kind of appeal is especially important to make people aware of services they didn't think they'd need.

As stated, playful interfaces are not even trying to compete in raw functionality. The argument goes: effectiveness can be achieved through enjoyable use, even if the actions themselves are slower. People are not machines, we get bored with uninteresting tasks and our minds wander away. This should not be big news to anyone, hopefully. Take a look at games. Games rarely provide the most effective means to reach a high level goal, which does indeed make them enjoyable. So, in the behavioral level, the aim for playful usability is to make high level goals more enjoyable to work towards. The means towards this end is to make individual tasks not necessarily optimized for speed, but optimized for fun instead.

Of course, making work-related tasks fun while retaining their original purpose is a hard one to tackle. If it was easy, we would most likely have it already. It requires a lot of lateral thinking. Especially in the domain of desktop applications, user interfaces are inside that same old ugly box. I've said this before, but it's worth repeating: that box needs to be tucked away for good. Thinking outside that box is not enough. We must find a new box altogether and then think outside that box. Or, preferably, a lot of boxes solely for the purpose of thinking outside them. Or, well, you get the idea. Just to put things in context, I have picked up the box labeled "game interfaces" and I'm trying to think outside that box.

I'm actually a bit of an optimist in the sense that I firmly believe that for playful interfaces, visceral appeal might be achieved as a side product of good behavioral appeal. At least I'd like to think that most things that are fun to do, also look so. Sure, I can come up with counter examples. However, at least in the beginning novelty is the other factor. Interfaces that are fun to use will most likely look very different from what people are used to, leading into curiosity. There lies a risk though. Control by gestures or speech for example can feel weird to some people. Especially if they have to do it in public. Talking on the phone is easy to accept. Talking to the phone is not.

Finally, we have the reflective level. I'd consider this to be even more important than the other two, but also harder to write about. Certainly, a good user experience is already achieved with enjoyable execution of tasks. On the reflective level, we want users to look back at the experience with positive feelings. Also, we need the user to feel good while using the interface. If we jump back to games, it simply doesn't matter how good playability a game has if it doesn't match the style or theme of the game. Therefore, it is important that a playful interface contributes to the overall experience of performing a higher level goal. And of course, how using the interface sits with the user's self-image.

Taking emotions into the equation raises a whole lot of things to consider when designing playful interaction. User experience is not a simple matter. Even in pure entertainment applications such as games, no one can tell exactly what needs to be done to ensure that ultimate playing experience. Sure, reading a book or ten about game design helps. Reading books on related topics helps more. But in the end, it all comes down to understanding your audience. Even then, sometimes you just have to break the rules, shake people up and bewilder them completely.

Making an experimental interface is easy. Making a successful experimental interface is not. That's what keeps researches like myself ticking.