Playful design

Paul Boag

While at Web Direction @Media I caught up with Aral Balkan and Christian Crumlish to discuss playful design and whether it is appropriate to add elements of playfulness and humour to any website.

Boagworld Big Breakfast

Image Source: Davo39

Paul: Actually you’ve got to clap again because we’ve got two guests coming up.

Relly: Yay!

Paul: We’ve got Aral Balkan, come on up Aral.

Marcus: Come on down!

Paul: Come on down. You have to walk along way….oh

Marcus: There are steps.

Relly: He’s got the legs

Paul: Oh wow look that, look at that leap to the stage!

Relly: Wow look at that. That’s enthusiam!

Aral: Where shall I sit?

Paul: You can sit there that’s fine. And we’ve also got Christian Crumlish, come up as well. Come and join us.

Christian: It’s bright here.

Paul: Just relax, relax.

Relly: Tonight’s winner..

Paul: You don’t need to get right on the mic.

Christian: No?

Relly: Do you feel a little like Parkinson now?

Christian: Aaaaaaah

Paul: No. Just relax, relax back and it’s all good.

Marcus: Yeah, just point it slightly towards you.

Relly: Yeah, slightly towards you and it’s good.

Marcus: Ok that’s it, there we go.

Christian: There we go.

Paul: So, we’ve got…So, Aral, later today you’re giving a talk, which is ‘The Art of Emotional Design’.

Aral: Yes.

Paul: Which is a superb talk and I enjoyed very much the last time I heard it. Is it completely re-written for today’s new audience or are you re-using your entire…..

Aral: Entirely within the last two weeks.

Paul: Yeah, yeah I believe you.

Aral: Err, no.

Paul: (laughs). And Christian you’re talking about ‘Designing for Play’.

Christian: I already have done.

Relly: Yeah, that was yesterday.

Paul: Oh was that yesterday?

Christian: Yep you missed it.

Paul: Oh no! I can’t believe that, I thought it was today. I’m gutted now.

Relly: How did it go?

Paul: Did it go well?

Christian: You have to ask…everybody else.

Paul: Did it go well? Was it good?

Relly: How did it go?

Christian: It went well for me.

Paul: Oh thumbs up.

Relly: Yay, thumbs up.

Paul: Whoo, well that’s good. Right. So what I thought we’d do in a few minutes is talk about his idea, cos both of you’re talks are meshed together, you know. They’re not the same talk but they overlap between them. And this idea of ‘Emotional Design’ and ‘Playful Design’ is something that seems to be really reoccurring a lot recently. A couple of weeks ago we had an interview with Steven Anderson on the show, we talked about emotional design. Last week it seemed to come up, there were three articles in one week about emotional design and then we come here again and it’s all about emotional design, playful design, all of that kind of stuff. So, I’m interested in why both of you have chosen that subject. Why that has become your passion. So, let’s start with you Christian. Why ‘Playful Design’?

Christian: Well the umm…I guess the idea grew out of the work I was doing my broadly in the area of social web design. I was curating the Yahoo website design pattern library and we spent some time focusing on the idea of social design patterns to try and generalise the things there were showing up over and over again at many sites, and kind of cataloging them, so that other people can kind of learn from, you know, past experience. And as I got more and more into that I realised that designing for social interaction is quite different from sort of classic UI design. Where if you think about when you say UI, that’s User Interface, it sort of implies a single person operating, kind of a device that gives them their own personal information back. You know they open up their files or they check their mail or they look at their checking…cheque book account or that sort of thing. And that social interaction inherently implies a multiplicity of people. Using the tools, not so much so talk to the computer but to each other through the technology. The technology at best kind of gets out of the way, in fact, which fosters that communication. So when you’re designing…umm……now I would never say that UI design is easy, cos there’s so many ways to do it poorly, and there’s many skills involved in doing it well and yet it’s a fairly well constrained and controlled environment, often, you can say there’s branching choices down the paths that you make but ultimately many users are going to have essentially the same experience. Whereas when you design for a social experience you have to give up much more control, you have to grant that the users…..collaboratively are going to create their own experience. And at best you’ve kind of set up the boundaries, open up a space for them, give them some guidance, you know some helpful things but at some point it’s like inviting people over for a party. You know the party lives and dies by the guests, you know, not by the h’orderves or something like that. So that thinking led to this metaphor of play and ways that we can borrow from the real world and that how you can foster that kind of social interaction. You know, like how it’s been done in the past throughout civilisation and I found the concept of play useful because it cuts across everything from sort of unstructured, child’s play, you know, playground play, what makes things fun to gain play and I think actually the idea of borrowing from game design is not fresh, I mean a lot of people have been talking about that but I wanted to be sort of systematic and say “Well what distinguishes a game from just loose play?” Games have rules, games have goals, games have some of dynamics and how can you borrow those ideas to bring it in to fostering social experiences.

Then I also wanted to take it further into the playing of music and how are instruments designed to be on one level challenging and hard to learn but on the other hand to help you play, to support what you’re doing and to make your mistakes sound good and things like that.

Paul: Hmm, yeah I can see that. And what about your Aral? I mean you started….it’s been a little while now that you’ve been talking about this idea emotional design. Where did you passion for that come from?

Aral: Well, I think mostly from being disenchanted with the experiences that I’ve had with, you know, certain…..whether it’s websites or applications or….I mean I get frustrated very easily when I’m using things. If you think about the amount of your day that you spend interacting with, basically non-human experiences. Whether it’s a vending machine or whether it’s your cellphone. It’s increasing taking up a larger amount of our days. So, if we’re having bad user experiences, it’s not……I mean user, in fact, is almost redundant, you know user experience….it’s affecting our experiences, our life experiences, so I think as someone who creates applications and creates experiences I was very aware of that. And these things frustrate me so I don’t want to create the same frustrating experiences, I want to create the kind experiences that are fun and that kind of lift up your day, that give you a little boost. You know cos seriously what we’re talking about is that stuff that we’re creating affects the welfare of people, you know, we’ve got to move on beyond user experience and thinking about his as experienced design. We’re actually designing experiences that affect how happy people are on a daily basis and I think that’s where we need to move beyond just thinking about usability, which is a base that we need to reach. We need to reach that and until we’ve reached usability, until an app is usable we can’t talk about anything else. But once we’ve reached that I think it’s now time to talk about how we can build things that are delightful, pleasurable and fun, that improve peoples’ days, that improve their lives. That’s why I’m passionate about this.

Paul: Yeah, you really are, I can tell. (laughs)

Aral: At 7am in the morning.

Marcus: If you didn’t have any bad experiences though, there would be nothing to tweet about.

Paul: No. I mean that’s 90 percent of Twitter isn’t it, is moaning about…..

Aral: And moaning is good if you’re not……But if you’re not frustrated at things, if you don’t have issues with things then you won’t change them, you won’t… know, and I mean I think designers are unhappy with certain things and want to improve them and change them. Or else why would you, you’d be happy with the status quo and you’ll be like things are okay. And I think some of the best designers are some of the angriest people I know. If that makes sense.

Relly: My husband would desperately come under that.

Christian: (laughs). He’s not an angry man.

Relly: He is when you present him with a bad user experience.

Christian: Exactly but you’ve got to use that and kind of go okay now how can I make this better.

Paul: You know I don’t like to boast but I would say that I think Headscape has produced the most emotional powerful design ever. Marcus do you wanna share….

Marcus: What?!

Paul: No, no, you were the one that discovered it. Do you wanna share your experience about testing for a certain pet charity website? Where you got the best emotion response ever from someone?

Marcus: Well we didn’t…….the very first test was for design testing. She didn’t make it through the test, the whole of the assessment.

Paul: She didn’t make through ten minutes.

Marcus: It wasn’t even that, no, she left in floods of tears.

Paul: So we made someone cry with our design. That’s how good we are.

Aral: What did you do?

Relly: They drew a picture of a flogged puppy I think.

Paul: So basically this was for a pet charity website and the first woman that came in for the design test session…

Christian: Do pets give a lot of money to charity?

Paul: Yes, apparently yeah. …..So we brought the design up on the screen and this woman took one look at it, burst into tears. And it was because the dog on the screen reminded her of her dead pet. So she cried. And that was it.

Marcus: She could not get past it. She tried. And I thought “Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of the day?” It was for the rest of them, it was kind of a good day but I was very concerned.

Aral: For the record that’s not what I talk about emotional design. It’s not how to make users cry.

Marcus: I want to go back to what Christian said about…..cos I’m a musician….about comparing design to musical instruments. Is that what you’re saying there……cos obviously to master a musical instrument takes a lot of time but it’s an incredible pleasurable thing once you’ve mastered it. Are you saying that good design, or potentially good design in certain circumstances is something you need to learn? And that it will be more enjoyable because of it?

Christian: No. It’s a good question and I think I need to be clear about sort of what level I’m applying the metaphor to. What I’m saying is that………also what I’m talking about is the concept of generative interfaces in which users then co-create something. So, often instead of giving people a finished, completed….what you’re giving them is tools that they then can use to express themselves, you know. And, so I’d say I sort of think of it of a spectrum, where the loose, unstructured, easy play is the simplest thing to enter into but maybe something that ultimately doesn’t allow you to fully express yourself. And then the game like structures give people more facility, more structure, more of a context in which to interact with each other and have experiences and then giving people sort of instruments. So the instrument metaphor is for the user more than for the designer. Then there’s the spectrum of are you giving them a toy piano, a ukelele, a very easy to learn, easy to start with instrument that maybe eventually is going to top out not allow them to play Bach or something like that. Or you giving them a harpsichord, or you giving them an electric-guitar with a rig or something like that. And maybe you can give them a scale of tools so that your super users can be, you know, really rocking out, inventing things you never thought of inside the context that you’re building. I’m still toying with this metaphor, wherein I’ve gotten some push back for exactly the reason that instruments……musical instruments are sort of famously ‘hard to learn’. You know there’s that idea that it’s a big hurdle to get over and it’s discouraging for a lot of people, especially if they don’t start as a child. It was partly my own experience playing the ukelele and learning that 1) some instruments are easier than others, so you can sort of give others an ‘on ramp’, a simpler thing to do, that delights them and draws them in further and further and also more generally as I was kind of making friends with my first ukelele, one thing I realised was that the instrument isn’t fighting you all the time. The instrument has been designed, over millennia sometimes, to actually fit a human hand, to tend to sound good if you just stay reasonably within certain boundaries. You know it’s tombed so that accidentals come in sometimes and help you out. And that’s actually one of my key points is to make it so that when a user makes a mistake, it might sometimes have a beneficial effect rather than giving them an error and throwing them out.

Marcus: That’s something that I’ve never thought of before. I really like that analogy. It’s why guitarist complain about playing stuff in E-flat and stuff like that cos your accidentals never work.

Christian: Exactly, and the horn players don’t want everything to be in G or E minor and things like that.

Paul: I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. This is all beyond my head.

Aral do you think that there are times where this is all in danger of becoming gimmicky? Do you know what I mean? That….you know….

Aral: With the show?

Paul: (laughs)

Relly: Oh that happened a long time ago.

Paul: That was ages ago.

Marcus: I was going to say, the whole premise is….

Relly: …..a rolling gimmick.

Paul: You know with the idea of playfulness and emotional design and all this kind of thing. You know I look at some of the great examples and the one that springs to mind is Mail chimp, right? Everyone goes on about Mail chimp being emotional design, things about it that make your smile.

Aral: And Aaron’s amazing.

Relly: That’s true, he is.

Paul: Yes, and absolutely, it’s great but you know……and they should the example of when they pull out the browser window and eventually the monkey’s arm snaps off, which is just so cool. But it’s equally…’s borderline gimmicky as well. Do you think there’s a danger of that?

Aral: Yeah, of course there is. I mean you know………you shouldn’t be recreating Clippy in what you’re doing, is the key thing here.

Relly: That’s a rule for life, I think.

Aral: Yeah, exactly. I mean when I build an application I’m quite aware that I’m putting my character and an aspect of myself into it. So, for example I have an app where they are little emotie blobs, these cute little things that look like marshmallows, that you know, kind of guide you along but they’re not Clippy, they’re kind of……..I’m aware that it’s an aspect of my character that’s in there and it’s been designed with that in mind. Um, Clippy….you know, why doesn’t Clippy work then? Clippy’s suppose to be in there and helping you out and something that you can relate to, right but who’s character is it? It’s Microsoft right? It’s Microsoft’s character that is in Clippy. Whenever I look at Clippy, I see Steve Balmer in paperclip form, you know, staring back and me and it’s like ‘Hey how you doing?’

Relly: I think I prefer that actually, Steve Balmer in paperclip form.

Christian: I could go for that. Yeah, I think these things, I think any of these things can become gimmicky if they become formulaic and if it’s just imitation of an idea without necessarily understanding why it was there in the first place. You see that kind of cloning of other people’s ideas all over the web, all the time.

Aral: There’s something to be said about authenticity and I think that’s the thing. You’re communicating, the things that we built communicate with people and just like humans can be authentic or not the experiences you’re creating can be authentic or not and I think it’s key to be authentic and crafting these experiences.

Christian: Also I think when you say human, I think that’s an important point. I think part of the trend, Paul, that you sort of……and picking up on that a number of different people seem to be approaching these ideas from similar directions, I think, is in the sense that interfaces in the technology are becoming more human or opening up more spaces, or the need to or they are. But you know, computer science and the history of it has been training human beings to learn codes and to do things in a very rigid way and once you become an expert of that you sort of become protective of that idea. It’s like a guild that you’re in and it gives you an advantage and why make it easier for grandma to do it or something like that But think that…..for instance Chris Fahey has been giving a good talk on how interfaces are becoming more human and having faces and having personalities and having conversational qualities and things like that. Um, which turns out to work much better because our minds have evolved from talking to human beings not from entering codes into teletype machines or something like that. So, I think there is a gimmicky aspect to it that can reduce to that but think the more broad direction that has a lot of power to it is the sense that the computers need to move much closer to the human experience and become warmer and more emotional and that’s actually not something that’s just cute or clever but actually works better.

Paul: Yeah.

Aral: And it’s difficult to do as well because if thing about how difficult it is for human beings to communicate with each other. I mean we know human right? We are humans so we should therefore know humans and yet how often do you miscommunicate? Yet how often do you misread body language? Or what am I actually trying to say? Am I being sarcastic or not? Um, and I talk about his in my presentation as well but if you then remove the human from the equation and then try to script that interaction you get something that’s far more difficult to actually talk to a human being where you’re not involved in the conversation firsthand and to try and script that is very difficult.

Paul: Hmmm. I mean right at the beginning Christian, you were talking about that you’ve come at this from kind of a social angle and that that was how you approached the subject. Do you think that this kind of emotional design or this playful design applies only to social sites or is it actually…could it apply to every site or are there some situations where it shouldn’t apply?

Christian: Um, yeah, I don’t think that it’s limited to when you’re designing for social interaction. Certainly, you can have….. I mean don’t know, for instance, how social mail chimp is except inherently that email is has a social quality but……so I think that playfulness can sort of exist certainly in a ……you know you can put jacks about yourself and things like that and so that certainly exists. You know there probably is a time and a place for it and I sort of say there is a dichotomy between play and work and you know, nobody likes work, have to do it you know, if they didn’t pay me I wouldn’t do it. That’s sort of the quality of work yet the world sort of requires people to take out the garbage and drive the trucks and things like that so we probably can’t create a utopia where everything is playful all the time, maybe you know….going to the funeral home to deal with your parent’s death is not going to be a playful experience on some level and doing your taxes may never be playful and things like that. I think that still you can nibble around the margins probably and take some of the drudgery and some of the dreariness out of it. Sort of like the idea of getting usability……get the horror out of it and then maybe you can make if fun, that’s a higher ambition but certainly context is all, you know, these things are not universal laws that you have to always be thinking about who’s going to use this and in what context? You know, so there’s going to be giant industrial systems that are probably going to remain mechanical and inhumane for quite some time.

Paul: Yeah.

Aral: And if you looked at…..If you saw Simon Willison’s talk yesterday when he was talking about crowd sourcing as well, he showed some examples of how even mundane tasks you know, can be made fun, by making them into a game basically, like identifying a scenic part of town for example made into a hauternaut style experience. They do the same with Wildlife Near You to try and pick the best animal photos that have been submitted. So even mundane tasks can be made fun if you make them into a game and add elements of play.

Christian: Yeah, I think that some if it is just not settling, not accepting that things have to be done in the most dreary way that first occurs to you, again, because maybe it’s easy for the computer to just make form and have them fill it out. You know, why not stretch a little bit and make it easier for the human and a little harder for the computer.

Aral: Yes, I think the way I approach is I basically see user experience or creating good user experiences as worrying about the right thing. The right thing is your users problem, not your problems. To the example I give is that if you’re starting your project and the first thing you think of is what’s my database structure going to be like or is it normalised? You’re working about the wrong thing, you’re worrying about your own problems. Then you’re going to trickle that solution to the user, trickle it down and that doesn’t work. Or trickle it up actually.

Chrisitan: How many times have you said ‘Well why don’t we do it this way?’ And the developer says we can’t, we already made our contextual decision, it’s not possible.

Aral: Exactly. That’s the point ……

Relly: That’s everything that’s in my talk. Hooray, I’ve got it right.

Aral: Awesome. Go see Relly’s talk, she’s talking about that. But that’s the key thing. And the thing is if you worry about the users problem you’re going to be creating more problems for yourself. But that’s okay because our problems don’t matter it’s okay if we have to work harder. For mostly you do.

Relly: Lean back from the mic, lean back from the mic.

Christian: Well we’re getting paid and the user isn’t so…

Aral: Yeah, yeah exactly.

Paul: Well. Do you know, this is a subject I could talk about all day. It’s far more interesting that what we’re going to be covering next but we’re going to stick with my programme. T here’s nothing like selling up the next show.

Thank you so much guys for coming on, I really appreciate it. Give them a round of applause.

Christian: Thanks for having us.

Paul: Feel free to go and join the audience.