Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Design Prototype Fidelity Addendum

Last week I wrote a post about the fidelity level of design prototypes. This topic has been on my mind for some time. Shortly after making last weeks post I created another graph that I think is noteworthy. Much like last weeks graph/post I have no quantitative research to back this up. I have been studying design and designers for a couple of decades now and these two posts reflect my personal experiences. Today's graph reflects how an experienced designer might create prototypes of increasingly high fidelity as a design project progress from its early stages to it later/final(?)/ship state. As with last weeks post this progression may depend on the type of design project that a designer might be working on and the client that the designer is working with. Sometimes it might be appropriate to create prototypes at a very high level of fidelity much earlier in the design process. So, these graphs are intended as rough "rule of thumb" models.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Design Prototype Fidelity as an Affordance for Change

I'm working on a paper that discusses low-fidelity, rapid prototyping for user-experience design. I have an interest in paper prototyping — why it's useful and important. Low-fidelity, rapid prototyping is any quick, rough way of approximating how a design will look and/or function. This is often done just with paper and markers. But it may be done with other common materials that might be found around the office -- paper, markers, tape, glue, rubber-bands, paper-clips, etc.

I also have an interest in affordances. An affordance is "a property in which the physical (or arguably visual) characteristics of an object or environment influence function." For example when you see a large wooden rectangle embedded in a wall and there is a metal knob at waist height on that rectangle -- you assume that's a door. You can assume that by twisting and pulling the knob you can open the "door." A door knob is an affordance that indicates there are certain things you can do.

So it occurred to me today that these two interests work well together. Of course it is one of those seemingly obvious connections.

We do pencil sketches on paper because they are easy to change and easy to change quickly. The low-fidelity of the materials of pencil and paper afford us the ability to change our sketches. As the fidelity of a prototype becomes higher it becomes increasingly difficult to change. A low-fidelity prototype of an iPhone app may be done with several post-it notes stuck to the screen of the phone. Drawn on the post-it notes are a series of screens that represent how the app looks and functions. Peeling off one post-it note after another gives an approximate experience for using the app. Changes to such a prototype can be done in seconds. As the prototype is slowly evolved by the designer the prototyping moves from pencil on paper to digital wireframes and beyond. As the prototypes increase in fidelity it becomes increasingly difficult and time consuming to make changes.

There is enormous value in using low-fidelity prototyping in the early stages of a design project. The low-fidelity of the prototype affords the designer the ability to make changes easily, quickly and very inexpensively. The fidelity level of a prototype acts as an affordance -- low-fidelity acts as an affordance for a high degree of changeability and high-fidelity acts as an affordance for a low degree of changeability.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Metaphorical Gestures -- Designing for a new tomorrow

"Everyone can – and does – design. We all design when we plan for something new to happen..."
-- Cross, Nigel. Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work (p. 3).

Here I am again beating the same old drum... but, I can't help myself. I believe very deeply if we align ourselves with notions of human-centered design or even human-computer interaction design that we must find our way to a deeper understanding of the people that our design is intended for. Crazy right?! There are of course many ways of accomplishing this. It so happens that my preferred route is through methods that have their roots in cultural anthropology. Many approaches from this discipline include some form of participant observation. That means spending time with the people you are trying to understand -- interviewing them, working with them, having conversations with them, etc. Many anthropologists spend years doing this with a single community.

Now imagine how this might be done most effectively, efficiently and enjoyably.

The Don't s
If you are studying a group of people whose beliefs you do not share what are some things you should avoid doing? Here is a short list of a few things you may want to avoid doing...
  • - speak down to them
  • - label them with derogatory words
  • - treat them with disrespect
  • - make them feel unnecessarily uncomfortable
  • - do or say things that will make them feel less human
  • - patronize them 
  • - pound them with facts or comments trying to disprove their beliefs

The Do s
As you might imagine a list of do s would pretty much be the opposite of the list of don't s
  • - speak to people as equals
  • - don't label them at all but if you do try to use positive labels
  • - treat them with respect
  • - try to create a comfortable environment for your relationship
  • - make them feel that they have great potential
  • - be humble
  • - find common ground and build from that

Let me just say that I believe that these are principles of a effective, efficient and enjoyable design process. It just so happens that much of what we do as humans is in fact design.

"...we plan for something new to happen, whether that might be a new version of a recipe, a new arrangement of the living room furniture, or a new layout of a personal web page. The evidence from different cultures around the world, and from designs created by children as well as by adults, suggests that everyone is capable of designing. So design thinking is something inherent within human cognition; it is a key part of what makes us human."
Cross, Nigel. Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work (p. 3).

If you want to design something with an eye towards improving the future then you may have to change your approach. I propose that if you want to create something that will improve the future environment of some group of people (or perhaps just make it more tolerable or more interesting) then you may be well advised to carefully consider how you interact with them.

My design work of late has been to study designers -- my intent being to write, create or design papers or visual schemas that will improve understandings of how they work. When I spend time with the designers that I study I try to practice the do s and don't s that I have listed above.

What are you trying to design? How are you trying to change the future? Who are the people you are working for/with on those projects? Are you acting with them in ways that are productive and  unifying or are you acting in ways that may be counter-productive and divisive?

It's good practice to contemplate what you are planning to do and to reflect on what you have been doing. Write down or record in some way these contemplations and reflections. Always be trying to evolve the way that you work.

There may be readers here who are reading things of a political nature into this post. I'm ok with that. But, please understand I believe deeply that much of what we try to do as human beings are really forms of design. This is just who I am. If you read into this post some ulterior motive then ... well ... oh well. One of my primary missions in life is to help designers to better understand what they do and as a hopeful result improve their design thinking, doing and making. If we are all designers and if much of what we do in life is design then yes these ideas may be applicable to many of the things that humans do... including politically oriented efforts.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Board Game Prototype as Cultural Probe — Research Through Design

"Creative Differences" -- a board game design that I am working on, being tested a protospiel.

Bill Gaver and Tony Dunne developed a research method called a "cultural probe." For Gaver and Dunne the purpose of this method is to explore the context for a yet-to-be-defined design. A cultural probe is a designed object or designed kit of objects with a set of instructions that is given to members of a community (or subjects). A cultural probe may be something like a camera or notebook that the subjects use to record certain aspects of their lives. Subjects use the cultural probe and then return it to the designer who then uses it to gain insights that they might be able to use for a new design.

Cultural probes have been on my mind a lot lately. Not too long ago I attended a "protospiel" — i.e. a collaborative design workshop for board game designers. I had the opportunity to run playtests for a friend's game. It was a great experience and gave me a chance to, from a different perspective, see designers work. I took a lot of photographs, audio recordings and some video clips.

It occurred to me that it might be possible to use a board game as a sort of cultural probe. For example I could design a board game, bring it to a protospiel and have other designers collaborate to help me with the design. In fact I've already done this. But what didn't occur to me at the time is that I could do this — taking notes, photos or video and essentially use the board game as a sort of cultural probe. In some aspects it would of course not be a probe in the ways envisioned by Gaver and Dunne. But, it's an idea inspired by their work and I think it might be an interesting twist that could be useful for my research.

Can a board game be used as a type of cultural probe? Would I need to design the game in any particular way or could it be almost any design? Are there things I could learn about designers by observing them as I playtest a game designed as a cultural probe? To some extent I have already been doing this. But, I haven't done it with any intent explicit to this notion of "board game as cultural probe." I'm not sure where I will go with this or if I will use this idea. But, I feel excited about the possibilities. In this instance the probe could be a means of examining many aspects of collaborative design.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Board Games, The Breville Tea Maker, and Activity Theory

I am teaching an intensive 6 week summer course at IU focused on "human-center design." As usual I have been using board game design as a vehicle to teach many of the concepts in the course. I love teaching in part because it helps me to clarify and evolve many aspects of my personal design ideas or philosophy.

Based on fieldsite studies that the students have been conducting I have had them generating explicit...

1) Insights,
2) Problem Statement, and
3) Game Idea

Their insights were drawn from their field-studies and their analysis of several boardgames using semiotics, visual gestalt theory and systems thinking.

Their problem statements (a single sentence in the form of a question) identified a design opportunity. The statement included a specific...

a) group of people,
b) context of use,
c) designed artifact (in this case a tabeltop game), and
d) "goal"

Their game idea was a simple, short description of the game they had in mind. This should include the goal(s) of the game.

This past week we reviewed their second iterations on numbers 1-2 and their first iteration on number 3. I had another one of those moments where my own gears were turning as much or more than my students.

You see there are really two primary types of goals that need to be considered when working on a new design. First, there is the goal that is in a way external to the design — i.e. "I want the users to have this very specific type of experience" or "I want the experience of the design to affect them in this very specific kind of way." Second, there is the goal that is internal to the design — i.e. "the specific goal or end condition for using the design." It became very clear to me that it is useful for the external goal to be defined in the problem statement and the internal goal to be described in the game idea statement.

In class these two types of goals were related to the game designs that the students were working on. But, these two categories of goals really drive most good design. For example I have a tea maker that I use every day and it seems to me that there is clearly this external type of goal and internal type of goal. The external goal is that the design just makes my mornings very pleasant and eliminates the hassle usually involved in making my morning tea. The internal goal is simply to make a very good pot of tea.

It became clear to me during/after the in-class discussion that I could clarify much of what needed to be addressed with these three things (insights, problem statement and game idea) by referring back to concepts that I presented earlier in the course that come from activity theory (see diagram below). In the framework of activity theory there is a "subject" (this is a person or group of people). The subject uses a "tool" (some type of design). The tool is used on an "object" (or to achieve and objective). By achieving the objective (or perhaps in the case of games -- attempting to achieve) there is an "outcome."

In the context of activity theory we can think of the "internal" goal as the "object(ive)" and the "external" goal as the "outcome." Applying this to a game design — the goal within the game is the "object" and the experience you want the players to have is the "outcome." For me this all seems useful for any type of design work. If we add the remaining framework of activity theory — "rules," "community," and "division of labor" — it becomes even more useful. This framework becomes mobilized and we can begin to better understand small portions of the system we are designing even more deeply if we include the "actions" and "operations" concepts from activity theory. But that is perhaps better left for some future post.

I believe it cannot be stated strongly enough that spending significant attention to writing these down on paper is extremely valuable. Having even a short written statement that includes a set of insights, a problem statement (with the 4 elements I listed above), and the game/design idea can be a powerful and useful engine to drive design work. It is my belief that including a clear object(ive) in the design idea and an explicit outcome in the problem statement can bring a great clarity to a designers process and result in better, more compelling designs.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Design is Everything is Design

I have written many posts for this blog that I have never published. In some cases this has been because I felt that they were too rough and unfinished to provide any clarity whatsoever. In other cases they just felt too personal. This is a post that I wrote/created in late August 2015. For reasons that even I am not sure of I'm publishing it now   :-/   ... 

My fascination with design process runs deep. 

I recently received a rejection for a paper I have been working on for quite some time. I worked on it with a Professor here at IU for several months. But, quite honestly it is something I have been working on personally (and usually in the back ground of everything I do) for many years. The rejection didn't surprise me even though I feel like it is a good paper.

I see design process as a very close relative of evolutionary biology. 

We received some good feedback from the reviewers who thought the ideas the paper put forth were very interesting and worth pursuing. There were two reviewers and each of them wrote a full page of comments and concerns — this type/length of response indicates a sincere interest in the work. So, now we put it aside for a bit and move forward.

Ideas evolve.  

As I mentioned the topic of this paper has haunted me and my thoughts for many years. So, the chance it will ever go away are slim to none. I will return to "the paper" one day, probably very soon.

Humans are central to this process.

Last week I was in a meeting with three of my colleagues. We have these meetings once a week or so and they are our chance to hang out and discuss what we are working on and also to vent a little. It's our once a week catharsis. This week I had a chance to talk about this paper and it's rejection. It turned into an hour long discussion about it — very encouraging. I struggle to feel as though I fit with academics. They often ask me questions that are framed in such a way that I find it difficult to respond. 

Humans are both carriers and engineers of ideas.

I fear that I don't think like a researcher — at least not an "Informatics," "HCI," or academic researcher. When asked what my "findings" are or what my "contribution" is for this (or any) paper I honestly feel like I don't have any. Sure I wrote some stuff that came under those headings. 

We embed ideas in the things that we create and those things pass ideas on to other humans. 

But, the things I wrote feel to me like things that are just my own crazy ideas even though they are supported with interviews, participant-observation and other papers. Furthermore, these ideas seem to me quite obvious and they have been written about by others (albeit in different ways than my own).

Along the way those ideas mutate.

I look back on all of this now more convinced than ever that everything is in some way a design process. I designed a paper. Reviewers reject it and offer me feedback. I talk with my colleagues and they provide further feedback and a nice dose of encouragement. Soon I will return to the paper and redesign it and the process will begin again. In some ways this is what the paper was about.

This mutation can be a result of environmental factors and/or filters in our way of thinking... or... 

as humans/designers we can forcibly mutate an idea. 

This last statement, if it is true, is extremely powerful. 

If it's not true — then maybe we are just exactly like every other animal on the planet — (pre)programed by our experience, environment and genetics to do everything we do. 

If it's not true — then we have no agency and that would devastate me.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why I Love Euro-Games and Resist Modernism

"Cuba" — design by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler with art by Michael Menzel

A brief intro here about who I am as a gamer. It's no secret — I play a ton-o-games. Indeed I average about 6 games a week. These days about 3 of the games that I play every month are new to me and I am almost always the one to learn and teach a new game. Most of the games I play are what are commonly described as "euro-games" and most of them are 90-120 minutes in length. On the weight scale the games that I tend to gravitate towards are medium to heavy.

I love boardgames. But, it's not purely recreation for me. I am an academic/researcher who studies board game designers — their processes, methods and culture. An integral part of this is of course studying the games themselves. Other, related and relevant interests of mine are systems and complexity. I teach college courses in design and I often tell students that the old reductivist tenant of modernism to simplify must be re-thought. We are living in a world of rapidly accelerating complexity. Stripping designs down purely because we want to simplify them is no longer a desirable strategy. Instead I say let's embrace complexity and as designers try to bring clarity rather than simplification to our designs.

So, what does this have to do with boardgames and why they are important? Well... a lot! Complex euro-games in particular relate to these ideas of mine as I believe that they are a powerful precedent that designers can learn from. They excel at embodying extremely complex systems of interaction and at doing so with great clarity. A good game designer can strip away the clutter and streamline game mechanisms while still maintaining a strong theme in their game. This is one of the hallmarks of a good euro-game. This is in part the why and how of their ability to make their games language independent. It is also why I am drawn to euro-games — extreme complexity with amazing clarity. The design objectives of — few if any rules exceptions and a low threshold for extraneous in-game text act to drive the complexity/clarity dogma even deeper into the design of these types of games.

It's worth noting that many games that do this well may not be considered strictly as "euro-games." Many people may not consider games designed by Martin Wallace to fit neatly into the euro-game category. And yet they maintain many of the characteristics I have described here. So, while I will ever be drawn to "euro-games" for the reasons I have described here I am not an exclusive a devotee. Rather they provide a base of operations for me to explore the world of complex/clarity that I find so compelling in contemporary boardgames.