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.