Monday, March 21, 2016

Small "Rules," Large Effects, and Rapid Iterations

 — more board game design observations
and how they might apply to IX/UX design

I continue to ask myself whether or not there is really any value in studying board game design. Can this path of research be adapted for improving interaction/experience (IX/UX) design skills. Can board game design teach us something that simply studying IX/UX design cannot or what can it teach us in a better way?

I will focus here on one particular area that I think is noteworthy. It's something that I have tried to incorporate into my teaching and it was tangentially the topic of my last blog post. But, I think it's worthwhile to spend a few more words on it here.

In IX/UX design (i.e. the design of digital, interactive experiences) the "rules" that the user must follow are buried in the software code. This makes it impossible for the user to break the rules and at the same time allows them to learn the rules through experiencing the design -- e.g. if I click here something happens that I like but if I click there nothing happens at all. Once a digital design has been produced (even in the form of a digital prototype) it can sometimes be difficult to change the rules. There may be truck loads of intertwined rules and in some cases the designer may not have even considered in an explicit way what the rules are or how they relate to one another and/or to the user.

Board game design forces the designer to think explicitly about the rules of the experience — if you are going to hand a board game over to someone else then those rules have to be in writing and they have to be written well. Rules need to be expressed in writing in a clear and concise way. Rule sets can be extremely complex — but, must be broken down systematically in a well structured, written document. This forces the designer to generate rules governing game play at all levels and scales — e.g. lots of very small rules are clustered together and these clusters form (or are governed by) larger or overarching rules. 

The upshot of this is that it is then relatively easy to change a single small rule to test and see the effect of that change. When tested in this way it is easy for the designers to see the effect of changing a small rule. Changing a small rule is easy but such a change can radically change the way that the design is experienced by users/players. This type of experimentation is common in the design and testing of board games because it is relatively easy to do and the pay-off can be that the game-play experience is effected in radical ways. During the test of a board game such experimentation and iteration can happen in only a few minutes. This provides the designer with very rapid feedback on small tweaks that have large effects. I have witnessed this process on many occasions in my research with board game designers.

Here are a few things that I think these elements of board game design can help IX/UX designers do better or understand more fully.

- preparing a set of written "rules" provides a way of precisely targeting small areas where changes can be made very quickly.

- a paper prototype paired with a written rule-set provides the designer with a means of testing small, highly targeted, quick iterations on a design.

- small changes can have large effects — read in Donella Meadows "Thinking in Systems" the section on leverage points.

This use of board game design tactics for IX/UX design is largely untested. And while there are more similarities than differences between these two types of design I must acknowledge that there are limitations in comparing the two. But, I continue to believe that there is great value in pursuing this path of research.