1. “Fast is good, clever is better” – on speed, or the lack thereof

    Posted April 28, 2015 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    Two articles on a similar topic. One is recent and the other is old. Both UX design related so don’t worry if you’re not interested in that kind of thing.

    First, “Let Your Users Wait” by Tal Mishaly at UX Magazine. The upshot is that designers of interfaces should think more about time: about how users perceive it, about how the same period of time can seem to pass more quickly or more slowly depending on what the interface does, and even about how it can sometimes be useful to create delay.

    Second, an oldie but goodie from four years ago: a cognitive teardown of the Angry Birds user experience by Charles Mauro in 2011. Reading the first article made me remember this one and how much I liked it at the time, so I dug it out of my bookmarks and read it again. I was hooked on Angry Birds back then, and some of Mauro’s comments about the game’s approach to response time management had a big impact on me:

    In Angry Birds, it was possible for the programmers to have made the flight of the birds fast – very fast, but they didn’t. Instead they programmed the flight of the angry flock to be leisure pace as they arc across the sky heading for the pigs’ glass houses. This slowed response time, combined with a carefully crafted trajectory trace (the flight path of the bird), solves one huge problem for all user interfaces – error correction. The vast majority of software user interfaces have no consideration for how users can be taught by experience with the system to improve their performance.

    I reinstalled Angry Birds recently to show to my 3-year-old son before recoiling in terror from its barrage of ads and—worse—dark patterns leading to shady in-app purchases. But despite all that I think there’s still a lot for interaction designers to learn from Angry Birds.

    If you’re one of them (an interaction designer that is, not an angry bird) feel free to spend tomorrow morning playing Angry Birds. If your bosses ask you what you’re up to, tell them it’s research and point them to Mauro’s article.


  2. Are you the millionth best at something? These days that might not be as bad as it sounds

    Posted August 18, 2011 in comment  |  2 Comments so far

    If you’re a Simpsons fan you’ll probably recognise this pearl of fatherly wisdom that Homer once shared with Bart:

    “No matter how good you are at something, there’s always about a million people better than you.”

    Like lots of good lines in the Simpsons, it’s funny cos it’s true comically demoralising. If all you can hope for is to be the millionth-best person at something, why bother? But maybe the gag isn’t as depressing as it used to be. Maybe being the millionth-best at something these days is something to be proud of.

    The episode in question (Homer At The Bat, fact fans) aired in February 1992, before the internet really got going. If you were an aspiring yo-yo artist in 1992, coping with the realisation that a million other yo-yoers had you beat, you could try to live your life in blissful ignorance of them. And if you lived in a remote enough area, that just might work.

    If you were a young yo-yoer today, on the other hand, these million people would be an achingly visible blight on your career. You’d go to a party, start talking about yo-yos, and before you got a chance to show off your new trick, everyone would be gathered round a laptop watching videos of amateurs far more practised than yourself. Those million people? They’re just a click away now, and you’re going to be compared to them, even if you’ll never meet any of them in real life.

    It used to take lots of effort to jump from personal to local to global context. Now we just get swept out there as soon as we start doing anything

    The amount of effort you need to make to enter the global arena, in most walks of life anyway, is far lower than it used to be. Musicians used to have to record demo tapes, haggle with labels and play thankless gigs in sullen backwaters just to get some sort of exposure. Now you just need to get on Bandcamp and all of a sudden you’re playing with the big dogs.

    The first people to really feel this effect, I would say, were computer gamers in the late 1990s, when online gaming started to kick off. In the pre-internet era, a teenager into computer games would only ever see their immediate friends and schoolmates play these games. So when you watched the school’s best Buggy Boy player doing their thing, you might as well have been watching the world champion.

    Buggy Boy on the C64

    Buggy Boy: global fame is but one lap away

    Then the internet came along and put us all in our places. Gamers were suddenly thrust into this grand global arena, a colosseum where wins and losses were mercilessly quantified over the years and the leaderboards were calculated. Before long the true champions emerged. You became able to say “I’m in the top 20,000 players of X Wing Versus TIE Fighter” and you wouldn’t be lying. Yes, it was kind of demoralising, but gamers had to adjust – this was how things were going to be from now on. Everyone knew precisely where they stood in relation to everyone else, ambitions were recalibrated, you had lots of people to learn from – and, most importantly, gaming was still fun. Same goes with technology, many gamers produce their own reviews of products and so naturally the best gaming monitor ratings mimic the game ratings.

    Over the last decade this phenomenon has extended beyond gaming and other nerdy pastimes. Internet video and the consolidation of once-fragmented online communities on to a small number of social networks means that the competent amateurs, struggling beginners, and reigning champions are out there and equally easy to find.

    Yo-yoers, violinists, singers, underwater jugglers – in all of these fields, an aspiring newcomer will be able to go online and find those million people that are better than them. But they shouldn’t let this put them off. In a world of nearly 7 billion people, more of whom are coming online every day, being the millionth-best maybe isn’t too shabby after all.


  3. Reimagining Radio 4’s “The Moral Maze” as a computer game

    Posted July 27, 2011 in ideas  |  6 Comments so far

    The Moral Maze is a Radio 4 discussion programme where the week’s big news stories are pondered and pontificated upon by a panel of self-righteous pundits. Michael Buerk hosts, with Michael Portillo and Melanie Phillips as the principal guests, so it’s fair to say that it’s not exactly a home for left-leaning socially-liberal views.

    Although it’s not among my favourite programmes, The Moral Maze provokes the same horrified fascination for me as Any Answers (a topic for another blog post). I won’t go out of my way to listen to it, but if it comes on while I’m washing up it usually sucks me in. It’s smug, overweening, and bursting with a sense of its own preponderance. I guess that’s why it’s so hard for me to turn it off.

    Unfortunately not everyone feels as I do about The Moral Maze. That’s fair enough – Radio 4 discussion shows can be sleep-inducing at the best of times. So I’ve been thinking, how could The Moral Maze broaden its appeal? How could its matronly agonising be introduced to a younger, hipper audience?

    Yes, you’ve guessed it. By turning it into a computer game.

    The Moral Maze – The Game

    Title screen from the Moral Maze

    Title screen from the Moral Maze

    So it’s a one or two player game in which you can play as either Phillips or Portillo. Buerk is kind of like the Dungeon Master, looking down from above while you explore the now physically tangible Moral Maze encountering the various moral tropes that listeners will find very familiar indeed:

    • Single mothers
    • Women wearing burkas
    • Unemployed people
    • Drunkards
    • Libyan rebels
    • Nurses
    • People who are on strike

    …you get the general idea. These are the lost souls of The Moral Maze, staggering about in limbo until you emerge from the darkness wielding the sword of middle-class righteousness, ready to end their misery with your well-enunciated diatribe. Here’s how it works.

    People in glass houses

    Each time you come across one of these moral tropes you have three options: Embrace, Spurn or Equivocate. Here’s Melanie Phillips encountering a single mother.

    Melanie Phillips encounters a single mum

    Melanie Phillips encounters a single mum. What do you think she will choose?

    As you’d expect, we’re going to choose Spurn here.

    Judgement is given

    Judgement is given. The single mother has been Spurned

    Each choice changes your hit points and rectitude. Seems easy, doesn’t it? And at first, it is. The moral tropes are pretty straightforward and it’s simple to decide whether to Embrace or Spurn them.

    But as you proceed through The Moral Maze – The Game things get a bit more tricky. You started out condemning Muslims and embracing policemen; but what will you say about a Muslim policeman? You didn’t like people going on strike, and you didn’t like gay people; but here’s a gay Thatcherite, sticking it to the unions! What now?

    No prizes for hand-wringing in The Moral Maze

    Each judgement contributes to an increasingly complex moral framework of your own construction, leaving you at greater risk of contradicting one of your earlier judgements. This affects your hit points and rectitude, and too many mistakes will lead to defeat.

    Someone in a burka waves a Women's Institute flag

    Someone in a burka waves a Women's Institute flag. What to do?

    When things get tricky you have a weapon up your sleeve – Equivocation. Often encountered on the radio show, equivocation is a tactic used by Moral Maze panel members who either can’t form an opinion or don’t feel brave enough to voice their views on air. A couple of minutes of intelligent-sounding but ultimately wooly waffle, and you’re done. But you can’t use it too often in the game – it weakens your character considerably.

    End game, and bonus levels

    So let’s say you’ve battled your way through the Moral Maze, casting judgements on its hapless stereotypes in an impressively consistent manner. The dope-smoking, lesbian, Muslim small business owner who didn’t support the Iraq war but wants Top Gear taken off air? You didn’t break a sweat. The slutwalking Catholic nurse who lets her children play violent video games but campaigns against pornography and votes for the Green Party? A cinch. But now comes the hard part – the end of game boss.

    The end of game boss

    The end of game boss - Michael Buerk

    An enraged Michael Buerk descends from his lofty throne to do battle with you. To defeat him you have to… well, I haven’t worked that bit out yet. I guess there would be a fighting mode with shuriken stars and nunchuks and so on, with lots of blood. It’d be pretty spectacular anyway.

    If you win against Buerk you beat the game, and see a completion sequence in which all the previous panellists of the Moral Maze, along with the hapless tropes you embraced along the way, parade past a giant effigy of whichever character you were playing. A bonus level is unlocked in which you can navigate the Moral Maze as Michael Buerk. What a twist!

    My final pitch

    The Moral Maze – The Game would bring the nation’s top radio discussion programme to a wider audience, especially if it was released on iPhone, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. But it would also encourage the nation’s youth to ponder the moral dilemmas that plague our confusing modern world and bring about a more judgemental society. And by the way, don’t forget to check the p4rgaming site, where you will be able to find the best boosting services for your favorite video games.

    And I’m sure you’ll agree, that’s just what we all need.