The one thing that’s wrong with gamification

Games are made by rules. Rules structure our choices in the game. And it’s not a game if there’s no trade-off. So, games require loaded choices: you trade one thing for another, and you can’t have it all. Things that we call “gamified” really fail to do this.

What trade-off did you choose in order to get your Foursquare badge? What rules of the Foursquare game gave meaning to that choice, other than physical limits on how many times you can press “Check In” on your smartphone?

If something is really a game, it has nothing to do with the badges you receive. If something isn’t a game, you can “pointsify” it easily, and then forget all the delicate balancing of rules that makes choices meaningful, at which point you don’t have a game either.

As much as I want to strike the word ‘gamification’ from the universe, it’s probably close to the time at which people figure out that building games is more about building a matrix of choices than it is about building a cabinet for badges, high scores, and so on.

Not simplicity vs. obviousness, but past vs. future

I’m no designer, but now that I’ve been thinking through a few concrete design problems in a project that I hope can change how we listen to music, I’ve come to realize a few things.

When John Gruber and Federico Viticci talk about simplicity vs. obviousness and discovery vs. frustration, I think they’re describing a sticky, problematic period of flux in UI and UX design (one that will continue to repeat itself, forever). For any user, between the user’s current set of capacities and a perfect understanding of how their device and its apps work, they’ll encounter a learning curve. They have to become acquainted with a new way of interacting with a device. Consider the delicate art of learning a musical instrument. It is certainly awkward and definitely frustrating; it takes forever and puts many new demands on you and your muscles. But you just have to look at how painful and monotonous violin practice is in order to understand how good of a job today’s designers are doing at cluing you in to their inventions. In Viticci’s terms, they’re really good at helping you discover what their app does – but the frustration comes later, and inevitably.

So from where does this frustration stem? There’s a pretty intractable problem with all digital interfaces: once you establish them, every single user who currently uses your app/OS/hardware device becomes a reason to not change it, because the user might get confused. Jaron Lanier calls it lock-in, I think. And it’s a big problem – but not for the first version. It takes time, and you’ll encounter it soon enough.For example, when Word changes something, it messes with people’s minds. Engineers think: “Better leave it as it is (but we’ll just add this little thing here).” Then the problems just keep compounding. Soon, you’ll be desperately flipping through tabs and menus and all sorts of crud that has been added ostensibly for your benefit.

I guess the thing that becomes apparent, while digging and scrolling and mouse-hunting for some long-lost feature in Excel, is that designing a familiar, obvious, non-frustrating user interface is only non-frustrating and obvious at first. But as features creep in, as versions iterate, it becomes more and more apparent that the obvious thing is not a permanent thing, because the obvious thing was only obvious thanks to some other thing that had been around previously. Microsoft Word started as a digital version of the printed page. Its functions are, to this day, organized primarily around printing manuscripts and papers and whatever else you might want to get your printer to spit out. But a lot of what we do with text on computers has nothing to do with printing. I haven’t printed anything since graduating university. When I need to make a note, I use Evernote. When I need to store a file, I put it in my Dropbox. But when I need to get someone at work to edit an article, I use Word. And then I e-mail it across the internet to a blogger, who then painstakingly reformats it for her blog. If that sounds odd – as though this Word document is just a container for things that could be handled far better – then you might be right. Technically speaking, Word’s .docx files are closer to .zip files than anything else.

When designers take old, familiar designs and build up a new experience off of them (whether superficially and visually, in Apple’s Find My Friends iOS app, or more fundamentally, like with Word), it’s called skeumorphism. But no matter what its implementation, skeumorphism eventually cracks under the stress of the future, which is really digital and not at all like the concrete artifacts that preceded it. All of this stuff is just… well, it’s bunk. It’s old. It couldn’t guess what we were going to do in the future. Even the stuff we made digitally over these last couple decades is now obselete. Next time you find a song in your iTunes library by searching for it, think about why there’s a library in the first place, or why it’s even organized by album. Think about what people will think when touch is suddenly the “old way of doing things.”

If I could guess what we would be doing in the future, I would guess that we’d be doing the same tasks we are now: we’ll still be writing, and editing, and sharing information. We’ll still be listening to music, discovering, sharing. We’ll still be taking photos, sprucing them up, and sending them to our friends and family.

So what will all that look like? It will always look different, and it will always be changing, and we will always be frustrated, and there will always be a hint of the past in there somewhere (whether you call it skeumorphism or ‘familiarity’ or what). But we ought to know that our frustration isn’t just with the app that is trying to make our experience better. We ought to know that we will be frustrated because whatever can be developed to respond to the needs of the end user, it will always necessarily lag behind what is possible. The frustration we feel is from our old practices stumbling on the new, unusual terrain opened up by technological progress, and that is a feature of the interactive landscape that will only keep growing. We must always be learning in the future. I mean, we should always be learning anyway, but while there’s not much you can hide behind now, there will be even less familiarity and stability in the future. Worse still, for every new frontier opened up by technology (and let’s keep that term as broad as we can), a new expectation is levied – and sometimes the demands are far greater than the demand to learn how to operate the newest app, or operating system, or device. Sometimes, health care or financial decisions ride on our ability to work within the interfaces and technologies offered to us. Soon, a lot more may be expected.

It is up to designers to make these demands as moral, as clear, and as attainable as possible. Even if new experiences might be frustrating (and I think that’s just what learning feels like, most of the time), they need not be damningly inaccessible to all but the youngest and the brightest. If you’re anything like me, you want people to use what you’re making not simply for the sake of growing your ego, but because you really and truly want to make something better. Let’s make sure we remember that ‘making something better’ doesn’t just mean making something more useful, with more features, and so on. It means making things that are responsible for, and respectful of, what the humans that use it will feel when using it.

Why I picked Codeacademy over Udacity to learn how to code

I’ve done the first few lessons on both Codeacademy and Udacity, and I’ve finally settled on one: Codeacademy. Why?

  • Codeacademy teaches Javascript, and Udacity teaches Python. Python’s great and all, but I’m interested in building stuff for the web, and Javascript’s pretty good at that from what I gather. Not like I can’t learn Python later, but why learn something I won’t use?
  • I can go at my own pace – and Udacity was just too damn slow. I found myself skipping through videos to get to the relevant parts, and it’s not because CS profs aren’t good at presenting or anything. The problem is that video is bad for skimming, and skimming is what gets a person to relevant content. With Codeacademy, it’s a lot easier to just jot down notes and then go back over them later to bolster your knowledge.
  • Udacity rewards learning for the sake of learning – but I want to learn for the sake of doing. The sense of accomplishment you get from completing a Udacity assignment is tied directly to the fact that you’re getting marked on it. There are no marks in Codeacademy, so its importance depends on what I do with it, which is a fairly well defined objective for me at this point.

Have you learned how to program recently? Any tricks for getting right to the core of what you want to do? Any resources you’d like to share? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Edit: as Mike in the comments points out, Codeacademy is not Code Academy – so if you’re in Chicago and want some real live and awesome instructions, head on over to Code Academy to see what’s up.

7 Reasons To Present At a Podcamp Near You

This week, I put together a presentation called Get Klout: An interactive tutorial so that I could unveil my ideas at the fourth annual Podcamp Halifax. It was a lot of fun, and I think people really enjoyed the interactive part – we did an experiment to see how much we could improve three people’s Klout scores (to see the results, check this blog tomorrow). A lot of people showed up to listen to what I had to say, and I’m pretty happy about it: this was the first time I’d really put myself out there in the Halifax tech community, and no one booed me off my pulpit.

I’m incredibly happy about how it all went (seriously: I’m glowing. Haven’t stopped thinking about the day), so I thought I would share a few reasons why the experience was so awesome for me.

1. Practice. Or: Podcamp is the nicest way to fail.

I really enjoy public speaking, but please don’t think that if you don’t, that there’s no point for you to present. There is no better way to get better at public speaking than by practicing in front of live people. For me, I know there are a billion things I could improve. I wave my arms extravagantly and answer questions in really roundabout ways. I read slides until I remember what the hell I was talking about, then I talk off the cuff. My jokes are super lame. I prefaced my presentation by saying that what was to come would be deliberately bad.

Putting myself out in front of an audience is a fun sort of stress for me, and every time I do it, I get less terrified and manic and more and more focused and relaxed. I learn new lessons with every talk, and I really believe that knowing how to keep people’s interest is an important skill. And you can hardly beat the atmosphere at Podcamp: your audience is encouraged to use their phones, walk out on talks, and ask questions. They’ll let you down easy if your talk isn’t what they’re into. And you don’t have to worry about being good enough to make their conference fees worth paying, since Podcamp is free. What’s best is that it’s really democratic: anyone can be where you are. You don’t have to be a super-guru to be heard. You also don’t have to have a super-polished talk. You just have to have something worth saying, and if you do, people will seriously reward you.

2. Research. Or: excitement is contagious.

Unless you work exclusively in social media, you won’t often have either the opportunity nor the motivation to investigate a single topic for long enough to put together a 45 minute-long presentation on it. Here’s your chance. You get to focus in on something so damn interesting to you that you won’t be able to help but get excited about it. Believe me, this translates to actual excitement in the presentation, so let your own interest lead your efforts.

3. Friends. Or: to join a group, talk to them.

Don’t you hate that “making friends” has now become “building networks”? Jesus, why not just have some fun with people? Podcamp is a chance to do just that by putting your ideas out there. I talked about Klout and got to meet a whole ton of people who cared about what I had to say. I got to convince people that what I had to say was actually worth their attention. That sure beats sitting online and wondering why I’m not part of a community I care about. If you find yourself on the outside of a group you want to be a part of, then talk to them about something they care about too.

4. Enemies. Or: if someone likes what you’re saying, there’s someone else who doesn’t.

They’re probably not the ones attending your talk, but they’re out there somewhere. Learning how to deal with critics graciously is one of life’s toughest and most rewarding lessons, so let Podcamp’s otherwise encouraging setting be the place to learn it.

5. Dialogue. Or: the best way to convince someone is to give them a voice.

Social media’s supposed to be about listening and speaking. It’s totally changed the way we do things online, so why not change how we do presentations? Whether or not it was an effective means of communicating, my presentation felt like a conversation instead of a speech. Since it would be ridiculous for me to pretend I’m an expert on anything, I’m glad I got to at least bring a few people into a dialogue on something I care about.

6. Spontaneity. Or: how to have an awesome weekend with just one click.

I saw the Podcamp page on January 6th, and figured: “holy shit! It’s time to make an awesome presentation about Klout!” My most intense brainstorming session involved a few texts between me and my aunt. The commitment is minimal! Just make sure you commit, because otherwise you will never do it.

7. Fun. Or: let your freak flag fly.

The thing I’m most proud of, though, is that I got to let my personality show. I used profanity and spoke openly about why Klout sucked, and backed it up with a few good reasons about why Klout was worth using. I made bad jokes about science. I used clip art and Comic Sans. I had fun. I think the people who watched my presentation also had fun, so it was a win-win!

Bonus reasons (Or: the “what made my first Podcamp Halifax so rad” reasons):

  • Delicious food from The Local Source. For $11.75, I got an endless grab bag of local food. I’m pretty sure there were three whole courses in there plus apple cider and a pear.
  • Keynote from Julien. He’s got lots of amazing content flying around the web at a viral clip, but most important right now is his book, The Flinch (currently free for Kindle), and this blog post on 100 Tips About LIfe, People, and Happiness.
  • This ridiculous shirt, which was thrown into my welcoming arms before the keynote:
  • This review from Blog Nova Scotia, which has ranked me as somewhere between a Jedi Knight and Jedi Master for my presentation! Aw shucks!
  • All the super duper awesome people who attended my presentation. Check back here tomorrow for an update on our Klout experiment!

One Single Principle To Consider Before Buying A Gadget

I’ve been on a bit of a productivity kick recently. So far, that’s meant identifying the huge time-sucks in my life. A good place to start is by looking at your gear. I’ve spent a lot of my life checking notifications, reacting to buzzes or alarms, and generally having my thoughts interrupted by really unimportant information.

Then there’s the separate problem of the phenomenology of your device: what is the experience of using your phone like? Does it make you feel more strapped for time and focus, or does it make your life better? In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers makes the point thusly:

With every new device, there are three categories of issues. First, the purely functional: What can this device do for us? What are its best uses? Second, the behavioral: Are there old behaviors I need to change or new ones I need to acquire in response to this? These are all exterior questions, but beneath the surface there’s a third category that’s often ignored, especially early on: the inner human dimension of technology: How is this device affecting me and my experience? Is it altering how I think and feel? Is it changing the rhythms of my day? Does life seem to be moving more quickly (or slowly) as a result of this gadget? Is it affecting my work? My home life? If so, are the effects good or bad?

Most importantly for me, I wonder about the slow/quick factor. It seems that the more functionality a device has, the more potential it has to speed everything up into one big blog of information. The only devices that slow down my day now are my Kindle and my old hard-drive iPod. Both are almost archaically focused devices, and that’s what makes life better: closer, more intense focus. So next time you wonder about upgrading or buying a new tablet, phone, laptop or OS, wonder whether it will slow everything down, or speed everything up.

Two sides of social media

Now that I’ve managed a few different communities, I’m beginning to see a divide between two kinds of work that I do. One one hand, the individual tweets, updates, blogs and content-based work that I do ends up being a bit more creative – and definitely a lot harder to pin down rules for. I’m supposed to make great content, and reply sensitively to customers, and to sound authentic. To do this, I rely on a lot of common sense, with a few pretty well-established rules about what not to do.

On the other hand, I’m engaged in a data-driven project. I keep track of a handful of metrics that let me quantify causal and personal relationships, and I get a sense of what I’m doing well and not-so-well. It happens after I’ve already got an account and interactions. I have to start somewhere, and then I find out where to go next by looking at the metrics.

The difference between the liberal art of social media engagement and the empirical project of measuring what happens on social media is not a new one. TV writers are different from the people who rate at Nielsen. There are entirely different skill sets, but because everyone’s accountable to the bottom line, these two sides have to meet up. The writers must make something that’s more than good: they need to make something that can sell. Someone else is probably responsible for figuring out what that something is.

What has changed is that the person who writes and the person who figures out what to write about are now the same person. I have to manage what happens on twitter, and I have to measure what happens on twitter. I am the link between the data and the content, and that’s both super cool and very easy to forget. If you do remember, then you’ll end up getting feedback from your data that you would have otherwise ignored. Likewise, you’ll have the chance to make much more awesome content, and to see what makes it good. These activities can reinforce one another, so at every opportunity ask yourself: what does the data say? How can my content make a change in the data?