I’ve been thinking a lot of about interface/interaction/user experience design recently. As usual, two ideas clicked together for me: game feel and motion design. I wrote a bit before about designing game feel for Prospora, how the sounds syncing up with the actions made even small actions feel satisfying. Móe was all about creating a dream-like mood, using colors and music, motion and shape to accomplish it. In fact, in early play-testing, the boids were triangles, and when they flocked towards the player it felt menacing – rounding their appearance and slowing them down a tiny bit made a huge difference in tone.
My games tend not to be about points, challenges, or even narrative. They’re about moment-to-moment actions and reactions. The creators of Biome (so… pretty… look away, Sarah, look away!) talk about loops as the core of their game, little mini story arcs:
Lets say you had a coffee. Maybe you decided you wanted one. Then, you made it. Then, you drank it. That was the story of when you had a coffee (wasn’t it great?), and you remember it because it had closure. #
Or an exploration game loop:
See something interesting in the distance -> Travel towards it -> Reach it. #
Really, with examples like these, it becomes abundantly clear that this isn’t even about games anymore. The loops can be so minimal that we could be talking about little interface interactions: flicking a notification off the screen, the little bounce that some panels get, the clicking into place of an object hitting guides.
Google’s Material and Paul does a good job of describing how these sorts of interactions can begin to feel naturalistic in a way that is fun, satisfying, and ultimately communicates something about how the thing works. What’s important about the playfulness of them is that they invite exploration and experimentation.
Traditional computer interfaces are just not inviting. There’s something about them that makes people afraid to just mess around. Sure, some learn after years of use what they can and can’t play with – I admit, I’m one those people – but most people never do. Computer interfaces generally have awful affordances.
It took smart phones and tablets to change the paradigm – a fresh start, with interaction design leading the way. User interaction is a higher priority here, at least partly because the limited space and hardware constraints require very intentional design to create something at all usable. Alan Cooper, in The Inmates are Running the Asylum, points out that this is how physical objects get designed: tight constraints require tough feature trade-offs, leaving only what is essential.
I grew up with PalmOS, a descendent of the Newton and precursor to iOS and Android. It succeeded where Windows handhelds failed, and, let’s face it, where most desktop systems as well. The PalmPilot kept things simple and took advantage of the touch interface, making affordances more ‘natural’ – that is, more closely related to the way we relate to physical objects. Palm used a stylus, and had us writing Graffiti rather than typing.
iOS and Android use an even more tactile motif. Everything is soft and squishy, for our fingers to push around. In mobile, we see dynamic, animate, feedback-y interfaces flourishing. Developers are trying to make their apps not just easy to use, but actively joyful. A series of tiny pleasurable experiences that complete one loop and invite another. This is all still new, but I don’t think it’s a fad. Paul Stamatiou thinks it’s the way of the future:
You’ll begin choreographing. In the next few years consideration for motion will be required to be a good citizen of your desktop/mobile/wearable/auto/couch platform. It will be an expected part of the design process just like people will begin to expect this level of activity and character in software. #
Just navigating the Android interface sometimes feels like playing a game. And not because it’s challenging! A gameworld has a novel and arbitrary set of rules, and it must communicate those rules to the player in an intuitive way. The same goes for any piece of software. Its mechanics are hidden from view, so it should use every tool at its disposal to make interactions feel real and satisfying, making you want to interact with it more. Little loops of action and reaction make that hidden world palpable, knowable, and explorable.