The Timeless Way of Building Software, Part 1: User Experience and Flow

Posted in interaction design on May 31st, 2012 by Samuel Kenyon

The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander [1] was exciting. As I read it, I kept making parallels between building/town design and software design.


We’re not talking any kind of architecture here. The whole point of the book is to explain a theory of “living” buildings. They are designed and developed in a way that is more like nature in many ways—iterative, embracing change, flexibility, and repair.

Design is recognized not as the act of some person making a blueprint—it’s a process that’s tied into construction itself. Alexander’s method is to use a language of patterns to generate an architecture that is appropriate for its context. It will be unique, yet share many patterns with other human-used architectures.

This architecture theory includes a concept of the Quality Without a Name. And this is achieved in buildings/towns in a way that is more organic than the popular ways (of course there are exceptions and partially “living” modern architectures).

User Experience

Humans are involved in every step. Although patterns are shared, each building has its own appropriate language which uses only certain patterns and puts them in a particular order. The entire design and building process serves human nature in general, and specifically how humans will use this particular building and site. Is that starting to stir up notions of usability or user-centered design in your mind?

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User Experience Conference 2012: Link Blast

Posted in interaction design on May 7th, 2012 by Samuel Kenyon

This post lists tools and websites I learned about today at the UPA Boston 11th Annual User Experience Conference.

Tools for Mobile Prototyping and Usability Testing

Although I’m familiar with wearable computers, especially for the military, and have developed for PDAs back in the day, I am fairly new to the current popular commercial mobile platforms like Android and iOS. So here is a blast of links taken primarily from Vijay Hanumolu’s UPA presentation “Whirlwind Tour of Mobile Usability Testing Apps & Services.”

Responsive Design

Vijay (who works at Mobiquity) mentioned Responsive Design several times, which means crafting a website/app as a single source of content that can automatically display in many types of devices/screens. The term assumes HTML with CSS3, although I suppose there could be other technologies used/tested for the same goals. Here’s a website that lets you test responsive design.

Detailed Design

  • Adobe Shadow (Chrome plugin)
    Inspect and preview web workflows on iOS and Android devices.
  • Blueprint for iPad
    iOS UI Design app.
  • AppCooker
    iOS mockups/prototypes app that uses the actual Apple UI. It can’t port to XCode yet (i.e. converting the mockup into the beginning of the working program) but they are supposedly working on a Mac application to do that.
  • Nokia Flowella
    Prototypes/mockups (apparently just for Symbian)

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Gamification and Self-Determination Theory

Posted in interaction design on November 9th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

Games are not just for fun anymore—and indeed “fun” is not a good enough description for the psychology of gameplay anyway. Designers are trying to “gamify” applications which traditionally were not game-like at all. And this isn’t limited to just the Serious Games movement that’s been around for several years. This is a type of design thinking that has spread from the gaming world and is now merging with the User Experience Design / Interaction Design world.

Beyond the hype and mistakes of gamification that might be going on right now, there does seem to be a design thinking emerging with the intention to increase engagement and motivation of products. I assume the business angle is that this of course can result in more users and keeping users longer.

Dustin DiTommaso, experience design director at Mad*Pow, presented “Beyond Gamification: Architecting Engagement Through Game Design” yesterday. As I already mentioned, he says how “fun” is not a good definition. His main psychological theory (at least for this presentation) is Self-Determination Theory (SDT). What follows are my notes based on DiTommaso’s presentation (hopefully I haven’t butchered it too much).

Games keep people in intrinsic motivation. There are three intrinsic motivation needs (these terms are directly from SDT):

  1. Competence
  2. Autonomy
  3. Relatedness


This is about meaningful growth. Good games achieve a path to mastery. The user experiences increased skill over time. There are nested short-term achievable goals that lead to success of the overarching long-term goal.

The experience should be that of a challenge. If you’re familiar with Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow, it is similar (or perhaps exactly the same) as that.

As with most good interaction design, there has to be feedback. Specifically, there has to be:

  1. Meaningful information
  2. Recognition
  3. Next steps

Action-Rules-Feedback loop

On the meaningful info item: Progress should be made visible. But, rewards have to be meaningful. Rewards for meaningless actions are not good in the long term—-users will hack (or “game”) the system if they get bored and/or detached.

Screenshot from Rockband 3 (developed by Harmonix)

DiTommaso says that you should strive for “juicy” feedback. For example, the interface for the popular video game series Rock Band is entirely “juicy” feedback. Visual Thesaurus is a good example of juicy feedback that is less flashy than Rock Band.

Failure should be allowed in a graceful manner if it provides an opportunity to learn and grow. This might sound weird for interaction design where usually you don’t want users to fail at all. Mad*Pow supposedly has done research to back this up.


The game belongs to the user. Choice, control, and personal preference lead to deep engagement and loyalty. There has to be the right feedback for the type of autonomy for a given user. Experience pathways can be designed “on rails” to limit or give the illusion of freedom.

To motivate sustained interest the game should provide opportunities for action. For example, on a ski mountain, there are literally multiple pathways, and multiple levels of difficulty.


This is about mutual dependence. We’re intrinsically motivated to seek meaningful connections with others.

A game should provide meaningful communities of interest. The users should somehow be able to value something in the game beyond the mechanics that run the system. The users should get recognition for actions that matter to them. And they should be able to inject their own goals. An example of a system that allows user-customizable goals is

It’s also worthwhile to think of non-human relatedness. Dialogues between user interface avatars and humans actually matter and affect motivation. They are a type of relationship. So scripts, text, tones, etc. are very important.


This is my rough interpretation of DiTommaso’s “Framework for Success” intended for designers and related professions.

  1. Why gamify? Consider the users and the business cases.
  2. Research the player profile(s) (perhaps game-oriented personas?). This research can and should inspire the design. What are the motivational drivers? Is it more about achievement or enjoyment? Is it more about structure or freedom? Is it more about control of others or connecting with others? Is it more about self interest or social interest?
  3. Goals and objectives: What’s the Long Term Goal? What steps? Etc.
  4. Skills and actions: consider what physical, mental, and social abilities are necessary. Can the skills be tracked and measured?
  5. Look through the lenses of interest. The concept of “lenses of interest” comes from Jesse Schell. The list of lenses provided by DiTommaso are:
    • Competition types
    • Time pressure
    • Scarcity
    • Puzzles
    • Novelty
    • Levels
    • Social pressure/proof (the herd must be right)
    • Teamwork
    • Currency
    • Renewals and power-ups
  6. Desired outcomes: What are the tangible and intangible rewards? What outcomes are triggered by user actions vs. schedules? How do users see and feel incremental success and failure on the way to the Ultimate Objective?
  7. Play-test and polish: Platforms are never done. This isn’t really specific to gamification. I would say this is about the general shift from waterfall to iterative development methodologies (which I have used successfully in my own work). This can even extend out to the actual end users—they can be involved in the loop and even expect updates for improvement.

Image Credits:
1. Nightrob
2. Dustin DiTommaso / Mad*Pow
3. IGN
4. Mount Sunapee

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Posthuman Factors

Posted in posthuman factors, robotics, transhumanism on June 17th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

Apparently a concept I developed in my spare time in 2009, which I dubbed “posthuman factors,” is very similar to some guy’s PhD dissertation in 2010 in which he also used the term posthuman factors. (And I don’t mean everything in his dissertation, but there’s a lot of overlap.)

I recently learned of this through a Wikipedia article I discovered (created in April 2011 by user Nikiburri) called “Posthuman factors.” It has a good summary:

In general, posthuman factors addresses the intersection of design practices that includes (1) the design of posthumans, (2) designing for such posthumans, especially in safe and sustainable ways, and (3) designing the design methodologies that will supersede human-centered design (i.e., “posthuman-centered design”, or the processes of design that posthumans employ).

Interestingly, it cites my IEET article “Why You Should Care About (Post)Human Factors,” published Jan 8, 2010, yet claims that posthuman factors was first “articulated” by Dr. Haakon Faste in his Jan 2010 doctoral dissertation “Posthuman Factors: How Perceptual Robotic Art Will Save Humanity from Extinction.”

Most likely we were both thinking about it and writing about it at around the same time (one would assume that, as with my articles mentioned above, the writing actually started in 2009). And then there are whatever projects that lead to this particular synthesis of concepts; e.g. in my case it connects at least as far back to my attempt to describe an interface point of view for future human/robot/posthuman/etc. interactions (“Would You Still Love Me If I Was A Robot?“).

But the Wikipedia pages are a bit annoying. The Posthuman factors page has a link to a wikipedia page for Haakon Faste (created by the same user Nikiburri) which informs us that he is a leading figure in the field of posthuman factors and that he coined the term in 2010. Well, guess what—I posted my article “Do We Need a Posthuman Factors Discipline?” in December 2009 on my blog, so I guess that means I coined it first.

But it’s nice to know that I started a new field. And I’m pleased that at least one other person is thinking about these issues.

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