... or, "I wonder if Frank would let me expense a joystick for my desk?"

Frank noticed this article in the New York Times yesterday:

Why Work Is Looking More Like a Video Game
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/20/business/yourmoney/20proto.html

The first part of the article discusses making business software more game-like. Having worked on a lot of business applications in my time, this makes a lot of sense to me. From a user experience viewpoint there is a lot to be said about making business applications not only more engaging, but also more rewarding

I'm not necessarily talking about 3D flythrough spreadsheets here (although...), however games have two crucial features that I think we should make more use of in application design:

  • Feedback, and
  • Problem solving

Feedback

In order for games to maintain engagement (or "flow"), they rely on immediate and rich feedback. Gamers need to see the results of their actions immediately, and vivdly. This gives them a sense that the are in control (every action has an immediate reaction) and also allows them to experiment. They can try quickly stuff and get immediate (and potentially deadly!) feedback about whether that was a good idea. Immediate feedback also means gamers do not lose their sense of immersion in the experience - in other words they stay focussed.

Now think about web applications.

You see the problem, right?

We are starting to get better at this. Rich Internet Applications use tools like AJAX to provide better, more timely, feedback. But of course this is where desktop applications should shine (more processing power, able to do more than one thing at once, instant sound, use of modality...).

Animation has an important role to play here. In the past we have been very nervous about using animation in application design. Our brains are wired up so that we cannot help noticing movement. (You think banner ad's convulse like that just for fun?) Yes, animation is a pretty blunt instrument which must be applied carefully, but when used well animation has an important role to play to provide feedback and to give users a sense of the journey they are taking through an application and its information. The New York Times Reader has lots of great examples of using animation to provide feedback in this way.

Technologies like Flex, Silverlight and WPF open up new opportunities for using animation in applications. However, here's the rub: many interaction designers are going to have to get up to speed about using transitions: what the options are, how to design then, and how to specify them (Blend, anyone?). A lot of interaction designers, particularly those working on the web, haven't had to be concerned about designing and specifying these sorts of time-based interactions. We have a lot to learn from animators and film-makers...

Problem Solving

This is what I really wanted to talk about in this post, but I'm running out of column inches: building applications which aren't just form-fill, follow-your-nose systems which employees have to use if they want to get paid. In the past I've tried to design applications that are more like toolboxes that allow (even encourage) people to solve new problems, draw new conclusions and innovate the way they work. This is also a key feature of games. Games provide gamers with the tools to solve problems in their own way, rather than dictating how to do somethng.

Imagine a game that had a button in the middle of the screen labelled "kill bad guy"...

It is exploration, problem solving and gratification that makes great games compelling.

But this post is long enough already, so more on this in an upcoming installment...