A Golden Rule for Interactions and Life

Most of us have experienced a relationship in which the other person constantly assails you with their problems, yet when the tables are turned, their response is cursory before turning the conversation back to themselves. These relationships soon end or we put up with them because the other person is our mother.

I tweeted yesterday about judging the One Show Interactive Awards and, while I’m not going to comment on any individual entry, there is a tendency of advertising agencies to make a video with big production values, put it online with some social media gimmicks and call it interactive. This is not an interactive relationship. It’s someone shouting, “Like me! Like me! Like me!” They frequently violate a Golden Rule1 that I’ve had for interactivity for many years that I also tweeted:

The effort required to experience something should be less than or equal to the payoff of the experience.

I learned this very early on in the stone-age days of “multimedia” authoring. Back when we were creating interactive experiences that needed to fit on floppy disks or CD-ROMs, CD-ROM drives had transfer speeds of 150-300KB/s. This meant you had to make some choices or divide up the content into smaller beats. If it takes three minutes for an interactive to load, you better be sure I’m going to play with it for at least that amount of time, preferably more. We quickly learned how annoying “skip intros” were. Not that this prevented them from being re-born in every new medium.

Despite faster technology, nothing has really changed. What happens with broadband and CPU speeds is largely the same as what happens with rubbish bins, hard-drives and roads. You just fill up the available space. If you buy more of them to deal with it, you just fill those up too, making cleaning up even more of a pain. Nothing beats dealing with restrictions by using less resources in the first place.

Unfortunately, with greater bandwidth available, agencies fall back on their traditional model. Make a cool video and then deliver it big, because now they can. Instead they could use the extra bandwidth and CPU speed to make the delivery of a smaller payload quicker and make the most of the Golden Rule payoff equation. That one-minute’s worth of fun interactivity has a better experiential value ratio when it is delivered in five seconds compared to it taking three minutes to come down the pipe.

The rule of, “If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it” generally chimes with the Golden Rule, but not always. Some things do need explaining and that is okay as long as they are actually complicated and we are going to use them a lot. Most interfaces are not worth the effort of learning for the things we want or, worse, have to achieve with them. Those kinds of tasks are often short-lived. It’s annoying to have to hunt for a tool palette or preference in Microsoft’s crazy Word interface just to turn off some auto-styling crap. On the other hand, we spend a long time learning to drive a car and having someone explain it to us, because there are many variables at play when we drive, we will drive for the rest of our lives and prefer not to kill people in the process. (Dear American and Australian readers: learn to drive a stick shift – it will make you a better driver).

For many people, this is why learning maths in school feels pointless. The effort versus daily usage seems disproportionate. Programmers often appear to be the antithesis of the Golden Rule, because they give the impression of enjoying the process of learning something very complex or writing a script to achieve a task that can be done with a few mouse clicks (I’m looking at you Dr Drang and Brett Terpstra). But the rule still holds, because either the process of working something out has a long-lasting skill payoff or the script that took a while to write replaces many multiple uses of the mouse-based version.

The Golden Rule works well when thinking about service experiences too. Many services involve highly asymmetric relationships. You can usually buy something or create a contract very simply online or over the phone in a matter of minutes, for example. This side is in the service provider’s favour. Yet when something goes wrong or you want to quit your contract, you have to wait on hold for ages for customer service or, if you live in Germany, contact the company in writing. On paper. Via snail mail. Then the response time is in the order of weeks, not minutes.

You can be fined on the spot for not having a train ticket, but it might take months to receive compensation if your train is cancelled. These all feel unfair because they are unfair and, like the “friend” whose worry dumping is a one-way street, you soon feel bitter and want to get out of that relationship as quickly as possible. Companies like Amazon and Zappos put a lot of effort and money into redressing this imbalance with great success.

If you go to McDonald’s the meal experience is low-grade, but delivered quickly. If your Big Mac takes a long time to arrive, there’s no point in going to McDonald’s. Conversely, it feels fine to wait for half and hour for your food in a good restaurant, because you know the risotto is being freshly made to order. The payoff is slowly savouring the meal, ideally with a fine glass of wine and great conversation.

The Golden Rule works for most media. It’s why we do the first or 99th page test on books, why films (usually French) are frustrating when nothing seems to have happened and suddenly the credits roll.

Well-written TV series exploit the Golden Rule too. Within the space of an episode we get the story payoff for that episode, but we also teased with the promise of the next piece of drama in the larger story arc. A dangling plot line requires some effort from us to imagine what might happen next, but it is only just irritating enough to leave us wanting the next episode so we can scratch that itch.

The effort versus experience equation is why making it easy to pay for music downloads trumps the effort of downloading it illegally for most people. It’s certainly why I buy much more music than I ever used to.

The rule works for games very well too. The best games are those whose rules are easy to learn, but the gameplay is engaging for hours. As Steven Johnson points out in, Everything Bad is Good for You2, videogame designers stopped writing long instruction manuals and creating “training levels” some time ago. Instead, players are dropped directly into progressively more difficult action. Part of the pleasure of the game is finding out just what the gameplay is. In this scenario, the experience payoff is intimately bound together with the experience of gaining it.

And life? Humans are highly attuned to this kind of balance in relationships, whether work or personal. Like most animals, we instinctively make calculations about expending energy versus rewards returned, whether social or nutritional.

In our modern lives it is why a six-hour commute for a one-hour meeting is so irritating and why meetings are generally so toxic. It is why dysfunctional relationships take so much out of us and why people who are generous and open, reducing the barriers of interaction with them, are a pleasure to be around. It is why bank bailouts for people getting million dollar bonuses seem so unfair and why voting apathy is so prevalent.

The Golden Rule is really about getting the balance right at the “border between boredom and anxiety”, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously explored in his research on flow3. It is the challenge of interactivity, games, TV shows, films, music, services, food, education, sex, relationships, society and life.


  1. It probably needs a more original name than The Golden Rule, like Polaine’s Ratio of Effort vs. Experience, but it seems cocky writing that on my blog. There is absolutely no reason why you should not quote it as that though. 

  2. Amazon affiliate links. If you use them, thank you. 

  3. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers (also an affiliate link). 

On Users, Customers, Interactors, Participants and Roles

Jack Dorsey’s post about reconsidering the word users and preferring the word customers has been doing the rounds of various popular tech blogs. John Gruber, naturally makes the case for Apple “always [having] human interface guidelines, not user interface guidelines”. Marco Arment goes into more detail with the linguistic problems this creates:

My challenge in this linguistic battle, though, is that not every Instapaper account is a customer, traditionally, in that not all of them give Instapaper money directly. People who buy the app are customers. People who subscribe for $1 per month are subscribers. (People who do both are awesome.) But is there a non-insulting term for everyone else who uses the service subsidized by the customers, subscribers, and Deck advertisers?

And Instapaper’s lucky enough to have directly paying customers. What about “free” or mostly-free services that are predominantly funded by ads — the most popular, growth-inducing, and profitable business model on the web by far? “Users” are deeply entrenched in our entire industry’s culture. We can’t move past that attitude without moving past that business model, too.

I discussed the “user” issue in my PhD about interactivity and playfulness in detail. The word is a hangover from the history of computers as calculators, from engineers and HCI folk (despite the H for human in that acronym) primarily seeing computers and applications as tools to be used to complete a task.

This falls apart in many situations. An interactive artwork, for example, does not really have users in the sense of the tool-goal dyadic. I prefer the term interactors because they are people — actors — who are interacting with something and sometimes each other. It also gives a sense of the action-reaction feedback loop, the kind of “conversation” an interactor has with an interface. I like it because conversations are two-way things – dialogues. Users suggest something much more isolated — a monologue at best.

I don’t think customers is the best alternative. At least not always. When we’re talking about paid services, there are usually customers, but, as Marco points out, there are a whole load of other participants in the service ecology who are neither users or customers. The example we often use in our book on service design is that of a nurse. A nurse is both a service provider (to patients and doctors) and a service user (of internal hospital services, health insurance databases, etc.).

This tendency towards words like user and customer also stems from us still thinking in product and industrial terms about things that are services. Square is a service, with an innovative product as a key part of it. Dropbox is a service, not a product, even though Dropbox has product managers (more on Dropbox’s problems at a later date). In Chapter 2 Understanding People and Relationships of our book, we discuss this difference:

“Use” and “consume” are product mindset words and we need to use different language for services. People don’t “use” a health care professional or a lawyer, and they don’t consume a train journey or a stay at a hotel. Instead, people enter into a relationship with professionals and service providers, and their interactions are an act of co-producing the service experience. Thus, we need to think in terms of designing for relationships and experiences that evolve and change over time, rather than just in terms of short moments of consumption or usage.

This is at the heart, I think, of what Square’s Director, Howard Schultz, was asking Jack Dorsey about. Dorsey’s summary is encouraging and correct:

First, I’m going to work with the support team to surface top issues at every Town Square instead of just CS inquiries per transaction percentages. And on our information radiators. We must feel our customer’s issues every day.

Second, all of our work is in service of our customers. Period. Therefore, we better damn well mention them in every conversation, review, meeting, goal, etc. I expect all of you to make certain our customers are always the first and only focus of all our efforts. If there is an egregious absence of this focus anywhere in the company, tell me and we will correct. If I ever say the word “user” again, immediately charge me $140.

But it’s not just about different words, or even being more customer-focused, although that is essential. The change is also about completing changing the industrial mindset we’ve got so used to in our culture that we hardly see it anymore. This goes for healthcare, education, politics, finance, energy, mobility and all the other lifelong services that we expect to always be there. It’s vitally important to remember there are people making them part of their lives and depending on them, as well as people behind the scenes at all levels working hard to make them happen. This is about building ongoing relationships not simply moments of selling and forgetting.

So, what do we call these people? As you’re so sharp, you will have noticed I called them participants above, but I still think interactor sounds better and has better connotations. But really they are people playing roles. Shakespeare nailed it in the famous monologue from As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Understanding Interactivity Through Play

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Some months ago I officially became Dr. Polaine (Andy Polaine, PhD. for you Americans) and have been planning to write a series of posts about the main themes of my thesis, Developing A Language Of Interactivity Through The Theory Of Play, for some time.

So to coincide with a post over at Core77 about the journey of doing a design PhD, this is the first installment to introduce the main themes and to provide a link to download the entire thesis (5.9MB).

The background to doing the PhD was largely everything I had learned since the early Antirom days when we were trying to discover and uncover the essence of interactive media and really trying to understand what makes it different from other media. At the same time I was getting more and more interested in storytelling and was fascinated by fact that great stories, regardless of their content and style, tended to adhere to clearly defined structures that had been honed over thousands of years.

These converging interests gave rise to some apparently simple questions: What makes one interactive experience more engaging than another? What makes an interactive experience engaging? Why are some simple interactions so satisfying and others so dull? Why do technological marvels sometimes fail to satisfy whilst a cardboard box can provide hours of entertainment?

They sound trivial, but turned out to be very difficult to answer in a rigorous way. The easy answer is, like love and pornography, “I know it when I see it,” but that doesn’t really help anyone develop a strategy to analyse or create new interactive works. New Media (to use an uncomfortable term) has had its fair share of academic attention, but most of it I have found pretty tedious and often distanced from my own experience of creating and using interactive media. So at the one end we have the media and cultural theorists and at the other we have the HCI folk. In the middle somewhere are the media art aficionados.

At Antirom we were playing with the affordances of the tools, playing with our understanding of narrative structure, playing games and, most importantly, playing at making interactive ‘things’. We were not terribly sure what one should call these ‘things’ that we were making. Sometimes it was tempting to refer to the medium itself, such as CD-ROMs, but this only described the storage format, not the interactive experiences. Partly because many of these interactive experiments were incomplete and partly because we felt they were experiments in play in both their creation and usage, we settled on calling them ‘toys’ for the most part. Sometimes we would take the code guts of one ‘toy’ and re-use or re-combine it with another and these guts we would call an ‘engine’.

Thus, within the same breath, we would use both non-industrial and industrial terminology for the same ‘thing’. It soon became clear to us that the “interactives” (as we now describe them) we were making a marked departure from the media forms that had gone before and that a language to describe them, think about them and create them also had to be invented. The media theory we had imbibed as students, that helped us deconstruct the complex layers of semiotics in traditional media, was rendered weak and impotent.

I couldn’t use HCI or common user-experience frameworks to examine an interactive artwork and at the same time I couldn’t view a commercial website or application design with a media arts lens. Yet I felt I could understand an interactive artwork with the same sensibility as a might analyse a piece of iPhone UI design, but there wasn’t a framework for me to articulate that understanding.

This is what became the subject of my PhD, which explores a still-developing discipline and thus borrows from a wide range of existing, established and not-so-established disciplines. Art and media historians and theorists may feel it does not draw upon enough cultural theory, nor does it draw on the often opaque language of those disciplines. HCI proponents will want more empirical and technical data. Behavioural psychologists may also have wished for more direct experimental data and linguists a deeper examination of the semiotics, semantics and syntax of interactivity.

The key to the whole exploration is play. Understanding how play and playfulness work, what constitutes play (still undefinable) and how much everyone like to engage in play when given the chance, is central to the thesis. But along the way it was necessary to draw upon a wide range of disciplines – from design, art, cognitive science, linguistics and more.

I argue that play is such a fundamental building block of culture, society, technology and cognition that it is the ideal lens through which to examine the interactive experience. It is versatile enough to cross boundaries and fundamental enough to be understood intuitively. Through an understanding of the intersection between movement, embodied cognition, metaphor and play, a set of principles of interactivity are developed that are flexible enough to analyse and be applied to a broad spectrum of interactive experiences, from interactive artworks to services to individual user interface elements.

The four main principles are a deconstruction of the interactive experience, which might last a second or several days. You can squash or stretch the timescale, but I have found the principles to hold true regardless of the context. I’ll post more detail on each one in coming weeks, but here they are for now:

  1. The Invitation to Play
  2. The Playing Field & the Rules
  3. Challenge, Boredom and Anxiety
  4. Triviality, Open-endedness, Promises

Writing a thesis like this is like painting a large bridge – once you get to the end, you have to start all over again. Naturally, in the six years it took me to write the thesis (part-time!), technology and culture moved on rapidly. The iPod was in its second generation when I started and the iPad was just about to be released when I finished. The latter was important because it confirmed my thoughts on “the disappearing interface” and the need for a deep understanding of metaphor when examining interactivity.

Social networks also exploded onto the scene as I was writing my PhD. The final section of the thesis is somewhat of a postscript and proposes that these principles provide a way to examine the phenomenal growth of social networks and the fundamental cultural shifts we are experiencing today as a result of the friction generated between emerging networked technologies and the industrial age structures they are dismantling.

In future posts I’ll go into more detail on the various sections, but in the meantime I’d welcome your feedback via the comments or Twitter.

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

The COTEN project is gaining momentum and there are some excellent discussions going on. A lot of the conversation is about different teaching and institutional structures and the styles of learning they encourage or discourage.

I just wrote a response to a post, which delves a little bit into my PhD subject, which is about understanding interactivity through play. As I came to the end of my PhD I realised that the principles of interactivity that I developed (more on this soon) held true for a number of other areas, including teaching and service design. I posted a response on the COTEN forums, but I’d like to air it here as a blog post in its own right:

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

Over my years of teaching I’ve tried all sorts of approaches, from leaving things very open to having things very structured. I have found it to be totally context dependent. Some students love to be left to their own devices while others crave structure. The challenge is to cater for both. It also depends on individual courses and the backgrounds of those taking them.

I also realised that the more I hands-on helped, the more helpless my students became because I was doing all the learning on their behalf. When I first started teaching, it took me a semester before I realised that helping them less actually helped them more because they worked things out for themselves and learned by doing.

Finding the right balance is the main skill of teaching I think and you really have to go with your intuition combined with direct student feedback and ignore most of the other pedagogical literature. I’m sure colleagues will shoot me down for saying that, but I found this when I did study the literature and work on this on a short post-grad course in teaching at higher education level – in the attempt to create the perfect course, it just got over structured and sapped the life and energy out of it for both me and the students.

Writing my PhD on interactivity and play, I developed a set of principles for understanding interactivity through the lens of play that I think applies here. Bear with me, because it’s going to sound like I’m going way off topic, but we’ll come back to the point:

The central principles, among others, are about finding the “magic circle” – the space of play that defines being in play and out of play (such as the lines on a football pitch, the sides of a cardboard box, etc.) and the rules of play. These rules allow for different behaviour during play (e.g. you can tackle someone holding a ball to the ground) than during “normal” life. One of the things that I argue is that knowing these two things is essential to any interaction – from interpersonal through interface to society. On the interactive interface front, users need to understand what game they’re playing and the interface needs to be set up in the right way. In this way you can explore, analyse and design for both tightly controlled UI environments such as an iPhone app or a part of an operating system, but the principles also allow for the same analysis of an interactive art installation. The key is understanding the context. In the latter example, it might be desired that the interactor is deliberately tricked or gets lost or that the interface is ambiguous unlike the clarity of an iPhone app. On the other hand that iPhone app might have playful elements that encourage you to explore the boundaries of the play space (the magic circle) and help you to learn the interface without ever really feeling like you’re learning at all, such as the iPhone’s “one free interaction”.

In the art installation example, the critical aspect of getting the interaction right is that interactors understand that they are meant to be lost. That is, they understand that they’re supposed to not understand the interface straight away and that discovering how it all works is part of the experience. Experienced videogamers will understand this idea straight away, because in most videogames the point is not to read the rules and then play the game, the point is that finding out what the rules are is part of the gameplay experience.

It struck me a while ago as I was deconstructing all of this how much it parallels the learning experience. Learning, by definition, involves a journey into unknown territory, otherwise you would not need to learn it (because it’s not unknown). This is often and usually inherently uncomfortable – nobody likes to feel stupid or confused. It’s rather like being in a maze – at least it is if the teaching and learning experience is going well, because when you are in a maze you know that you are meant to be confused and that somewhere there is a way out and/or if you yell out, somebody will come and help you. This kind of learning experience is usually very positive and why we hear so much terminology of good teachers being ‘guides’. But simply giving someone a map would be “cheating” in play and game terminology and we all know that this takes the fun out of playing.

Another kind of learning experience that is extremely negative is feeling lost, but not knowing you are in a maze that you are supposed to work your way out of. When that’s the case, you just feel lost and confused and it’s all pretty scary because wherever you turn it seems like a dead end. In this example, a map of the maze is equivalent to the tools and methods and technology or techniques that lost students often cling to at the expense of the learning experience they might have if they could work out their own way out of the maze. It’s a completely understandable emotional state, but it doesn’t lead to much lifelong or long-lasting learning.

In both cases you are in a maze, so the context is the same, but the overarching difference is the conceptual space you are in mentally. Setting up this space – the magic circle and the rules of play – seem to me to be the skill that not only the teacher needs to bring to the learning experience, but also that the institutions structures need to encourage.

Most of the time it seems that a lot of effort is spent on making maps to the maze and not on trying to develop the mental space. I think this is because the former is concrete and feels manageable and measurable, while the latter is highly personal and not directly measurable (but the results do show). It’s rather like the difference between Apple’s approach to usability and Jakob Nielsen’s obsessively warped understanding of it (in which he exclaims that, “users don’t know where they can click” when referring to a multitouch device).

Flap to Freedom


Flap to Freedom from Chris O'Shea on Vimeo.

Battery hens flap to help battery hens in the Flap to Freedom installation that Chris O’Shea and Icodesign created for the V&A Village Fete to support freedom for farmed chickens.

Contestants flap their arms and their chicken moves in sync. Quickest flapper wins the highest place on the pecking order. More over at the Icodesign site.

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There are also Flickr sets showing the build process and the chickens in action.

Chris has also posted more details about the Flap to Freedom project as well as a bit of technical how-it-was-done.

For someone like me who is always interested in getting people to act playfully (dare I say stupidly) via interactivity, this is pretty hard to beat. They’re so into the activity, they take the technical ‘magic’ for granted, which is how it should be. I especially like the way the music eggs them on (sorry).

Bet you that music sticks in your head for the rest of the day too.

(NOTE/UPDATE: I thought I’d posted this whole thing before, but it was on draft for some reason, so I’ve combined the two posts).

Interactive Dangerous Australians


Dangerous Australians from Lightwell on Vimeo.

Let’s face it, all Australians are dangerous on the sports field, but the the Australian Museum has a new interactive installation called Dangerous Australians that allows you to interact (safely) with Australia’s deadliest top ten creatures. The saltwater crocodile, funnel web spider, box jelly fish, brown snake are among them. Via the six-metre long interactive table you can explore what happens if you encounter them and what should you do to survive.

The installation was created by Lightwell under the technical direction of ex-COFA and ex-Fabrican Dave Towey. The whole thing is running under OS X and coded in Cocoa/Objective-C++ with a bunch of open source libraries including Ogre3D, OpenFrameworks and OpenCV (computer vision for the tracking).

Thanks to the Objective C++ it looks like it runs extremely fluidly and fast. For me, it’s interesting to see how the interactors act and react. The children use really quick jabs at the ‘buttons’, as if they’re trying to test the interface and its affordances. But the bit I love most of all is how the person with their hand in the ‘water’ snaps it away in reflex to the Great White Shark that suddenly appears (around 0:50 in the video).

More images and details on Lightwell’s page – and take a look at their other work whilst your at it.

3M Interface – Reverse Multitouch

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My brother, Matt, just e-mailed a link to this interface on the 3M website. Given the multitouch hype at the moment, it’s quite a clever little riff on the theme.

Basically it’s as if you are standing to the rear of a multitouch screen. Your mouse controls the finger movements of the person blurred out in the background and a selection does the old two-finger click-and-drag-larger movement that seems to have become a multitouch standard.

Core77 Broadcast interview with Troika

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Sebastien and Eva from Troika, the studio behind the Cloud and All The Time In The World installations at new Terminal 5 at Heathrow. So, if you were one of the hundreds stuck at Terminal 5 when it opened, at least you had something decent to marvel at.

Troika are unusual in their combination of disciplines, I feel. It’s not so often that graphic and motion graphic design and this kind of interactive installation work come together – architecture is the more usual bedfellow.

I found it very interesting to hear them talk about the development of their creative palette and language of the objects they create as well as how some of the seemingly tiny technical issues can end up defining a massive part of the work.

You can have a listen to the interview on Core77.