Understanding services as games with janky controls

This post was originally part of my newsletter Doctor’s Note.

I recently tweeted a Games Studies article by M. D. Schmalzer called Janky Controls and Embodied Play: Disrupting the Cybernetic Gameplay Circuit, because it struck me as an excellent way to understand the design and delivery of services. It also helps understand why there is such a close relationship to interaction design and service design, with UX overlapping those two depending on your design religion. The key to this understanding is the concept of janky controls.

Schmalzer starts with a humorous example of intent versus experience:

A text file buried in Kentucky Route Zero’s (2013) game files gives instructions for playing the title on a gamepad: “Push buttons and analog sticks and watch for patterns in response until you have a sense of the relationship between the two.” These humorous directions highlight the unstated ways players are assumed to learn how to play and game designers create videogames. Players tend to assume a one-to-one, predictable correspondence between their inputs and in-game outputs. If they press a button, they can be reasonably sure what will happen as there are constant results based on consistent inputs. So, if they play around with the buttons, they should be able to discern a pattern of responses and make the connection between input and output.

This is something I explored in depth in my PhD about the relationship between playfulness and interactivity. Early videogames had very simple instructions, such as “avoid flashing ghosts.” As more complex games emerged, so did long instruction manuals and tutorial levels. The first Playstation Tomb Raider (1997) game had an entire pre-game training level set in her mansion’s gym. Lara talked you through how to control her movements and interact with the world.

Later, games designers realised many people completely ignore the instructions. Working out what you have to do and how to do it are enjoyable parts of exploring a new game, hence the deadpan Kentucky Route Zero instructions.

For this to work at all, the relationship between expectations and outcomes have to be consistent within the game world’s rules. The relationship between the physical controls, the rendering of them and the feedback through movement, sound, vision, and haptics is critical. This feedback loop is sometimes referred to as the cybernetic circuit.

Schmalzer quotes Ryan Cooper’s definition of jank as “a mixture of bugginess, minor glitches, strange animations, bizarre control schemes and any other number of possible occurrences or abnormalities.” But it’s not just a technical issue – it’s also to do with intent.

The suite of weirdness that jank describes are actually disconnects between player expectations about how elements of videogames (software, hardware, interface, rules, mechanics, visuals, etc.) “should” behave and how they actually do. That does not mean that unpredictable events, random occurrences, or abnormalities are by default janky. After all, unpredictability is a central feature of many videogames so players anticipate certain kinds of unpredictable events ex. enemies mixing up their attacks, random loot dropping, attacks causing critical hits, etc. These phenomena may be somewhat unexpected, but they are still within a player’s range of expectations. Players have literacy in, or familiarity with, those kinds of unpredictable phenomena so they are not interpreted as abnormalities, and thus are not janky. Jank is also often used to mean poor craftsmanship. This is a conflation of one of jank’s causes with the experience of jank. Something interpreted as janky may be because of shoddy construction, but the construction itself is not janky. Stated concisely, jank is a player’s perception that a videogame does not behave in the ways that it should.

Once you view the touchpoints of services as interfaces to intent and action you quickly see that many services are very janky indeed and in some cases “unplayable.”

The design of services often becomes a confusing mélange of disciplines, frequently set in opposition to each other. This is exemplified by the oft-asked question, “what’s the ROI of customer experience?” as if the business of an organisation is unrelated to the experiences of people who use that organisation’s services. Services connect to every part of the business and their ubiquity and complexity can obscure clarity of purpose.

Lou Downe’s excellent 15 principles for good services is a formula for the experiential side of non-janky services. Here are a numbers 2-5:

  1. Good services explain their purpose
  2. Good services set expectations
  3. Good services enable users to complete the outcome they set out to do
  4. Good services work in a way that is familiar

You can see where I’m going with this. While games do sometimes make the purpose deliberately unclear as part of the unfolding narrative of the gameplay they do so intentionally. This is the same difference as mystery versus confusion in storytelling. Mystery is when you don’t know what is going on, but you know you’re not meant to. Confusion is when you don’t know what is going on, but know you should. For most games the purpose is absolutely clear – capture the flag, get through the maze, highest score wins, etc.

Either way, the interface of games need to behave in the ways the players believes it should. Janky gaming interfaces are a cocktail of mismatched expectations and technical and design glitches, just like services.

It may feel strange—not “businesslike,” even—to think of customers or citizens “playing” the game of your service, especially with services like arranging a prison visit, making an insurance claim or paying taxes, but it is exactly what they’re doing and thinking of them in this way provides a lot of clarity (there are similarities to Jobs To Be Done here, too).

People have an end goal in mind and they have to work out what the correct sequence of interface interactions are to get there — go to this website, fill in this form correctly, have this document to hand, go through the payment process. It’s no different from learning how to control Lara Croft, finding the way through the labyrinth, ensuring you have all the parts to the magic amulet and enough health points to beat the boss, except the stakes are usually higher, real and you don’t get to respawn when you die.

So if moving through a service experience is the gameplay, what is the role of the enterprise responsible for the service? It is all the things that make the game work at all – the manifestation of the game world, the technical platform, the rendering engine, the physical and virtual controls, the design of the affordances, rules, boundaries, and mechanics.

It’s not uncommon in games to stumble upon a glitch that either allows you to cheat or leaves you so stuck that the only way to get out is to restart the console. The same frustration you experience dying at the last moment at the end of a game level is exactly the same as spending ages filling in an online form only to have an error that means you have to start again. Sometimes cheats are the only way through poorly designed services.

Game design is a much more evolved discipline than service design with plenty of lessons learned and conundrums resolved that we can draw upon. It helps, of course, that it’s an enormously profitable industry with a very clear ROI, but the ubiquity of services masks the fact that it services is an even larger sector (and games have themselves evolved into services).

Thinking of the technology stack as the platform, the physical touchpoints as physical games controls, and the rest of the movement through the service as the game provides a clear picture for why they must all align to provide at least a “playable,” if not engaging, service experience. Anything else is janky.

And the business? Well the business is all of the above. Without it, nobody buys and plays the game and there’s no return on investment. In the worst cases of government and enterprise software and services, players are forced to play a janky game it because it’s the only one available.

Janky services don’t just fail to be engaging ludic experiences. They’re torture.

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