Rage against the machine

The introduction of artificial intelligences and neural networks will impact the job industry at any level. Are we ready for this?

La provincia dell’Impero?

A brief consideration about the Italian startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem: are the numbers so bad or are we just whiners?

Black Mirrors and Blue Skies

Behind a masterful direction, Black Mirror sports an outstanding example of contextual design.

Experiences can be designed

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From time to time, the question about the design-ability of experiences arises:

Can we, as designers, design the actual experience for our users through our services and products, or are we just living in that illusion, since we are only able to “inspire” what will eventually will become the experience?

It seems that no one in the UX field as a consistent vision of the dilemma…

Honestly, I have a very strong position on this: I do believe that we can design the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that both stances are equally valid, but I do also know that the fundamental golden rule to design incredible experiences is to find the sweet spot between the user objectives and the designer objectives: incredible experiences are way beyond usability and accessibility issues, they are dreams living on the edge of art, creativity and usefulness.

I’m not that kind of experience designer, since my artistic skill are still, somehow, undeveloped, however I find the concept of an artistic UX, very appealing and sexy, in a way.

If I would say that experiences can’t be designed, how could I define the work of a film maker, a book writer or a musician? They don’t need to design the user experience for each of us, they design THE EXPERIENCE, the one, in their opinion, is supposed to be communicated to the world.

How comes that this point of view is so difficult to understand ( and embrace) when we are dealing with the internet digital world?

Doctor, please, enlight me…

Oh, well, we all know that there is no spoon… and so there is no one size answer…

…but…

If you want to widen your thinking, I really recommend you to take a dive in the wonderful world of board games design.

Traditional Board games aka Table top games (the ones with physical plastic pieces playable around a table with your bearded friends) are the striking example of what every designer needs to aim for:

  1. a clear description of a Complex Problem
  2. a defined map of objectives
  3. a system of incentives or even rewards
  4. a solid game mechanic — rules
  5. hooks to provide engagement throughout the activity
  6. tiny little facilities to relief pain points
  7. a unique value proposition
  8. a set of features to ensure replayability

If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.

Marcus Brigstocke, English comedian

Board Games are made to wrap a very simple complex problem in a totally understandable fashion to let players jump aboard, enter the world and start exploring. Then, the game itself leads towards the objective completion, removing all the hurdles in the process, although keeping the competition and the engagement level high.

Everything must be set in order to be replayable over time, ensuring a good factor variation and, last but not least, introducing something unique to the game.

Boards games are an excellent example to demonstrate another thing: the experience we designed consists of the 1% of the interaction we designed and 99% for the interaction the user experienced / experiences elsewhere.

Board games are not a self sustained world: they need to draw from other type of stories, interactions, sub cultures.. from movies, serials, novels, other games, internet and so on. A game based on the Lord of the Rings movie, have part of the game mechanics already decided and this is unchangeable, a game based on Angry Birds, instead, needs to replicate the rules, but the interaction must be created from ground, even tho it may be inspired by the game dynamics, which is also inspired back by the real world physics.

What Can we Learn?

A lot of things, indeed, but a boring list won’t be useful to anyone, right?
So I will tell you my insights on the dilemma, by proving you a review of my new favorite board game, RISK: LEGACY

Greetings, Professor Falken.

Joshua

Experience Review, RISK: LEGACY

RISK: LEGACY is the latest installation of the infamous RISK.

I’m not a fan of RISK, whatsoever, I found it too long, too boring for my taste, but when I read the description of Legacy I instantaneously felt in love with the concept, with really mixed feelings: Legacy is RISK at its mechanics core, but instead of having 1 play:1 war, it is actually a campaign of 15 plays / battles.

You can still play each battle singularly with your friends, but during a play you can put several types of modifiers on the board table (more troops, dice malus/bonus… etc ) and they are all meant to be persistent from that game on.
You can create city, name continents whatever you like and do a lot of stuff directly by scribbling on the board or using stickers and this will all be your legacy for the future next games.

The premise of the game is that any choice have consequences.

Sounds scary? Well, It’s pretty worse than this: every time a player use a card, select a bonus or unlock a new rule, the depleted card must be destroyed. I don’t mean put it aside, I really mean DESTROYED, to be torn up into little pieces!

Be aware of searching reviews online about this game, they will inevitably spoil you the fun with spoilers and anticipations!
However read this one (Warning: mild language), it will get straight to the point, without spoiler 😀

You are about to starting a war

The experience starts right before the box opening: a beautiful albeit simple paper seal reminds you about the gravity of the choices you will have to make.

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Every visual element, every content is carefully crafted to fuel the context, the no turning back stance of the game will make you quickly forget it’s just a game. The immersion is total.

When you open the box, the expectation is very high, and the first thing that strikes your attention are the four sealed slips strapped on backside of the top: each of one holds a secret set of cards or item to be used during the game and that can be opened only if a requiring conditions is met, such as the first defeat of an opponent.

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When you unwrap the board table, you have to sign the declaration of war, which also is a formal act of responsibility acknowledgement, which is pretty cool, because aside from setting the mood, it is a milestone which opens formally the game with a clear message:

“Stop joking, from now on, things are getting serious”.

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Each board as a “World Serial Number”, fancy thing to conveys the concept that infinite world exists, and yours throughout the 15 battles campaign, will be unique.

Choices matter

The first choice is the most painful: there are 5 factions to be playable, there are no bonus or statistics related to the faction, however each faction comes with two unique special power. Players must choose just one of them, stick it to the faction card and destroy the other, forever.

This will gonna break your heart. In the end, you’ll do it and everybody should.

You may make a copy of the faction card and save the original one, but for what reason?
This is an example of designed experience: the game designer did design this exact moment, your discomfort, your sense of “things to be done for the greater good”.

No matter what, you, as a player, will comply, because “that is the way it meant to be played”.

Do you really care about your personal experience or are you more curious about living the experience designed for you?

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BTW, “permanent choices” have a very heavy impact on how you tackle a challenge.

Games On

The game mechanics follow the rules of the classic Risk, just more fast with some fancy spins now and then, like bonuses, missiles and objectives.

Your primary objective (winning condition) is to earn 4 star tokens or to eliminate your opponents.

The first round you start with a star token and each base you conquer, including yours, count as one star.
Each turn you conquer a territory, you gain a resource card and you can trade 4 of them for a star token, or troops.

Calculation of the number of troops to gain each round is complex and tedious, fortunately, right on the board there is an handful table with the premade calculations.

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The first round is very fast and easy.
Since the game is evolving itself, when you already won a battle, you start the next game with a bonus, but without the initial star token. Thorough the campaign gaining those 4 stars will become more and more difficult.

The World

Here is the board after our two battles:

Greenland has quickly became the most resourceful territory, here was built Atlantis, the first of the two major cities of the planet founded by the previous winners. The other city is Maracas, in Brazil. Peru’ is devastated by long battles that left the territory in ammunition shortage, which makes it difficult to defend.
There are also minor cities, founded by the survived players, in Egypt, protected by a bunker which boosts the city defenses, Europe, Australia and China.

After just two battles the world is already unique, and the first slip with optional rules has been opened, introducing a “comeback power” for defeated player.

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and Then?

15 battles seem a quite short play value, but the reality is that after the 15th battle the world is not ended, it is just stable: it won’t evolve anymore and you had filled the last 20% of the rules that the game designer left open for you to fill.

During all the campaign, expansions sets will provide replayability, both with new objectives and new rules. Each game will become longer and more complex, thus it will be more difficult to reach your objective. Increasing difficulty, item unlocking, new rules… oh it’s like a videogame, it behaves like one, but it is real physical game instead!

The game designer totally nailed it and I find it elegant and beautiful.

If you really think that experiences cannot be designed, take a look at Risk:Legacy and I bet it will change your mind, such experience HAS to be designed.

Still not convinced?

Rob Daviau, the game designer behind Risk:Legacy, in a great speech about Legacy Games:

PRACTICE 2013: Rob Daviau from NYU Game Center on Vimeo.

Responsive Thinking

It’s a couple of days I saw this website spinning back and forth in the internet

Responsive Logos

Basically it features beautifully vector logos of famous brands which are totally responsive, you can resize the viewport and the logos resize themselves into smaller version, leaving intact their recognizability.

Responsive Logos

I really love it.

But the more I look at these logos, the more I am convinced it’s not about recognizability: they actually convey different messages and have different purpose in each of their respective responsive state. Recognizability is ensured by the logotype and brand color pattern, however in their normal state, the logos aim to be just evocative, the middle size ensures they are unmistakable and the smaller size provides “contextual orientation”.

If you ever start exploring the concept from the smallest sizes, probably things are not so obvious.

BTW,

They are beautiful because they express the meaning of responsiveness I always used to intend: it’s not useful to convey the same message across all media, it is far better to convey the best message for each media (when you can).

Even Google is not rich enough to support all the different mobile platforms.

Vic Gundotra — VP of Engineering at Google

What’s next?

Since Responsive Web Design (RWD) has reached is fifth birthday, this website allow me to take some time to think about what RWD means today for me, as a UX professional, and for my clients.

As Rick Monroe once said, “(RWD) remains the single most important shift in design and development for the web since the advent of CSS”, I always had been a strong advocate of crafting the right experience for each channel and media, in respect of their strengths and limitations. I always believed that responsive design is actually more a strategy than a mere process.

I tried (with fairly good success ) to educate my clients into thinking RWD as a strategy instead of just a mandatory check list item: RWD is wonderful opportunity that can be leveraged to encourage the utterly sense of love and loyalty of users who understand that you “care” about them, by providing amazing services and overcome their expectations.

In order to do that…

I always switch the word “responsive” with “adapting” because it is much easier for me to open up a discussion about what “responsiveness” should truly consist of:

  • Responsiveness in Design: how you present your content should match the channel capabilities in terms of information hierarchy, font size, layout whitespaces, resolution and ergonomics
  • Responsiveness in Interaction: how your interaction should respond to different device / media / technologies in terms of animation, patterns, orientation, context of use
  • Responsiveness in Content: how much content and what type of contents are useful in different contexts? Too much or too less? What is really important for our user to reach his objective?
  • Responsive in Technology: We all want beautiful images and photos, but serving a whopping 3mb of webpage shrank in a mobile frame is not responsive at all…

Unfortunately, the majority of the people in charge don’t think beyond the first bullet point, “making the web experience accessible to mobile devices”, which is the lowest level of mobile compliancy that you should think of.

Adapting your message to the current delivering media is the key factor for success and implementing only a “change of presentation” should not be enough for anyone.

Beautiful article on Smashing Magazine

You may find a striking resemblance with the using of the terms “Translation” and “Localization”: technical folks use them interchangeably but there is a mild difference between them. You should always localized your content, using proper language expressions, shibboleths, collocations and cultural references. In the worst case scenario, where you can’t provide a localization, translation is the fallback plan.

With “Responsiveness” we don’t go that far, the worst level of compliancy is now, today, the standard and the optimum is not even considered.

I honestly believe my clients ignorance about the whole concept of RWD is totally due to a woeful communication of the so called web experts (Us)…

If you check the wikipedia entry for RWD

Responsive web design – Wikipedia

Screenshot 2014-07-30 19.56.51

As you can read along the whole entry, the technical point of view of the article is so strong and biased that anything else falls behind. No mention about functionalities, contents or purpose.

This kind of approach really upset me in the past and I do believe that this kind of culture is, in part, our fault.

Something is in the air

responsive-example

I believed once in dogmatic approaches and moving my process methodically in the direction of responsive design seems a convenient way of achieving better results: It was all a matter of agree with the stakeholders on the user objectives and the company objectives categorized by channel and building together a multi channel strategy.
It worked so far for pretty long time, but with my last project (a very big web portal) I started questioning those concepts.

In 2014, more people are using mobile devices to access the internet than desktop PCs. Accessibility for mobile devices has become a huge priority for web developers, maybe it is time for us to to redefine some of our misconceptions. 🙂

The internet is moved to a mobile primary consumption of contents, but for what the idea of “mobile” itself really stands for?

Is the “Mobile” the “in motion” experience we used to believe? 850 mln of people are today mobile only users, by will, and they won’t access the internet by web, desktop, laptop or by any other means.

If we still believe mobile is the “internet on the go” with tight focused experience, we are awfully wrong, since we have to deal with a brand new breed of users for whom the mobile experience is the ONLY experience.

As a matter of fact, I start changing my mind…

providing a subset of functionalities with the assumption that they ought to be more than enough may not match user expectations and failing user expectations in the UX design field is an unforgivable sin.

Today, responsive design is an unnecessary necessity and I start thinking that the mobile distinction is just an artificial barrier we built because we are not ready to deal with complex projects.

If we are able to design full fledge experiences regardless of the delivery channel, do you think the “mobile first” approach still holds or we can safely return to a more traditional content first?

Why the UX Book Club is good for your Soul

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I really can’t tell you how book clubs managed to survived in the era of the internet tsunami and remote online relationships, but I can assure you they are really far from dying. They are alive and kicking.

If you believe a book club is something that suits only your grandma, you are wrong.

If I say the words “book club” the first thing that probably comes up in your mind should be a “noisy circle of middle aged women, drinking tea and reading out loud verses and poems”.

The reality is not that far: there are still a circle, the booze and the monthly book to read, but things have just evolved into something new, fresh and exceptionally powerful for your career.

Bookclubs turn out to be an invaluable professional tool: in a world where anybody can claim to be or claim to do whatever they want, how do you manage to withstand a fair and honest discussion with peers and professional colleagues without the curtain of fake courtesy typical of formal events and conferences?

You have to sport a fairly complex mix of ingredients:

  • Time
  • People
  • A Place to stay
  • Technical Competences
  • Professional Skills
  • Dialect and Communication skills
  • Charisma and Empathy

The beautiful features of a book club is that the book is not only just an excuse to gather people together with a same common interest, it is, in the reality, the kick you need to push yourself into finding time to keep yourself growing in the field.

People and users as well, make strategies to overcome their obstacles, a book club is an unique chance to explain yours and learn others in different scenarios, from dealing with clients to the many ways to fine-tuning your internal workflows.

Each professional has his strength and weakness, even tho you are a freshman and it may seems scary at first, never miss a chance of a confrontation!

“You’re not the devil. You’re practice.” — Bruce Wayne

Go out and look for a UX Book Club!

If you live in Italy, check the official UX Book Clubs website: uxbookclub.it, you’ll find me in the Emilia Romagna UX Book Club.

If you are living anywhere else, I’m sure that you’ll find one close to you.

Take a leap of faith and try.

Afterthoughts

What happens if the “girls are mean to you”?

Here a small consideration about the learning experience among peers.

In the last days, I saw the recrudescence of this motivational image all around LinkedIn and other socials with a cr*pload of likes:

Sorry sir, if you like this probably you are not the smartest at all… If you *believe* you are the smartest guy in a room, you are an a**hole.

  • You failed into teaching others
  • You failed into understanding others
  • You failed into measuring yourself
  • You probably are a freeloader
  • You don’t know the definition of “smart” very well

There are many, MANY, reason to “change the room” but, IMHO, being the smartest, is not the right one, at least for me.

Jump into another pond if you want to learn,if you want opportunities! It is way to easy to blame others for your failures, you can’t compare people with an unmeasurable metric like “smartness”.

To be smart and to be skilled are quite a different thing, and a good professional should have both characteristics carefully dosed.

How comes that the exact rephrase doesn’t sound so appealing?

BE the dumbest guy in a room. It’s the right place for you!

Because, It is not.

I got THE idea! (and it was already taken)

This month I want to tell you a story. It’s all about two guys, me and Mr. A (obviously this is not his real name, but for the sake of the story It will suffice).

It was at the beginning of the last year, 2013 for the records, I was right in the middle of my living room tidying up all the christmas stuffs in a box, when I got an epiphany: lightbulbs lightened up, angels sang and I GOT THE IDEA.

You know, I’m talking about THE idea, the one that was supposed to change the whole world, to disrupt any kind of existing service, to become the next big thing in the new era of social network. It was, for me, right like the flux capacitor.

Early in Back to the Future Doc describes his inspiration for the flux capacitor (the essential component of time travel in the series) as a “vision” which comes to him in 1955, after he slipped off his toilet while standing on it to hang a clock and bumping his head on the sink.

First thing first:

Found a Problem

I started with a very simple observation of facts:

no matter how and no matter what, people never get what they want for christmas.

That was the needs niche I began with to force my idea into something more real, appealing and structured. I was quite a freshman as a UX freelance, but I had done my homework, so I tried to be more rationale as possible by double checking with “Innovative Ideas 101”:

Step 1

  • Is it a real problem? Yes, it is.
  • Sure? Yes I am
  • It’s affecting you? Yes

Step 2: Ok, recite the mantra

  1. I’m not the user
  2. I’m not the user
  3. I’m not the user

Step 3: Now,

  • I would use it
  • I’m sure (IMHO) that someone would use it
  • It is perfect for a friend of mine, she will totally use it

Did you say one of these sentences while trying to explain your idea to someone else? Yes? You are out.

Fortunately I was still IN 🙂

So what were the causes that led me to not have what I desired?

My wishlist was not clear enough or wasn’t accessible or findable, the items I wanted were to expensive for a single person or hard to be bought. My friends or relatives didn’t want to be obvious or predictable and they try to make a gift they think it was tailored for me.

Was there an answer than can resolve all these issues?

Find YOUR Unique Selling Proposition

I really believed I found an elegant all in one solution: My idea was a sort of a “crowdfunded wishlist on steroids”™, never seen before and bright example of a new buying experience built upon existing products.

Users just had to add item to their wishlist and their friends could finance a fraction of those items with a small quota.

Simple as that.

Actually there were a lot of side dynamics which are not relevant (yeah, I may use them for other projects, so I won’t to spoil them to much.. who knows… )

Do a Market Benchmark

We spent at least 7 days man googling back and forth, searching for competitors, services look alike, threats, entrants… we did S.W.O.T. analysis, hypothetical scenarios, projections.

We though we found a blue ocean, since no real competitor had yet to be found.

Mh.. Since It sounded too good to be true, we decided to consolidate the idea, if something is not already on the market:

  1. It is not needed
  2. It is already born and dead
  3. It exists but your benchmark failed to pick it up
  4. It is truly a discover

After all, we believed that we failed to isolate our direct competitor… It had to be something similar out there and if we couldn’t find it, it means either that it failed to go mainstream or my google fu is weak.

Anyway, we decided to go through a a consolidation phase, in case of success it would had strengthened our UPS in preparation for an eventual challenge or a rapid pivoting.

Consolidate

With A, we tested all the critical thinking framework I knew.

We focused on applying SCAMPER, we traced down our personas (three primary and three secondary) and their customer journeys. We tried to design the opposite service to try to find some faults, but, in the end the idea came up to be pretty solid… it just worked.

So What Happened?

A prototype was planned, along with user testing and other nifty things to allure something more… and then everything stopped.

What happened?

Happened that King (the company behind Candy Crash Saga) trademarked the word “Candy”, which was the codename for the project.

I tried to find another name, a more powerful one and I ended up with the word Givt, a combination of Give and Gift, which is and sounds perfect.

Perfect until I tried to snatch the domain (I assumed it was free since it was not active) and found a company named Givt which enables users to gift heir friends of coupons and offers… Who cares? They are quite different…

I then tried some variation and I finally discovered “http://givted.com“.

“GIVTED IS A LUXURY GROUP GIFTING SERVICE ALLOWING FRIENDS AND FAMILY TO POOL FUNDS FOR AN UNFORGETTABLE GIFT. GIVTED WORKS IN THREE SIMPLE STEPS: THE GIFT PLANNER CREATES A GIFT CARD CAMPAIGN, CALLED THE GIVTCARD AND INVITES OTHERS TO CONTRIBUTE BY SHARING A LINK. EACH FRIEND WRITES THEIR GREETING LIKE ON A TRADITIONAL GIFT CARD AND CONTRIBUTES TOWARDS THE GOAL AMOUNT ONLINE. ONCE THE GIVTCARD IS DELIVERED, THE RECIPIENT THEN TRANSFERS THE COLLECTED AMOUNT OF MONEY INTO THEIR BANK ACCOUNT FOR THE PURCHASE OF THEIR DREAM GIFT. STOP READING AND GO CREATE THE PERFECT GIFT CARD!”

END OF GAMES.

What now?

Well, we have to change our UPS, and deliver something different. Honestly having your idea validated by an actual product up and running, is rewarding by per se.

It just meant that your idea is not stupid at all (and my Google Fu is weak).

We just have to do better. Maybe next time 😛