A Blueprint for Designing Engaging Products

One of the things about the future of Industrial Design that I’ve always been interested in, is the interplay or relationship between software and hardware interfaces, the pros and cons of each, as well as being a product designer, how we can give an object’s design more “soul” by making it tactile and perhaps haptic? What I’m talking about here is not so much about imbuing an object with an interface. It’s more about the multi sensorial experience of software meshed or merged with the comforting touch of a tangible product.

I think it’s about designing a product that is a confluence point and not a balancing act between hardware and software. Perhaps this could be a different approach to product development in time to come. So how do we design such hybrid products?
One of my guesses lies in the experience interacting with a product. In general when we are designing a product we often focus on the big picture concept before looking at the in-animate aspects like the tangible form, as well as the usage experience that satisfies a user’s needs.
Interestingly when we combine the software interface as part of the thinking the product suddenly becomes alive. Why not before when it’s just the product alone?
Well my first observation is that it now appeals to the senses. Not only is it now a tactile thing, there is visual stimulation with display animation, audio stimulation, and perhaps depending on the product even smell. At first I thought I struck gold, but as time went on I realize this is only first level thinking that is actually superficial. There seems to be more to this, a more cognitive mental appreciation of how all these aspects come together to make an appealing product.
It’s only in the last few days that is has all come together.
I’m always a fan of very successful social pick-up and go computer games that are easy to get into and has a mass market appeal. This is because the game creators can create an oh so simple game that some how appeals too many different people and has the long lasting appeal.
flowThat’s me with the big circling rings, about to munch on that 4 eyed tadpole…hehheh
As usual I tend to walk of the beaten track with my gaming entertainment and have found a lot of enjoyment with Geometry Wars (GW), and flOw created by Jenova Chen Nick Clark, and Austin Wintory for his MFA thesis project at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
Interestingly enough both games had a strong underground following and were not launched in main stream releases. GW was an Easter egg that came with the racing simulation game Project Gotham Racing 2 on the X-box. It actually got lot more play time then its host game, with its pick up and go and simple addictiveness! It is now available as a download on X-Box live Arcade.
Similarly, flOw is now available as a downloadable game on PS3. This is a very strong nod towards indie gamers with very different and strong games looking to make it big. (If you are interested you can download flOw here or play online. GW is so popular there are clones such as Grid Wars by Mike Incitti and well as a GW inspired game Mono.)
Source: Penny Arcade via thegamecompany blog

However, I apologize with the slight digression, but before we continue I do encourage you do download the games and have a go before you read my next part.
Ok are you done? Had a few good rounds? Go ahead if you need more time don’t mind me…

Now lets focus on flOw and take a look at Jenova’s MFA Thesis for a minute. Or if you are like me, jump on over to the conclusion for the best part and the section on “How to Realize Flow in Games”. Here he talks about the basis and inspiration of his flOw game, the research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Here it is reproduced in eternity:

How to Realize Flow in Games
Based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s positive psychology research, when a person totally focus into an activity and forget about time and pressure, he reaches the optimal experience, Flow. There are many conditions in order to reach Flow.
In the field of game design, there are three fundamental conditions:
1. As a premise, the game is intrinsically rewarding, and the player is up to play the game.
2. The game offers right amount of challenges to match with the player’s ability, which allows him/her to delve deeply into the game.
3. The player needs to feel a sense of personal control over the game activity.
In order to enhance Flow experience, here are the methodologies game designers can pick up and apply to their own designs and make them enjoyable by a much broader audience.
1. Expand your game’s Flow coverage by including a wide spectrum of game play with different difficulties and flavors
2. Create an Player-oriented Active DDA system to allow different players to play in their own paces
3. Embed DDA choices into the core game play mechanics and let player make their choices through play
With the proof of Traffic Light and flOw, as well as the other successful commercial games whose designs match the above methodologies, designing games enjoyable by both gamers and non-gamers is totally feasible and should be applied to help expanding video game market and essentially make video games a more mature media.

Also at Jenova Chen’s “Flow in Games” section, we have a more concise description of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory. (Stumbled on via NotCot.com)

Flow Theory
From Wikipedia
With Flow the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi names the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment. As Csikszentmihalyi sees it, the components of a Flow producing activity are:
* We are up to the activity.
* We are able to concentrate on the activity.
* The activity has clear goals.
* The activity has direct feedback.
* We feel that we control the activity.
* Our worries and concerns disappear.
* Our subjective experience of time is altered.
Not all of these components need to be present together for Flow to be experienced.

A final quote to seal this discussion, from NotCot.com, when you experience Flow, you enter into a Zone called the Flow Zone.

…definition of the Flow zone: “In order to maintain the Flow experience, people need to adjust their experience, balance the challenges to their abilities, keep themselves in a safe zone where psychic entropies like anxiety and boredom would not occur.”


Chart Source
Wow. Think about this? This 7 or so bullet points are actually a blueprint or list if you would like to creating some really engaging and amazing product designs! Let’s take a look at it point by point.
1) We are up to the activity.
The product is easy enough to use, or it is designed that our target market is able to comprehend and operate the product.
2) We are able to concentrate on the activity.
The product’s form layout or details encourage focus, ease of use and ergonomics.
3) The activity has clear goals.
This implies that there is certain simplicity in a product that is pretty important. This product is meant to do one thing and one thing only. This point could also indicate that people do not have too much of an ability to multi-task and thus convergence products could remain a niche product.
4) The activity has direct feedback.
Haptic response by buttons, sound and even lights create a certain reward or punishment for things done correctly or incorrectly.
5) We feel that we control the activity.
Any wonder why many people hate the ultimate convergence product the PC? The complexity of the product means many people lose control of it. Again this point implies simplicity in a product.
6) Our worries and concerns disappear.
In a software context this pretty means you become happy and forget about your problematic real world. In product design, this can also applied with clever perhaps quirky design. I would like to add as well, that people do have inherent fears and biases with certain products, activities and even brands. A smart designer is aware of these things.
7) Our subjective experience of time is altered.
Basically you end up using the product so much you forget to eat!
All in all a cognitive psychology approach to design actually can be a very powerful design tool, and should be use more often.
In today’s every more complicated and competitive consumer market, it’s nice to once and a while fall back to the thinking behind basic human’s thinking building blocks. I find this level of thinking has certain encompassing honesty to it, when you compared to all the other design movements, like form follows function, scenario based design, emotive design, or experience design etc. This is because perhaps a lot of the design movements are derived from cognitive psychology in the first place. Makes sense.

6 Comments
  • csven

    April 3, 2007 at 10:44 pm Reply

    Imagine my surprise to see you discussing flOw. Careful, DT. You’ll lose a big section of the *serious* Industrial Design crowd if you continue this way.
    If you don’t already follow them, I’d recommend reading both Terra Nova and Raph Koster’s blog. Both will often get into game psychology (i.e. User Experience) as well as other product design-related topics.

  • Design Translator

    April 4, 2007 at 7:08 am Reply

    Heh-heh it is obvious that I have been spending too much time hanging around you. Thanks for the links I will check them out.
    Its just that Design strategies taught at schools are almost a standard pattern world wide. So i thought its nice to bring in some multi-disciplinary thinking into it the mix once in a while. Especiallyt something so relevant as cognitive psychology.
    And if products have to co-exist and/or compete with software interfaces, then why not joing them at their own game and learn from the best, the software game designers!

  • csven

    April 4, 2007 at 8:21 am Reply

    Don’t get me wrong, man. I’m all for it.

  • Mario Vellandi

    April 5, 2007 at 2:27 am Reply

    Great topic,
    I’ve always admired games for the user interface alone. My xbox 360 alone and the various games give me inspiration.
    I’ve added you to my blogroll under “Design”
    Thanks, and keep up the good writing!

  • Design Translator

    April 5, 2007 at 6:03 am Reply

    @csven, yes and hanging around you ahs expanded my horizons!
    @mario, thanks for the dropping by and adding me to your blog. Please do keep in touch.

  • csven

    April 5, 2007 at 11:57 am Reply

    Next up: virtual interfaces – http://boards.core77.com/viewtopic.php?t=3488 (lots of pics)

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