Playing with Web Design

October 24, 2006

Web site designers, as with any designers, run the risk of forcing their “vision” on their customer. After all, they are the professionals, and know what’s best. And, to an extent, that would be correct. Their heads are filled with design paradigms and strategies and they have created many other pieces of work. That’s why people hire them.

But sometimes the correct color schemes, visual cues and design consistencies are not enough. They have to consider usability, and not just from the standpoint of the customer, but how the actual end-user will interact with the site.

Making a site functional is of primary importance. The user needs to be able to accomplish the task they set out to complete. It should be simple enough to use, yet have the depth necessary to provide a true resource. One area sadly missing from many websites is the concept of fun. As Huizinga points out in Homo Ludens, people like to play. It’s apparently part of what makes us human. A website should look like fun. It should make you want to explore. And, while it should reward you with good information, it should also provide a few surprises to keep up the interest.

Web designers started with what they knew. They had the examples of newspapers and magazines that were already adept at conveying information effectively (Krug, p 34). So why not repeat the success? Web users tend to be an impatient lot. They are scanners of information and don’t view most of what’s on a web-page. It has been portrayed as someone looking at a billboard while driving by at 60 miles per hour (Krug, p 21). What a challenge! The Web Designer has mere seconds of viewing to capture someone’s attention and get them involved interactively with the page. As Krug suggests: “I think the answer is simple: if your audience is going to act like you’re designing billboards, then design great billboards” (p 29).

This is where the idea of designing a website like a game has great value. The designer who has a sense of the game “mentality” will probably create the most engaging websites. Perhaps the greatest challenge, in spite of making it an arena of fun, is to make sure the user can actually get what they came to your web-page for in the first place.

As with some of the online gaming sites, it may be best to provide a platform for the user to use in the way they wish to. How to do this and provide information will be the challenge of Web Designers as they move away from traditional media models of information seeking and bring Web Design to a new level.

References:

Huizinga, J. (1950). Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon (pp 1-27). Homo ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Krug, S. (2000) . Don’t make me think. Indianapolis: New Riders, pp. 1-39.

My Life as a Library

October 17, 2006

We certainly live in the “information age”. We have digital resources that can assemble information in ways we had never thought of before. We can use the internet as a worldwide library with access to the vast array of human knowledge. We can “Google” just about any topic and almost instantly have more sources cited than we can ever have time to pursue. I do believe we live in various states of information overload. Sights, sounds, and snippets of news and other information surround us. But why do we want this? Is this enhancing the human experience? Or, is is a source of stress and over-attachment to bits of information. Would our lives really not be as full without all this chatter?

In his 1945 article, “As We May Think”, Vannevar Bush had predicted the creation of a “Memex” which would store all of the information of mankind as a vast library resource with mechanical access via a keyboard. He suggested that the stored information could be organized in a “web of trails”. (As mentioned in Gemmell, Bell, Lueder, pp 90-91). It appears he presaged the computer and internet. His apparatus reflects the apparent need of humans to store and retrieve information and memories. We have had libraries since antiquity, and are often found capturing memories on film. Enter the “MyLifeBits” platform. The premise of this would be to store almost all information we come across in our life, with access that has searches that can function in a cross-referencing system interconnecting previously disparate variables. It is though of as an auxillary brain. (Gemmell, Bell, Lueder). So if our own brain fails we can refer to the ubiquitous backup. The authors suggest that: “Having a surrogate memory creates a freeing, uplifting, and secure feeling-similar to having an assistant with a perfect memory”(Gemmel, Bell, Leuder, p 93). This sounds like the epitome of personal storage. I find it the epitome of junk memory. In the article, “Digital Memories in an Era of Ubiquitous Computing and Abundant Storage”, the authors suggest a potential problem with too much information: “Keeping everything may have negative side effects (such as distracted attention, information overload, and less-effective searching and browsing)”(Czerwinski, Gage, Gemmell, et al).

Most likely, most of what we experience in a day is useless information, and will remain such. If, at a future time, we wish to recall a bit of information, and we have forgotten it, well, so what? Will the world cease to function? No. Do any of us have such important information that if lost, anyone else would actually notice? Not most of us anyway. I say let go of information, wipe the hard drive clean every few years and freshen your life with new information. OK, so some information is good to keep. I certainly want to keep photos of my kids as babies, and old family photos of those who have passed on. Everyone has something they would like to keep, and that is part of the richness of our lives. But to keep everything, virtually unfiltered is just too much. We need to free ourselves from our attachment to information. Somebody has to yell out “Enough!”. We need to de-stress our minds and find a more “human-scale” system for information storage and retrieval. We need to contemplate the sound made when one hand is clapping…

References:

Czerwinski, M., Gage, D.W., Gemmell, J., Marshall, C., Perez-Quinonez, M., Skeels, et al (2006). Digital memories in an era of ubiquitious computing and abundant storage. Communications of the ACM, 49(1), 45-50.

Gemmell, J., Bell, G., & Lueder, R. (2006). MyLifeBits: a personal database for everything. Communications of the ACM, 49(1), 89-95.

Bush, V., As we may think. The Atlantic Monthly 176, 1 (July, 1945), 101-108. (As found in Gemmell, et al, above).

the internet economy

October 11, 2006

The internet has changed how we live our lives. We use it to communicate; it doesn’t matter how far away someone lives; we shop online; saves us a trip to the store, or more importantly that trip in the car through heavy traffic. We find dates online, get our news and can view sites all over the world. We can search for anything using tools like Google, and now Google video.
It seems that the internet is so versatile. It is. That’s because it is primarily a platform. What people build on this platform demonstrates the creative versatility of it’s users.

Not surprisingly, it has developed a new economy. In the world of retail, shopkeepers stock whatever they think is going to sell well. They help create what is popular by limiting choices. But, as it turns out, people don’t necessarily want to be told what is popular. There are many niches, and off-markets that carry items that a brick-and-mortar store would never try to sell. They depend on carrying the few “hot” items, and selling alot of them (Anderson, p 2).

It has been proposed that the internet is responding to a different need. Even though there will still be the hot markets and products, the greater proportion of goods lie in the lower end of the curve of popularity (Anderson, p 1). These are the hard to find, no longer made, low customer demand items. This market, as it turns out is huge. In the long run, riches can be made by servicing this type of market. Instead of carrying a popular item, say, the “latest” and “most popular” CD’s, places like iTunes try to carry as many CD’s as possible. A CD sold is a profit, no matter the quantity or frequency (Anderson, p 2). This new economy is turning the world of retail upside down. One of the purely “internet” techniques being used is linking. This came primarily out of “blogging” where someone would mention a story, say, then provide a live link to it so someone can go to that site and view it for themselves. Links would get deeper and deeper as people in-between had something to say and provided yet another link (Thompson, p4). Retailers learned to utilize this by introducing a new product or service by sending it to a “chosen few” who would then pass it on to their friends, and before you know it “word of mouth” has created a popular product (Scoble, p 34). In some ways this seems like a return to the simpler communication that took place before the electronics boom. If you wanted to know about a good restaurant you asked your friends, and they would ask you. With the interconnectivity of the internet, that can now involve millions of people.

The internet economy is still new. The retailers out there, even the big ones like Amazon are really just pioneers in the new economy.

References:

Scoble, R. & Israel, S. (2006). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 1-62.

Thompson, C. (2006). Blogs to Riches. New York Magazine, February 20. 26-35.

Anderson, C. (2004). The long tail. Wired, 12(10).

Second Life Class

October 5, 2006

As a part of my graduate studies in communications, we had a virtual classs meeting in the Second Life game environment. This involved becoming a Second Life resident, choosing an Avatar, and showing up at a specific location “in-world”.  I think most of the class managed to attend.

It was fun and yet strange meeting some classmates virtually, before class began. It was interesting to see how people depicted themselves via their Avatars. When the Professor came in, there was some attempt at order. It was a little distracting having people hovering and wandering. There was alot of chat, which pretty much never ceased, even after the Professor tried to formally convene the class.

We all tried to explore the impact and meaning of this virtual interaction. We were busy trying to figure out what we had become online, when I realized that we have become ourselves; our other-selves maybe, but certainly us. This seemed impossible at first considering some of the outrageousness in characters and behaviors. But in reality, we all chose to look the way we looked, and act the way we acted. Even if we chose an “anti-self”, we did, nevertheless, make that choice, consciously or not.

I have spent considerable time exploring Second Life. I find that I’m very much myself in-world. That is a little disappointing on the one hand, but on the other, I guess I’m not so disatisfied with my self that I would need to become something entirely different, even if I thought I could get away with it, such as in a virtual environment. Okay, so there is a possibility that I just can’t let loose, even in a virtual world…I’ll explore that and report back if I become the wild man of Second Life.

Serious Play

October 3, 2006

When we think of play, what first comes to mind is child’s-play; some kind of nonsensical gyrations or activity, with silly rules. But what is play, really? It seems to be something that takes us out of our ordinary sphere of reality. “Play”, says Huizinga, “transecends the immediate needs of life” (p 1). Even the animals frolic and play-fight.

So is play “hard-wired” into us? Though it seems to have no real biological basis, it seems yet a need, like sleep and eating. People go to elaborate ends to play and re-create. The irrationality of play seems to provide the very essence of what play is; which is very much like dreaming. Perhaps it is the awake version of dreaming, yet it’s polar opposite. Dreams take us away, and some unknown force creates images and situations for us. In play, we choose the level of irrationality we are willing to accept. We create rules of play and conduct. We set limits, define the area or sphere of the game, and “play” begins, then, at a certain moment, it is “over” (Huizinga, p9). This “limiting” factor is probably necessary so we don’t over-indulge in play. Just as in sleeping, dreaming for 16 hours in a day would render dreamining no longer good for us.

Play is very demanding with it’s boundaries. It “…demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it spoils the game.” “The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a “spoil-sport”. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play world” (Huizinga, p 11).

Play requires consensus. Whoever is to play the game has to agree to separate from the mundane life and escape into the counter-reality of play by agreeing to the “realities” that will confine and define the game. Once the game is convened, the members can “lose” themselves in the other-worldliness of play.

Interestingly, after the game, there is the effect of the members still belonging. They are now members of a “secret sect”; initiates of the other-order. The players have the sensibility that: “This is for us, not for the others…we are different and do things differently” (Huizinga, p12). Their group seems to them separate, and special, which makes them “different” and out of the ordinary. Play, then, becomes an activity of social interaction.

In the act of other-ness, the players of a game become quite serious and travel deep into their roles, often assuming a different persona. It seems somehow very important that the player is removed from their ordinary self. Maybe we have a need to play to define ourselves by who we are not. The “play” character we become is “not me”, so we are free to do what the “ordinary me” would not.

It seems that by allowing ourselves to play, we make the return to the mundane life better by the sheer act of returning. It creates value to our ordinary life since we voluntarily choose to return to it.

Huizinga (p19) points out that: “In play we may move below the level of the serious, as the child does; but we can also move above it-in the realm of the beautiful and the sacred.”

Play adds another dimension to our lives. Although it may seem the antithesis to our ordinary life, it yet, helps define who we are, just as needing dark to understand light, and saddness to know happiness. It sythesises us into a whole being.

References:

Huizinga, J. (1950). Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon (pp. 1-27). Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.