Week 308

Lots of work on KOKORO this week. We fin­ished the first pro­to­type and play­tested it with a bunch of teen­agers. Received plenty of help­ful feed­back. We need to do a proper eval­u­ation but my first impres­sion is that our decision to struc­ture the product around a con­ver­sa­tional UI has been validated.

For the remain­ing pro­jects on deck, we mostly took stock of things and planned next steps. I reviewed the KOKORO release can­did­ate with the whole team and made a list of final things to fix. Alper and I did some ser­i­ous plan­ning on the next phase of SHACHI, which should also cul­min­ate in a release can­did­ate. And I went over to TEDASUKE’s cli­ent to review the user jour­ney we mapped and to make a list of screens to mock up.

We had a call with Lekha to dis­cuss some upcom­ing mar­ket­ing efforts. Lekha has been work­ing on an artist state­ment which should go out soon. Shortly after our call Bycatch got “hunted” on Product Hunt.

Alper pub­lished a fun post on Slack’s emoji reac­tions fea­ture.

As the week ended, I star­ted writ­ing up my thoughts on the auto­mated game design sym­posium I atten­ded recently. Meanwhile Alper star­ted port­ing SHACHI to tab­let, and invest­ig­ated ways of improv­ing our iBeacon read­ing performance.

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Week 307

Last week Kars was on some­thing of a road show trav­el­ing the length of the Netherlands for pro­jects old and new. At the same time I was in the stu­dio work­ing with technology.

Kars went to Tilburg to pitch suc­cess­fully for fur­ther fund­ing on SHIJIMI. Now that that cycle is closed we can move for­ward with actu­ally design­ing stuff. Kars also cre­ated a user jour­ney for TEDASUKE. I went over to a ven­ture firm to see whether they need our ser­vices (it turns out they do).

We built a pro­to­type con­ver­sa­tional per­sonal coach for KOKORO using Foundation. I briefly tried out Foundation for Apps but found it too com­plex and too sparsely doc­u­mented for what it offers. For this pro­to­type speed of devel­op­ment and being able to test the assump­tions of the UI and the main loop are most important.

It was also nice to see Camparc fea­tured over at Playscapes. Last week we dis­cussed next steps for that pro­ject as well.

I went to an offi­cial Unity developers meetup held in Berlin on Thursday even­ing. It was inter­est­ing to see what dir­ec­tion Unity is devel­op­ing into and what kind of people use it. The audi­ence unfor­tu­nately was one of the least diverse I’ve seen at a tech event in ages. Given the fact that game devel­op­ment is so pop­u­lar, the fact that only a cer­tain type of people can get into it is pro­foundly unhealthy.

For SHACHI we are get­ting the new dir­ector of our first museum up to speed before we start the next sprint. That sprint will cul­min­ate in a release can­did­ate that will run in the museum for some time.

Kars also atten­ded a con­fer­ence on auto­mated game design organ­ised by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. There were a bunch of pro­jects that flowed from our asso­ci­ate Joris Dormans’s work on engin­eer­ing emer­gence. We have been an industry part­ner of the pro­ject and have given input on the tools we use when design­ing games. We will be report­ing back some find­ings from this pro­ject here later as well.

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Slack’s emoji reactions are playful product design in action

Last week Slack launched their Emoji reac­tions fea­ture. This allows you to attach emoji to a mes­sage and for oth­ers to chime in and vote for an emoji or add their own. I am very excited by this for a num­ber of reasons.


We use Slack fairly heav­ily. We have chan­nels for spe­cific pro­jects and we have chan­nels that cre­ate a frame of shared pres­ence and cul­tural ref­er­ence for our close net­work. In these chan­nels we already use emoji and anim­ated GIFs quite intens­ively. They are visual frag­ments of emo­tion that can be quickly thrown across the digital divide. Many people like to trivi­al­ise these but they are in fact essen­tial non-verbal cues.

Slack nailed the product design of this new fea­ture. That much is to be expec­ted from a com­pany with their track record. What makes it par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant for me to write about here is that this fea­ture is a great example of play­ful design. Kars iden­ti­fied it as flux in action because: “This is adding vari­ab­il­ity to what used to be one-dimensional.”

With the emoji fea­ture Slack has iden­ti­fied an exist­ing beha­viour that they could bet­ter sup­port. People respond to each other with emoji and other images. This is fun but it can quickly become over­whelm­ing. Emoji reac­tions are just the right amount of func­tion­al­ity and struc­ture to allow people to more richly express them­selves. The res­ult is more express­ive inter­ac­tions and more effect­ive communication.

Emoji reac­tions is a great new fea­ture that will see a lot of use (at least from us) and it demon­strates how play­ful design is a cent­ral part of product design.

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Week 306

At the start of this week, we looked back on the playtest of pro­ject SHACHI’s second beta ver­sion. I went over to the cli­ent to dis­cuss the out­comes, and the whole team col­lab­or­ated on a plan for the next sprint. Meanwhile Alper took a moment to update the pro­ject financials.

More plan­ning happened on KOKORO. We’ll have roughly two weeks for the first design sprint on a product which will help teen­agers improve their men­tal health. I vis­ited the cli­ent to dis­cuss the plan for the sprint, and we col­lab­or­ated on a sketch of the product’s under­ly­ing system.

We’ll be explor­ing a con­ver­sa­tional UI for this pro­ject so copy is really import­ant. Because of this I imme­di­ately star­ted writ­ing in Gingko—a use­ful tool for this sort of thing because it sup­ports a mul­ti­di­men­sional doc­u­ment struc­ture. I also did a tiny bit of sketch­ing on the inter­face itself, but we’re keep­ing it super simple. Alper mean­while explored the best tech­no­lo­gies to pro­to­type with.

On Thursday I joined Erwin for a num­ber of Skype calls with teen­agers about KOKORO’s sub­ject matter—what com­mon causes of “hassle” are, how they deal with them, etc. We’re try­ing to involve the tar­get audi­ence in as many ways as pos­sible in this pro­ject. Challenging, but enjoyable.

Last but not least, I pro­cessed the out­comes of our work­shop with SodaProducties for pro­ject TEDASUKE into a sketch of a user jour­ney. I headed over to them as well to review and amend the sketch. The next step will be to clean it up, deliver it, and move on to sketch­ing of the product itself.

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Week 305

I was in the Netherlands all of last week for some joint work with Kars. I hope to be sta­tion­ary in Berlin for a bit now since all the back and forth does get a bit tir­ing and we have lots of stu­dio work to chew on ahead of us.


Kars gave a demo of SHACHI to a bunch of museums on Monday while I flew to Amsterdam. Tuesday we fin­ished some final things for the playtest on Wednesday. The playtest script was sim­ilar though this time we had a game that was nearly con­tent and fea­ture com­plete. Niels ‘t Hooft joined us to take a look at the Airborne Museum and to help us doc­u­ment the entire thing. We’re dis­cuss­ing the res­ults with the cli­ent and plan­ning our next steps but we are con­fid­ent that we are headed into the right direction.

Kars planned the first design sprint for KOKORO which is an inter­est­ing pro­ject we will talk more about later.

Thursday morn­ing we went straight into a user jour­ney work­shop for TEDASUKE. That cli­ent has a social enter­prise which they want to realign into some­thing where the people doing stuff can self-organize them­selves. We’ll be help­ing them come up with a strategy and concept that they can take to market.

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Week 304

Niels, Alper and Kars discussing project SHACHI

Yes, we work hard. But we man­age to enjoy ourselves as well, as you can tell from the nice photo above taken by Tim dur­ing a rare occa­sion: All of pro­ject SHACHI’s team phys­ic­ally cop­resent in our Utrecht studio.

Alper was in NL to run pro­ject KOKORO’s first work­shop together with me. We spent a full morn­ing with the cli­ent and vari­ous experts map­ping a new product idea using engage­ment loops. It was very fruitful.

We will be playtest­ing a new ver­sion of SHACHI soon, so the team spent a week pol­ish­ing, while I mainly con­cerned myself mak­ing sure all pre­par­a­tions for the test were made in time.

Halfway through the week Alper headed back to Berlin with a fresh batch of Bycatch cop­ies in tow.

Meanwhile, I did plan­ning work on the first design sprint for KOKORO and also for pro­ject TEDASUKE: We’ll be kick­ing this one off soon with a work­shop as well, but focused on map­ping user journeys.

Finally, I pub­lished a blog post on our work together with Reinwardt Academy on play­ful design for museum exhib­i­tions.

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Designing Playful Museum Exhibitions

In February of this year I went over to Reinwardt Academy to work with exhib­i­tion dir­ec­tion stu­dents. I was invited by Mario Jellema to share my per­spect­ive on the role of play and play­ful­ness in museums. I enjoy talk­ing to stu­dents, but I like work­ing hands-on with them even more. So we turned the ses­sion into a small work­shop. The res­ult was an inter­est­ing and enjoy­able after­noon, which demon­strates what can hap­pen if we put the activ­ity of play front-and-center in a design project.

I star­ted by talk­ing a bit about our work in the museum area, using Beestenbende as an example, and also the work we are cur­rently doing in pro­ject SHACHI for the Museums Association. Our approach is always to look for the activ­it­ies that are at the heart of an exhibition’s sub­ject, and use that as a start­ing point.


I then intro­duced the assign­ment: To redesign the fam­ous Art of this Century gal­lery so that it becomes (more) play­ful. The gal­lery was cre­ated by Peggy Guggenheim in the 1940s and was loc­ated on 57th Street in New York City. We chose this exhib­i­tion because it was at the time revolu­tion­ary for its mar­riage of the gallery’s interior archi­tec­ture with the art­works on dis­play. As such it would offer rich mater­ial for the assignment.

The Art of the Century gallery

We had a con­ver­sa­tion about what play and play­ful­ness are. We dis­cussed how play is Contextual, Carnivalesque, Appropriative, Disruptive, Autotelic, Creative and Personal. We also talked about how play­ful­ness is dif­fer­ent from play in that it’s an atti­tude, not an activ­ity which lacks the autotelic aspect of play itself. For this I made lib­eral use of Miguel Sicart’s excel­lent Play Matters, which I’ve covered in detail in a couple of blog posts already.)

As an example we looked at Ann Hamilton’s piece The Event of a Thread. The piece fea­tures on the cover of Play Matters, and I thought it would be a good fit for the work the stu­dents had ahead of them­selves, see­ing as how it is spa­tial, uses props, people and many other things to cre­ate a deeply play­ful work of art.

Ann Hamilton, Park Avenue Armory

The main point I wanted to get across was this: Play is like lan­guage; a way of under­stand­ing ourselves and the world around us. In this way it can be used as a tool along­side oth­ers in the design of an exhib­i­tion. Even if the exhib­i­tion isn’t to be a plaything (a game or a toy or a play­ground), vis­it­ors can be encour­aged to approach it with a play­ful atti­tude. If they are, then they might engage more deeply with the exhibition.

The inten­ded out­come of the exer­cise was a phys­ical scale model that one per­son can walk through with a fig­ur­ine, while describ­ing and act­ing out what it is they do, while another per­son describes and acts out the responses of the exhibition.

Being a strong adher­ent of dog­food­ing, I shared a video of a simple example I came up with myself. Starting from the curved can­vas wall that was part of the AotC gal­lery, I pro­posed mak­ing it adjustable by visitors.

Quickly whip­ping some­thing up with ready-to-hand mater­i­als (in this case LEGO and paper) and act­ing out the inter­ac­tions is a basic inter­ac­tion design tech­nique. I shortly talked about sketches versus pro­to­types. I wanted to be sure stu­dents under­stood that it would be fine for their mod­els to be more tent­at­ive and evoc­at­ive, than spe­cific and didactic. For this I referred to the clas­sic Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton, one of the few inter­ac­tion design text­books I know of that is as use­ful for play­ful design as it is for purely instru­mental projects.

Sketches versus prototypes

A final bit of design the­ory I shared was the notion of an iter­at­ive pro­cess. I encour­aged them to move swiftly from ideat­ing to sketch­ing to test­ing to reflect­ing and back to ideat­ing again. To that end, this is the struc­ture I gave them for the workshop:

Step 1: Ideate and pro­to­type one thing a per­son can do, solo.

Step 2: Pair up and play each other’s pro­to­types. Reflect on them. What was enjoy­able about it, and why?

Step 3: Come up with a new idea, based on the ori­ginal two pro­to­types but bet­ter. Make sure you test it and improve it at least once.

Step 4: Present (demo) the ideas to each other. Let people ask ques­tions and make sug­ges­tions for improve­ment. Makers don’t respond but just listen.

There was plenty of paper to work with. I also brought a bunch of LEGO, includ­ing a fresh batch of mini­figs still in pack­aging. The pleas­ure with which these were opened and admired was a nice way to segue into a more play­ful mind­set. I also brought a secret weapon: a Muji LEGO hole punch, which is a great tool for build­ing LEGO/paper hybrids. I wish I’d brought a couple more back from Japan.

We also provided large prin­touts of cop­ies from an exhib­i­tion cata­logue on the gal­lery for ref­er­ence and remix purposes.

Playful exhibition design workshop at Reinwardt Academy

This workshop’s focus was on get­ting acquain­ted with new con­cepts and pro­cesses. Even so, some inter­est­ing and enjoy­able out­comes were pro­duced. They included a pic­ture gal­lery in which the pieces rotate to fol­low a par­tic­u­lar vis­itor (which reminded me of Random International’s Audience), and a cyl­indrical space which rotates as the vis­itor moves around it (remin­is­cent of Villa Volta in Dutch amuse­ment park Efteling).

Playful exhibition design workshop at Reinwardt Academy

Playful exhibition design workshop at Reinwardt Academy

Students learned about play and play­ful­ness, sketch­ing player exper­i­ences and the iter­at­ive design pro­cess. But the most import­ant thing they learned was the import­ance of play­ing well together. This is a vital skill for suc­cess­fully test­ing mod­els such as the ones made in this work­shop. It requires ima­gin­a­tion and spon­taneity, sim­ilar to that found in improv theater.

For example, those play­ing the role of the exhib­i­tion had a tend­ency to tell the per­son play­ing the vis­itor what to do. It appears they would think of the cre­ated exper­i­ence as a lin­ear path to be fol­lowed. It takes some time to adjust to the notion of a visitor/player being the per­son who com­pletes the exper­i­ence. This also requires a par­tic­u­lar atti­tude from the player, to for­get about all they know as a co-creator and to really inhabit the role of a first-time vis­itor, as they move their fig­ur­ine through the model and nar­rate their actions.

I am con­vinced such skills can be prac­ticed by play­ing many dif­fer­ent things, with many dif­fer­ent people, all the while being mind­ful of how phys­ical stuff and the social rules come together to shape an exper­i­ence. It’s a valu­able skill to have as a designer of exhib­i­tions, or of any other thing used or inhab­ited by people. Workshops like this help develop those skills, and I always enjoy facil­it­at­ing them.

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Week 303

Last week Kars talked with the Airborne Museum about the upcom­ing playtest for SHACHI and also demoed our pro­gress to the cli­ent. We are plan­ning a minor pol­ish sprint while we wait for that playtest.

Kars also atten­ded the Hacking Habitat life-hack mara­thon about debt and facil­it­ated a ses­sion of Playing with Rules for a group of people involved with the subject.

In my absence Kars pre­pared the kick-off work­shop for our new pro­ject KOKORO where we will use the engage­ment loops model to found our design with.

Hubbub Nerd 101

In media appear­ances: both of us are fea­tured sep­ar­ately in Vrij Nederland’s rank­ing of the Netherlands’s top 101 nerds. We are hon­oured, kind of.

Presenting at ÜBERALL in Vienna

I spent last week in Vienna from Tuesday onwards to present at the ÜBERALL app con­gress about play­ful design. I com­bined the visit with a fact-finding mis­sion for Cuppings which proved to be extremely fruit­ful. I drank lots of cof­fee in Vienna’s excel­lent third wave cof­fee bars while pre­par­ing my presentation.

I then took the train to Amsterdam at the end of the week for a week of cli­ent engage­ments and pro­duc­tion work in the Netherlands.

Keep an eye out for Codepot a work­shop con­fer­ence in Warsaw this August where I will be giv­ing a work­shop on user engage­ment and app design.

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Week 302

I returned from a long hol­i­day in South-East Asia to find the busi­ness hum­ming along nicely thanks to Alper’s cap­able stew­ard­ship. I’ve men­tioned this before, but the fact that all of our work lives in Asana makes it super easy for me to catch up on things and pick up where I left off.

I took over design dir­ec­tion on SHACHI from Alper, who had the tough job of being both design and tech­nical lead in the past few weeks, but per­formed admir­ably. We spent the remainder of the week work­ing with Tim and Niels on the game’s second beta. It’s a joy to see an increas­ing amount of gor­geous art and witty prose find its way into the game.

I called our friends at Drop to dis­cuss BANKEN’s pro­gress, and later on provided some sug­ges­tions on how to deal with a couple of design issues that emerged from a recent test. They were mostly related to cla­ri­fy­ing the inter­ac­tions in inter­act­ive video, which to a non-gamer audi­ence can be a lot less obvi­ous than to those who have played The Walking Dead, etc.

We also star­ted pre­par­ing work on two new pro­jects. One is code named KOKORO and involves pro­to­typ­ing a play­ful product for the improve­ment of men­tal well-being of middle school chil­dren. The other is code named TEDASUKE, which is concept devel­op­ment for a tool with which volun­teer work­ers in a vari­ety of social enter­prises can develop their skills.

Towards the end of the week Alper and I had a call with Lekha to share stor­ies about Bycatch’s suc­cess­ful launch at TWO5SIX, and the sub­sequent media cov­er­age. (Check out the blurbs on the game’s web­site. If you want to sup­port us in our efforts to break new ground in the issue game space, con­sider order­ing a copy or two, or share the story about the game with your friends.) We also dis­cussed mar­ket­ing efforts going forward.

Alper did a great job explain­ing Bycatch to Dutch national radio, res­ult­ing in a cool item which you can listen to here (if you under­stand Dutch).

Odds and ends: I draf­ted a blog post on a play­ful museum exhib­i­tion design work­shop which I ran a while ago, due to be pub­lished soon. Alper also went to another Unity meetup. He tells me he learned some stuff, which is always nice.

Finally, a heads-up: Alper will be in Vienna for Über­all App Congress on June 10–11. He’s clos­ing key­note of the second day, and will be talk­ing about “design for a play­ful world” (of course).

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Week 301

Last week I pro­cessed the last of the media atten­tion for Bycatch. We now have a fairly hand­some list of praise in vari­ous lan­guages at the top of the page (check it out!) with Kotaku, Killscreen, Deutschlandradio Kultur, WIRED, NOS and Bright. We might add one or two more to that but with that it’s time to close off this chapter and move for­ward to our next steps. Next up most likely we will make a video about the game. We will also be talk­ing about and play­ing Bycatch around the world over the course of the year.

SHIJIMI hit a minor snag that will be resolved in the fol­low­ing weeks. It does look like every­body is enthu­si­astic about the pro­ject so it looks increas­ingly likely that this will move out of the tent­at­ive stage.

Project SHACHI is well under­way con­sid­er­ing some changes hap­pen­ing over on the cli­ent side. For us it mostly means that the cur­rent sprint could not be com­pleted due to external factors and we will be post­pon­ing our playtest.

We will be involved in an upcom­ing sym­posium about auto­mated game design organ­ized by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. We con­sul­ted on this before thanks to our asso­ci­ate Joris Dormans’s involve­ment in the pro­ject. The topic of com­puter aided game design includ­ing fur­ther work on Machinations is some­thing that is highly rel­ev­ant to our prac­tice. More on this later.

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