Playable systems: 3 principles for ethical product design

Photo: Jorge Royan / Wikimedia

One of the reasons UX design is such a compelling practice to me is that, rather than designing static artifacts, we design systems that shape the possibilities, expectations, and constraints for how people engage with the world.

That work, to shape how people engage with the world around them, carries a lot of power. And as we all know from Spider-man, with great power comes great responsibility. Increasingly, we are surrounded by digital products and experiences that abdicate that responsibility — that focus on short-term profitability over creating products that work well for the people (and societies) that use them.

So, what kinds of systems should we be creating?

I’ve been working with a framework that I call “playable systems”. Playable systems are ones which empower the people who use them. I use the term “playable” because I think that empowering products are ones that afford virtuosity, in the way that a musical instrument might. They can be easily approached by beginners, but can be mastered and played in highly complex ways.

How do you design a playable system?

The three principles of “playable systems” (this is what I’ve got so far, but there may be more!):

1. A playable system keeps the human in the loop

When we design with technology, we are often designing ways to automate tasks or decisions. However, it is critical that we don’t automate agency away from the user at the moments when they need it most. For example, FitBit came under fire last year when it released a period tracker that didn’t allow women to enter irregular periods outside of its assumed “normal” range. My favorite extreme anti-pattern is this video of a person unable to turn off his Nest Protect even though there was no smoke in his house (spoiler: he eventually shoves them all into coolers in a desperate attempt to muffle the noise). Whenever we automate a decision or make an assumption about what a user will want, it’s important to allow for human override.

2. A playable system is a legible system

In order to truly allow for virtuosity, one needs to be able to understand how the system operates. How can we design experiences where people can get “under the hood” and see the inner logic? How do we allow for systems to be interrogated? These questions become more complicated and essential as the technologies we use — like neural networks — are harder for humans to read. There is also an interesting interplay between transparency and legibility. We want users to be able to see how things work, but sometimes too much transparency can actually reduce legibility. Finding the right balance can make the inner workings of a system clear and accessible for all.

3. A playable system can evolve in creative ways

Playable systems should be open enough that they allow space for emergent behavior and can grow in ways that extend the experience beyond its initial design. They are ideally extendable, flexible, and with clear pathways to build on top of the foundation. One of the reasons for Twitter’s popularity is that it made space (at least in its early years) for a multitude of emergent behaviors. Some of the core features of the service today were user-invented hacks, like hash tags, @ replies, and threads.

I was recently reading Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology, and her framing of “holistic technologies” is akin to this concept of playable systems. She describes holistic technologies as ones that “leave the individual worker in control of a particular process of creating or doing something.” She contrasts them with “prescriptive technologies”, which are rigid and enforce a particular process.

The web as a playable system

I recently collaborated with Caresse Haaser on an animated meditation on the open web. One of the reasons I think it’s important to talk about the open web now is because it is a playable system. It’s the reason that the web used to be more diverse, idiosyncratic, and delightfully weird. You can read it, write it, and make it your own.

As we’ve seen the dominance of closed platforms over the past decade, we’ve seen our experiences become more constrained, homogenous, and less self-directed. That is largely because these closed platforms are explicitly not playable systems. They are the epitome of Ursula Franklin’s “prescriptive technologies” in that they rigidly prescribe how we can express ourselves.

Constraints as a starting point aren’t bad, but only if the playable principles are in place as well. These platforms aren’t legible, however — they are explicitly black boxes. They also don’t allow for much emergent behavior, so they don’t evolve; instead, their growth is prescribed by their owners, not by their users.

The third wave of connected experiences

I’m curious as to how we can build new kinds of experiences that are explicitly designed as playable systems. What does a “third wave” of the web look like that affords some of the ease and connectivity of social platforms, but in a way that is designed to empower the people using it rather than exploiting their behavior or personal data? How do we create incentives or constraints for experiences that are ethical and benefit our societies? As designers, can we move away from the principles of addiction and virality to ones that support a better human, connected experience?

Four methods for good critique

Markers and a whiteboard as a symbol of design critique.

Mitch Goldstein at RIT has put together a lovely little site called How to Crit, that reviews the value of design critique and how to give and receive criticism. I love this kind of knowledge sharing — good critique is invaluable in improving one’s work and process. However, it’s a hard skill and many people give feedback in ways that are unconstructive, vague, or unkind.

So, Mitch inspired me to share what I’ve learned over the years about giving good feedback.

Start by acknowledging the intent

It’s easy to dive right into criticism, but doing so can lead to the creator feeling deflated or defensive, and therefore less receptive. I always try to reflect what the person’s intent was with the work, and to acknowledge what is positive about that intent. This has the benefit of making them feel understood and appreciated, and frames the conversation as a supportive one.

Frame constructive critique in terms of goals

Especially when it comes to design, it’s easy to have reactions that are based on personal aesthetic taste. To avoid this pitfall, I try to identify goals that we all agree on and give my analysis of where the design does or doesn’t achieve those goals. So for example, “The muted color scheme doesn’t convey the sense of youth and liveliness that we want to associate with the brand” is far more useful than “I don’t like the pastels”.

Present problems, not solutions

One of the most common pitfalls in critique is giving prescriptive feedback. Again, this is an easy trap — you see a design and you think, “Aha! If it were only like this, it would work better!” It feels faster and easier to just share your idea because you think it will work better.

However, this approach has two problems. The first is that by being prescriptive, you don’t leave space for someone to explore or to come up with an idea you haven’t considered. Design is a process of problem solving, so by jumping ahead to a solution, you are depriving the designer of the opportunity to work through it. Furthermore, if you present a problem rather than a solution, you ensure that everyone is aligned on those problems, and agrees that they are the right ones to solve. “Make the headers bigger” is less useful than “Help the user understand what’s most important on the page”.

Take your time

This one is always hard for me, as it’s easy to feel pressure to respond immediately, especially when work is presented in person for the first time. It often takes me time to process my response and give the most useful feedback. Some strategies I’ve developed for this:

  • Hang back. If you’re in a crit with multiple people, let others talk first and take time to collect your thoughts. Other people’s feedback can also spur your own ideas.
  • Make space for follow up. Take the pressure off of one meeting and make sure there are spaces for conversations to continue more fluidly after a crit or presentation session.
  • Get a sneak peek. If possible, have folks send you visuals before you review in person. You’ll get less context until you have a conversation or presentation, but you can start to develop some initial reactions. (Note: this is really only feasible with teammates you have a lot of trust in. I would not advise sharing in advance with a client or partner who isn’t close to the process. Thanks to Stewart Bailey for the prompt on this!)