Designing for Play

Design & User Experience
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Presentation: Designing for Play Presentation [PDF]
Average rating: **...
(2.64, 22 ratings)

Taking ideas from game design, musical instrument design, and play-acting techniques including improv and bodystorming, Christian will address the role of play in digital experiences and how we can design to foster and encourage play rather than squeeze all the joy out of life one pixel at a time.

While struggling to make friends with a newly bought ukulele a few years back, Christian noticed something: even some of the mistakes he made on the instrument sounded just fine. In fact, randomly hitting, strumming, and plucking the instrument often made lovely encouraging sounds. He realized that the instrument wants you to play it, wants to sound good, was designed for this. Musical instruments were designed (yes, iteratively over many years) to enable people to play, not to prevent them from doing so.

But how does an instrument “invite” you to play it? On the one hand it offer ease of use, discovery, and learning. With just these factors it can be played, but it may only be of use as a toy unless it can also yield up more and more sophisticated sounds as the player wrestles with the difficulties inherent in going beyond the easiest moves and with her own initial limitations. The user “levels up” as in a game because it’s fun to work at getting better.

In game design, you create an arena for play. You establish boundaries and rules and you work to tune game dynamics that yield fun experiences rather than boring, mechanical, or pointless drudgery. Within those boundaries and rules the players create their own unique experience, collaboratively, every time. Again the marriage of strict purposeful constraints with open space and room for human variation creates the best game experiences.

Children gravitate toward play-acting naturally but over time those skills can be lost. Giving people contexts in which they can explore alternate identities, wear masks, co-create stories, re-enact important events, or make snowmen and sandcastles can summon up that inner never-fully-lost capacity to enter a flow state.

Can an enterprise app, maybe one that looks like a spreadsheet and reports to HR ever actually be fun? That’s a stretch but you can absolutely introduce elements of play into the most buttoned-down context. Consider one primitive gesture from games: collecting. Many games offer some form of gather, arranging, and displaying objects. Just so, even an HR portal may offer some opportunity to incorporate a collecting “game” into the workflow.

Christian will share techniques for introducing a sense of play into the experiences we’re designing and will exhort the assembled crowd to make life more fun for our users and to thrive while doing so.

Photo of Christian Crumlish

Christian Crumlish


Christian Crumlish is the curator of the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library and has been designing and writing about online user experiences since 1994. He is a director of the Information Architecture Institute and co-chair of the monthly BayCHI program.

He is the author of The Power of Many (Wiley) and co-author of Designing Social Interfaces (O’Reilly Media).

He studied philosophy at Princeton and painting at the San Francisco School of Art, and lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, Briggs, and his cat, Fraidy.

Comments on this page are now closed.


Picture of Christian Crumlish
Christian Crumlish
05/06/2010 7:03am PDT

While I hate to hear you found my talk tedious, I do appreciate you giving your feedback. I do agree that I need more examples of these ideas in practice in social (and other) applications to make the suggestions more actionable, and I’ll work on that as I evolve this talk in the future.

Sorry I let you down this time!

Tim Woods
05/06/2010 6:52am PDT

This session was so tedious, because it was all talk, and no show. It’s basic stuff to talk about how a game can be interesting, I think everybody gets that. Quality examples of how that is being achieved is far better. I found this talk really frustrating, because it never really said anything useful.

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