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Future Practice Interview: John Ferrara


As part of our Future Practice webinar series, we’re interviewing presenters to give you a preview of what they’ll cover. Next up is John Ferrara on
Extending Game Design to Business Applications. An information architect at The Vanguard Group, John has been published in
Boxes & Arrows, Interactions, and presented at venues including the IA Summit and EuroIA. His work is featured in the upcoming Rosenfeld Media book, Search Analytics.

John’s webinar takes place on July 16, 2009, 1-2pm EDT. Use code RMWBNR for a 20% discount off your ticket purchase.

Lou Rosenfeld: John, why should a user experience designer care about video games?

John Ferrara: For a few reasons, one of which is their vast popularity. In recent surveys, researches found that nearly all American kids between 12 and 17 and a little more than half of all adults play video games. More people play games than go out to the movies, and the industry takes in more than double Hollywood’s revenue. This is becoming a primary way that people seek out entertainment, and a primary way that they interact with machines. Working in the user experience, we want to capitalize upon interfaces that people already have a lot of experience using. If gaming is so ubiquitous, we’d be terribly remiss in not paying careful attention to it.

But there’s also just so much innovative work going on in games right now. Game designers are viciously competing with each other to create unique, engaging experiences, and you see rapid development of new ways of interacting. There’s really exciting work being done in motion control, voice control, gesture-based interfaces, and online collaboration, as well as elegant solutions to significant design challenges in unassuming games. I think these things make games impossible to ignore.

Lou Rosenfeld: What’s the profile of the typical gamer?

John Ferrara: That’s becoming harder to define. It’s still more male than female, young than old, but that’s changing as game makers look for ways to gain share in broader markets. The Nintendo Wii was specifically designed to be accessible to people who aren’t traditional gamers, and it’s now common to see it in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Teenage girls and boys play games in nearly even numbers. And people who grew up playing games in the ’70s, and ’80s have continued playing them into adulthood, so every year the demographic gets larger and larger.

Lou Rosenfeld: To what extent do issues in game design overlap with issues in the design of conventional UI’s?

John Ferrara: Tremendously. A few years back I designed a bunch of simple games for a technology company to send out to clients as holiday greetings. We started with wireframes and storyboards, conducted user testing, drew upon our knowledge of affordances, Fitts’ law, information scent, and so on. It was just like any other project. And working in user experience, you design for such a broad variety of tasks anyway—one day you’re designing a cargo logistics system and the next it’s a mobile social networking app—that the design issues unique to games really aren’t that much of a departure from the normal variability in your work.

Lou Rosenfeld: Are there existing examples of conventional UI’s that draw heavily from games?

John Ferrara: More and more all the time. You see it in two ways, first in applications that borrow from the patterns you see in games. These are often subtle touches that are there to add interest to the interface. TurboTax is one example, which displays a running tally of how much you’re getting back or paying in taxes this year. This leverages one of the most important themes in games: uncertainty of the outcome. No one’s going to say that TurboTax is a game, but it does play with revealing whether you’ve won or lost.

Then you see applications where the interface is completely re-imagined as a game. One of the best examples is, which is a puzzle game where you fold chains of proteins. By playing it you’re actually doing real work for medical science, because this is one of the biggest challenges in biochemistry. Why do people volunteer to help out? Simply because they enjoy playing the game. Though this is also a special case, because it’s one of the few games you can play where there’s the off chance of winning a Nobel Prize.

Lou Rosenfeld: Do you think elements of game design are showing up in business applications unconsciously, through the subtle influence of our wider experience with games and game-influenced applications?

John Ferrara: I think there is a cultural background that makes game-like design both more common and more acceptable. That makes a lot of sense, because designers are playing games and their experiences with them can then color their approach to business applications. As more and more users play games these applications will be more successful in usability testing and make their way into the market, in turn adding to that background and promoting more such designs.

But in some cases the presence of game elements is clearly deliberate. Luis Von Ahn, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon, has created a whole website of “Games with a Purpose” specifically as a means to achieve real business objectives. One of those games was picked up by Google and turned into its Image Labeler application, which is a really brilliant way to get people to submit tags to improve their image search technology. So designers and businesses are both looking more seriously at games as a way to get things done.

Lou Rosenfeld: Are there situations where it’s a bad idea to draw on game design?

John Ferrara: Well, I think it’s like any source of inspiration—there are situations where you’ll find games more helpful and others where they’ll be less helpful. They’re especially useful when you want to motivate users to do something in which they might not otherwise take that much interest—whether that’s making it through their taxes, tagging images, or folding protein chains. They might be less appropriate in situations where there are already well-established conventions for how to do things, or where users will only have a fleeting interaction with a website to achieve a specific task. But of course the point of my presentation is that game design is helpful in many more situations than you might suppose, and I wouldn’t want the idea that they’re less useful here and there to discourage people from considering them.

Lou Rosenfeld: So ultimately, is this all about just having more fun?

John Ferrara: You know, I think that “fun” is kind of a slippery concept, and it isn’t always easy to see how it factors into games. Personally, I find “Bejeweled” to be a special kind of torture—the task is endlessly rote and tedious—but for some reason I can’t stop playing the damn thing. I tap away at the screen compulsively like a pigeon in a Skinner box. And that’s what really interests me about games: the behavioral aspect. They have a famously addictive quality to them, with some people dedicating hours upon hours playing something like “World of Warcraft”.

When we talk about the qualities of a conventional user interface, we don’t commonly talk about its “addictiveness”, but that’s an integral part of game design. In the presentation, I talk about applications for personal finance and education where that can actually be a valuable consideration in the way you build the UI. If someone describes that as “fun,” well then all the better.

Lou Rosenfeld: Is time spent playing games well spent?

John Ferrara: Absolutely, I think it makes a lot of sense for user experience professionals to spend time playing games. We should be immersed in user interfaces of every type, especially those that are very familiar to the people for whom we’re designing UI’s. There are broader questions about whether games promote a sedentary lifestyle or can have corrosive social effects, and those are debates worth having, but they’re quite separate from the discussion I’m encouraging.

Lou Rosenfeld: If I don’t have a lot of experience with games but am interested in getting exposure to them, what would you recommend as a good place to start?

John Ferrara: Start with your PC. Some of the more accessible games with extremely interesting UI’s include “The Sims”, “Civilization”, and “Sins of a Solar Empire”. If you want to try the online experience, then “World of Warcraft” is really the place to go—although it’s probably more game than a casual player really wants.

If you’re interested in trying a game system, pick up the Nintendo DS and a copy of “Brain Age”. This was an incredibly popular title and it does such a great job of motivating players to work these brain challenges into their daily routines. It’s the kind of game that’s easy to bring into work and share with your colleagues.

If you happen to have a Nintendo Wii and don’t mind looking a little ridiculous, I can’t recommend “Wario Ware: Smooth Moves” highly enough. This is a collection of microgames, which each last just a few seconds. You receive an instruction and have just a moment to carry out the correct task, which may be turning a crank, stirring a pot, or pumping a balloon full of air. It’s a really interesting exercise in perceptual psychology, because players need to pick up on the right affordances very quickly and translate them into the corresponding physical action. It’s very, very UX.

But above all you should play something, even if it’s just Windows Solitare or online chess. Video games of all types provide a different way of thinking about the user experience, and one that’s increasingly the norm among users of everyday applications.

Lou Rosenfeld: Thanks John; I now feel a little better about all those hours I’ve invested in playing Tetris on my Razr…