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If pets could design user experiences...


This is a photo I took at Foo Camp of Caterina Fake's dog, Dos Pesos, while I watched him playing with blades of grass, imaginary objects, and Caterina. A few days ago, Caterina (whom many of you know as a co-founder of FlickR) posted a quote from Johann Huizinga, from Homo Ludens that included:

"We have only to watch young dogs to see that all the essentials of human play are present in their merry gambols. They invite one another to play by a certain ceremoniousness of attitude and gesture. They keep to the rule that you shall not bite, or not bite hard, your brother's ear...

Here we have at once a very important point: even in its simplest forms on the animal level, play is more than a mere pysiological phenomenon or a psychological reflex. It goes beyond the confines of purely physical or purely biological activity. It is a significant function--that is to say, there is some sense to it. In play there is something "at play" which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something."

When I saw this, I realized I left out perhaps the most important goal for 2006--upping the FUN slider!

We talked about this recently in never underestimate the power of fun, but I think it's a good thought for starting the new year on a more playful tone--and I mean playful for our users. And maybe the best teachers are our pets.

For most animals, it's almost impossible to separate play from learning. They're virtually the same thing. It's not just about having fun. Animals use play to develop physical and social skills, but they continue to play throughout their lives. Remember, the experience of "fun" floods the brain with good drugs. The neurochemistry of fun (and "fun" doesn't have to mean "funny", in the way that chess is fun but not funny) tells the brain to pay attention, engage, and remember. We're all hard-wired for this.

What can we do to bring more joy, fun, and flow into the lives of our users? Obviously the answer depends heavily on the kind of product or service or cause you support, but there will always be something we can add, subtract, or change to make our user's experience feel a little less like work and a little more like play. (For some of us, it could be as simple as a few fine-grained user treats).


Dos Pesos is quite the star these days--Caterina just sent me a link to an absurd movie made from FlickR pictures (which is apparently the best example yet of what one can do with Creative Commons/FlickR pics) that includes a shot of Dos Pesos. Warning: the movie is getting slammed with requests, so you may have trouble with it right now.]

And it's not every day I run into two separate references to Homo Ludens in the same day... but I just got my copy of Serious Games, and it's right there in chapter 2. I don't yet know if I can recommend the book, because I'm only on chapter 3, but so far I really like it. I'll let you know when I'm deeper into the book. (One of the authors, David "RM" Michael, has a blog for independent game developers at joeindie.com/blog)

In the intro by Tom Sloper (link is to sloperama.com, a game design reference site), there's a quote from Mark Twain:
"Work and play are used to describe the same thing under differing circumstance."

And if I need a reminder about the importance of creating playful users, all I have to do is look at my furry friends (seizing chance to insert gratuitous pet photos), Kara (my Icelandic horse), and Clover (my dog):



(However, I shudder to think of the user experience a cat would design...)

[Update: Hey, I'm not dissing cats here--I have two of them. But most of us realize that were it not for scale, our beloved Fluffys would eat us without a moment's hesitation.]

If animals have evolved to find play and fun a crucial component of life long after the puppy/kitten/foal stage, who are we to disagree? I'm hoping 2006 will be the year I pay more attention to thinking young.

So, tell me about your pets! (current or past)

Posted by Kathy on January 2, 2006 | Permalink


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> I shudder to think of the user experience a cat would design...

Aw, c'mon. Cats are fun, too!

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Jan 3, 2006 2:00:11 AM

what's wrong with cats? ;)

Posted by: Rimantas | Jan 3, 2006 7:40:58 AM

Funny, my dog Betsy also has a Caterina connection. http://www.flickr.com/photos/andwat/4643340/

Posted by: Andrew | Jan 3, 2006 8:37:49 AM

Hooray for Jack Russell Terriers!

Posted by: Mary | Jan 3, 2006 8:51:39 AM

Terry the terrier:

He started out a good dog, playful, fun, attention starved. Then we got another dog (older) for him to play with, and she taught him to be bad. :) All I can say is that if you ever try to pay attention to Mandy (the older 10+ y.o. dog), Terry will try and put a stop to that.

Dogs are fun, I must say. As to cats, they make me sneeze so they just aren't fun for me.... Although I have seen some cats act remarkably dog like, and that's fun to watch.

Posted by: Berin Loritsch | Jan 3, 2006 9:07:33 AM

I was privileged to do my anthropological fieldwork among the Nunivaar people of Alaska, who still depend on a subsistence economy (http://www.axoplasm.com/index.php?pieceID=157). I witnessed firsthand their attitude toward behaviors industrial peoples would all lump together as "work." Given the opportunity, a Nunivaker would rather fish, hunt, gather greens, repair nets, or fix a snowmobile...all of which contribute DIRECTLY to their own wellbeing.

Of course, Nunivak Island is also a thoroughly modern place, with electricity, a port, and manufactured housing. Many islanders work seasonally on commercial fishing ships, on the mainland or in the lower 48. This kind of activity they regarded as "work", i.e. drudgery -- just as we do.

Given my (limited) experience, it seems that play is not only central to "learning." Consider some of the behaviors that modern industrial peoples think of as "recreation" -- shopping, playing golf, watching movies, fixing up old cars. These are all the industrial vestiges of more ancient behaviors: gathering, hunting, telling stories, making tools. These are primal behaviors hard-wired into our brains by 2 million years of hominid evolution. We've been toiling in the fields for a scant 10,000 years, and laboring in factories for scarcely 200, and our minds have never caught up.

Oh, and our mutt Bismarck LOOOOOVES chasing birds (and birdlike objects such as tennis balls):


Posted by: Paul Souders | Jan 3, 2006 9:20:42 AM

Some years back, my mother and our polydactyl tuxedo cat, Misha, got into a clash of wills. Mom had a really elaborate doll house which came with to-scale furniture. She had the living room arranged the way humans would prefer, with the fireplace against one wall and the sofa facing it from the other wall, etc, etc.

Misha, with his extra toes, could use them as a sort of opposable thumb. (Cat: the Tool User.) Every morning, he'd rearrange the furniture the way HE wanted it -- with the fireplace against the stairs, and the sofa in front of the door. In the evening, Mom would put everything back the way SHE wanted it. Back and forth it went for weeks.

In the end, Misha won; Mom gave up. Never underestimate the stubborn tenacity of a cat.

And, speaking of "scale", Kathy's right. Misha was one of those wonderfully charismatic cats whom everyone adored. But, after watching the way he would torture mice, and leave their partially eviscerated hindquarters strewn around the house, I'd shudder to think of what would happen if I met, say, a four-hundred pound version of him in a dark alley at midnight. Pound for pound, cats are at least twice as scary as dogs.

For some amusing insights into the alien thought processes of a cat, consider Bucky Katt, a character from Darby Conley's "Get Fuzzy" comic strip. Particularly in the first couple of years of the strip; lately, it hasn't been so funny.

Posted by: Bob Shepard | Jan 3, 2006 10:22:57 AM

Animals play for fun and for learning. In many cases what they are learning is how to communicate. Two immediate examples come to mind.

I was watching the Turid Rugaas video Calming Signals and the first thing I noticed was how many dog activities we think of as play also communicate something to other dogs. Watch a dog who hasn't been socialized properly at the dog park and they will consistently get things wrong even when it is clear to the humans that they are trying to play. One great example is approaching on a curved rather than a straight trajectory. [the former is friendly, the later threatening]

The other example was demonstrated in the new King Kong movie. When animals of two species are trying to relate, they often perform play like moves and then monitor the reaction they get. I have seen this on occasion at the zoo where I volunteer. I have also seen my dog do it with horses, ducks and cats [and once with a bumblebee which I didn't think was quite so cute since she had already had one allergic reaction to a sting]. At the San Diego zoo where they are experimenting with putting siamangs and oragutans together, the siamangs started sneaking up an orangutan and tweaking the fur on the back of their heads and then would run off laughing.

Play is a comfortable and nonthreatening way to establish a relationship with someone you aren't sure about.

Posted by: Julie | Jan 3, 2006 5:13:39 PM

Can I include a mention of my cat?


Yes, he has his own domain. Yes, we're geeks.

Posted by: Dori | Jan 3, 2006 5:33:38 PM

Awww darn, you just had to do it.

Gah, you've gone and jumped the shark by blogging the cat! (j/k)

Posted by: Bob Aman | Jan 7, 2006 4:13:18 PM

"What can we do to bring more joy, fun, and flow into the lives of our users?"

I reckon: Have more fun OURSELVES!
How can we help our users have fun (and how can we even know what is fun) if we're not experiencing it first-hand?

Posted by: Graham Lea | Jan 9, 2006 9:41:38 PM

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