Excerpt: Prototyping and playing design games


Excerpt from Chapter 6: Prototyping and playing design games

How design games open up the particular

Think about a workshop you have attended. Was it well-organized? What did that look and feel like? How effective was the facilitator? Did you find yourself engrossed in the flow while you participated? Or did it feel like you were presented with a list of tasks to work through, which you did not really get into? How did other participants behave? Overall, did the workshop feel productive? Did it move things forward for some of the participants? How did you feel straight afterwards, and a week after?

Workshops are a hidden problem and an opportunity in many organizations. Well done, they pull people together, forging new connections that are interpersonal as well as combining resources. Like a theatre performance or concert, people have a shared experience of being there and doing something meaningful together. During a well-designed and facilitated workshop, people give themselves up to being in the flow, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the experience of creativity. It feels enjoyable and productive. During a badly-designed or poorly-facilitated workshop, it doesn’t. In a workshop that does not get people into the flow, participants are restless. They question or challenge the facilitator. They don’t engage fully with the tasks. It feels like a waste of time.

Designing and running workshops is an important skill that some people have developed, which remains curiously neglected by many organizations. The concept of design games provides ways to work out what a powerful and productive workshop experience could look like in the context of designing innovative services.

The term “design games” comes from the field known as participatory design. This developed in Scandinavian countries in the 1970s. At that time, democratic initiatives to involve employees in decision-making in the workplace converged with efforts to involve users in software development. One researcher, Pelle Ehn, developed ways to combine these two different approaches and, in so doing, he contributed to the emergence of the new field. Ehn’s research has provided an important resource for these developments.

In one project, Ehn worked with typesetters at a printing company, who were going to be impacted by the introduction of new software. As the software did not yet exist, Ehn and colleagues wanted to find ways to make it possible for the typesetters to be able to experience something resembling what the software would be like to engage with. Ehn used cardboard and cut-out paper shapes to give shape and form to the possible software’s user interface. This low-fidelity “paper prototyping” allowed the participants to manipulate some of the proposed future features.

One possible design approach would have been for the designers to show the workers what the software would be like for them to use and ask for feedback. Instead, the designers set up ways for the workers to play with and manipulate the paper prototypes. This allowed all the people involved – designers, researchers and workers – to develop a shared language and concepts about how typesetting would be reconfigured when some of the activities were done using software. Playing the games allowed the typesetters to integrate their existing ways of doing things, in which they were expert and which they took for granted, with new possibilities introduced by the software.

To help make sense of this, Ehn drew on the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his concept of language games. The central idea here is that language does not simply describe the world. Language is a web of interlocking concepts and activities – language exists through people doing things in the world. Reworking language games as “design games”, Ehn showed that what mattered was creating ways for participants to engage in and speak about such games, without the concepts having to be a representation of reality that was isolated from what went on in their daily work. So the value of a design game during exploratory prototyping is for a group of people to collectively create the language of concepts and activities that underpins a new service. Instead of concept generation in a vacuum, design games support the collective generation of concepts that spring from and relate to deep knowledge of current practices.

By giving shape and form to concepts at an early stage, design games produce something specific, which says something more general too. Playing games generates particular proposals for how things could be, for the various stakeholders involved to engage with and assess. But rather than these sketches of future possibilities being designed predominantly by a development team, the space of the game allows people who resemble or are the users of the future service to co-create this language together. Design games operate on the boundary between inside and outside organizations. The resulting solutions are therefore a hybrid of the users’ existing concepts and ways of doing things, reconfigured to include new capacities and possibilities.