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How can service design be made playful?

In June 2018, the innovation network, InfinIT held a workshop in collaboration with Invio to deal with the subject; Playful Design.

05. sep 2018

Around 40 participants from a wide range of sectors met at the IT University in Copenhagen to join the workshop.  The participants included representatives from The Ministry of Taxation, NETS, Mærsk and Magnetix, all of whom were interested in getting a better understanding of "playful design".

"The idea is to make digital service design more fun. We encounter many services via digital platforms and they are usually very functional, but boring. That creates a problem with regard to attracting greater engagement with the platforms. This workshop sets out to demonstrate different ways of thinking and new methods of design in order to make services more engaging and playful", explained Miguel Sicart in connection with the objective of the workshop.

The day began with an input from Martin Pichlmair and Miguel Sicart (both, lecturers from the IT University), who outlined the key thoughts related to playful design with which the participants would be working.

Martin Pichlmair started by giving examples of gamification, which has become popular both with  companies and in education in recent years.  In short, gamification is about using elements from games (e.g. points) in a non-game situation.  It can for example be about forums in which users can award points to others according to how useful their inputs have been.

However, Pichlmair pointed out that gamification can also go wrong.  Using game elements in the wrong context doesn't make users into players.  The foregoing example describes a forum that uses points in a meaningless context: Why should one give points in an online forum, and how is that funny?

Pichlmair's point was that much gamification is not playful because games have winners while play is about free exploration.

"Gamification would like everything to be a game in which we compete.  Playful design is much more open, broad and play-based. We try to get things to feel like toys. We believe that when one plays, one has a greater overview of the world and what one does, and that leads to greater engagement", says Miguel Sicart.

Miguel Sicart continued by elaborating on play as having four characteristics: Appropriative (one does it on one's own initiative); Expressive (One puts one's own "stamp" on it); Personal (it has personal meaning / importance for oneself);  Autotelic (decide oneself why one will play, when to stop and what the objective is).

In addition, Sicart described five types of play: Competitive (a feeling of one's ability to play being increased); Chance (a feeling of, "what now, if?"); Make-believe (one uses one's imagination); Vertigo (one is overwhelmed by senses / perceptions).

Playful design, therefore, is a method with which one makes use of elements of play as part of a design process.  Sicart described four considerations that can contribute helpfully to making a good playful design:

  • Identify core loops when a service is used. That means the interactions that repeat themselves when a service is used.
  • Identify why and how users engage themselves.  That has its departure point in the four types of play.
  • Make them playful.  Find out which parts of a service can offer opportunities for exploration and fun, and grab hold of them.
  • Create a meta-game for users. That one creates an element that is not necessarily related to the service, but which provides a game by itself.

Miguel Sicart's closing remark before participants started to make their own playful designs was; "Don't make a game - get the users to play".

Participants then formed groups in which they could either work on a challenge from their own organizations, or try their skills on something prepared by the presenters.

When the groups had completed their work, they presented the results in a plenary session. One of the solutions presented was for a thermostat controlled by an app. On the app, one could create a figure of each individual family member showing their personal ideal temperatures.  When one increased or decreased the temperature, the figures reacted accordingly.

Another concept was for the Advance Tax Return used by the Ministry of Taxation.  The participants showed a solution that allows tax-payers to "build" their own advance tax-return using bricks, thus providing a much more visual and entertaining version of the service than the present solution.

"Playful design is something we have had our eyes on for a long time, and we will try to get permission to use it. It provides a lot of openness. We have many different systems, tools and programs. I don't think it is something we can use for the big modules, but one can certainly take some of the micro-interactions and make them more playful", said Eva Marie Tang Kirk from The Ministry of Taxation.

Common to all of the solutions was that they did not necessarily have any concrete objective other than being fun for the users. That is exactly the idea behind Playful Design. The users can have a fun experience and an exciting way of integrating with the service, and that can lead to a more positive experience of using the service.