Making your app fun to use requires more than sprinkling a little gamification on top. It requires thoughtful imagination and experimentation. I recently spoke at AltConf: “Designing for Fun” (now on video) highlights some expert perspectives on theories of play and behavioral psychology, and how we can apply these ideas in mobile app design. I also shared some prototyping and customer development techniques, plus how to validate whether a design will actually be fun.

Below is an overview, plus notes and references from the talk. You can also check out the slides.


Most of this talk is about how to design fun experiences, but the title has a double meaning — I talk about an app I’m working on “for fun” (not for “work”). Most of the code was written by my friend and iOS development mentor, John Fox, plus we have a large extended team of people who make it happen. The thing about doing an app outside of your day job means that we work hard to make sure we’re all aligned and are motivated and having fun, since when it stops being fun, we’ll stop playing.

For the first half of this talk, I focus on theories of play and game design, with a couple of examples from my prior work. The second half shows a practical use case from the Mightyverse app we are building now.

For context: Mightyverse is a global community of people sharing language and culture. At it’s heart, there’s a collection of short phrase videos of people who have recorded a phrase in their native language, that is cross-translated into other languages. We have collected tens of thousands of short phrase videos for learning language and we’re building a mobile app to crowdsource recordings from native speakers, while also allowing people to learn new languages.

Notes and References

Sebastian Deterding: Meaning, Autonomy & Mastery. From Google Tech Talk, Getting Gamification Right

Research has identified the chemical dopamine affects learning and memory. Doing something rewarding increases dopamine. Eric Marr at TEDxCCS: Dopamine’s effects on learning and memory

The EPIC Winis an extraordinary outcome that you didn’t believe was even possible until you achieved it — almost beyond your threshold of imagination, something that teaches you what you’re truly capable of. “Gamers always believe that an epic win is possible, and that it’s always worth trying, and trying now.” Jane McGonigal TED talk: Gaming can make a better world

Almost 50% of the world’s languages are at risk. In my talk I said “the people who decide which languages we keep are three years old.” The source for this was linguist David Harrison’s talk Living Languages Digital Dialog. He actually refers to 5, 6, and 7-year olds, who he calls the “true decision makers in communities about whether to keep or abandon a language.” When we as adults show we value a language, the kids learn it.

There are over 6000 languages in the world — this WSJ article is a good reference. The majority of them are spoken by a tiny fraction of the population, and almost 80% of us, speak only 83 languages — I created the visualization for a 2009 blog post: who cares if languages become extinct?

Play needs to be voluntary for it to be fun. I can’t find the reference for this, despite looking many times. Maybe it was in one of these videos or some article I read. If anyone has this reference I would love to read it again!

Frank Smith, a leading authority on linguistics and cognitive psychology, reports that: “Learning is the brain’s primary function, its constant concern, and we become restless and frustrated if there is no learning to be done. We are all capable of huge and unsuspected learning accomplishments without effort.” (Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms).

“Fun is just another word for learning under optimal conditions.” — Raph Koster

I believe that software design is teaching. We want to make it so people can effortlessly learn how to use a piece of software. Every little bit of learning should give people powers they can use repeatedly toward achieving their own goals.

This is the first dialog box I ever designed was for PACo Producer. I scanned this from the documentation:
Mac Plus era dialog box with a lot of text and some dotted underlined numbers and filenames.
The little dotted link is a pre-web hyperlink. Easy to learn and remember since it is related visually to a real-world paper form. It is worth teaching someone something to give them a powerful new tool. It seems like this was successful since we used the same pattern in After Effects, and it has persisted over 20 years later, likely having survived many usability tests.

I wondered… After Effects has a lot of complex UI, which is pretty overwhelming at first glance. I asked a colleague of mine who has been a user of After Effects since 1.0: is it fun to use?

“I love it. Anything is possible when i use it…I can dream up something and then make it real.
It keeps improving and with each improvement i’m able to communicate my ideas a little faster, a little more clearly…” — Paul Lundahl

After Effect screen shot was composite from:

I shared an example from the development of Flash video, circa 2001. The overwhelming assumption at that time for mutliplayer games or web video conferencing was that the experience would start with a login screen. It was Jonathan Gay who really challenged that assumption by insisting that we make it so Flash applications could enable real-time human-to-human interactions without requiring a name or password.

People already know how to interact with each other. Don’t make people make decisions until they have to, or you risk that they will make the decision to leave your app!

What are these optimal conditions for learning?

Stress actually inhibits learning. The optimal state of mind for learning is “relaxed alertness” Geoffrey Caine & Renate N. Caine Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain

In early 1900s, Lev Vygotsky studied imaginative play in children and observed that children will subordinate their own wants to the greater pleasure of following the rules. “The essential attribute of play is a rule that has become a desire.” (Vygotsky, Mind in Society)

Stephanie Morgan Creative Mornings talk “Gamification Sucks” Computer games stimulate the brain’s reward system to produce dopamine — in addition to making us feel good, this chemical seems to be the physical basis for learning. Research has shown that the introduction of chance into any reward system increases dopamine production.

Play Testing

All of us are not in the target audience for our app. We need to be careful about interpreting our own responses to our inventions, but often we have some characteristics of our own target audience and can be the very first play testers. In our Mightyverse team, Iku is always seeking to improve her english, and Paul and I have taken some Japanese classes, so we figured we were good for a first test. Our goal to is get people to have fun actually speaking the language they are learning. We intentionally designed without a point system, since we believe that language learning can be intrinsically fun. We tested this theory by making a game without an external point system, just tracking whether the players learned the phrases together.

“Shut up and sit in the corner and watch.
See if people who play your game are having fun
and playing the way you expect,
and are able to learn the rules easily.”
Cooperation and Engagement: What can board games teach us? Google Tech Talk by Matt Leacock

Be careful who you pick to play test your game — not just your brother, your wife or husband, your kid, unless they are in your target audience.

The first Mightyverse game play test with real audience was at SF Babel: 3 decks, written on index cards with 200 phrases in English, Spanish and Japanese.

Games are more fun when people are expecting to play a game. The game state, with its suspension of disbelief, and the rules create this alternate reality within which you can have fun. Games are more often played in the living room or around a kitchen table. Play test with your friends. You want your first play tests to be with people who will still play your game again, even if the first experience is frustrating or boring. Your friends will always play a game with you. Of course, they need to be part of your target audience. If you don’t have any friends who are part of your target audience, go out and meet people in your target audience and make friends with them.

Another great way to find people in your target audience is a crowd-funding campaign. If people will pay for something that doesn’t yet exist, then they probably want it. We knew we needed to do a lot more play testing, so we decided to commit to printing the game in order to find more people in our target audience with the campaign, setting us firmly on the path of learning about our future customers and validating our theories about how to make language learning fun. We made this video during the campaign — it’s not just marketing, it’s learning about what resonates with people.

Shigeru Miyamoto, famed Nintendo game designer who created Super Mario and the Wii, is known for designing for the expression on someone’s face when they play the game — they should smile and be happy, not frustrated. With the Wii, he designs for everyone in the room, not just the game player.

Our goal is to get people to have fun learning the language. The card game succeeds in that at a small scale. Now that we have developed our own model of language learning and have evidence that it is fun, we can scale our efforts by designing a mobile app — in many ways it will be completely different, but we can apply those core principles that we have validates.

We first built a very small app that only did phrase recordings, and we created a collaborative activity where people would record different phrases of the Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech translated into Spanish. We wanted to learn if we could construct and activity and get both friends and strangers to engage with our app. We found people that actually seemed to have fun recording phrases. We noticed that some people got their friends involved, and we designed around the parts of the experience that seemed most fun and engaging.

It can be emotionally difficult to test your app when it’s not finished, but that is exactly when you need to test it. It is SO important to start engaging people in the experience. One way to look at it is that the play-test itself is a game.

Here are the rules that I use to make it fun:

  • Shut up and Watch
  • Take Notes
  • Take Photos
  • Resist providing answers.
  • Ask questions.

Questions I ask:

  • What do you think this app is for?
  • What did you expect to happen?
  • Did you have fun? What part of it was fun?
  • Did you learn anything?

Designing for Fun Slides

Photo Credits:
RyanMcGuire, Cats Jumping Playfully
Tambako The Jaguar, Playing Cubs
Tambako The Jaguar, Playing with mom II
Juhan Sonin Follow, Udo finds Viggo
Steven Depolo, Children Twister Party

Redgate‘s whiteboard culture takes visual management to a new level. Last week, when visiting the UK, I spent two days in Cambridge co-working with Business of Software‘s Mark Littlewood and team who share space with Redgate. Everywhere you look there’s a whiteboard filled with sticky notes, printouts and handwritten index cards with lines and labels drawn in colored tape and marker.

whiteboard with grid of colored sticky notes with column labels: stories, could do, should do, must do , in progress

Most agile teams apply this practice. Following the mantra of “Make it Visible,” we seek to publish our ideas and document our process with artifacts that facilitate communication. The agile practice of software creation has its roots in Toyota’s just-in-time production system where Kanban boards were first developed back in the 1940s.

Mark Wightman gave me a tour through their vibrant, open offices, providing an unexpected glimpse into their culture. At first glance these displays at Redgate looked familiar, but these boards were not just a nimble construction of team process, they were an expression of team values and identity. From my perspective as an outsider, they were tangible evidence of a culture that embraced individual creativity and independence, alongside knowledge sharing and cross-team alignment. It’s a hard balance to strike. As companies scale, processes need to be standardized for people and systems to interoperate. It’s impractical manage a business when everyone is doing their own thing.

whiteboard with speech bubble along the top and lots of sticky notes
Customer quotes appear in speech bubbles along the top and bottom of the whitebaord, printouts show metrics and other reports, along with classic story cards arrayed kanban-style.

Redgate has some standardized reports: a one-pager that every team provides up the management chain, but the CEO also does whiteboard tours, visiting a few teams every week to see what they are working on and talk through their latest accomplishments and challenges with the help of these artifacts on their walls. The standard parts of the report help the management team act quickly on information needed to run the business, and these dynamic, diverse expressions make it so new ideas and new challenges can be seen quickly. Humans process huge amounts of information quickly and we are amazing pattern detection engines. When I remarked at how the Redgate culture clearly valued individual creativity, Marked reframed this the way that they achieved continuous improvement. For teams to adapt to change, variation must not just be allowed, it must be celebrated.

continuous integration lights in vertical strips, team headlines as printouts and rows of sticky notes with checkmarks
Vertical strips of lights show status of builds and tests from a continuous integration system. Each team updates “headlines” weekly, using that space to introduce new team members and include success stories along with whimsical imagery. Colored sticky notes and arrows provide a quick short-hand status update.

On the flight back to SFO, I caught up on some 18F work and appreciated our virtual tools of github, waffle, slack and google docs that make it possible to work remotely in the UK or at 35,000 feet with full access to all of our team processes and artifacts. Yet these colorful images of whiteboards, printouts and sticky notes keep replaying through my mind’s eye and I wonder if there is some way to capture that vibrant and flexible communication in our virtual world of work.

Key takeaways:
– individual expression fosters continuous improvement
– tangible representation of how you work streamlines communication
– communicate status inside the team = status outside the team
– fluid form supports evolution, adaptation, innovation

Many thanks to Redgate who let me experience their world for a just a little while. Note: if you want to work like this, I noticed that they are hiring in Cambridge, UK and Pasadena, USA).

More whiteboards:

glass wall with grid of stick notes and large 2015 year planner in top-right corner

sales funnel in sticky notes on whiteboard

whiteboard divided into large 2x3 grid with printouts and sticky notes arranged differently in each

whiteboard with sticky notes

Fast Company’s recent article “Inside Obama’s Stealth Startup” provides a nice overview of how industry experts have been steadily joining forces to transform how the United States government is using technology to provide services to its people. One of the key elements of this strategy is open data and open source — there’s little or no stealth in this “startup.”

One of my proudest moments after I joined 18F was when we announced our open source policy. Developing in the open creates an unprecedented level of transparency and offers new potential to engage members of the public in the operation of our democracy.

Before that time, most projects from the Presidential Innovation Fellows and the new 18F team were open source, but each project required specific sign off by agency leaders for it to be open. Creating a policy dramatically streamlined this sign-off process. Working in the open saves time and money:

  • streamlines communication
  • increases code reuse
  • reduces vendor lock-in

In 2013, the Open Data Executive Order set the stage for this work. By making it so that open data was the default expectation, it means that thousands of civil servants may provide open data as part of their process, without needing to get permission for each individual data set to be published.

It’s great to see industry press starting to take notice of this transformation happening inside the US Government. We’re really just getting started. If you want to read more, check out the 18F blog