Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ribbon Hero turns learning Office into a game

This post has two goals. One, I want to share with you something amazing; a thing that according to most views of the tech universe should not exist. Two, I want to talk about a coming revolution in application design.

The amazing thing
Imagine Microsoft Office turned into a video game. One where learning a productivity app is a delight. One where the core loop of gameplay involves using and gaining skills in Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

It sounds a bit unlikely doesn’t it?

Well, I’m happy to announce the availability of Ribbon Hero, a new download from Microsoft that turns using Office into a game. I’ve been helping the fine folks over in Office Labs with the design and we are all immensely proud that this is getting released to the public. Huge kudos to Jen, Jonas and the rest of the team. CNET calls it "Brilliant".

Go download it now. You can challenge me on Facebook with your elite formatting skills.

The coming revolution
Ribbon Hero, in part, was born from a speech I gave back in October 2007 on applying the design lessons of Super Mario Bros. to application design. I made the following bet:
  • If an activity can be learned…
  • If the player’s performance can be measured…
  • If the player can be rewarded or punished in a timely fashion…
  • Then any activity that meets these criteria can be turned into a game.
Not only can you make a game out of the activity, but you can turn tasks traditionally seen as a rote or frustrating into compelling experiences that users find delightful.

The foundations of user experience design are incomplete
Games offer a very different value proposition than what you get from traditional usability design. The essence of modern UI design is summed up by usability guru Steven Krug’s proclamation “Don’t make me think!” We are taught, as UI designers, as website developers and as software creators that our target user is a shallow dullard. The prototypical user is presented as incapable of reading, barely cognizant of what they desire and are best served by products that offer a least common denominator feature set.

This user model is well supported by empirical data. Sit in on any usability test and your subjects will flail about, click on the wrong things and ignore most obvious visual cues. We assume that users are idiots because we see them behave like idiots whenever we test them.

The results of our current design philosophy are wonderfully simple apps that allow new users to perform one or two universal tasks in as streamlined a manner as possible. These are the Googles, the Twitters and the Diggs of the world. They focus on ease of acquisition and limit their functionality to the 20% of features that serve 80% of the population.

Yet, as applications grow, the “Don’t make me think” philosophy stumbles.
  • Users grow. Given the opportunity, new users rapidly become intermediate and expert users.
  • Different users, especially skilled users, want to master different tasks. Finding one or two universal tasks that matches all users is nearly impossible.
  • New opportunities emerge. As both the developers and the users gain experience with the software, they discover new use cases and tasks that create immense user value. Many developers are faced with the task of either bolting on new use cases or creating entirely new software, fragmenting their brand and user base.
Google Documents is slowly becoming just as much of a usability monstrosity any major text editor (Notepad excluded). Even apps that offer a more limited creative palette such as Mint.com, Ebay and Amazon try desperately to maintain their simplicity. We attempt to leverage pre-existing skills. We carefully layer beginner, intermediate and expert functionality. We use the democracy of split testing to eliminate minority use cases.

Yet, despite the fact that Web 2.0 started with a fresh new philosophy of minimalism and a clean slate, it is rapidly converging on the same frustrating and complex usability solutions found in desktop applications. The current state of the art is missing something fundamental.

Game design focuses on improving user skills
Game design, as applied to application design, brings several powerful ideas to the discussion that are either missing or underrepresented in existing descriptions of UX design.
  • Users are learning machines: All users have immense inherent potential to learn and master new skills.
  • Exploratory learning is fun: Given the proper environment, users will, of their own free will, explore an unknown task. They will try, fail and then finally gain enough insight that they grok the core problem at an intuitive level. When this moment of mastery occurs, users smile.
  • Exploratory learning can be engineered into repeatable systems: Moments of delight and skill acquisition are highly reproducible. All you need is a well designed and balanced system of interconnected feedback loops that helps guide and encourage the formation of new skills.
  • Learning in games is both modular and user directed: Once you have techniques for reliably teaching users new skills, you can modularize your application and let users decide what they want, when they want it and how much that matters to them.
If you start with the idea that users are learning machines, all our observations about usability tests snap into place. Of course, people stumble when they use an application for the first time. They don’t understand the interface because it is new to them. And users will stay at that inexperienced level if we do not make an attempt to teach them how to improve. We’ve diagnosed a burbling baby as a hopeless invalid, blind to the fact that babies grow, learn and flourish.

When users play a game, they spend hours first slowly building up basic skills. Then they assemble these building blocks into complex stratagems. Ultimately, they expertly wield the systems of the game like a finely honed tool. By the time the game ends, the player is no longer the same beginner that started. The design of the game directly helped improve their mental model of the world in a profound and measurable manner. The whole time, the player is having fun.

To me, the rich lessons of past 30 years of modern game design are lessons about human potential. Let’s start with the assumption that people are amazing. We have built pyramids. We have created clockwork contraptions that move mountains and measure the universe. Every day, we navigate a crazy quilt work world of technology, geography, language and culture. Surely we are capable of more complex interactions than typing a word in a plain vanilla search box.

Instead of only treating our users like idiots, how can we follow a design philosophy that actively empowers our users to fulfill their vast potential? The techniques gleaned from game design are one very meaningful path worth exploring.

Practice matters more than theory
Now, it is one thing to talk about how game design can improve application design. It is a completely different task to grab a hold of Microsoft Office, the epitome of traditional application design, and turn it into a playable game.

Ribbon Hero is not the best game in the world. Not yet. However, even in its basic state, it does all the wonderful things that games do in the context of one of the world’s most used, most serious applications. People learn. They improve. And they enjoy the process. Such a highly valuable class of user experience has eluded traditional design for decades.

If these miracles can be done with Microsoft Office, how might game design change the applications you want to build in the future?

take care