Fast Essay: "Playing in the Mud Meets UI Design"

The author’s feet in the sands of Kaanapali Shores.

The author’s feet in the sands of Kaanapali Shores.

Arlo Emerson, 2019


Like a lot of children, I took great joy in creating canals in the mud at recess. I grew up in the wet climates of the PNW and Alaska, so there was plenty of material to work with. Mud + water == fun. This is kindergarten knowledge. To bring this analogy of play forward, I'm suggesting you turn your UI into mud, throw it in the air, and see what pattern it makes when it impacts. See how it gets used.

When I think about how to derive some joyful feeling or inspiration during the creation of something digital, e.g. like a UI on your phone, I have been coming back to these "first joys" of childhood. Blowing bubbles and watching them fly off into the wind, that's basically rapid iteration to me. These are the joys of playing with kinetic things, or making things—physical things—and watching natural forces affect them. Like letting the water flow over a silly dam made of sand. It's just like a UI where sometimes the unexpected happens. Pick any topic. We learn these things heuristically from trial and error, from playing with the thing. And after surviving many battles we set about codifying all these rules about how well-behaved apps and customers should behave in the real world. We intend this and measure that (from any POV, a designer, a developer, the info architect, the QA team, the business, the customer.) Who wins these battles and under what metrics are they defined?

In my mind, the difference between that childhood vibe and what we do for a living is the number of stakeholders.

Recess playground, 1st grade. Stakeholders: Oneself. And you probably don't care.

Corporate design studio, now. Stakeholders: Hundreds if not thousands. Everybody is critical.

Wow, that got complicated.

So, what's the solution? Well, of course, there isn't one and why should there be? Plenty of folks thrive on managing these dynamics. And plenty of software too (so much of it simply bad). I'm just pointing out that there is a lot of gold in those first joys of play, gold that you can use in your day-to-day. Ok, you say, where's the gold in your first example of UI design-development?

Children playing on Douglas Coupland’s “Digital Orca”, Vancouver B.C.

Children playing on Douglas Coupland’s “Digital Orca”, Vancouver B.C.

We can skip the mud and go straight to user flows, and now we're talking like a building architect who plays with solids and voids in a kinetic way. I think they have a better word for it like "circulation", but I'm talking about circulating the walls and doors and everything else too. Dump it upside down. I've also got to think of what those other architects might say about, say, latency on the server. That's sort of the opposite of circulation. Now we're talking about resistance, or impedance, and things getting clogged in pipes. And it just goes on and on.

But wait, now that we have the infrastructure completely randomized, let's do the same to the UI. What if we did even more A/B type of stuff and played EVEN MORE with the elements, the data, the architecture, to the end of having hundreds and thousands of new user paths/journeys/whatevers to play with. Chains of components to choose from. Databases filled with, say, jumbled information. Many dead ends and many strange things will surely arise from this activity.

Abstractly all I'm saying is to treat all the variables like a fluid dynamics system. Inject random stuff here, see what comes out there. They do this in traffic behavior simulations. They do this in war-games.

I don't really think this example is all that extreme, either, provided you can assure management (and yourself) that all this playing around will prove to be useful later, or immediately. Who knows! Whatever you were planning on doing, you better have an answer for the suits. Because like the teachers in school that got mad when you traipsed mud back into the classroom, they will certainly ask with those stern, gray looks: "And why did we randomly dump people's carts over in the checkout?" Of course, I'm not suggesting we push this into production. Am I? It's more of a thought experiment. I'm suggesting a playful work-a-thon type of situation. I'm also suggesting this kind of "free thinking" can get you into trouble. Better make this a dark ops experiment.

I promised a short essay and will wrap up with this:

If you're looking for inspiration, try play. Specifically, an embedded joyful kind of play. (It doesn't need to be a childhood thing, just vivid.) Bolt this on to your given situation, even for a millisecond. The play makes all the metaphors you need. They will come on their own. Or jumble things up and let the participants, simulated or real, create a way in and a way out.