Hattie Foster: Design principles for a playful age

The key to wide walls design is that there may be a fixed goal but how you get there is different

New Visions -seminaari Logomossa 11.10.2018

  • New Visions oli Historian museo Turkuun -hankkeen järjestämä kansainvälinen seminaari, jossa käsiteltiin tulevaisuuden museoita kaupunkisuunnittelun, arkkitehtuurin ja sisältöjen esittämisen näkökulmista. Julkaisemme videotallenteet puheenvuoroista YouTubessa ja blogissamme. Videotallenteet eivät ole tekstitettyjä, mutta puheenvuorot löytyvät blogin yhteydestä litteroituina.

Hi, everyone. I'm pleased to have the final slot of today because it allowed me to listen to everyone else's, and kind of work out how to talk to this first slide which now sounds pretty punchy for the end of the day. But I think there's a really important discussion going on around this balance between old and new, analogue and digital, and I think as a games studio the way that I kind of decided to approach today was to look at the design principles that go behind making meaningful technology. So, this is going to be a practical talk, but it's going to talk mainly about a couple of things that I'm really passionate about. The first is meaningful application of technology, and the second thing is really simple design principles that you can use in order to challenge and make sure that you're truly doing that. It’s the talk about making things work, but more specifically it's a talk about making really complex, innovative, exciting, magical - as we just saw from the last presentation - things work for a broad range of audiences, which is obviously what the museum space is all about. So, I'm going to talk about those three principles, but I'm going to do it through the lens of three of our recent projects. The first one, which I'm actually going to talk about second, is Rugged Rovers which is in the engineering gallery of the Science Museum. The second was an exhibition at the Tate Modern late last year and earlier this year, which was a VR-installation. And the final one is a permanent installation at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

But first of all, a little bit of context. At Preloaded we describe what we do as 'play with purpose'. I think 'play' is something that we've discussed quite a lot today whether it's designing museums with Lego, whether it's helping clients understand how they can visualize and establish what they want through visual cards, whether it's the entirety of that last presentation with really delightful interactions that help and explain complex things. So, I think play and games is so ubiquitous with how we work and how we interact with others as human beings. The purpose element for us is about taking really complex things, things which are hard to understand, such as the building of a museum, and make it really relatable and accessible to non-specialists. So, I love the prototyping comments earlier about making non-designers designers, that's exactly the way that we should be thinking. Complexity is in the majority of the things that we struggle with in our daily lives, lots of complex issues that we're thinking about: AI, climate change, how can we use play interaction to make those things accessible and also really inclusive.

So, Preloaded has been going for about 20 years. This was the first piece of work that we did for a gallery which was in 2008. This is Launchball, it's being played on the Shell Building in front of the London Eye. A very simple example of something quite gimmicky but quite cool, people playing a game on the side of a building. But over the last 17 or so years we've managed to work with a lot of really exciting companies. I think what binds the types of organizations that we've worked with is a real focus on content and authenticity, always seeking to find new and innovative ways to tell stories and make experiences that genuinely connect with people. So, this talk is about that. It's about how to create technology-based experiences which truly connect. More broadly over the past 17 years, we've been making a range of games and experiences. They take subjects such as neuroscience, the magic of mathematics, climate change, ecosystems in the Californian kelp forest, and they make them understandable to broad audiences through play. But obviously with each new technological advancement, as the last presentation so eloquently showed, with each new advancement we get a fresh set of opportunities, things to get excited about, and we also get a lot of potential challenges. Each new technology brings with it its own affordances, its own barriers to entry. I think what we strive to do with all of our work is to understand how can we harness that meaningfully, how can we establish what's the right type of technology to tell this story, what are its affordances.

The first thing to say is that obviously good experiences focus on the audience and that's been a running theme today. Good designers, they understand not just their audience's needs but their wants, their desires, and every single use case that might be appropriate. So, you design for your audience and I think we all understand that, it's no surprise. But what happens when your audience isn't one group with needs but many groups with many different needs, so coming from different backgrounds, different ages, different expectations and familiarity with technology, different expectations. This isn't a hypothetical question, this is what museums deal with day in, day out regardless of technology. So, the question for any person thinking of designing experiences within museums, is how do you design - I have to read a question now, don't know actually what it is - how do you design for an audience when their needs and abilities are so varied? The thesis, and what I'm going to be talking about in a very kind of simplistic way today, is that the best museum technology caters to diverse needs and abilities. This isn't about a really baggy design that doesn't satisfy anyone by trying to satisfy everyone. It's about thinking about inclusivity regardless of ability, regardless of age. It's about universal appeal.

So, how do you do that, design principles for universal appeal? Well, this is a little bit of a cheat, because these aren't actually our design principles, is a very clever man called Mitch Resnick, another MIT Lab reference today. These design principles were spoken about 15 years ago. So, he's the director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, and he originally designed these principles around creative tools to build software. We've taken these principles and for the last 10 or so years have been using these in a highly transferrable context in our design practice. Very crucially, they challenge you to think about your audience at all stages of your design. The first principle is low threshold. A low threshold experience is simple for everyone to pick up and play, so in a museum context this is the most important thing you can think about. Low threshold, the ease, the intuition for someone to step in and interact with an exhibition, is the difference between a good installation and a bad one. So, successfully deliberating on this is very critical. The question is, what is the most intuitive, fun, and simple way to enable someone's getting to an experience, and how can we remove barriers to make sure that those things don't stop them from engaging. Ultimately, the reason why this is so important to the last presentation, if we don't do this people come away talking about the technology and not about the content itself. So, to shed light specifically on this principle I'm going to talk about Modigliani VR. This exhibition was quite a bold vision, it started with the Tate Modern saying 'We want to explore the use of VR within our galleries, we want to understand and draw new audiences into our space, i.e. starting with the technology'. And in many instances, we would say that's a faux pas, starting with your audience and starting with your content is the way to go, but they had a creative vision. They wanted to understand creatively what they could do with that that would be interesting and shed new light on their blockbuster exhibition. So, the first question then is, for us, why VR? Artists' lives, their studios, their environments have always been appealing to audiences, whether it's photographs of an artist's working environment, whether it's inspiration behind an artist's practice. This is mainstream, we all understand that background, that state of mind, to an artist. So, why do I need VR as part of this journey? What does VR bring that the other elements of this exhibition aren't bringing already? The sculpture, the art, the moving image - what is it that VR does differently? What's its purpose? And why is this better than watching a film? So, none of these things are sceptical, this isn't a sceptical audience. It's an audience that are asking reasonable questions, because they will see if something doesn't feel right.

For Tate, and for Preloaded, this was about establishing a new way to interpret art: through empathy with the artist. Empathy and this sounds very similar to van Gogh. They wanted visitors to understand Modigliani as a man we might've known. You're stepping into a retrospective, the biggest retrospective ever on this artist. There are hundreds of his nudes, his portraits around this gallery. It's impressive, it's possibly quite alienating if you don't understand portraits. How do you engage with this man, how do you understand that he was in his 30s? That he moved to Paris as an immigrant in the early 1900s, that he had a drug problem, that he drank too much, that he had impetuous relationships with women and that they were an impact on his artwork, and that he was a part of a very specific circle in Paris who were encouraging him to experiment in different forms, encouraging him to use sculpture in a way that he hadn't done before. So, as someone who didn't know about Modigliani before, how do I connect with the man himself and not feel overwhelmed by a blockbuster exhibition?  Very crucially, and something that’s very familiar to lots of people, he also only moved in to his proper home in his 30s. Prior to that he'd basically been surfing around various different sofas in Paris. So, Tate wanted existing visitors to think and feel differently about Modigliani. They wanted to see him in a new light. But they also wanted to bring younger audiences into the exhibition to say 'Yes, this is a retrospective of a man's life's works', but ultimately, he died in his 30s and there were lots of other influences in his life at that time. So, it's about empathy. I think that's something that VR can do very, very brilliantly when done thoughtfully.

So, here is a video.

Video, speaker 1: The Modigliani retrospective here at Tate Modern takes you through the whole range of Modigliani's work, and when we go into the exhibition we see paintings, we see sculpture, we see drawings, by one of the most important artists to the 20th century. And yet, through the virtual reality, we start to get a real sense of the environment.

Video, speaker 2: Part of the Modigliani exhibition will be a virtual reality experience where recreating Modigliani's studio from 1919...

Video, speaker 3: You get that kind of gut feeling, an understanding that you don't necessarily get from reading about it or just looking at it through 2D pictures.

Video, speaker 4: Understanding art is about understanding the painter, and the paintings, and also the kind of a historical and social context. The opportunity we have with virtual reality and with this experience is to try to live with that in a very short experience that gets you really close to those details.

Video, speaker 3: It's amazing how many different departments of Tate it’s touched on. It's been a collaboration across the organization and also with Preloaded and with HTC.

Speaker 5: We started with a blank canvas and incrementally we've come to understand and build a picture about Modigliani I don't think people have necessarily seen before.

Speaker 1: We really have paid a great attention to historical detail in this experience. Well that's from our research from Paris. You're looking at what a stove should look like in that moment. To our co-curator in Milan, looking at new Italian texts and bringing that material in.

Speaker 4: Everything you see in the experience, everything you can interact with, everything with, you know, from the light coming through the whitewashed windows, through the sardine tins to the colours of the palette, are all completely accurate. The space itself as his studio was never actually visited by anyone alive today.

Speaker 2: Working with the VR team has been an incredible experience to me because I've been very impressed with the way that they can take something that's a hundred years old and then recreate it in a 21st century virtual setting.

Speaker 6: The thing I enjoyed the most was bringing this space to life. There are over 60 objects within the scene and each model was taken from research and first-hand accounts. Technical research also enabled us to inform the markings on the canvas itself and be able to inform the brush strokes and how you see them, how the light actually reflects on the surface of the model.

Speaker 2: We have done an X-ray of the canvas and the stretcher. We've also looked at it in infrared and then a conservation scientist drew an analysis of pigment and media to make out exactly what he used.

Speaker 1: The Ochre Atelier is an integral part of the exhibition. It does enhance the conclusions that you draw.

Speaker 3: The sort of forensic level of historical research that's gone into this can really offer depth and accuracy and bring something else to the table.

Speaker 1: This has been something really new for us. It's been exciting to push those boundaries.

[Video ends]

So, this was an exhibition that only ran for four months which brings with it some sort of challenges: open day, is that open day, that technology, that hardware needs to be able to run solidly for four months. But it also means in a kind of very fast paced technical landscape we're able to trial something which is new, test with audiences, how they feel about integrating this into their journey which is very exciting. The biggest challenge with something like this and when thinking about how to design a low threshold experience is that often the technology is far beyond where the audience's expectations and understanding and familiarity are. In this instance, the software and the hardware that you see here is far more complex than what we're using. What we're talking about is a core audience of 45 to 65-year olds, Tate's traditional blockbuster museum audience, and then Tate are talking about wanting to bring in a much younger active audience to engage with something that they wouldn't usually think about. So, we have connoisseurs in terms of the subject matter, we have newcomers in terms of the subject matter - and that's not distinguished by age -, we have possibly people who are more technically familiar and we have people who are less technically familiar. The key thing, and the way to practice low threshold design, is by practicing restraint: just because the technology allows you to do something, it doesn't mean it needs to be done. What we did was remove controllers from this experience, controllers that would otherwise have taken out people's hands, they would've required far more onboarding, they would've possibly distracted from the content of the experience. But also, we made it seated. Anyone who's done room scale experiences before will know, you step inside, you put on a headset, you need quite a lot of facilitation. Coming back to a point Steve said earlier, I think the quote was 'this isn't for someone like us' or 'this isn't for someone like me', most people who we tested with within the first two weeks of the experience, said 'Oh, this looks fabulous, but it's probably not for me'. So, when we asked people to stand up and move around they said 'Oh, I can see that and I'm sure it's absolutely brilliant, but it's not for me'. Immediately you start to see, well, if it's not for you then who is it for? Because Tate's target audience would predominantly be 45 to 65-year olds. I think there's something about saying we can practice restraint and create an experience that is just as magical, just as in line with the audience's understanding, but not, I guess prioritize, that comfort at the same time. In doing so, very practical things, they stopped worrying about tripping over, navigating controllers - so very, very simple things. We also put a little screen at the bottom, so the facilitators could check and make sure that everyone was in the experience at the same time.

This comes on to the next bit, which is about prioritizing comfort. This is something very specific in virtual reality, but actually it's across the board in terms of how you prototype and test with the audience itself. Ergonomics, the fidelity of the experience, the frame rate of the experience, all of these things are new to us. We're not used to having our necks holding a headset like this, our eyes aren't used to these types of things, so actually creating a very simple experience that's designed around comfort, is absolutely key. To do that, we trained about 300 of Tate's internal staff to be able to facilitate and to really take ownership of the experience. But also, when talking about low threshold we're talking about content. How can we attract both newcomers to this artist and also those who know a bit about Modigliani already? We went through a very extensive research period for the first couple of months of the project to understand everything that's involved in that story. Ultimately, we started to build a picture of this space. I think, coming back to a point earlier about authenticity, the kind of accuracy that's put into this experience is arguable as to whether the audience knows that it's fully accurate or not. That's partly down to how you tell the story and you present the information, but ultimately, for an environment within virtual reality to feel authentic that level of detail, to the way the light comes through the windows, to the way the ceiling was dripping, to the voices - the first time that counts - that you hear within this space. All of it contributes to an immersive experience. I think what's interesting is that VR can be the most intuitive and low threshold of all, because ultimately, we know what to do in reality. And all the key pieces that developing technology and isolation from the rest of an exhibition is a very bad way to go about designing a low threshold experience. This was always going to be in room 10 of 12. When trying to create an experience that's in dialogue with the rest of the exhibition, what is it offering that the sculpture isn't, what is it offering that can shed new light on the exhibition space that the user goes in to afterwards. How can we use this as a way to not be the star of the show but actually another interpretation tool?

Another thing that we did to keep it low threshold is to tell a linear story with very little amounts of agency, and the key thing about that is we didn't want it to be a top-down narrative. Ultimately, we don't know the story of Modigliani and this space, it's researched from first-hand accounts. So, leaving enough space for the visitors to actually look at different things, inquire about the space, build their own stories, is a really important experience. People come out having had a different experience, and they talk about it in the final gallery. The key thing about this experience is that it's the final year of his life and he's painting his first self-portrait, and his health is declining. You see that self-portrait in the final gallery space and this experience provides the context to do that.

What's interesting about this, it ran for four months, it had 78,000 visitors which is basically the capacity of the number of headsets within the space. The number of first time VR-users was around 50,000, and about 25 percent of them were over 65. The idea that actually taking advantage of this type of technology is just about trends of younger audiences is definitely not the case. These are tools that can be used for the entirety of a broad section of audiences if designed in a low threshold way. Obviously, Tate have done an enormous amount of research and a white paper and feedback into this, and what's most fascinating is most people are talking about the emotional motivations, they did it because they wanted to get closer to someone. So, being able to provide an additional layer that actually all commence the rest of the experience rather than distracting from it, is the biggest success of it. In my mind, the idea that we can talk to a 24-year old who might not have gone to this exhibition before and an 84-year old who's not talking about the technology, she's talking about it being a taste of magic, is truly brilliant. I mean, it's a real success criteria for us, to be able to reach a wide audience.

So, to summarize, a low threshold is about practicing restraint, it's about removing barriers to entry, it's about making failure fun - not something that we had to do a lot of in this experience, because it was quite a guided experience -, and it's about prioritizing comfort.

The second principle, and I guess one that's the reason why most people come to museums, is high ceilings. We interact with exhibits and we go and explore our cultural surroundings because we're curious. Curiosity is fuelled by things like rewards, tactility, feedback, achievement - and not in a very gamified sense of the word, just in a sense of human interactions. A high ceiling experience is one that's designed to be rewarding for anyone, it's an experience that scales in complexity depending on whether you are 5 years old or 50 years old. This is a really hard thing to do, and again not every exhibition is talking to all of these principles. The best example of a high ceiling activity is a pen and paper, so a 5-year old can pick it up and draw a stickman, and someone with a hell of a lot more talent than myself can draw something that's incredibly meaningful and thought through. It's about creative limitations and your imagination. A very obvious example of this within the gaming space, which some of you will know about, is Minecraft. It's a very good analogy for a pencil and paper. Most people when they start playing Minecraft, they just dig down. They start just practicing with their tools to see what they can do. But, the game is crafting creative tools for you to use, and to unlock your creativity. It gives you the tools to be brilliant, and the only limit is your imagination. Creative tools are high ceilings because they allow you to demonstrate what you're capable of and what you're thinking about. How can we translate this into a museum exhibit or into a game? A very simple example that I've got to explain this concept is an exhibition that we did at the Science Museum, called Rugged Rovers. This is a game that is very proudly installed and still installed at the Science Museum, and it's about teaching the core principles of engineering, which is about designing and iteration. But also, the dwell time needs to be quite short with this, so it's about how can we help people understand what it means to design and iterate within a fast-moving gallery space. The goal was to inspire young people to think like engineers. As a very simple context, a player is presented with an engine and invited to draw a body of any shape around it, add wheels of any size, then launch that rover into a rugged landscape of gravel pit and cliff drops. Ultimately, anyone can step up, there are multiple screens within the space, you can also - if you have your own device - login and play by yourself on your own phone. How complicated you choose to make your design is totally up to you, but what you create is very quickly launched into this digital space. What happens then is the gallery visitors see that creation racing alongside other people's on a huge screen while online people can tap in via their mobiles. Some rovers obviously fail, quite quickly, others break away from the pack, and so players learn and watch others and understand what they're doing, adapting their designs, collaborating with friends to build new creations and the best rovers of all. Like we tried to do in any game that we're designing, the learning outcomes - so, thinking like an engineer, the design in iterative loop - underpins the winning strategy of the game. If you continue to iterate your design - and this just shows the core game loop here, some early concept work, some scamp illustrations in the middle and some later on visualizations - that core loop, very simple loop of encouraging people to go back, try again, test an iterate, is in itself teaching people those core components. We designed a very tight game loop that can be played for one minute and is delightful, or 39 minutes as one person did. It's all about trial and error.

This image encapsulates what a high ceiling experience can look like. It's about scope for mastery, so with good design the player learns how to play very quickly, but ultimately the longer they play, the more value they get out of the experience. That comes with a healthy dose of trial and error. This is a permanent exhibit, it actually has around an average 16-minute session length, which seems very high to me and I might need to check. 300,000 rovers are drawn every month and on average about four rovers per session. That's the kind of key bit of learning here: that ultimately, by going through this iteration and learning as they go along, they are picking up those skills. How can you reward players with varying abilities? It's about scope for mastery, it's about providing emergent complexity, and it's providing rewards for everyone.

The final principle is wide walls. This is about providing player choice, player freedom, and player agency. This embraces the notion that different people want different things from their experience. It's also something that museums do exceptionally well. The question here is how can we design an experience that puts player volition at its heart? Ultimately, museums and the layout of spaces and a conception of an exhibition is designed to do this already, provide something different for everyone. Visitors have choices, so using the Science Museum as an example, they deliver high ceilings through a combination of object-led interpretation, but also screen-led activities, group play, physical play. None of these things are seen in isolation, they're seen as offering different people different ways of connecting with the same subject matter, in the same way that lots of people will've missed out the VR section of the Modigliani, a lot of people that would be their way in to the subject matter. A useful example that I wanted to share for this, is climate change game that we launched at the Natural History Museum of Utah. This is a permanent exhibition, it has five terminals at the heart of the museum. It's about encouraging conversation and ultimately driving behavioural change through collaborative play. The National History Museum of Utah wanted to disrupt people's thinking about climate change and create a collaborative and multigenerational game because their audience is very diverse. The target was about three minutes of play, but with a strong replay value. For the Natural History Museum of Utah, the biggest challenge they have is mental models around climate change. These mental models are things that create denial, fear, and overwhelm, because the subject matter is so complex. When we know this exists in our day-to-day lives, and all of us do, how do we actually start to understand what the impact of that is and what we can do to change it. This is where games are brilliant ways of conveying that. So, we wanted to design an experience that broke those models, and in focus on the impact of climate change within Utah, so gave it a personal relevance. Here's what we made.


Very impairing music there. So, this experience is ultimately an open sandbox and an open sandbox, slightly similar to Minecraft in a previous example, is what wide walls is about. It's left in the hands of the audience to establish what the shape of Utah's future is going to be. The way that you create a wide walled experience is by saying anyone who steps up to this terminal is going to want to play and operate in a slightly different way, so how can we reflect that and make sure that people's personal playing styles feel supported and unique to them. But everyone has the same goal: the goal is to keep climate change under control while meeting the needs of Utah. How users get there is up to them, so wide walls is about offering and supporting different playstyles and in doing so offering them different choices that they can make. Each choice that you make when you step up to the terminal needs to be weighed up in sense of cause and effect. If you build an intensive farm that may be good for the food production, but it might be really bad for the environment, so what are you going to do? And having asymmetrical stories and choices that people make both drives the conversation, but it creates the sense of collaboration because my impact on visitor to my right is seen and vice versa. Equally, bad choices accumulate which can cause natural disasters, which will reverse progression for everyone. What's interesting about this kind of open sandbox and real time environment is that it only goes back to the beginning every 24 hours, so as I step up to the terminal I'm dealing with the repercussions of the people who have stepped up before me. There's a nice sort of emulation of the life in which we lead today: these disasters will remain and stay there unless people step up and start making choices which counteract those things. We put a lot of trust and confidence in the audience rather than spoon-feeding them. The key to wide walls design is that there may be a fixed goal but how you get there is different, and whether you get there, is not necessarily true. If you understand the impact of your choices, you will feel more responsibility to do good. And this is just a little example of how those playstyles reflected back to people, noted down the left-hand side. As part of this game we mapped different playstyles, different choices that people make, and what that says about you in the world. This is just a way of showing people there are very different ways of operating, that giving feedback in terms of tweaks and changes that you might make. During our paper prototyping another thing that we established was that a lot of people liked to save the day. They liked to be the hero in these examples. When doing so other people would step up and collaborate and they would also praise them and congratulate them for doing something well. We crafted these hero moments into the game, so now and again someone will step in and stop a wildfire, and ultimately everyone then joins together. I think this is the kind of key part of this exhibition: critically start to understand through playing the game that you're not going to solve these problems by yourself and that collaboration is key.

This is a permanent exhibit. A much higher dwell time than the museum was expecting, they were expecting about three minutes. The longest session was 39. The most popular playstyle was the eco-warrior which is very positive for us all, and I think very frustrating to our VFX department who created loads of disaster visual effects that could go wrong, and actually they're very rarely seen because people are so concerned about keeping Utah healthy. So, wide walls and the kind of cool principles behind that are open-ended play, flexible play and different modes of play. Ultimately, in doing so you don't kind of presuppose how someone will want to play, you don't impose a fixed solution, and you promote player choice and volition. It's that kind of agency and connection through play which really starts to connect someone to a subject matter and help them think about what it is they're learning and what they can do with that information once they leave the gallery.

This is a very high-level look at how you can design in the museum space. The idea is that if you embrace these principles and the techniques described, they'll become intrinsic to what you create, and part of the DNA of what you create as well. They can also be used as a lens to challenge your use of technology and its audience appeal. Either way, they can help you create complex and innovative things that work for people. Thanks very much.