A discussion with Daniel Burka, UX designer turned game designer, about game dynamics in UX.
Article No :571 | October 21, 2010 | by Daniel Burka, David Gillis
This is an audio interview with Daniel Burka, the director of design at Tiny Speck and former creative director at Digg. David Gillis, a UX Magazine contributor and partner at Teehan+Lax set up and conducted the interview to hear Daniel's experience of moving from web application UX and UI design to game design.
Gillis: Today, I'm going to be talking to Daniel Burka. Daniel, thanks for sitting down and chatting with me. I think that a lot of people will be interested to hear what you have to say today just because you've been an influential person in the community, both from a practitioner's perspective, and also somebody who has a clear point of view and is good at communicating about how you think about what you do. So maybe we can start off by you talking a little bit about yourself and what you've been up to and where you've come from.
Burka: Well thanks for having me on, it's great talking with you. In high school, many moons ago, some friends and I started a small web agency, originally called Whiteland Studio (a bit of trivial knowledge), that later became silverorange. This was back in 1999 and we built this company up. We were a bunch of kids, and we built up this small agency in eastern Canada into a fairly well-recognized web development and web design shop that's still operating today, even though I'm not currently there full-time.
And then when I was at silverorange, I did a lot of work with Mozilla. I redesigned mozilla.org and was part of the Firefox and Thunderbird branding project, and later on ended up working on Digg, a news website, and worked at Digg—I guess I was the fourth employee at Digg—and eventually left last October after it had millions of users and the company had grown quite a bit. Now I'm working on a project called "Glitch" with a company called Tiny Speck. So a bunch of the ex-Flikr guys have put together a company and we're building a massively multiplayer online game in the browser called Glitch.
Gillis: That sounds like quite a varied career that you've had in a relatively short span of time. Why don't you talk a little bit about Glitch. What's it been like for you, as a user experience designer to jump into designing games?
Burka: It's very bizarre to be working on a game. It's not something I really expected to be doing. The game is coming along really well. I'm really excited about it. I joined in October when the project was already fairly started, and for the last month we've been building a lot of disparate tools—all the bits that will function soon as a full game. Over the last few months, it feels like we've been working in a bit of a thick fog, and just in the last month or two, it's suddenly coming into focus, and instead of being just solely a bunch of tools, it's starting to develop into content, and fun, and an actual game. You can sit down for a few hours and really play, and there's continuity and narrative in there. That's really fun.
But it's weird; things move and there are lots of different challenges that are very, very different from building web apps. The idea that friction can be a good thing in a game—a large part of game play is about friction and overcoming challenges—which is a very different kind of UI problem than we deal with in web applications. The other big challenge for me is that there's a very, very deep history in game UI design. In web applications, we're pretty much in our diapers. I'm not that old and I was there near the beginning of the Web, and we've learned some conventions and we've figured some things out, but game UI goes back decades, before I was born. So I feel a little bit out of touch with what's possible, what has been done, what failed before, what succeeded before. So I'm learning a lot about it as I go.
Gillis: Do you feel pressured to live up to that tradition that's been developing over the years in gaming, or do you feel like this is an opportunity for you to maybe make your mark and impart a different perspective, coming out of the UI/UX design world?
Burka: I think that's accurate. It's a double-edged sword. On one hand, I'm excited to bring a fresh perspective to building a game. And I think a lot of game UI is similar to an operating system or web application UI. I think bringing that level—the idea of some of the tenants of usability and easy functionality—I think that's been underemphasized in the past. But at the same time, I feel a considerable amount of pressure and some incompetence even, working on a game when there is this deep history that I don't understand, because I know that there's a lot of challenges that have been solved and I don't want to be reinventing the wheel just for the sake of doing something differently. If I'm going to change from game tradition, I want to at least know when I am messing with people's habits and people's knowledge.
Gillis: You mentioned a few examples in there. You talked about friction and intentionally building in challenge, which to some extent goes against the grain of what any good user experience designer is supposed to do, which is remove that friction and promote flow. Was that surprising when you came across these new challenges? And have you found that it's been tough to go against some of the instincts that maybe you've developed over the years working on projects like Digg and Pownce, and some of the other work that you did with silverorange?
Burka: It's been very, very difficult. I've had a really hard time wrapping my head around the idea that friction can be a good thing. In web applications, the overarching imperative always has been ease of use, and part of the reason for that is the Web being so young, and web applications are so damn hard for people to use, we're only just emerging from the era where successful application is one that is not just simply useable by everyday people. Because up until now, that has really been the measure. Can my mother use it? Can my grandmother use it? These kinds of examples come up in meetings with web application people all the time.
So on the Web, we make things as simple as possible and we try to remove as much friction as possible. But in a game, you often try to do exactly the opposite of that. Much of the fun in a game involves solving puzzles and learning how to achieve objectives more efficiently. So you actually want to learn how to do things more efficiently. For instance, in our game we've got butterflies, and of course you need to massage butterflies to get butterfly lotion. And so we could make it so simply by clicking on the little fellow anywhere on the screen it would massage him, but that's not fun at all. It's useful and easy, and you could collect as much butterfly lotion as you wanted, but instead we make you work for it. So you have to figure out how to get within the radius of the butterfly and we give him an unpredictable path so it makes it hard to catch up to him. And then you have to massage him at just the right moment, so you've got to catch him in the sky. But there's an element of learning and mastery to that.
I love the mystery as well, and that's part of what makes the game fun. But at the same time, we're always thinking that there's a very fine line between what's challenging and what's frustrating. I want something to be challenging but I want you to be able to master it. Through work and through bending your brain a little bit, you should be able to figure out something and figure out how to do it more efficiently. But I don't want something just to be unnecessarily confusing.
Gillis: So because you get to conceive of all of those things, in a sense you're building both the world and the set of rules and constraints that you're working in, and then you're also designing the affordances and the ways that a user can actually engage in that world and interact. Do you find that frustrating, or is that part of the fun? Do you find it tough to deal with something that's so potentially open-ended, because you could essentially make this game world to be anything that you wanted?
Burka: A game world can't be just anything. We're clearly building in rules—even just having gravity in the game, and you can only carry so many things in your pack. We set these constraints, and this is, again, part of what makes the game fun is the rules. In some ways, I find this really comforting, because in a lot of ways it's very similar to Digg. We had a huge, passionate community, and we have basically set up a game with certain rules in it. So there are constraints. You can only digg a story once, but you can digg any number of comments, again only once. We don't show how many votes down a story has gotten. We only show the votes up. But in comments, we do show up and down. So you add all of this together and it's very much a game system.
It was actually funny that we'd have these debates about, "Well, our users are doing A. Is that fair or not fair?" Sometimes people at Digg would get upset that, "Well, so-and-so is a gamer," and they use the word "gamer" as a pejorative. But we have built a game. You couldn't deny it. So people were just pushing the limits of what you could do with the system. And in many ways, we ended up building features and building additions to the site, like adding an "Images" category, many of the revisions we made to the comments system—these types of things were done because we saw how people were playing the game in directions we didn't expect, and so we adapted to fit that model.
Gillis: At the time, did you think of Digg as a game, or is this a new idea that you've had since working on Glitch?
Burka: We definitely thought of Digg as a game. That's something we thought of well before I worked on Glitch. But after having worked on explicitly something that's a game, I see many more places where explicit game ideas and interactions could play a much stronger role in something like Digg or Pownce. Even things like simple sign-up forms. When you go to Mint, for instance, the finance site, and you go down their sign-up form and it gives you a little indicator after each time you enter something acceptable within a form input—say your user name—well cool, that one's unique. And then you get down to the next one and it's a password, and it tells you how strong it is, and you move to the next thing and it's "Yay! That's good!"
Those kinds of things, you can play with those and make them feel much more game-like. We've asked you to do something, here's a quest for you. Fill it out and it gives you that game-style feedback. "Yay! You're on the right track. You're doing the right thing. You've almost completed your quest." Those kinds of things can be very, very powerful and I'd love to give much more satisfaction, a lot more joy to something like even hitting a Digg button; right now it's such a tepid experience.
Gillis: Gaming ideas and principles and, in some cases, patterns, are becoming a popular topic in interaction design. Do you see this as a trend that will continue to grow and gain steam?
Burka: I'm really excited about this movement. I think the idea that web applications are now becoming mature enough that we can start thinking about joy, and about surprise, and making a much more rounded experience than just one that's useable, I think that's really exciting. And then you see people like Dan Cook—who's actually working with us a bit on this game—he's got a blog called The Lost Garden, and he did this famous example fairly recently, maybe a year ago, where he turned Microsoft Office into a game. He made the argument that a system like Office is a very complex system and everybody just uses bits of it, but they all use different bits of it. And in order to introduce people to the whole scope of what's possible in such an application, you can use game mechanics to get there, to give people a rich experience and a rich knowledge of an application. If people haven't seen it, you should really look it up. The Lost Garden, that's his blog.
What's really interesting about this is going to be in ways where we see this kind of stuff done in ways that aren't so explicitly a game. I remember listening to a talk at a conference a few months ago that was going around the Internet, where someone was talking about how we're going to turn the medical system into a game and how the DMV should be like a game. That stuff is awesome and I think some of it has potential, but there are a lot of places we're going to see game ideas put into applications in ways that we're not going to see it and say, "Hey, that's just like a game." So it's going to be in much more subtle ways and much more disparate ways than building a full integrated game into an application. Giving satisfaction when people do things.
Gillis: How do you stoke your creative process? What influences and points of reference do you find yourself coming back to?
Huffduffer, for instance—Jeremy Keith's site—has a signup form and it's written like a mad lib. "I am _____" and then a blank to fill in your name, and "I like blank," and it tells you to fill in a band. It takes such a typical form, but it just changes the shape of the form and changes the context. It makes it much more playful. And apparently, that's had a significant impact on their signup, which is fantastic. That's the overall goal, right?
Gillis: How do you balance the rational, thoughtful process of thinking through these things with the artistic, more explorational part of your process? Do you find there's a tension between those two, or do they fit together? Does one inspire the other? Is there a pattern?
Burka: Josh Porter posted a quote, it must have been about two years ago, that was actually from the Shakers in New England, and it said, "Don't make something unless it's both necessary and useful. But if it is both necessarily and useful, don't hesitate to make it beautiful." It mirrors so closely what my process is with design. It's to consider whether or not the product itself makes sense, and then consider how to make it useful for somebody. And then after that it's, how can I make this not only useful, but can I make it beautiful? In the sense of a game, how can I also make it beautiful? I love the word "joyful". I think making an interface joyful is the ultimate of what we can achieve.
Gillis: So you're trying to create moments of joy in what you're designing?
Burka: In the last year or so, I've started taking that aspect much more seriously. Yeah. Absolutely. I'm not trying to just make the world a better place. If it's good design, it's good for business, and I think it's something we should all strive for
Gillis: I think a lot of people, especially new people to the field, would probably be interested to hear how some of these opportunities happened for you. It seems to me like you've taken risks. You started your own shop, you've joined startups, you've moved into new territory that would seem to stretch your comfort zone. What has guided the decisions you've made, in terms of your career over the last decade or so?
Burka: It's funny because I'm not a huge risk-taker. I'm not into totally extreme sports or anything like that. But, on one hand, I haven't been afraid to just go out and build things. At silverorange, for instance, one of our big breaks came from working with Mozilla on Firefox and the mozilla.org website. And that came about because one of our guys, Steve Garrity, sat down and wrote a letter to Mozilla—an open letter on the Internet—that said, "Wonderful software. Your branding is terrible. You won't succeed unless you address this." And somebody from Mozilla contacted him and said, "Well, if you think it should be fixed, you should fix it." We're like, "Shit! We just volunteered."
So we went and worked on that, and that turned out really well. With something like Digg, we just started off as a normal project, but it was really exciting and seemed to have some potential. And then I got more and more involved in it and started pouring my heart into it. And eventually that became something really huge. So I wouldn't say, "Say yes to everything," but just go out and try as much as possible. If you don't have awesome projects in your queue, go off and just build something new. If you're just a designer on your own, go re-design and make the best banking site you can imagine. I think it's so great for honing your skills and for flexing your muscles and showing what you can do. That kind of work—learn by building—I think is so important, more important than going to a design school or studying human interface design or something.
Gillis: Is there anything in particular you look for when you're considering a prospective project or working relationship with a new partner?
Burka: Just its potential. Is it a good project? Is it doing something half decent for the world and does it have potential to be something wonderful? If it's a limited idea that could be great within a small niche, then that's okay. You never know. Glitch could have 30 million people doing all kinds of crazy social interactions in a couple of years—something like Digg. I remember the days when Digg was exciting when we got over 1,000 diggs on a story. That was nothing back then. We had very, very small traffic. But the potential was there for that to be a huge idea.
Gillis: So what's next for you? Are you thinking beyond Glitch at this point yet, or are the possibilities endless at this point?
Burka: I'm definitely not thinking past Glitch; this is a huge project with a huge amount of potential. We'll see where it's at in a couple of years. I've never known more than 12-14 months ahead where I'm going to be. It's all working out, and I anticipate it will continue to work out.
Gillis: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it and I just want to wish you the best of luck with Glitch and all of your other projects and everything you're up to.
Burka: Thanks so much. It was really great talking with you.
Daniel Burka is a web designer living in San Francisco. Currently, he's the director of design with a startup called Tiny Speck and for several years he was the creative director at Digg. He grew up in PEI, Canada, where he was one of the founders of silverorange. Aside from obsessing about interface design and CSS selectors, he's a frequently-falling rock climber, a lazy cyclist, and an often out-of-bounds disc golfer.
David Gillis is an Interaction Designer at Teehan+Lax, a Toronto-based company that helps clients define and design great user experiences in the digital channel. He is a regular contributor on the Teehan+Lax blog and you can follow him on Twitter @davegillis.