How to design rules that work

Rules are ever present in our daily lives. We follow social rules, company rules, and laws. We create organizations by making sets of rules, we create deals and contracts all defined by rules. But very few people learn how to create rules. Most rules, don't work. As a former game designer, I've studied rules academically and tried and tested rules by the thousands. This is what I've learnt so far about creating rules that work.

Rules always create side effects

All rules are limitations on an individuals actions (a rule says you can't design text a certain way). But since people are surprisingly intelligent, they always find ways around rules (the rule creates a counter culture and suddenly hipster typographical posters abound!). We smile at this behaviour in kids, always looking for ways to get around bedtimes, but we fail to see that every human does this. It's so ingrained in the human condition it even has a name in both game design and economics: emergent behaviour.

Emergent behaviour means the behaviour that arrives as an unforeseen consequence to a situation. Cheating at games is an emergent behaviour. Rebellion is an extreme emergent behaviour.

Rules always - without exception - create these unforeseen behaviours because rules are *fractal*. Meaning that rules can never cover every single situation or twist in the language. There will always be new situations the rule should apply to.

- Did you brush your teeth? - Yes. - Did you brush them with the toothbrush? - Yes. - Did you put toothpaste on the toothbrush? - Yes. - Before you brushed your teeth? - No...

When I create rules I try to take emergent behaviour into account, where and how is it likely to happen?, How will the rule affect situations that are slightly different from the normal situation? How often does your management or project manager take emergent behaviour into account when creating rules? If the answer is never, the rules are probably not working.

Family rules

The softest touch works, while hard rules fail

Surprisingly, the rules that do work aren't the simple and direct ones. In fact the simpler and more direct the rule is, the more emergent behaviour it creates.

Let me explain how by giving an example. If you set a rule for yourself that you must turn left at every intersection you'll soon find yourself in conflict with the rule. You might quite quickly arrive at the workaround that the rule doesn't say how many times to turn left, and from then on you'll be turning left several times to turn right. I bet you're thinking of other rules you're breaking in this way?

But if the rule says you can only turn left at intersections it is much more open to interpretation, and oddly individuals are more inclined to follow it. Maybe I'll turn right somewhere that's not an intersection? Or maybe taking a route around the block will be interesting? The more open version of the rule makes the rule more interesting and less annoying.

What's happening is that activating individuals minds, asking people to judge for themselves, is making them more inclined to work with the system instead of around it. Asking individuals to just follow a rule is more likely to make them bored, frustrated,  and opposed to the rule. No matter how normal and simple the rule might seem.

This is why companies like to talk about corporate culture. A culture is simple a set of rules that are not defined, instead the individuals in a culture make it up or pass it along as they go. Culture is a very soft set of social rules, and a great way to lead a group of people in the same direction. It is also very hard to create, because it is soft and made up by the individuals in the culture. And as soon as someone puts pen to paper, the culture is dead. The air of cooperation will be replaced by bored people following the rules.

(Creating cultures is also a part of designing games, and deconstructing culture is essential to economics, so I'll probably revisit culture in a later post.)

Rules limit what people think

The absolutely worst part of a rule is when it's followed. Beware of people following hard rules, it never amounts to any good.

If a hard rule is enforced, or socially frowned upon to break, it swiftly becomes a dogma. A rule that is set so hard in individuals minds that they can not break it. Not only are they unable to break the rule, they might even be unable to think about breaking the rule.

We see this happening at all times, all around us. Ever wonder why senior citizens are more often against change? It's because they have lived with an unquestioned rule for so long, it has become impossible for them to see a world without the rule. The same thing happen with middle managers, unable to alter a rule themselves, and unable to see the effects of them, they stay with rules long after the intended purpose has become irrelevant.

The really worrying part comes from cognitive psychology. Studies seem to indicate that living with the same thoughts for to long actually create rigid structures in your physical brain. Yes, I'm serious. The brain is a huge network of neurons, always making new connections. But living with the same connections, thoughts, for long enough might physically inhibit new connections being made. That's right, hard rules might actually be shutting down small parts of our brains!

No wonder change comes so slowly right? (For more on the subject, google "Neuro plasticity")


Creating rules that work

From my years in games and economics I've learned a lot of ways not to make rules. But at times we need them, no matter how hard they may be to create. If we're aware of the pitfalls and careful, we can create rules that work.

Here's a list of rules that I follow when creating rules (rule-ception?):

  • Communicate the outcome of your rule, not the limitations (the rule itself).
  • Think up situations that might warp the rules, and take it to extremes.
  • Think about how the rule will affect things when it's purpose is no longer relevant.
  • Remember that rules are used by at least two groups of people: individuals, and groups.
  • Never punish rule breaking. If you must punish, punish for outcomes.
  • Try to be vague. Trust people to interpret rules intelligently.

Adding the Fun

I decided to start a new project that is closer to my heart than anything for the passed three years. A blog dedicated to explore gamification and game theory for products. Originally meant to be a short book I decided doing the research and most of the writing as a blog might help the project along. Who knows, it might actually be better for it.

You'll find it continuously updated over on Tumblr: Adding The Fun

Why Apple is loosing money on making crappy headsets

Design is all about focus. What to focus on, what to disregard. There is limited time and no designer has the time to make anything perfect. Apple is sublime in making the 90% mostly used parts of the user experience near perfect. Except one thing.

You have an iPod, what do you listen with? You have an iPhone, what do you listen and make calls from? Apple's headset and/or head phones.

In the 2002 article Mind your language,  by Game Developer Ben Cousins, Cousins explains what to focus on to make a successful product. In short: whatever the user spends most time with. Apple is usually great at this but seem to be missing the headsets.

It's not that the headsets / head phones are bad per se. They just aren't really good. And the quality is awful, I'm on my 6th pair this year and mad as a hat when the sound goes in one ear.

Apple should really look into making a better headset, ensuring that customers are using headsets with the intended functions.

What is a user interface?

A lot of people I talk to are confused about design. Not least when they hear about abstract design such as web design, UX design, game design etc. I can't blame them. As designers we really tag ourselves with the word most appropriate for the task at hand. Even though our main work is always to solve problems by design. But let's make things easier For most designers working with abstract design the term user interface is crucial. But exactly what is a UI? Sure, it's the thing the user interacts with. But where does it start and where does it end?

User Interface Interface is a proxy layer between a human being and a function.

But what does that mean? For a pair of scissors, the scissors themselves are the user interface between a human hand and the function of cutting.

A computer has two layers of user interfaces between the human and most functions. The keyboard/mouse or physical UI, and the graphical or text based abstract UI.

But what if the user interface is a part of the function? The iPhone for instance doesn't really have a physical UI. There is nothing physical to interact with (excepting the home button, volume and mute controls but lets not digress from the example). But it does have a graphical abstract UI.

Why is this definition important? Because now we can all say user interface and know what we're referring to. No more wordplay to guess what the other person is talking about.

Opera and storytelling

Last night I saw Macbeth at the Swedish royal opera house. It was stunning. My first opera and live Shakespeare. Very intriguing. In the intermission my friend, a producer at EA DICE, said an interesting thing: While opera is clearly far behind most other media in terms of storytelling the music holds up the experience making it excel as an art form.

First I just thought he had a fair point. Then I realised the same can be said for most games, which I'm sure was a thought he shared.

So what can we use to hold up storytelling in games? Interaction is what holds games as experiences up to a level of excellence but can it be used to save storytelling?

Fearing hubris or fame

Every once in a while you get an idea that you feel will change the world because the idea is so great. Now, this might have worked in the time of ancient Greece or in early Rome. But today such an idea must be approached carefully.

Are you sure the idea really is that great? Have you tested it, through prototyping or discussion, against nay-sayers and won anyone over?

If not; shut up. The idea might not be that great...

If you have; That's great, now comes the real work.

Try to poke holes in your idea or theory until either: a-you succeed and the idea had some flaws, or b-you can't find any flaws and it really might change the world.
Just remember that most ideas that have changed the world (facebook, capitalism etc) have flaws, and many ideas that haven't changed the world don't have any real flaws.

The reason I'm getting into this is because I had an idea on the bus last week. An idea about what fun really is. A cognitive explanation to how fun works that is simple enough for designers to use as a road map in games development.

Now you understand my fear of hubris eh?

Over the next two weeks I will be fleshing out the idea and posting about it here, please, please, try to kill it. If we can't kill the idea together I'll just have to write a book about it.