Not OK, Google. My photos aren’t clutter.

Many of Google’s initiatives around ML and AI-augmented creativity are wonderful (more on that in another post). But even the best and brightest tech can struggle to make a good impression if it presents itself in a way that is lacking in social skills.   And that’s the flavour I got from the  conversation Google Photos just tried to have with me.  Google Photos was trying very hard to show how clever it was, and how it was working diligently to please me, but it only succeeded in being annoying.    (We’ve all been there.)

The more Google personifies itself in its self-presentation to its consumer user base, the more we expect of it – for better or worse.  One doesn’t really expect an empty search box to have a lot of personality: all the magic is hidden behind the fourth wall of the screen.  But when Google becomes an “I” and initiates dialog with me, I start to expect more than it has yet learned how deliver.

What happened? Well, it came to pass that after a period of absence, I needed to interact with Google Photos via my desktop. So I did. And what to my wondering eyes did appear but the following pile of notifications:

Google Photos notification

Google Photos’ off key notifications

What’s not to like?

The first notification just missed the mark.   That’s ok.   ‘Rediscover this day’ invites me to engage with Google Photos as a place to hang out and retrospect.   This is unlikely to succeed in the short term – but I don’t mind being asked.

It’s the next three notifications where the potential for harmony in our possible conversation seemed to totally evaporate:

  • Notifications 2 and 3  offer me the chance to look at stylised photos and collages – it tells me that it has done stuff I don’t really want, when I wasn’t looking, and now it wants to take time out of my day to show it to me
  • In Notification 4 it offers me the chance to clear my clutter – Google insults my own images… and offers to get rid of them for me.

There are reasons why each of these conversation-opening gambits is problematic.   On the upside, in combination they manage to be quite funny.

Is it art if nobody’s looking?

The ‘look mum!’ notifications – offering me a  collage and a ‘stylised photo’ – remind me of  when my kid was in infant school.   Every other day, something unasked for in the way of ‘art’ would come back from the school.  Our fridge quickly got covered with ‘art’.

This didn’t make anybody happy.   The kid dislikes art and didn’t much like having to take time out from better things, in order to do it.   For my part, I didn’t like having the ‘art’ on the fridge.  The fridge is where I put my own stuff that I don’t quite know what to do with.  Fortunately, my lovely childminder tipped me the wink that the right way to politely dispose of children’s ‘art’ was to take a digital photo of it.


Which brings us nicely back round to Google’s ‘look mum!’ conversation starter about its collages and stuff.  It’s stuff I didn’t remember asking for, that I don’t want.

Mind you, Google did not actually ask me to print out its work and put it on the fridge.  Small blessing.  Like my kid, pretty much all it wanted was my attention.

It’s kind of poignant really.   There is no schoolbag.  There is no fridge.   There is no conversation platform at all, really,  except for the notifications channel, which I wasn’t usually seeing because I wasn’t ever hanging out in Google Photos, just using it as a service via API, with my interactions being driven by other apps.

So Google seems to have been busy doing this art thing for me silently all these years, but has had no way of telling me about it.  Frustrating!   That makes it all the more important that the conversation openers it uses in Notifications really work for me:  they offer the chance for us to engage directly, not mediated by another platform.

Magic vs meddling

I remember going to I/O extended many years ago and listening to a bunch of announcements on my interaction-isolating headset about upcoming enhancements to Photos, whereby which Google would do enhancements on my photos in Photos, if I uploaded them.   Doing art behind my back when I’m not looking is a progression from this.  Way back then, Google had total confidence that it was doing something I would really value.   I found this mystifying at the time – and I still do.   But I know I’m hypocritical about this – and the root causes of my hypocrisy are interesting.

The thing is,  I don’t really mind my totally obvious glaring faults being automagically corrected.   Who wants red-eye?  (Unless of course the picture actually is of a red-eyed monster – but that’s an edge case I am happy to throw overboard.)   I generally accept that Photoshop’s suggestions about sharpening and  level tweaking are spot on.    I think that I draw the line at automagic cropping of my images – but I really don’t.  I actually appreciate Facebook’s increasing subtleties about knowing how to display uploaded photos so their points of interest are visible and the composition is balanced.

And here’s more seeming hypocrisy, in case – unlike me – you’re in short supply:   I love love love my Pixel 2.   Which works tirelessly near-instantly and invisibly to correct whatever faults in the universe and in myself might result in a less than satisfactory image.   It just works.  It’s like putting rose-tinted glasses on my photography ability.    And I don’t mind one bit.

So why does Google Photos’ unwanted fridge art annoy me – but I love that my Pixel 2 makes me better than I really am?   Both Photos and the Pixel 2 have similar collaboration models:  the cleverness applied to my images happens without a lot of explicit interaction or negotiation about it.  In one case, that’s fine.  In the other, not so much.   Why?

I think there are two interesting ways in which the Photos case is different:

  • timing – with Photos there is a lag between my initial act of creation, and Photos’ contribution towards our collaboration
  • process and outcome – with Photos, what is being offered is creative collaboration, rather than a productivity enhancement, but I am not sure what I get out of it if I am not actually involved in it

Timing influences our perception of causality

The fact that the Pixel 2’s assistance occurs near-instantaneously makes it seems more integrated:  that’s basically just what it does.   Its rose-tinted glasses seem to be always on.   By contrast, the lag on the Photos enhancement processing and art creation introduces a feeling of separation, almost alienation between the action and the outcome.

Lag used to be normal.  Back in the days, if you wanted to have photos you’d have to drop your film off for processing, and in due course pick them up again in the form of physical prints and developed negatives.  Even if you did your own processing, this was something that took time.  But in this age of instant, it’s unusual.

Productivity and creativity augmentation need different collaboration protocols

I think of instant and automatic corrections and enhancements as a kind of productivity enhancement.   A kind of spell-checker,  or tax form filler.   (By the way, thanks for that tax form reform thing HMRC.  It’s beautiful.)

The kind of augmentation that I want for a productivity task is something that frees me up from my own errors and limitations.   I don’t necessarily want to have a conversation about it – though I might want to be asked to validate choices that the productivity agent isn’t sure about.

However,  I have different needs and expectations about the type of collaboration model and conversation that works for creative applications (as I will be explaining in another post).    The type of collaboration I have with Google Photos about our mutually produced artwork is a strange one.

I am not sure what inspires Google Photos to produce fridge art for me. When does it do it?  Which assets does it choose to do it to?   Who knows?  So when it appears, it appears as if disconnected from any sense of collaborative engagement and dialogue.    Somewhere in the mists of history, I probably ticked a box about it at some point, curious to see what it would do.   But the rhythm of this conversation is too disjoint to make it feel like there is a meaningful dialogue.

By the time my fridge art was delivered, I forgot I’d ordered it.    And I didn’t have any fun making it.

Above all – don’t be rude

So I have some doubts about the way Google has gone about collaborating with me, by doing art with my Photos when I am not looking.   That’s one problem, and it’s an interesting one.

But there’s a different problem with my last notification, which offered to get rid of my clutter.   To be polite, I thought this astonishingly ill-conceived as a conversation gambit.  Immediately after offering me up a bunch of unwanted fridge art – Google Photos has the total effrontery to refer to one of my photos as ‘clutter’?    Hello?

To me, this seems… unreasonably judgy.    It was also funny: the photo it picked out as a piece of clutter that I should get rid of was a copy of a paper-based vacation request from my just-finished stint of contracting at Google.    (You couldn’t make that up – and I didn’t.)

Organising my photos is something I might actively want to train Google Photos to do, or have it engage in dialog with me about, while it learns, and tries out various theories about what classifications I find might useful and pleasurable.   But judging what is and what is not clutter is a very personal thing.  And based on this first attempt it made, I have no reason to believe that Google Photos is ready to make this judgement on my behalf in a way that reflects my own personal needs and desires.

Google Photos may well have read Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing magic of Tidying Up.   It may also have read my vacation request and deemed it obsolete.  But I think it hasn’t yet really understood me – or the book.    And until it does, for sure I am not going to be passing over the controls to any sort of autonomous de-cluttering service it might offer.

What use to me is a Photo collection full of unwanted fridge art, while my own paperwork gets shredded?





Deep diving into design with Spelunky

I’ve been catching up a bit with what’s up in games.  Some day I will tell you about my knitted telephone @developconf.  But today I want to share what I most enjoyed from reading Derek Yu’s book on the making of Spelunky.

knitted telephone

This is not what this article is about

Splelunky (the book) is the tale of how a small scale, free indie game (called Spelunky) ends up becoming a massive indie hit (also called Spelunky), distributed on Steam, PSA  and XBLA,  and selling over a million copies    I ran into the book via an en passant reference from Liz England on Twitter which pulled out a great quote to do with one of the challenges of games user research and user research in general – and life in general.

Yup!   People are generally pretty great at telling you when they aren’t happy, especially when you specifically give them a heads up that’s something you’re interested in hearing about.    But people are sometimes not as great at being able to attribute their unhappiness to its cause.

I think this point is a real gem.    On the basis of this  I thought the book might have other treasures in it too.

And…  it did.   The book is both easy to read and insightful.  It’s also funny and humble. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in game design.

The stories in the book aren’t recipes for success or straightforward morality tales.   Although the ending is happy,  you get the sense that despite trying to make the right choices at each progression towards publication – as we all do –  the ending might well have turned out differently.   And there is a  deeper lesson, too, when looked at as a whole.   Just as you’d expect from the author of a game which – pretty much just for the sheer mischievous joy of it – hides a deeply context-dependent eggplant.

The gems

Here are my favourite gems – starting with the one Liz England picked out.

People may know what they feel but not why

Like patients, players are often most in tune with how they feel about the problem rather than what is causing it.  Doctors and game developers, with their experience and knowledge of their fields, need to ask questions, perform tests, and eliminate possibilities in order to zero in on the correct solution.    p. 57

Users’ practice reveals the nature of a design

The next gem I found is not opaque enough to be a koan – but it is still pretty wise:

It was only after the audience entered the picture that I started to understand the reasoning behind my own designs. p. 59

I love this one.  Personally, I can’t imagine designing something and not being utterly passionately interested in how people actually use it.

There is a culture gap here.   There are many design discovery practices which – not unreasonably – talk about  all the useful insight generating things you can do ahead of actually building something, that can make the thing you build that much better.  (The Ideo field design toolkit – which I only recently discovered – is a handy resource here, even though it isn’t designed for games – and there are interesting reasons why there is an awkward stretch to map it to games, which is a story for another day).

But the practice of using real audience behaviour to understand how a design is working in practice is not so well established.   As the authors of Designing with Data point out,  taking real advantage of data from use is not always part of designers’ training.   In games, Numbers are often used measurement of the sufficiency – or insufficiency –  of the current design, rather than as source of insight into how the design operates.   For sure that can take the fun out of it.

You can’t have it all – or at least not all at once

True for games as well as just about everywhere else, this one.

We can’t have everything that we want all at once… We can’t know what to expect and also be surprised.  We can’t be free from frustration and also be challenged.  We can’t go unchallenged and also feel satisfied with our accomplishments.  Mystery, surprise, tension, challenge and a real sense of accomplishment always come at the cost of feeling uncomfortable.   p. 86

I think this tension between frustration and satisfaction is what game ‘balance’ is really about.   It isn’t fun to shoot fish in a barrel.    There needs to be a rhythm of ebb and flow between striving and accomplishment, and between exploration and the joy of discovery.

You gotta trust yourself (and your players)

As Etta James says.

It is not my intention to quote the whole book to you but the next gem follows directly after the one I just picked up.    But it’s a bit like finding great stones on a beach: it’s difficult to stop at just one.


It’s difficult to pick just one gem

So, moving right along to the next sentence after the previous one I quoted:

The best games come out of a mutual respect between the creator and the player… the creator must trust in the curiousity and abilities of their players.  Continuously interrupting play to steer players with direct text message and other obvious hints not only infantalises them but it also reveals the creator’s insecurity in their ability to design games…The “joy of discovery” is one of the fundamental joys of play itself.  p. 86-87

Indifference can be a virtue – but don’t take it too far

Spelunky takes a kind of extreme stance on the question how much help a design should provide for onboarding:

Unfortunately, Spelunky’s core ideas defy explanation to new players, because the game’s indifference to them is so much of its appeal.   p.  102

As Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister  would say that – is a “courageous” decision. (And one that their Microsoft XBox producer tried to work with them to mitigate.)

It’s likely that this stance creates more casualties amongst the new user corps than a more gradual onramp.   But it’s also possible that those who persist end up being more committed.

I’d be interested to know the functions through which initial eventually successful effort is related to long term commitment.    As a psychologist, I could make up a number of different answers to this – but I’d prefer to ask the question and explain the answer after I know what it is.

Choose the committed and the committed will choose you

The way Yu explains his design choices,  it sounds as though he was pretty happy for  the game to select for the type of users who valued the type of experience he wanted to provide for them:

With Spelunky, I was only willing to go so far to offer new players a hand.  Beyond that point, I felt like it would hurt the experience for players who were more eager for  challenge.  And when you have to choose between those two groups, it’s not a hard choice at all. p. 108

There is for sure a tension between providing assistance and pleasing those players who want challenge.   But it seems to me there are few different escape routes:

  • making the path to skill acquisition a real and organic part of the designed experience  – rather than something that’s jury rigged afterwards with some nasty annoying pop ups
    • Yu does give a big nod to the excellence of onboarding in Super Mario – the challenge is in how to generalise this to other games
  • adjusting the challenge level dynamically, so that players are faced with a degree of challenge that is likely to be more satisfying for them
    • This moves the goal posts from finding a ‘good enough’ setting for everyone, to finding ‘good enough’ personalisation – which is always going to be not good enough for some
    • This is clearly tricky for PvP games, but can be useful in initial PvE stages
  • making ‘failure’ more enjoyable, by providing a degree of reward – such as exciting visual effects – for behaviour that approximates the behaviour you want to encourage, even if it isn’t ‘winning’
    • as discussed, near misses can – under some conditions – deliver almost the same thrill as a wins
  • changing the intent of the interaction to be less about winning and more about other aspects of the experience
    • this is partly about genre, but even within genres in which winning is important,  it is about making the game experience non-binary -the most important aspect is not necessarily about win or loss

First impressions matter

Yu realises – with hindsight – that they didn’t make it clear enough to prospective players what the game experience was supposed to be about, and they should have made the screen shot and demo promos more enticing and informative:

Spelunky’s screenshots, while packed with details, look mostly like a lot of rocks and dirt, while the interesting aspects of its randomization are hard to get across in even a few play sessions, let alone a non-interactive trailer.

Of course, beneath Spelunky’s unassuming surface are hidden big secrets and shiny treasures.  p. 158

Tough one, this.    How to communicate a mystery and keep it mysterious?   I think the strongest moral to be mined from this story is that creating draft marketing approaches should be a part of every product proposal.

Difficulty is important – but the best progression is non-linear and rhythmic

I usually wonder about why designs have the difficulty progressions that they do.    Yu gives his thoughts on it here:

The more I play and create games, the less convinced I am that the difficulty of games should be thought of in terms of a linear or exponential ramp upwards where, as the player gets stronger, you need to make the opposition increase proportionally in strength….[there is] something futile and perhaps nihilistic about endlessly cranking a single knob that goes from easy to hard.  Rather I believe it makes more sense to think about difficulty in terms of the game’s overall pacing.   Difficulty should ebb and flow, and make room for other aspects of play. p. 178

If you draw a comparison to pacing and tension in narrative, it is easy to see that establishing a rhythm – and, at times,  violating it-  is potentially a very strong design trope that resonates with how we experience meaning.    I haven’t heard anyone express this as clearly as Yu has.

The deeper lesson

What is the deeper lesson revealed by these gems?  The stories Yu tells are interesting because of the the motivations he reveals for making the design choices he makes.    He has a great eye for analysing and articulating what makes a design tick, and you get the sense that his heart is in the right place, always.   To me,  what is striking about Yu’s approach is his attention, at all times,  to viewing the design of the game through the lens of the player’s possible experience of it.    That is the real eggplant that is hidden in plain sight.






The #nuclai16 analytics track needs YOU!

I’m delighted to be chairing the analytics and data science track at #nuclai16 this summer –  and to make it work I need your help.

Tell me what you’d like to hear about.  

Tell me what you’d like to talk about.  

Last year we had a super lineup that featured work from (on skill vs luck in casual game levels),  Lionhead (on modelling complex skill performance in Fable Legends),  Jagex (on recsys in Runescape),  Mind Candy (on algorithms for streaming analytics),  Nordeus (on churn prediction and successful interventions for prevention), and a keynote from Scientific Revenue (on dynamic pricing).    Very thought provoking, inspirational, and actionable.

We’re hoping to at least match this level of awesomeness in this year’s track.    And we can do it if you help.  So:

Tell me what you’d like to hear about.  

Tell me what you’d like to talk about.  

The theme I’m working with is about analytics in support of design intervention.   But I’m open to persuasion.  Even though I can’t sing like Joan Armatrading.

Beermat/back of an envelope deadlines are as follows:

  • expressions of interest in proposing or submitting a talk –  NOW
  • proper talk proposals –  MARCH 15
  • decisions – beginning of April
  • (and there will be more stuff later)

Get in touch via this blog, or @hastark twitter, or LinkedIn, or G+, or Facebook.  Or carrier pigeon.

Vienna’s a wonderful city, we’ve got a nice venue at the University, and the conference is friendly.