Thoughts on language, technology and the human bits in between.

Hacking ‘Draw Something’

I love how people subvert technologies. And I don’t just mean for nefarious purposes. Invent something, and you can be sure that someone will use it for something other than what it was intended for, or come up with hacks to get around perceived limitations. From the first late Australopithecine who decided to whack a rock into shape instead of using it as is, this repurposing is the essence of innovation.

You can see some pretty crazy manufacturing hacks at There, I Fixed It, which range from the brilliant to those liable to win their inventors a Darwin Award. But what made me ponder this recently is the suddenly wildly popular app ‘Draw Something‘ – a two-player Pictionary-like game in which users take turns to illustrate words that their game partner must guess. The constraints of the device you use (especially if you don’t have a tablet or stylus) heightens the challenge, and the results are generally amusing.

The gameplay is simple, and it’s easy to get into. But there’s definitely scope for adding features without too much complication. The two greatest additions to the game, in my mind, would be chat and picture history. (I’ve seen this mentioned by numerous others, so I’m not alone here.)

Chat would let you tell your game partner how impressed you were by their effort, or express your literal “LOL” moment when seeing their picture. Picture history would mean you could scroll through past games, and share the images with others.

Nothing stops you from using the drawing canvas to write messages, though. Indeed, this can be the source of much annoyance: getting a game partner that simply writes out the words instead of drawing. And, judging from the number of images floating around the web, tons of users are taking screen grabs to preserve and share their works of art. I’ll admit to taking a screen grab or two of drawings that I was particularly chuffed with.

Roadkill - as illustrated on Draw Something

Ahem, "Exhibit A"

All your actions are recorded, so when it’s their turn to guess, your game partner sees, at actual speed, the progression of your drawing. When you first realise this, it’s mortifying – your every mis-drawn line is painfully etched out in front of your partner, and not just your finished work. But you soon realise that this apparent drawback is the source of much of the humour, and it gives you a fascinating window into your partner’s thought processes.

And if you begin a drawing, and it all starts going pear-shaped, there’s the option of trashing it, and starting fresh. However, your first failed attempt, and any subsequent attempts, will be played out for your partner, separated by screen wipes.

It’s this recording feature that users have hooked on to. You can used the actual trajectory of the line you’re producing to indicate movement. You can create suspense, by producing a detailed picture, starting with the background, and only adding in, or pointing out the relevant item at the end. The screen wipes can be manipulated to give your partner alternatives, particularly in the case of homonyms. And lastly, the screen wipes can even be used as a series of ‘shots’, showing progression or movement, a mini-movie.

This is just one example of many. Another, much older one (by modern technology’s standards – they’ve just celebrated their sixth birthday!), is Twitter. Those hashtags that were meant to make following topics and search easier, have taken on another value, to be the equivalent of an aside, often the punchline that transforms an otherwise mundane observation into a joke or witty comment. Or the use of a full stop at the beginning of a tweet addressed to someone, so that it’s viewable by all your followers.

Go even further back through the mists of time, and you come to emoticons and ASCII art. In the absence of graphics, these are text-based solutions to depicting images, and in the case of emoticons, conveying tone in a text-based message.

These workarounds develop and spread without much encouragement – especially in the face of technological limitations. However, often people will adopt homemade solutions instead of complaining about what is, in fact, a shoddy product. One of the clearest examples of this I’ve come across recently is the case of a restaurant who got a new online booking system, complete with touchscreen – very slick. But, as you might be able to guess from  the title of the article which tells the story, “What’s the waiter doing with the computer screen?“, the staff, finding the system un-user-friendly, didn’t use it quite as intended.

While the knee-jerk response of a product designer might be ‘You’re using it wrong!’, these hacks aren’t just a display of human ingenuity, but clear indications of what users want. They’re using a product to meet their needs in spite of itself. These hacks signpost the direction of future iterations, or entirely new products altogether.

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So hey, Draw Something guys – I know Zynga’s just bought out OMGPOP (boo!), but when you’re done drinking champagne, could you add those features? Thanks!

Gamification: it’s everywhere

OMG! What do I win?

On Getting Started

For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good.

– Ira Glass, “On Creativity”

I read somewhere once that you shouldn’t start a blog unless you can think of at least fifty things you would write about. Good advice if you’re looking to get rich from blogging (pah!) perhaps. Pretty daunting to be sure. And if followed strictly, the blogosphere would be more of a ghost town.

So why add my voice to the droning masses? Well, for me, it’s about the act of writing itself. Writing is hard. That’s why I’ve put it off for so long. There’s a bit in Zed Shaw’s introduction to Learn Python the Hard Way that, when I first read it, seemed to be written especially for me:

…remember that anything worth doing is difficult at first. Maybe you are the kind of person who is afraid of failure so you give up at the first sign of difficulty. Maybe you never learned self-discipline so you can’t do anything that’s “boring”. Maybe you were told that you are “gifted” so you never attempt anything that might make you seem stupid or not a prodigy.

Over the last year or so, I’ve come to realise that I’ve avoided a lot of things due to fear of failure, which means failure is almost certainly guaranteed, since I haven’t been prepared to put in the hours to improve.*

So, even if no one reads it, putting my writing in a public space forces me to be disciplined and take some responsibility for it. Both in terms of quality and the regularity of output. It forces me to think a thought through to its conclusion, instead of leaving it half-formed in the recesses of my mind. It’s a way to process the vast volumes of information I’m exposed to every day – via countless tweets, clicks and grunts – that are all but squandered in my haste to get to the next thing. And, on the off chance that someone does stumble across my scribblings, and engages with me by leaving a comment, I might even have my ideas challenged or expanded upon; an opportunity to learn something.

Basically, this is my attempt to produce more than I consume.

 *Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin touch on these themes in episodes 52 and 53 of the 5by5 podcast show Back to Work – well worth a listen.
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