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HSS8121 Interface Critique

Since I ended up learning a lot about interaction design in a short space of time, I figured it might be interesting to take a look at some of the programs and websites I use a lot and see how they measure up to some of those criteria for good design. Let’s see which ones come out on top!
Warning: may contain frivolous misapplication of design criteria and bad comparisons.

1. Adobe InDesign
Professional desktop publishing software
The number of clicks required to achieve any goal is usually very few, generally 1-2 to find the tool you need and 1-2 more to apply it. Considering the sheer volume of things you can do, does this make it a ‘generous interface‘? You can accomplish a ridiculous number of things in very fine detail, using only the buttons available on the main screen, but considering how tiny they are and how very few of them can be used intuitively without going through a lengthy tutorial or spending 20 minutes googling them first.  InDesign does its job perfectly, but you really have to work for it. Which I suppose isn’t that bad a verdict, for a piece of professional design software.

Pros: mediates a lot of content simultaneously, good on both big picture and fine detail
Cons: interface must be courted with caviar and roses before it will consider helping you
Final Score: 7 out of 10


2. Runescape
Online MMORPG I’ve been playing too much of lately

I know MMOs are complicated, but seriously, how many different menu tabs do you need? How many different kinds of menus do you need? Zoom in on this screenshot and you’ll see icons for combat styles, daily tasks, skills, quests, armour, inventory, 9 different kinds of chat settings, friends, groups, contacts, settings, emotes, music, health, money… it just goes on.

I suppose it gets credit for having that many things onscreen without the game becoming unusable. I like this game, but considering that I’m already paying to play it I don’t enjoy the nagging suspiciousthat its much better at showing me the content that encourages me to spend more money than how best to experience what I’ve already paid for.

Pros: provides the comforting illusion of setting yourself goals and then achieving them
Cons:
 the interface and the mechanics feel like they’re getting in the way
Final Score: 5 out of 10


3. Youtube

Video browsing website

A bit more alike in form to the digital archive/collection interfaces I’ve been studying, because it mediates content in a more linear way. Following this train of logic, I suppose Youtube is a pretty strong interface, given how easily and enjoyably you can get sucked into browsing material for extended periods of time, which includes discovering things you didn’t intend to search for. Pretty good on the ‘big picture -> subsection -> individual piece of content’ front too. Shame about the algorithms that recommend new content though; for my money they present you with videos that are too narrowly similar to the ones I’ve already been watching.

Making a channel, uploading videos and making playlists is much worse though, partly because the things you do as a browser and the things you do as a content creator are needlessly entangled. The screenshot above represents my channel, but only about a quarter of the visible screen deals with uploading and posting videos at all.

Pros: easy and intuitive to start browsing, and keep browsing for ages
Cons:
you’ll mostly find more of the same, and managing a channel is much less intuitive
Final Score:
 8 out of 10 for browsing, 4 for uploading

 

4. Steam
Digital storefront and library for PC video games

I’ve always thought of Steam as the iTunes of video games, and I’ve generally liked it a lot more than iTunes and the other musical equivalents like Google Play that I’ve tried. Those always try harder to show me new things I might buy than to make it easy to navigate the songs I already have. On the other hand, Steam divides the storefront and the things I’ve bought from the storefront into two categories (and does a better job of handling dual purposes than Youtube).

As far as the storefront goes, its easy to search specifically and browse generally. The presentation of the library is lacklustre, but then again, it only has to represent a list of things you’ve already paid for, so chances are you know the contents pretty well already.

Pros: looks nice, handles the store/library distinction well
Cons:
recommendation algorithms have the opposite issue, casting the net a bit too wide
Final Score:
 8 out of 10


And the winner is… 
hard to say really. As much as they could all stand to do certain things more intuitively, is it really in their best interests to do so? Arguably they are all generous, browseable & aesthetically pleasing to the extent they need to be, and no more. This was probably a doomed enterprise from the outset, but its been interesting to think about the interfaces I unthinkingly use in a more critical way, even if I mostly just ended up venting.

A brief musical interlude

In a welcome brake practice (i.e. writing things on my laptop and occasionally going to poetry gigs) I actually went outside today and made some music in the sun, helping my old buddy from Newcastle Allstars Steel Orchestra host a musical workshop at Harambee Pasadia Afro Fusion Music & Dance Festival today.

Aaaand just to prove I was actually there and teaching music, some photos:

 

 

Fancying things up with InDesign

Contents spread

My motivation for taking the Sub-Editing and Design module was fairly utilitarian – I was hoping that having a bit more formal experience in this area would help me to get jobs in the future. Hopefully creative jobs, but still, I didn’t anticipate that it would benefit my broader practice quite as much as some of the other modules. Almost the opposite turned out to be true. Having a tutor around with a good knowledge of InDesign, and a practical purpose to put it towards, I’ve definitely come a long way with the software since working on Middle Spirits.

How to get text to follow the edge of a shape, how to crop images to precise shapes, make text transparent, arrange images in less crude ways than WordPress and Microsoft Word allow, etc. These are all pretty low-grade skills on the Creative Arts scale (or at least, not the kind to be the driving force of a big creative project), but so far they’ve allowed me to improve the basic standard of presentation in several pieces of coursework and job applications. Say goodbye to crummy word docs, and hello to snazzy pdfs!

Here are a selection of images from the magazine re-design I’ll be turning in on Friday, plus some screenshots of other things that ended up looking much nicer thanks to a good working knowledge of InDesign:


 

HSS8121 Out of Bounds + Yossarian (themes and associations)

OOB newcastle screenshot

Its been a good year for unexpected projects so far, which I suppose is more or less the point. Recently a lot of them seem to be falling under the broad heading of ‘finding themes and associations’, which seems to be a large part of my practice at the moment.

The main example, and a side-project that I’m very pleased with so far, has been the Out of Bounds Poetry Project. Long story short, some big-name poets took this anthology on tour, performing poems relating to place, ethnicity and various other themes – you can watch some here. Since then, a number of people at Newcastle and Stirling University have been working to present that material in an engaging way online, and that’s where I came in.

The work I’ve been doing can basically be summed up as watching every poetry video, making detailed notes on its themes and content, and then trying to come up with different connecting principles to help present the material in a coherent and interesting way. Fingers-crossed the end result will be an engaging experience that brings the best out of the poems and the poets’ performances.

I’ve really enjoyed this work, and not only because it helped to validate all that literary analysis I did during my A levels and ungrad. Its been an exercise in finding the common themes and elements between the different videos, as well as the potential effects of juxtaposing them. All in all, I made a lot of spreadsheets and a lot of mock-ups, which was more interesting than it sounds.

What made me think critically about all of this was a the last Enterprise and Research Methods class we had, with Daniel Foster-Smith, one of the co-founders of the creative search engine Yossarian. Its an awesome project, and I recommend you spend the five minutes it takes to check it out for yourself, but tldr: it aims to use lateral and metaphorical associations, rather than direct connections, to help you think outside the box. Trust me, the website explains it better.

It represents the intersection between a some of the things I’m currently doing (themes, association, visual representations) and both the linguistic and literary aspects of my undergrad. I’m currently exploring how I might apply Yossarian (or the principles behind it) to Out of Bounds and the other projects I’m working on. Below are two examples of the sort of associations the search engine produced for three of the main OOB themes (waterbondaries and voice) with just a few minutes of exploring:


There’s probably a lot more digging to do here. The algorithmic processes that Yossarian uses to produce these associations are interesting, but something I’ll need to investigate a bit more if I want to understand. I’m aware that I’ve mostly been moving from thing to thing a lot recently, not really developing any one idea a huge amount, but that’s the nature of research sometimes. Its all still on the table, hopefully a larger idea will spring from something soon.

HSS8121 Creative Entrepreneurship – Seven Stories

Late-Shows-2016

Finally found a good time to write about what could be the most exciting opportunity Creative Arts Practice has thrown my way – getting commissioned by Seven Stories National Centre for Children’s Books! The whole cohort was invited to send proposals for Seven Stories’ night at the Late Shows, and mine was one of the ones that got accepted!

The Late Shows is a ‘culture crawl’ that takes place on Friday 19th and Saturday 20th of May in Newcastle, with a kinds of cultural venues opening late and putting on all kinds of awesome free events. Seven Stories will be playing host to storytelling in the Attic, plus an installation in the Studio (put on by fellow CAP-er Michael Hirst) as well as pop-performances of music and poetry throughout the building (organised by yours truly). People will be wandering in and out and around as part of their general quest to absorb beer and culture and acquire glowsticks.

You can find out more specifics about the event itself here. The rest of this post will be about how it came about, for the purposes of documentation (and a tiny bit for self congratulation as well, gotta blow my own trumpet sometimes).

The idea has evolved substantially since the class brainstorming session we had in March. It began as a ‘grown-up storytelling’ event set in the Attic (aka the room with the STORY THRONE) with a small line-up of artists telling stories and then handing the mic over to the visitors, potentially to a theme or prompt related to the venue. Stories from childhood, perhaps relating to childhood toys or pets.

Note: at a very early stage a line was drawn between ‘grown-up storytelling’ (which sounds fun, whimsical, playful and all those nice fluffy words) and ‘adult storytelling’ (which sounds distinctly more X-rated).

This idea gradually split into two parts – the volunteer storytelling component, which was essentially an open mic event, and the professional performances. The performers I had in mind were primarily the kinds I had performed with in Edinburgh and Newcastle – performance poets (like myself) folk singers and comedians. All kinds of artists generally well-practiced in weaving narratives through their performances, which seemed appropriate.

It was these two ideas that I ended up sending to Seven Stories as a joint proposal. After a while, I got back a detailed set of questions, which was encouraging and gave me an idea of what parts of my proposal they liked and which parts they didn’t, or which had logistical issues. Ultimately the volunteer performers part got axed, because it made quality control and producing a cohesive event much harder, and the professional performances became the focus.

All this came with a set of unique challenges. The venue itself is aimed primarily towards children/families and adults interested in children’s literature (they have a really good archive), but the Late Shows is one of the times when it broadens its appeal. So, the material shouldn’t be aimed AT children, but must still be appropriate FOR children, at least as far as explicit language and content are concerned.

Plus the venue itself was such a great opportunity to try to bring adults into the feeling of creativity and discovery that Seven Stories is so great at, as well as the specific themes of the different exhibits. This all required me to be more selective in terms of the performers I asked to get involved, and for me to involve myself in choosing their material more closely than would be normal for a spoken word or variety night.

For those interested, here are some clips of performers that were on my long-list, to give an idea of the kinds of performances I wanted to curate:
Folk Music (Will Finn and Rosie Calvert)
Performance Poetry (Douglas Garry)

The event space was also a big part of the process, since Seven Stories is a large and unique venue. I was initially very excited to host performances (and perform) in the Attic, given the oversized furniture and decoration, and the dedicated performance setup. However, through discussion with the venue this changed to pop-performance throughout the venue. The main logistical reason for this was so as to not to fill up the Attic too much, but since I started looking at the Cafe, the Bookshop and the Exhibition Floors as potential performance spaces, I think its actually going to improve the performances significantly. Rather than trying (and failing) to get wandering visitors to stay and watch in one place, there will be performances wherever they go, hopefully adding a little fun discovery to the event, which seems fitting.

I’ll probably be rushed off my feet during the event itself, but I’m going to make some attempts at documentation, so expect another post after Friday!

Nerd Jobs

appschau-kw30-zombie-run-02

As a well as a year of side projects, its been a year of ambitious job applications. Turns out there aren’t that many entry-level writing jobs in the gaming industry. It seems to be a largely a matter of making your own games, putting them out there, watching them lose money, and then hopefully eventually one will make money, or you’ll be hired to work on a larger project. I’ve made some beginning steps in that direction, and tried to get myself a little bit of amateur freelance experience, but I haven’t let that stop me applying for every position I find. I’m determined to find myself a creative career that reflects my interests, and gaming is still one of the top candidates.

Zombies, Run! was one, a zombie radio play/fitness app that had an apprenticeship going. That was an enjoyable application, listening to the episodes (occasionally while exercising), researching the characters and trying to capture their voice of the characters I was required to work with as part of the application process. You’d think the fact that every episode had to contrive a way for the player to save the day by running somewhere would end up being incredibly stilted, but I was actually fairly impressed with the game’s plot and characters. Reminded me of Survivors or Day of the Triffids – way more like survivalist fiction than a standard zombie plot.

Runescape was another one. A bit less exciting as a creative prospect, but thinking about the development of an MMO and the design limitations of creating quests with fixed plotlines and events that have to hold up in a game world inhabited by thousands of players with large amounts of freedom was an interesting exercise.

Neither of those worked out, but I’m still at it. Games Workshop is the current target – they’re looking for writer/designers for their tabletop wargames. Not ever something I thought I’d be considering, but I’m already pretty familiar with the intellectual property, and I’ve already made it to the second stage – some fairly substantial writing exercises, including a bit of technical rule-building for the game itself and a book project proposal.

The InDesign skills I’ve been picking up from the Sub-Editing module have been remarkably useful. Between this and Out of Bounds, finding ways to collate and present complex information has been another common theme this term. My digital presentation skills have certainly improved, if nothing else.

But mostly its just been an excuse, if I ever needed one, to apply my creative practice to absolute, shameless nerdiness. Coursework deadlines are closing in, so there will probably be less time for job applications (both the fun and non-fun kinds), but its gratifying that these opportunities even exist in the first place. Good to keep my eye in, and the prospect of actual money/potential employment is certainly one way to find the motivation for new projects.

Screenwriting Inspiration

song-of-the-sea-ben-tells-saoirse-to-go-away

I feel like I was a bit harsh on my screenwriting module last time I wrote about it. I’m still struggling with it – I find everything about the format very restrictive – but it has still been a very productive experience to write within a very new and different mode.

One of the fun parts has been the research, going back to favourite films and unpicking them to try to find the elements that made them work for me. Within the narrow scope we’ve been given, I’ve decided to work on a story about children, specifically the way they understand the concerns and pressures of the adult world, and how it relates to their own lives.

Initially my idea was much more abstract, an animation about a drowned man making his way across the sea floor to the afterlife. However it quickly became clear that I was thinking too much like a poet and needed to find something relying less on symbolism and go for a conventional dramatic structure. I’m not too bothered about this – its good to have another fairly well-formed idea (very visual too, makes me wish I could illustrate). I’m sure I’ll find a use for it.

The inspiration for the second idea was mostly drawn from Coraline and Song of the Sea, both surprisingly smart kids films that negotiate (even if in a background way) issues like stress and grief from a child’s perspective. Both include outlandish, imaginative stories that end up being the key to these issues, and both have interesting family dynamics.

We’ll see how it works out. Right now it could very much go either way. But its already been a useful process, if only because I now know the basics of screenwriting sufficiently to write a functional script if that’s ever a necessary part of any project I’m working on, but also that as a career option, its probably not for me.

 

Public Data screenshots + screencast

Public Data screenshot 6

Well, it may have been forever since that project was handed in, but at least, here’s some documentation on the outcomes of the Public Data Dashboards project I did with Daniel, Garry and Ashley.

  

These are screenshots of the finished project. The assignment was to take a piece of public data available online, and use Processing to create a ‘dashboard’, whatever that might mean. We were encouraged to be subversive in our use of public data, so we took an alarmist approach, trying to use the data we found to draw as misleading and panic-inducing a conclusion as possible.

Since ‘dashboard’ can refer to part of a car just as much as an application that presents you with condensed data, we went with road safety as a theme. The idea was to have data piling up in front of you, obscuring your view, and imagine how distracting that would be while actually driving, combined with information that aimed to discourage you from ever getting in a car in the first place. The  images came live from the Tyne Tunnel webcams with the data sourced in various statistically un-sound ways by doing textual analysis of online articles relating to car accidents and road safety.

This was probably the most challenging project I’ve done so far. It really forced me to get up to my elbows in code, trying to wrap my head around other people’s scripts, fix bugs and compatibility issues to get different pieces of code to work together. A lot of it came down to figuring out how to describe the problems I was having well enough to ask the internet (and Tom) for help. Considering how new all of this was to me, I think we did alright in the end.

Sub-Editing for Magazines

front cover v1

This module took a while to get interesting, but we’re finally onto the good stuff. Spent the last week or two doing editing exercises (take 4000 words of news copy, cut it down into a 650 word article, that kind of thing) and messing around with InDesign. The task is to take an existing publication and redesign it in some way, so I’m going with Gamesradar+ Magazine. Here’s a sneak peak of what I’ve got so far:

I needed a gimmick, and doing an ‘under the radar’ version of Gamesradar for the ‘hidden gems’ of this year’s game releases. Not 100% sold on the green, but if I can find the right shade it might made for a good way to redefine the colourscheme.

The focus of the project is the design of the pages, rather than the articles themselves, so we can source the articles from anywhere. So I figured, why not create more work by writing them myself? That way I can get some of that sweet games journalism cred as well as design cred. Fingers-crossed this is going to make a pretty good addition to my general-purpose portfolio of stuff.

Cardgame/Boardgame Backstory

Been creating some backstory, character descriptions, etc, for two different games projects recently. One of them for a cardgame Northumbria University’s Game Development Society is working on, and one for a boardgame a friend and I have been brainstorming, based on Baltic folklore. Its been pretty fun, so I thought I’d drop some excerpts here:

***

The Bard/Jide Yado/Yado the Bard
“You see that bard?” asked Sven, taking a swig from his tankard.
“The one dancing on the table?” answered Jarl.
“That’s the one. I heard he’s leader of the revolution.”
“What?” Watching the little man sing and caper, he couldn’t help but laugh.
“I heard the Prince’s Black Hand wiped out his entire village by poisoning the well, and now he’s out for revenge.”
“Nonsense! That drunken fool?”
“He’s no fool, he’s cursed!” Chimed in Grog from across the table, “I heard stole the devil’s magic lute, but the devil drove him mad!”
“You’re all wrong.” Remarked the waitress, bitterly. “He’s a heartbreaker and a good-for-nothing rogue, plain and simple.”
And with that, the three men shrugged, and went back to their drinking.

Yado is a wandering bard, out for justice, freedom for the common folk and all that he can steal. He can embolden his allies with a rousing tune, but don’t underestimate his own prowess! With his magic lute he can set up strong and unpredictable plays, catching his opponents off guard.

Card flavour text: “Sex and drugs and second breakfasts” – Yado’s tour slogan
Lute flavour text: “Let me sing you the song of my people.”

The Valkyrie/The Furie/Fjola the Valkyrie
“Ah,” sighed Grog, watching from his chair as a young woman in armour passed along the street outside. “Would you look at that?”
“Beautiful,” agreed his companion, wistfully, “but she’s nothing compared to the Valkyries. Have you seen them?”
“Aye, I would do anything for a kiss from one of them.”
“Are you mad, Grog? They’re warriors. Angels of war. Got no eye for men or women.”
“He’s right,” added Jarl, “They fight day and night in that colosseum of theirs until one of them is ready to take on the Prince and his cronies.”
“Maybe we could sneak in and watch them?”
“Good luck with that! It’s on a floating island in the sky. The last time someone did make it up there, they threw him into a volcano.” Grog sighed.
“Maybe not then.”
“Aye, Grog, maybe not.”

Fjola is the champion of the Valkyries, sent to strike down the Fat Prince in the name of the Sun God. Strong and versatile, she can bring the fight to the Floating Colosseum for a homefield advantage and charge up a powerful sun strikes to bring her opponent to their knees

Card flavour text: If she starts to sing, that’s when you know it’s all over.
Colosseum flavour text: Common audience shouts include “Praise the sun!” and “Get good!”


The Trickster/The Black Hand/Zeb/Zeb the Trickster/Zeb the Spymaster
“You filthy cheat!” Cried Sven, throwing his cards onto the table in disgust as Jarl unveiled his perfect hand. “You’re no better than that filthy trickster Zeb.”
“Be quiet!” Hissed Grog, fearfully, “If you say his name, he can hear you!”
“Don’t be a fool. He’s a spy, not a sorcerer.” At this, Jarl leaned in with a conspiratorial whisper.
“That’s not what I heard. Some say it was him what turned the Prince bad, poisoned his heart with manticore venom so he could be the power behind the throne.”
“You’ve had too much to drink. The Fat Prince has always been bad.” Jarl shrugged.
“Maybe, but he’s gotten worse since Zeb became his Black Hand. That man hears everything. Some say he can even read minds.” Sven sighed in disbelief.
“Jarl Magnusson, that’s paranoid codswallop and you know it. Now take that bucket off your head and go get us another round.”
Zeb stalks the shadows of the Fat Prince’s kingdom, sowing fear and distrust in his wake. He’s a wily combatant, spying on his foes with a network of informants and using misdirection to create the perfect opening. If his poison arrow strikes you, it may already be too late.

Card flavour text: You’d be surprised how often ‘look behind you!’ actually works.~
Poison flavour text: The poison Zeb made. The poison used specifically by Zeb. Zeb’s poison.

***

Tribe: Telivar (Builders/the Diligent)
Hero: Shara, the Dawnsmith (Worker unit, anything she builds costs 1 less)
Bio: Claiming ancestry from the giant who forged the very sun, the Teliavar are second to none when it comes to building and blacksmithing. Now that the Warlord threatens their ancestral mines, they have also become skilled in fortification, and are ready to face their enemies with an onslaught of finely wrought iron and catapult fire.
Starting Bonus: You start the game with an additional ‘Construction’ and ‘Sabotage’ card in your hand.
Passive Power: Siege-Ready – Structures built by the Telivar have +1 health.
Active Power: Rain of Fire – Once per game at the start of a turn, you may declare ‘Rain of Fire’. All friendly catapults deal +1 damage this turn.
Traitor Bonus:
While you are a revealed traitor, all ‘Sabotage’ cards do +1 damage to structures.

Tribe: Zvora (Hunters/the Brave)
Hero: Medeinar, the Bearkiller (Archer unit with +1 damage and range)
Bio: Once peaceful hunters who ruled the forests close to the Mountain, when the Warlord appeared the Zvora were forced to become fierce fighters to defend their home. Lead by the wildest and strongest warrior in the land, and trusting in the spirits of the forest to uphold their birthright, the Zvora are expert archers and will not give up without a fight.
Starting Bonus: You start the game with an additional ‘Reinforce’ and ‘Ambush’ card in your hand.
Passive Power: Hit and Run Tactics – Archers built by the Zvora have +1 range.
Active Power: Tactical Retreat – Once per game at the end of a turn where 1 or more friendly units were destroyed in the same square, you may declare ‘Tactical Retreat’ and relocate them somewhere else with only 1 health remaining each, instead of taking them off the board.
Traitor Bonus: While you are a revealed traitor, all ‘Ambush’ cards spawn 1 additional enemy unit.

Tribe: Bezul (Scholars/the Wise)
Hero: Fabius, the Counter (Builder unit, whenever he builds a)
Bio: A tribe once torn apart by decadence and excess, the Bezul have since recovered and are now led by a family descended from the quartermasters of their original lords. Reserved and level-headed in all things, they have dedicated themselves to the accumulation of knowledge. They have built great libraries, and are willing to leverage every secret and every ounce of their cunning to prevent their books from going up in flames.
Starting Bonus: You start the game with an additional ‘Research’ and ‘Miscalculation’ card in your hand.
Passive Power:
Pragmatism – When you successfully research something, draw 2 ‘Results’ cards and pick one.
Active Power: Great Tribe Meeting – Once per game at the start of a turn you may declare ‘Great Tribe Meeting’, and draw 2 cards for each allied player, then choose and give 1 of those cards to each ally. Discard the rest.
Traitor Bonus: While you are a revealed traitor, all ‘Miscalculation’ cards count +1 against research attempts.