Designing with asymmetry: Enabling people to share an experience in different ways

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The Daily

Letting everyone have the same experience sounds good and fair. In reality, this way of designing excludes people that are different, or have different circumstances. Allowing experiences to be asymmetric can be a way of sharing without having to be identical.

When I worked in media research many years ago, a common consumer question was “What kind of TV do you watch?“. The answer was almost always “documentaries“.

You could then place an ethnographer in their house to see what they actually watch. The real answer was almost always “The Bachelor” (or something equivalent). The people you are asking aren’t necessarily lying, but they have a different image of themselves than what reality might show. It probably feels like they watch a lot of documentaries. It’s just that compared to reality-TV, they don’t.

The old, and slightly obvious, lesson here is that there’s a huge difference between what people say they do, and what they actually end up doing.

Why people say one thing and do another
This is familiar in many different areas. For example, rarely have I heard of focus groups with parents where the idea of having a parental dashboard hasn’t come up. Parents want to be able to track and follow their kids’ progress in educational apps. That way they can see how to help or encourage their kids as needed. There’s only one problem with this: parents never actually use these dashboards.

While it is understandable that parents want to know what their kids are doing, it is a little sad that this has to be done through indirect surveillance. Why is it assumed that the only way you could participate in kids’ media choices is from afar?

A part of the explanation falls into the documentary answer above. Good intentions don’t always come through. Parents are often stressed and overworked. There’s just no time to check dashboards with graphs that show math progress. There’s no time to play together.

But there’s more than that. A more interesting explanation, I think. The implied assumption is that kids apps are boring for adults. Another explanation is that the whole point of kids apps is that parents are doing something else while the kids are playing with them. This is fair to some degree, but does it have to be this way? In a word: no. You can design products for this purpose, but it requires some intentional design decisions.

Equal doesn’t always mean fair
When you think of most card games, the basic premise is that all players adhere to the same rules. They play against each other with the same deck. It is an equal starting ground. But all games and experiences are not designed like this.

If you look at golf, they have a handicap system to balance differences in skill level. Good players can play with bad players and still have a somewhat fair match.

If you look at role playing, the Game Master acts as the arbiter and sets the scene of the game. The other participants follow their lead. They are all playing together, but they have very different experiences of the same game. Same thing in something like World of Warcraft. Your role determines your experience, but you are still sharing it with others.

Most kids apps are designed like card games. There’s one way of playing them, and not only would the adults be better at accomplishing the tasks, they would likely find them pretty tedious too. This is unsurprising since kids and adults don’t always like doing the same things. But as the examples above show, you can design experiences that are genuinely fun for both parties. They just need to be different experiences housed in the same context.

How to make experiences work for everyone
Here are a few variables to consider:

  • Time. Kids often have way more time to spend on games than adults do. Sometimes more patience too. For instance, you could weight games so that adults spent 5 minutes for every 60 minutes played by the kid. Both parties are playing, together, but not the same amount of time.
  • Context. You don’t necessarily have to be playing the same game to want to share an experience of something. It could be helping a kid to edit a Minecraft video and then posting it on YouTube. The actual creation of the video itself would be made entirely by the kid, but the adult could participate in the broader context. It creates something to talk about – something to have in common.
  • Skill & Role. What is actually being done on the respective screen can also be largely different. Imagine a mystery game where you need to solve a number of logical clues to work out how to succeed. The adult may need to solve a sudoku in order for the next clue to appear. Which is something that they might be doing anyway, but in a different context.
  • Designed for team work. World of Warcraft is a good example of a game where it is hard to succeed entirely alone. You need the help of others to get to where you want to go. Even a game like Little Big Planet had elements of this – you needed both Sackboys to get through some levels. You are playing together, because it is designed to be played together.
  • Asynchronous. The time element of when you are playing can also be a deterring factor. Adults have less time off, and some of it is often after their kids have gone to bed. All of this makes for difficulties in playing games together in a synchronous manner. The answer is to design something that doesn’t require the activities to happen at the same time. It could be something turn-based (like Scrabble), or managed through roles (as per above) where parents could play their part at night and then it would be ready for the kids when they wake up in the morning. Something to talk about over breakfast!

As I’ve stated before, there’s so much more to be done in the kids space. I’m not saying that it is easy, or that the market has noticeably changed for the better. It hasn’t. All of those challenges still remain. But this further emphasizes the importance of looking outside of what has already been done and starting to create the next generation of kids apps.

No more parental dashboards. Let’s have real, inclusive, asymmetric experiences that the whole family can share and enjoy – together.

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