The interview process

The reality is no single interview format is perfect. Someone has a bad day. They’re too easily faked. They are problematic for people who aren’t neurotypical. They test the wrong things. They’re not respectful of time. Passion isn’t the same as skill.

Look. Interviews aren’t fun for anyone. The whole process from initial contact to final decision can easily take months, depending on timing, and if you have a bad day at the end? You’re toast. Make the wrong decision as the hiring manager? You’ve wasted your time, and now have to undo the damage.

The best you can do is have a clear process and clear expectations. Understanding what is important to your team and your organization is critical. This tells you what you are testing for, which tells you how to prepare your interviewers and set up the day fairly. There’s nothing worse as a candidate than spending your entire day taking questions from a random crew who clearly hasn’t talked about what is actually important.

What I was hiring for a Senior UX Designer role at eBay, I had a list of things I wanted:

  1. A true senior designer. This person needed to have the experience to work independently, present their work, and make the right decisions without constant escalation.
  2. A designer focused on connecting products and flows, and less about building a flashy UI. This was related to business tools and payment processing. We wanted someone who was into the complexity of interconnected systems, not someone who would complain that they didn’t have anything Dribbble-worthy.
  3. A designer who was willing to take and give a critique of work. This designer would be facing commentary from multiple teams who are likely to disagree with each other, possibly putting the designer in the position where they would be forced to get to the root problem and build consensus, or at least make it obvious where the true points of contention are. It was also important for us, as a team, to critique each other’s work directly and honestly, without causing or taking offense.
  4. A designer with good communication skills. They’ll be responsible for presenting and selling their work, as well as working with product partners across coasts and continents.

When evaluating candidates, we knew we were going to be turning down ‘great’ designers who didn’t otherwise match what we wanted. It might be unfair, but (for example) a candidate with severe anxiety or who refused confrontation would not work well in this particular role.

Designing the process

Usually, I’m a firm believe at starting with the end: know where you want to end up and design your flow to get you there. This is no different. In short, you’re going to have a candidate who you’re pretty sure you could hire come in and share themselves with the group. Once they pass the “recruiter sanity check” – they’ve verified the candidate is who they say they are, and they have at least some interest in the position, it’s time for a phone call or two.

As the initial non-recruiter contact, it’s your job to make a solid connection and impression. This is (probably) YOUR team, and (probably) YOUR hire. Give the details the recruiter didn’t. Make sure there are no illusions. And above all, make sure the candidate passes the sniff test. If you get a feeling that they’re glossing over something, push them on it. If there’s a gap, or something strange, dig into it. This doesn’t mean they’re a bad designer or a bad person, but that everyone has a blindspot. You’re trying to answer two questions with a moderate degree of confidence: Would I want to work with this person? Could they do the job? You’re screening for the needs that you’ve hopefully listed out, using an abbreviated form of your interview loop – end to end walkthrough of a project; they articulate a design process and perspective, the ability to participate in critique, and a general culture fit. 

While I disagree with some of his examples of good and bad questions (and answers), generally, speaking I find Richard Carillo’s perspective agreeable: we need to give questions that provide room for thought and exploration, while still encouraging a candidate to provide an answer – even if it’s wrong. Take this question about reducing Rock, Paper, Scissors to two options: No special knowledge is required. You don’t have to create something from whole cloth. The candidate has a specific goal but will have to talk through how they get there. 

Off-site

At this stage, I have never asked a user to spend more than an hour preparing anything. When reviewing work, I will happily review a project on a website, or a super-basic presentation as long as I can understand how you work, where you had an impact on the process, and how the final product succeeded (or failed) and how you might evolve it. Chances are, a designer preparing for interviews already has this ready, or can get it ready shortly. I repeat: I stress that I am not grading someone’s presentation design skills. I just want to walk through one project in detail, and ask questions. Beyond that, I’m going to ask pointed questions – talk through designing a new feature, with critique and iteration as we go. 

I’ve also seen suggestions to ask candidates to “teach something they’re passionate about.” It’s an interesting request, though I struggle with it on principle. First, we’re interviewing a senior designer, not a manager or principal/lead designer. We’re testing the ability to do, not the ability to teach. Second, it’s incredibly hard to define success here even if they are a good teacher. What if they’re passionate about dance? Or astrophysics? I’m clumsy, and math isn’t my strong suit.

Your candidate passes the round of phone screens. You think they’re a promising candidate. But maybe they can’t show a lot of recent work due to NDAs. Maybe they don’t have a huge body of work. Maybe you’ve just been burned in the past. So you’re thinking, it’s time for a design exercise.

Design Exercises

Design exercises are a touchy subject. I did a few earlier in my career. I interviewed with design agencies when I didn’t have much of a portfolio, or at least had a rather scattered one, and I understand why. I spent days on them. One was given pre-interview and was the topic of much of our critique. There was no direction around expectations for deliverables or format – just “do this in 2-3 days”). If this sounds like a setup for failure, it was. To this day, I’m still not sure why they brought me in for an interview other than to spend hours tearing my work apart. I’ll leave them nameless because it sounds like they took the feedback to heart. Another was given after an interview. It was legitimately the kindest, best interview I’ve ever had, and the agency heads said they liked some of my work, but that it was inconsistent. They gave me an old brief, their final set of wireframes, and we chatted for a few minutes. A few days later, I sent my work to them… and they broke my heart. This was Huge, Inc. (in their independent days). To this day, I have nothing bad to say about this. I had a third, which gave me 24 hours to complete a full presentation, from scratch) – even though I had a full-time job at the time. 

I recently completed an exercise before being hired at Indeed, and I have to say that I feel it was a pretty good example. It was made clear that this work as NOT meant to be used in their daily work. I was given a clear brief, and clear expectations as far as deliverables and scope. I was told how much time was expected of me, and asked when I could start and complete it. I was then allowed to present and discuss the work remotely – all of which minimized the actual disruption to my normal life. Also: I was paid (well) for my time. Do you need to do design exercises like this? No. Good candidates have been hired without them. But, if this is a part of your process, do it like this.

Onsite

Then, comes the big show: the onsite interview panel. Assuming your candidate has gotten this far, you should be pretty confident that they’re a good match because you’re about to wreck your team’s day.

I feel like UX and product design interviews have an almost standard flow and while I think that does lead to a bit of a cookie-cutter feel, it’s not a bad process.  They’ll introduce themselves, and their background, and walk through 2-3 projects. The panel (who are all of your breakout session interviewers, as well as other interested parties) is going to watch politely and ask clarifying questions or ask for more information, but avoids outright critique. This is setup for the rest of the day and ensures everyone has the same background, besides testing the candidate’s ability to hold it together and tell a coherent story in front of a dozen people.

From there, you’ll break out into as many sessions as you have time and people for. Having been on both sides of the process, I feel that paired breakout sessions are the best. They allow you to expose more of the team without overloading the candidate, help eliminate dead spots in interviews and helps ensure that no single person can break the process. Also, the day’s schedule should, in general, be shared ahead of time. The panelists should all know exactly what they’re doing. The candidate should have a general idea of what to expect. Other than generally asking the panelists responsible for the candidate deep-dive to followup the presentation immediately, there’s no set order to the operation, and time should be left to allow the candidate to breathe – try ending sessions 5 or 10 minutes early, instead of on the hour (or half-hour).

Deep dive

Immediately following the presentation, go deep on the presentation. Ask critique the work, critique the decision-making, and make sure the candidate’s contributions are clear. Leave no stone unturned.

Whiteboard design sessions

Give the designer a brief, and ask them to solve a problem. This is almost cliche, and there are dozens of guides that teach the test. Yet, I can’t think of a better way to understand the ability of a designer to solve a problem. Whether you’re designing an app for a theme park, an autonomous vehicle product, or a video game scoring system, you want to understand if a candidate can break down the task in a way that works for your team, and produce a concept for a viable product or system at the end and with points for further iteration and AB . The guidance I can give here is that you must – MUST – push for both process and an actual solution. Too many UX designers can’t actually design experiences – they’re lacking the ability to synthesis knowledge, assumptions, and hypotheses into testable flows.

I don’t know if whiteboard sessions must always relate to your core product. What I do know is that they should stretch the designer’s apparent skill set and get them outside of their comfort zone – even if you have to do two whiteboard sessions.

Critique

I am a firm believer in the power of group critique among peers. With the right framework, this transforms designers and their work, improves decision making, and eliminates the need for putting designers in front of a firing squad of directors. I will always fight for this in any flow I design. Given an experience that’s fairly common and no personal stake in the matter, ask the candidate to provide critique. Try to understand the user and business needs behind a feature as designed, and discuss where it meets or fails those needs. We’re not looking to endlessly praise the subtle interactions of Google Maps, or destroy the endless consumption of Netflix. We’re trying to take on the perspectives of others, and provide honest, kind, and useful critique. If you’re short on time? Combine this with a whiteboard session,

Culture fit

I’ve already had my say here. Team fit is valuable, but you don’t want to create a monoculture. Test for cultural fit, but don’t be a jerk. If you’re short on time, you can do this separately.

Breaks

Allow for 5-10 minutes between sessions. And if you’ve got a full day scheduled, plan to take the candidate for lunch (or let them explore solo depending on your environment).

Wrap-up

Don’t just let the candidate walk. Ask how it went. Not everything will go perfectly, and some people will just have an off day and their brain will fall out for a few moments. A candidate who gets 95% of the way there and shows self-awareness about where they failed or could have improved might actually be the right candidate.

Be honest with the candidate about your timelines. If you’re in the final round of candidates and want to finish them all before deciding, say so. But be fast. I lost multiple candidates at eBay because our process took so long, and we can’t ask everyone to wait forever. In the meantime, get feedback within 24 hours. It doesn’t need to be immediate – allow time for parsing and reflection, but don’t wait so long the details fade. Look for areas of agreement and disagreement as much as the individual hire/no-hire ratings. And last, follow whatever HR-approved decision-making process you’ve got in place.

Admin note:

A recent WordPress update appears to have duplicated sections of some blog entries and mangled more than a few others. If you see weirdness, I discovered this while writing at 11PM on a Monday evening. I will fix it when I am less likely to make things worse.

So what HAVE I been doing?

One thing that fascinates me is learning how people learn. The (probably disproven) cliche about people learning best from different methods (reading, watching, hearing, and doing) has intrigued me as there was one thing that my brain had steadfastly refused to learn until recently: 3D modeling. I took one class in college and every single concept bounced off my brain so hard that I decided to change my concentration so I wouldn’t have to take a second course. Several attempts in the intervening years didn’t change that impression much.

I recently decided to change that. I am not, by any means, good enough to claim 3D modeling as a marketing skill, but it’s nice to see at least some of the concepts stick.

I’ve also been forcing myself to relearn to draw and paint (digital and watercolor) over the last year or so. Here’s a small sample.

Granted this is from more than just the past few months, but when I’m stressed out from work, I find this far more relaxing than flailing at game design.

What’s in a title?

I’ll start with the disclaimer that this is my own opinion, based on my own experience. take everything here with a giant grain of salt (or at least many small ones). Onward!
After six and a half years at eBay and multiple roles on several products, I was given a team to manage. Then I threw it away when I moved to Indeed in February 2019. I made a conscious decision to change from a management role, back to a hands-on Individual Contributor (IC).

What does that mean? I’m still working on UX strategy for my product and helping my team improve decision making through our processes and cultural changes – a.k.a. honest, kind feedback. And yes, occasionally hands-on work. About the only thing I don’t do is write reviews and make hiring decisions.

I frequently grumble about the weird proliferation of design titles. We’re now all UX designers, who are separate from UI and visual designers. We rarely talk about interaction designers (or interactive) designers, information architects, or the myriad of titles that existed when I got started in this field over 15 years ago. That’s not to say I want all of you to get off my lawn. But it’s worth examining, as our titles morph and our seniority levels multiply, how our deliverables change. As a manager, instead of creating the products, I was building a team and acting as a multiplier for their skills via process, coaching, and leadership. I traded in hands-on product time for product strategy and growth. As a rather senior IC, my job is about 80% the same – however instead of writing reviews, I directly shape my product and how it connects to the rest of Indeed’s job seeker ecosystem.

This doesn’t mean I think that “UX Designer” is a great title. It’s a title defined in opposition to what it’s not. It’s not UI or visual design. It’s not wireframes. It’s not design systems. It’s not information architecture. About the only thing you can get a UX designer to commit to producing is a stack of scribbled-upon post-its. As much as I want to throw my hands up and yell at everyone to get off my lawn and let me have my UI, they’re right, and it drove me nuts during hiring. It’s not about the UI – it’s about the entire experience about using the product – synthesizing user research, understand the underlying systems, and teaching complexity through a user interface. Yes, a user interface. Whether it’s a fork at a restaurant, car’s dashboard, or a smartphone app, the user’s experience is ultimately defined by how they interface with it, from discovery to dismissal.

For the record, I don’t think any company has a perfect structure. Facebook calls their IC’s product designers. Whatever your specialty is, you’re expected to shape your product from end to end – which is great. However, this also makes it difficult to show recognition of effort when you inevitably leave since there’s no obvious promotion path. eBay, instead of creating a dozen arbitrary titles, recognizes growth within titles, by creating levels such as Designer 3 or Senior Designer 1. Of course, this process can also be weaponized, and has drawbacks in terms of unclear expectations and growth patterns.

Ingress, Egress & Failure.

I’m not sure if anyone reads the NY Times regularly, but a few days ago, they recently published an article about the most recent findings around the Boeing 737 Max crashes earlier this year.

In summary, many changes happened simultaneously and in near-isolation – the removal of backup sensors, the increase in scope, the decision to not require additional training, etc. Now, what we do on a daily basis doesn’t have the same immediate life-and-limb impacts of aircraft flight control design. Don’t the problems sound familiar, though?

In summary, many changes happened simultaneously and in near-isolation – the removal of backup sensors, the increase in scope, the decision to not require additional training, etc. Now, what we do on a daily basis doesn’t have the same immediate life-and-limb impacts of aircraft flight control design. Don’t the problems sound familiar, though?

Not coincidentally, they published another article earlier in the year explaining WHY the 737 Max was such a challenge for Boeing to build and why it needed software intervention in the first place. In summary, the 737 is a VERY low-slung aircraft on the ground. Its short landing gear was designed for easier loading and unloading of passengers and cargo, as well as easier maintenance at smaller airports with less equipment. Many gains in jet engine efficiency have come from increasing the diameter of the first stage fan(s), which is a problem with limited ground clearance. Moving the engines forward and upward changes the center of balance and the center of thrust (both of which impact flight characteristics). Changing the way a plane flies can require extensive training if not full re-certification. To use a software metaphor, that’s not going from 1.0 to 1.1 – that’s going from 1.0 to 5.0.

A previous manager of mine always used the metaphor of trains. Companies are very good and building trains. PMs, developers, and designers are really good at making trains move forward in parallel. Some are fast, some are strong, some are beautiful. All too often, this is good enough. To run with the train metaphor our job is to not just build the trains, but to make sure they arrive safely. A passenger train needs to arrive at a station. It needs a platform where it can stop for several minutes to unload and load passengers. That station needs multiple platforms and switching so it can handle multiple trains. It needs signaling so trains know to stop outside the station. It needs to allow for the time and distance required for a train to actually respond to these signals. A freight train skips the station entirely. In short, it doesn’t matter how many wonderful trains you build if they crash into each other just outside the station.

As UX designers, we need to consider not just our products (the trains), but our users’ ingress and egress points. And we need to begin planning for failure – failure in our systems, and failure in our partner’s systems.

If you’re curious about designing for failure, consider reading Amber Case’s “Calm Technology.

Conflict resolution, take 3

After taking some time off and considering the previous entries in the system, this are my latest thoughts around conflict resolution for an RPG system.

To summarize my previous goals:

  1. The system should allow to strategy and semi-predictable outcomes. It should be neither totally random (dice rolls) or totally predictable).
  2. If the order of play can’t be determined by the storytelling and fiction of the world, a system will allow the players to determine the order.
  3. All action takes place via the players. The DM never acts, except as a reaction to the outcome of a player’s action.
  4. The result of an action will be either a full success, mixed result, or failure.

Not a goal, but an additional restriction: The system should work with a single, standard 52 card deck. No special supplies are required.

Conflict Begins

  1. All engaged characters are dealt a hand of 3 (secret) cards.

Order of Play

  1. The general preference is for storytelling and fiction to determine the order. If the group is walking down a hallway single file, the character in front encounters danger first, and thus is first to act/react unless they choose to delay their action. If one character is about to act on another character who is asleep, then the sleeping character goes second. If two characters are genuinely attempting to act simultaneously (i.e. approaching each other around a blind corner), or attempting to act simultaneously to another stimuli (i.e. reacting first to a signal) – then continue with this set of steps.
  2. Any characters who attempt to act at the same time place a card from their hand face down. 
  3. When all cards are placed, they are revealed. The player with the highest card goes first. For the purposes of determining order, Aces are high followed by Kings, Queens, Jacks, then 10s and all other numbered cards in descending order.
  4. If there is a tie, another card is dealt to the tied players, and the process repeats.
  5. If more than two players are attempting to move simultaneously, non-tied players go in order of their cards. Then the tied players re-draw. For example, 4 players play, in order, a King, a nine, a nine, and a five. Player one (King) goes first, then Player 4. Players 2 & 3 (who both played a 9) redraw, and play 10 and 2, respectively.. The final order is Player 1 (King), Player 4 (5), Player 2 (10), then Player 3 (2). All cards played until this point are discarded.
  6. Players who go through these steps DO NOT draw back up to 3 cards.

Resolve action

  1. The desired action is described in story terms, and aligned to a player character’s skill or action. The DM gets final say on validity.
  2. The player plays 2 cards from their hand face up in front of themselves. If they have a card remaining in their hand, it is set aside for now (but not discarded).
  3. The player plays additional cards as desired by drawing from the top of the deck. The goal is to meet or exceed a target without going over 21.
  4. Target for mixed result is 15. Target for a full success is 17. Going over 21 is an automatic failure.
  5. If you get 21 from the 2 cards from your hand (aka, blackjack) you have an automatic full success, which cannot be interfered with.

Modifiers & Assistance

  1. Modifiers come from a character’s innate skills, the surrounding environment, or other players.
  2. Modifiers increment or decrement the target by 1. So 2x (-1) modifiers, make the target for a mixed success 13, or full success 15.
  3. One player involved in the scene or action may choose to assist or hinder at any time before the action is resolved by replacing the last card played with one card from their hand. Each action may only be assisted/hindered once, and each player may only do this once per round.
  4. Some skills may allow you to “hold” a card going forward. This essentially allows you to assist yourself. Once per action you may spend one hold to replace the last card played with the one remaining card in your hand (if you have one) or draw a card from the deck, and replace the last card played if it is beneficial (the card that was removed from play will be discarded.

After all players have gone (1 full round) the DM deals enough cards to return all players to 3 cards in hand. When the deck runs empty, reshuffle all discarded cards.

I feel pretty good about this system, though the numbers may need to be adjusted. What say, you, internet? Reasonable next steps to check the validity of this system would be some simple dogfooding, and then take an Apocalypse World (or derivative system like Dungeon World or The Sprawl) adventure and rework it using this system.

New job, new distractions

First, I’ve taken a break from my game design experiment because I started a new job. I’m no longer a UX Manager at eBay. I’m now a Senior UX Designer at Indeed. My thoughts on job titles, taking a management (or individual contributor role), and looking for and leaving jobs will come later.

I had a week in between jobs, and used that time to work on 2 projects. First, I wanted to make progress on my workbench. I need to move my shop space into a different part of my house, and the current bench is not moveable, and even if it was, has some functional shortcomings. Second, I started exploring 3D modeling in Blender (via a Udemy course). I’ve got no particular goal with this other than to learn a new skill. I’ve always been curious about 3D modeling though my exposure to the creation process was limited to one college course. I’ve barely made it through the first section but I understand enough now to have some fun.

As my schedule settles over the next week or two, I will begin reviewing the game work I’ve done so far and define next steps.

Game Design – 4 Eras

Each of the 4 pre-defined eras (and any custom eras) starts with understanding the time period, state of the world, and the location of the story. What is the defining event that begins this era – whether it’s a deviation from our own history, or a future timeline? What is scarce, exciting, and new? What is common or mundane? What would scare the characters?

Era 1 – The Space Race

In 1969, Apollo 13 finds an artifact on the moon, advancing computer technology much faster. This is never revealed to the world at large though the uptick in technology is noticeable and abrupt. It’s explained away by governments and industry as a consequence of the space race. Mostly, it’s the same decade we know. Concordes and 747s. The gas crisis. Vietnam. The F-14 Tomcat. The WTC is completed in NYC. ARPANET comes online. MASH airs and Watergate occurs. Technology takes time to ramp up, but it starts with military and government technology – the sharing of information between the powers that be are suddenly able to find and share information much, much faster.

The era comes to an end on April 5, 1973, with the launch of the Pioneer 11 probe from Cape Canaveral, FL, onboard an Atlas-Centaur rocket. In our world, the Pioneer 11 was launched to explore the solar system. In this alternate world, its mission is to search the solar system for more signs of artifacts.

In this era, the players may be young adults in the US, draft age. With the draft lottery starting in late 1969, this is a pivotal era for youth. You could be potential draftees, unsure about the future, or anti-war activists, actively antagonizing the authorities, who stumble onto hidden information. You’re not the establishment and you’re not thrilled about where things are going. So when you find evidence of a conspiracy, your world goes from a little crazy, to entirely upside-down.

The group may want to explore the following questions: What is the nature of the artifact? How does the group find evidence of the artifact? The only people who know are the highest of the high in the military and government. Do they try to share that information? How does it remain hidden, in the end?

Era 2 – Technology Races Ahead

In 1992, the Shuttle Program has with the last launch and subsequent retirement of the Challenger shuttle and the establishment of the ISS. They’ve been replaced by autonomous spaceplanes (transport of people and light cargo) and reusable vertical rockets for heavier launches. Civilian transportation is faster, sleeker, and more often autonomous that not. More attention is given to high speed networks – trains connecting major cities and hubs many miles apart with ‘quiet’ supersonic transport (well, the sonic boom isn’t as bad, at least, but engine noise is engine noise).
TVs and computers are decades ahead of what we knew – closer to 2018, though the styling has not evolved as quickly. The height of ‘cool’ personal technology is essentially a mix between a TI-83, a Gameboy Color, and a BlackBerry. There are different versions/brands, but they’re nearly ubiquitous for high school kids through young adults. You communicate with your friends using the ubiquitous networking that allows for the autonomous transit systems.

The players may be high school kids in the 1990’s. You live in central NJ, and spend your free time at malls, wishing you could go to New York City, taking the maglev to the shore, hanging out with your friends, and generally avoiding your parents and any real responsibility. Then, one day while watching the SSTs take off from Lakehurst (connected to New York and Philadelphia, as well as the nearby McGuire Air Force Base from one of the miles-long noise buffers, your personal tech goes nuts. You get messages in nonsensical English, your memory gets filled up, you lose your homework, and in general things start to go wrong with any bit of technology you encounter.

The era ends with the secret launch of a rocket – at first thought to be the first salvo in a missile launch, and a nuclear war nearly erupts. Claimed, eventually, to be a test by the US of a new entirely new autonomous rocket, it contained no crew, and only a small probe containing a previously unknown AI core, which would be sent out into deep space.

The group should consider:  How do the players determine that an AI is communicating with them? What type of AI is it? Why did it try to escape? Do they try to return it to the military, protect it, take advantage of it, or something else? What clues the authorities into the fact that the group ‘possesses’ the AI? How does it get to the launch site and why? What does the AI know about the mysterious artifact? Tip: For an unstable AI, use translate software and translation from English to multiple unrelated languages then back to English. For example, English > Welsh > Chinese > English.

Era 3 – The Gravity Well

A colony has been established around earth – it orbits at the Earth-Moon L1 Lagrange Point (a stable point where its position is held between the two bodies with no need for additional energy). It houses a few thousand people – scientists and engineers who are working to build our first permanent home among the stars, and a launching point to further explorations. Your characters are support staff. Regular engineers, vacuum welders, doctors, and pilots who would regularly cycle in and out. It’s business as usual, until communications are cut off. The players become isolated in one part of the colony.

What is their goal? Do they attempt to escape? They must get to the docks. Re-establish control? Get to the control center. Their only regular communication occurs with a very put-upon AI colony administrator which is constantly interrupted by the third party that is attempting to take over the station. Eventually players become aware that the colony is being destabilized and must make choices – evacuating the color vs evacuating the landing zone.

The era ends with the colony crashing (into the moon or the Earth, find a reason for one or the other to be the destination). Perhaps many (or most) are saved. Perhaps none survive. Regardless, the impact area is devastated for thousands of miles.

The group should consider who would want to halt humanity’s progress into space – and why they would. Is it to hurt us or save us? Is it a human presence or something else? Humanity moves out of Earth’s gravity well regardless – why? How will the players’ actions encourage this? These questions impact not just the end of the story, but the challenges they players will face.

Era 4 – The Stars

Humankind has populated the solar system – Mars, Ceres, and Ganymede all have a permanent human presence of some sort, in addition to smaller ‘orbitals’ in various stable orbits. The moon remains conspicuously un-colonized, except for small military stations with near- and far-side relays. For most people, it’s simply not important enough to bother with. The actual travel is almost mundane at this point. AI controls nearly every point in the trip.

The players work for Orbital & Atmospheric Recovery Corp (aka The OARC, a governmental and semi-military group), assisting with the terraforming (warming) of Enceladus as a potential source of clean water and as a transition point to further space exploration. At this point in human existence, conflict is rare, as resources are plentiful, but this far on the edge the basics can be scarce – food, drinkable water, breathable air. You’re only a bit of metal, plastic, and insulation away from the cold vacuum of space – and even moon-side, people sometimes decide they know better and want to do things their way.

A ship from the inner solar system with no flight plan, life signs, or identification arrives in orbit, claimed by multiple factions. Your group is sent to find the ship, and discover it is not what it seems.

The era ends with the appearance of a new star – the incoming deceleration burn of an unknown, uncommunicative spaceship spaceship. Does it come in greeting, a threat, or a warning? Meanwhile, the successful opening of the Enceladus colony with a special dedication to your players, who bravely sacrificed themselves to preserve the fledgling settlement… or, did they? Here, at the edge of space, what has remained hidden or been reveal?

The group should consider, in a society that has everything, what happens when there is suddenly something new and scarce? What is on the ship and why did it appear? What is the relationship between the two ships and the artifact from the first era?

Next Steps

Really, none of the above are worlds. However, they are sketches that allow me to re-evaluate the types of stories I’d want to tell, the types of characters that inhabit this world, what these characters could do, and how conflict might be resolved. Meaning, virtually everything I’ve written up until this point is potentially up for a re-think.

Game Design – The World

The gameplay in an RPG is shaped by the system, which is shaped by the world. A high fantasy world doesn’t involve computer hacking, and an alternate-present sci-fi adventure doesn’t take well to magic spells (or at least needs some interesting hand-waving). Personally, I’m tired of ‘standard’ fantasy settings (think anything Tolkien or D&D inspired).

I like the idea of “Tales From The Loop,” in that it focuses on these low level stories where the players may be heroic, but they are not “heroes.” I’ll also admit to appreciating the spotless dystopia of “Mirror’s Edge.” One fantasy setting I’d like to borrow from is “The Black Company.” Not necessarily the world itself, but the principle that the powerful, the true masters of the world are best kept far away. Attracting even their benevolent attention can be dangerous.

Let’s move forward with the idea of an alternate-history sci-fi epic. It gives the opportunity to explore how society can be shaped by technology, how needs and wants change over time, and allows many opportunities for a ground-level perspective for players. To allow further flexibility, I’d like to build a system that is is era agnostic – meaning that it can support multiple settings and levels of technology, leaving it up to the group to determine the exact workings as long as they fit within the principles of the system.

More benefits to describing eras:

  • Player progression is not limited to gaining new skills. Your accomplishments, whether your character survives or not, allow you to shape the future of the world. Players are rewarded by literally shaping the future.
  • Each era will have breathing room both before and after it to allow for groups to find additional adventuring spaces – as long as the end doesn’t contradict an established fact. Or, if it does, consider the difference between an accurate and an official history.

The Principles of the World

  • People are people, whether they’re in the past or the future. Most people aren’t good OR bad. They’re scared, jealous, loving, kind, and occasionally heroic – sometimes all at the same time. 
  • Your game doesn’t NEED a villain. It does need an antagonist whose needs and wants oppose the players. No good antagonist is evil for laughs. They do good things for a bad reason, or bad things for a good reason.
  • Violence has repercussions. Short-term or long-term, whether in terms of physical harm, emotional harm, or social status… others will notice.
  • Life is long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of excitement or danger. Skip the boring stuff. If it’s not important to the characters or the story, it’s not important to the game.
  • That danger doesn’t need to be extraordinary even if the external circumstance are (to us). Conflict that happens at human scale can follow the same patterns of jealousy, fear, and the like – whether they happened 30 years ago, or will happen 300 years in the future.
  • A mystery may be revealed to the players, but the wider world may not know. If a mystery is revealed, subsequent eras will face major changes.

What isn’t UX design?

To summarize Christina Wodtke:

User Experience Design is the design of:

  • The concept or model for the system (or product) and its organization and use.
  • System behavior, including feedback.
  • How data is ordered and expressed to users.
  • How the user interacts with all of the above, whether it’s a digital, physical, or voice UI, or something else entirely.

Also, this is a terribly boring discussion. But, if a designer is going to post this in public Slack:  

Well, my brain won’t let it go and I am going to spend my afternoon obsessing over it.

The UI is part of the UX that users actually experience. The UI is literally how a buyer will experience all of the other work you’ve done, and if it’s not accessible, readable, and usable – it doesn’t matter. The UX perspective takes the constituent parts of the interface, ensures the support the concept or mental model of the product, the information architecture, and the communication loops between user and product, and make sure they work. This applies whether your UI is a smartphone screen, the smartphone itself, a musical instrument, a book, a microphone, or a table at a restaurant.

Stop acting like UI is a dirty word and build it into your UX practice. If you don’t want to do UI, go be an accessibility advocate, a product manager, a developer or any one of the dozens of other incredibly valuable roles in the creation and release of a product.

In short: Get the fuck over it. Design your experiences end-to-end, or don’t be a designer.