Friday, December 14, 2012

Last minute gifts for the design minded

Tis the gifting season for many us right now. Obviously I'm more than a bit of a design/tech nerd, so I thought it might be fun to put together a series of design-themed presents for people in our industry. I'm covering the full range of skill sets here, from newbie to guru, so hopefully there's something for everyone.

What is it?

Ideal gift for:
That co-worker who always puts together PowerPoint decks that are just slide after slide of bulleted lists. Zzzzzzzz.

There are way too many lousy PowerPoint decks out there in the universe. If you know someone who needs a kind but serious deck intervention, or even someone who's self aware enough to realize their slides are painful but isn't  sure how to fix them, then this book is a perfect gift. Reynolds make creating effective PowerPoint slides surprisingly easy. He also avoids unnecessary jargon and instead explains concepts in simple terms.

While this book focuses on slide decks, most of the concepts also transfer easily to e-Learning, page layout, and user interface design too.

Sidenote: Know someone who's got the concepts of Presentation Zen downpat and wants to move up to the next level? Give them slide:ology by Nancy Duarte instead.

What is it?

Ideal gift for:
Your team member who constantly complains that they "aren't creative."

I used to be an art teacher, so I've heard the "I'm just not good at creative stuff" line millions of times. Honestly, it's nonsense. All it takes to improve is some good instruction and commitment to practice. 

When I hear co-workers say "I just suck at design" I typically point them to this book. Ignore the horrifically bad cover (seriously, how did such a perfect design book end up with one of the worst designed book covers I've ever seen?) and buy this for anyone in your life who needs practical advice on what makes good design. Like Presentation Zen, this book is easy for newbies to follow and does a good job of demystifying concepts and terms.

What is it?

Ideal gift for:
Your friend who always draws ideas on scraps of paper that they inevitably can't find later on.

Have I ever mentioned my love for Moleskine notebooks? The paper is splendid, the binding holds up for the long haul, and they're just so enjoyable to write and draw in. They're pricy, but this is definitely a product where you get what you pay for.

Moleskine makes a number of specialty books for niche markets, and this is the perfect one for instructional designers. Each page has two small panels printed on it, which are perfect for putting together ideas for videos, e-Learning pieces, slide decks... heck, turn it sideways and you can even sketch out handout and workbook ideas. A scrap of paper is easy to lose, but chances are your giftee is going to have a much easier time keeping track of this spiffy notebook.

Sidenote: Know someone who's obsessed with using Evernote? Then here's a good gift idea. Moleskine just partnered with Evernote to put together a physical notebook that can be paired up with the Evernote app using the Page Camera feature. It's a great idea for people who constantly jump between physical and digital notes.

What is it?

Ideal gift for:
Followers of the Cult of Jobs.

Yes, it's a mirror that looks like a MacBook. It is absolutely ridiculous and clearly not licensed by Apple in any way or form. That said, it's the perfect size and weight for a portable mirror, so it actually does serve a purpose other than to collect dust. I have two and they make me happy for no sensible reason.

They're absurdly cheap on eBay, so consider picking up a few for Apple geek stocking stuffers.

Sidenote: They come in two colours (white and silver) and unfortunately the eBay listings sometimes show an image of one colour when the auction is for the other variant. Read the item description carefully.

What is it?

Ideal gift for:
Anyone on a Dev Team.

Know someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes one or more Adobe products? Get them a few of these Adobe Icon-themed pillows. Great for alleviating desk-related back pain or for angrily throwing against the wall when your software refuses to work properly.

Sidenote: This company also makes iOS mini pillows too.

What is it?

Ideal gift for:
Your hipster buddy who will just not stop posting photos of his/her brunch.

I'm guilty of all the typical Instagram-related sins, so I suppose it's not surprising to anyone that when I saw this mini projector on Kickstarter I jumped on backing it ASAP. Basically, it's a tiny battery powered projector. Once you have the projector, you can then order custom mini-slide wheels of your Instagram photos... you know, so you can project all those brunch photos on a wall. Yeah, it's another silly item, but I can't help but find it amusing. Plus, it's practically perfectly aligned with the aesthetic of the typical Instagram addict.

Sidenote: Found this idea after the Kickstarter funding period ended? Click here to go to the official Projecteo Facebook page instead.

What is it?

Ideal gift for:
Hardcore design nerds.

Pantone is most famous for creating a widely used standardized colour reproduction system. It's an industry standard for loads of products and the colour chips used by the system have reached iconic status in the design community. Yes, maybe that's a bit dorky, but hey, we all have our weird dorky thing that we love, right?

Pantone is clearly not run by idiots, so they licensed out the look and feel of their chips and you can now buy a number of Pantone-themed products. Since its the holidays, why not treat the design geek in your life to a set of these amusing branded tree ornaments?

What is it?

Ideal gift for:
Anyone who's ever had a particularly moronic request from a client/SME/boss... so, basically everyone you know.

Based on the hilarious website of the same name, Clients From Hell collects a large number of anonymously-submitted stories about astronomically stupid requests and conversations from people footing the design bills who clearly have no idea how anything works.


While this book is full of all sorts of depressingly-idiotic situations, it'll at least make the person who receives it feel better the next time their SME insists that Comic Sans is a professional font.

So those are my suggestions. If you've got any other ideas for design-themed presents, be sure to leave them in the comments.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What other media should you know if you're about to write a branched simulation?

I'm currently in the midst of rapidly developing a branched simulation at work. The timeline may be killing me, but the work itself is delightful, even in spite of the fact that it produces documents like this:

This is a map... just trust me here.
If you're not that familiar with branched simulations, think of them like digital versions of the Choose Your own Adventure books you may have grown up with. Basically, you get to read a bit of story, then the story stops and you get to choose from two or more possible options for what should happen next. The story progresses based on the choice you just made, and this cycle continues until you reach the end of your story branch. Because of all the opportunities you have to make choices, one branched story will have a large number possible endings.

So why am I using this type of storytelling for a work project? Because using a branched storyline in a simulation is an ideal way of letting a learner test out how the information they've learned in theory could actually play out on-the-job. Learners are given a real-world scenario, have opportunities to make choices, and then are able to see the results of their choices. When written well, a branched simulation feels immersive to the learner and can help them practice complex skills in an environment that's both close to real life AND low risk.

Branched simulations can used for practicing procedure skills, such as entering customer data into a computer system. A more intriguing option, though, is to use them to have learners practice soft skills, such as coaching or sales techniques. Seriously, what would tell you more about whether a learner has grasped, say, the interviewing content you just taught them: a multiple choice test or an immersive experience where they get actually conduct an interview with an applicant that actually responds what the player asks them?

That said, the more complex the situation you want to use, the harder it's going to be to write well. That's why it's worthwhile to look at some of the more successful examples of branched storytelling before you get ready to write your own. And here's where I'm going to suggest you look completely outside our industry and turn instead to mediums who have been doing this a lot longer than we have: books and video games.

The following is my own personal list of books and videogames that aren't just entertaining, they also offer some of the best examples of what you can do to create a successful and nuanced branched simulation. One that will entertain AND teach at the same time.

Title: "To Be or Not To Be: That Is the Adventure" (book)
What can I get out of it?: The basics!
If you're looking to understand the core basics of how a branched story actually works you could start with the Choose Your Own Adventure books. While they're decent examples of the basic mechanics of this type of storytelling, they're also dreadfully written (I just tried re-reading one as an adult. PAIN! SUFFERING!). You'll be better off with an example that works like the CYOA books, but is actually entertaining to read. So my suggestion is "To Be or Not To Be: That Is the Adventure" by Ryan North. It's a tongue and cheek retelling of Hamlet and it should manage to both make you laugh AND show you how multiple branches of a story work.

If you're reading this before Dec 21, 2012, then you can take advantage of the fact this project is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. If you need something more immediately, though, might I suggest an alternative: the story "Down to the Scum Quarter" by Garth Nix. It's equally hilarious and instructive. Also, he's recently made a PDF of it available for free on his website.

Title: Shadow of Destiny (Videogame - PS2)
What can I get out of it?: The basics... videogame style!
Time to dust off the console. This early-PS2 title was one of the first times I played a game where your choices had substantial impact on the rest of the game. I'll admit, Shadow of Destiny isn't that subtle about what actions in the game count as high-impact choices, but aside from that it's an intriguing look at what the consequences of the player's choices can be.

From a storytelling perspective, it's worth looking at because of how the drastically different endings play out. On your first playthrough you'll think you understood the plot. However, you've only got one piece of the broader story at this point. It's only on further replays that you'll see other sides to the story and realize how much more was actually going on than you initially suspected.

Title:  999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (Videogame - Nintendo DS)
What can I get out of it?: Understanding that all important choices don't have to be obvious
When you're ready for something a bit more subtle, try out 999. Much like Shadow of Destiny, this is another game where the story is set out so that it takes multiple playthroughs to understand what's happening. Unlike Shadow, however, the times you're asked to make meaningful choices aren't quite as obvious. There are a lot of dialogue choices to make in this game and a large number of them don't have any impact on the broader plot. Then there are a few that at first glance seem unimportant but turn out to be key in how another character responds to you later. The lesson here isn't that you should try and trick the learner. It's more that all choices in a simulation don't need to have the same weight.

This game also shows how to execute choices and gestures that can seem minor to the player character, but end up being much more meaningful for the other characters. Think about times you've done a small favour for someone that took little effort on your part but made a huge difference in the other person's day. 999 is a good reminder that you should consider including moments like these in order to make the simulation seem more realistic.

Title:  Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit (Videogame - PS2, Xbox, Windows)
What can I get out of it?: Dialogue pacing and forcing quick choices
In a real life conversation you don't get to just sit there and spend all the time you'd like determining the best answer. No, you have to think and respond quickly. Many simulations allow you as much time as you want to decide what to say or do next. Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit as it's known outside of North America) instead aims towards realism and actually has a timer start counting down every time a choice appears. Timer runs out? Well then, too bad. You don't get to make a choice anymore and the game just keeps going. Doing this too often keeps you from getting vital information and is detrimental to getting one of the better endings.

Seeing that timer tick down as you're trying to pick an option is stressful, and sometimes you don't make the choice you would if you were given all the time in the world to make your decision, but it's also a much closer experience to real life conversations. Since you're designing a branched simulation to help your learners make the right decision in the moment, not in a vacuum, then it's worth considering adding options like Indigo Prophecy's timer to your sim's dialogue choices.

Nice bonus to Indigo Prophecy? You can currently pick it up for a measly $6 online.

Title: The Walking Dead (Videogame - Windows, OS X, iOS, PS3, Xbox 360, 
What can I get out of it?: Remembering that making the right choice shouldn't always be easy
The most recently published entry on this list is also, by far, the most complex. The Walking Dead combines all of the elements of the previous games on this list: branched storytelling, varying weights to decisions, and timers on your choices. It ups the ante even more, though, by putting you in situations where the "good" thing to do and the "right" thing to do aren't necessarily one and the same. Out of all the branched dialogue games I've played this is the one that regularly gets just how complex human decisions can be. In order to make the best possible choices you have to pay careful attention to context, previous actions, and how the other characters around you currently perceive you.

If you need to learn how to create a branched simulation or storyline, this game should be your gold standard for what the genre can be.

So that's my list of games and books that can inspire you if you're about to write a branched simulation. I'll admit, though, that it's not remotely a full list. If there's a book, video game, or some other type of media that you think does a fantastic job of demonstrating the best of branched storytelling, then I'd love to hear about it in the comments section.