Designing The Magical #3: Boxes and Confusion

“It’s hard to read through a book on the principles of magic without glancing at the cover periodically to make sure it isn’t a book on software design.”
– Bruce Tognazzini

In 1993, I was working in a Cancer Genetics research center in the daytime and performing in the evenings and at weekends. I had recently graduated with a degree in Cell Biology and was pondering my future. Should I pursue research science or keep performing? I knew it would be difficult to do both.

Then I read a fascinating paper by Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini, one of Apple’s early computer interface designers, in which he argued that, “Perhaps no field other than magic is tied so closely to the field of graphical interface design”.

Tog advised software designers to study the books and performances of great magicians and crucially, they should learn to perform some magic in order to become better designers.

I took him seriously and it changed my life.

I found a job in Interactive TV, first as a coder then as a producer. I tried to apply Magic Thinking to my work, considering it a kind of Design Thinking.

At first, I did this without mentioning what I was doing it to my colleagues. I was feeling my way, testing things out to see if they would work and I didn’t yet have the language to fully describe what I was attempting. I was exploring how the techniques of magic contain useful strategies that can be applied to many design challenges.

I developed a lot of games for interactive versions of TV game shows. I deliberately chose to work on children’s game shows because they were more interesting and varied in terms of game mechanics. Most game shows for grown-ups are based on a simple question and answer format but kid’s game shows will have crazy games with the children scoring points by doing things like ransacking a room or trying to knock their parent, who is dressed as a parrot, off a rotating see-saw. Trying to make interactive versions of these unusual games that the viewer at home can play while watching the TV show is interesting and challenging.

I wanted to introduce mystery into the games by hiding information. When information is hidden you can design how to reveal it and there are many elegant, fun, and captivating ways to reveal information. Revelations are the stock-in-trade of magicians. Designing revelations is a simple idea but one that is often overlooked by many software designers because the temptation is to give users all the information you can in one go.

To give just one simple early example: I worked on a children’s game show called Finders Keepers. In the game, contestants would “raid a room”, ransacking it to find a specific object. To allow viewers at home to play along during the Room Raid Round I created a series of 16 boxes along the bottom of the screen. If a player clicked on a box it would open and they would get a number of points. Most often the points would be around 50 but occasionally there would be 100 points or only 1 point in the box. This variation made opening the boxes exciting because there was the potential for a big gain or a big disappointment. The box would then close but remain empty until all 16 boxes had been opened, then they would refill with different points.

This simple mechanism was entertaining enough for one player but became very exciting with two players because they would have to keep track of which boxes their opponent had emptied. Three players became a frantic melee. Four players became sheer chaos and matched well the tone of the Room Raid Round on the TV show.

The core of the gameplay was a simple hiding and revealing of information. The tricky part that took the most work was getting the timing of the opening and closing of the boxes just right. Leave them open too long and there is not enough mystery. Close them too quickly and the game becomes too confusing.

The great magician Dai Vernon is often quoted as saying, “Confusion is not magic.”

Another great magician, Darwin Ortiz, adds, “Audiences are not easily fooled but they are easily confused.”

These are both useful statements for all designers to bear in mind. Confusion can, however, be entertaining when playing a game but it must be designed with a delicate touch. It is fun to be momentarily confused but confusion quickly becomes frustration.

These simple games, on a forgotten Interactive TV platform in the mid-90s, were among my first attempts to apply Magic Design to software. Over the next twenty-three years, I would learn that magic is not just useful for designing simple games but is at the heart of all design, all technology innovation, and all invention.

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