Playful Loops

I have a confession to make: there are many, many shiny iOS apps out there, but my heart belongs to two, and only two. One is obvious, Noby Noby Boy. The other one is my dark secret. I love my Danish bank app.

You see, I want play to be political and revolutionary and bring up new forms of emancipatory expression. But I am also interested in smaller achievements, in bringing play to more modest forms of interaction, on letting play brighten up and make more bearable the drudging of interacting with our shiny glass surfaces. I am interested in designing more playful interactions with these terrible, absorbing machines we call computers, and that sometimes means admiring the design of a bank app.

I am aware of my duplicity, of the inherent contradiction: how can I call for the revolution, and yet love an app for a bank with an appalling track record? Because this app shows how we can turn small interactions into pleasurable interactions, and so, we could imagine how to extend the lessons learnt from this app into other applications. I don’t appreciate this design for the company that commissioned it; I appreciate it because it managed to turn a terrible interaction into a pleasurable one, one that makes us even appreciate a bank. A bank! Imagine what we could do if we learnt the lessons from this interaction design and we applied it where it really matters, where it could make a difference.

So why is this design so brilliant? First of all, it uses a great metaphor for a bank: the basic interaction resembles that of a lock, which you have to turn to access your data (though they don’t carry the metaphor through, and the input is still done with a boring number pad). But, most importantly, the interaction is enormously juicy: the “lock” is animated with springy physics, making it a pleasure to switch between tabs, and also to find the different services the bank offers. And that springiness also makes it possible to play roulette, spinning the dial to see if it falls on the right service under your thumb.

When I first started looking at the design of playful interactions, I was framing successful examples using the concept of juiciness, taken from casual game design. Juiciness is the positive experiential effect that an excess of positive feedback and good feel on a user’s interaction with a game. Of course, to define “feel” is complicated, and so I often just qualify it as the design of a continuous interaction in which the kinaesthetic expectations (that is, the ways in which our body expects something to react, or feel) of a user are always met instantly by the system’s behavior and feedback. So good playful design is both juicy and has good feel. But how do we integrate this into the experience of an interactive system? How do we design more playful services?

One of my favorite recent texts on interaction design is Dan Saffer’s Microinteractions, a catalogue book that identifies successful design by cataloguing the way small interactions with a system are designed. ADD AN EXAMPLE HERE. So good playful design would be that which adds juiciness and feel to key microinteractions. Therefore, step one in the design process should be to define what microinteractions are key for the user experience, in terms of feel, and then design those with juiciness in mind.

In the case of the bank app, the key microinteractions are those of accessing the different, varied services offered by a bank – the user needs to be able to access their bank account, the bank’s contact information, the currency converter, the office locator, and the transfer and payment services in a fast and intuitive way. The locker metaphor helps with intuition, but also provides a model for the juiciness: accessing each of the services is spinning in the lock to the bank account. And so, the main microinteraction with the service is turned into a playful interaction.

However, I am not satisfied with leaving it there. I think we can be better at understanding and systematizing the design of playful interactions. The process so far only tells us what to do, but not why. And so, I look again at game design and play theory to come up with a concept that can help frame this process.

In game design, we often talk about the creation of loops that engage the player in the activities of the game. Loops are repeatable sequences of mechanics tied to a particular action that is meaningful in the game. But loops are not exclusive of game design: many of our interactions with online services, via the browser or via apps, are loops: open the bank app -> find the currency converter -> perform an operation -> exit. Each step in these loops is a microinteraction, so in the interaction design of a service, a loop is a sequence of microinteractions that lead to the completion of the task the service is designed for. And so, the playification of a service consists on adding juiciness and feel to one or more of these microinteractions.

But let’s go one level deeper: how do we know which of these microinteractions can be turned into a playful one? I propose here a concept that helps identify and discuss potentially playful microinteractions: autotelic loops.

In Play Matters I argued that play has a negotiated autotelic nature, that is, we play for the sake of play, but that sake is contextual and renegotiated as we play. Most of the interactions we design for services are not autotelic, they serve a purpose: to complete a particular activity. However, if we dissect the service into different microinteractions, we will be able to design some of those interactions to have a double purpose: first, to satisfy a service requirement, and second, to be a toy to play with.

Looking at the bank’s app, the microinteraction of rotating the wheel to access one particular service is an autotelic loop: we perform that operation to interact with the service, but we can also just spin the wheel for pleasure, without a goal, and the system is designed to reward that interaction – reward not by giving points, but by making that optional interaction juicy.

And this connects back to Play Matters’ ideas on play and playfulness: to play is to appropriate the world for expression, to subvert its purposes and give it new purposes. And so, the design of autotelic loops is the design of openings for that appropriation, it is the purposeful design of cracks in seamless interactions so we can express ourselves by play.

There is still abundant work to do with this concept. So far, I have only identified autotelic loops that provide kinaesthetic pleasure, and I believe that other loops can be created that allow for the playful interaction with systems, or just with aesthetic elements. But I believe the basic skeleton of a process for playful service design is ready. The process would start by identifying the microinteractions that structure a service. Then, some of those microinteractions would be designed to become autotelic loops, that is, interactions that would keep their role in the larger interactual loop of the service, but would have a purpose of their own. That autotelic loop would then add juiciness and feel so just performing that microinteraction would be playful on its own, and within the context of the service interaction.

As I said, there is much work to be done here, but I particularly like this project. I spend too much time interacting with well-designed, boring services and systems. They all look sleek, but they all feel flat. Like many, I make many compromises, dealing with apps that just want my attention, all the time. I want some of them to be mine, to be silly, to be less rigid and “obviously” fun, and to be properly, ingenuously, purposelessness-fully playful. There is too much “canned playfulness” in service design, too much “gamification”, but no play. We need more silly pleasures, more uselessness, we need less drive in our app-managed life. We need all that is not needed, because with those excesses we build our playgrounds, we have our fun.

— This is the third and last post on the research I am conducting while on sabbatical at UCSC. It is also a post on the project that is both smaller in scope, and newer, so much may change in the following months. I regret nothing.


These ideas have been inspired by a workshop I run together with Gry Bauer at the IT University’s IxD lab in 2013. Thanks to the participants, Kah Chan, Anna VallgĂ„rda, Clint Heyer and Jarmo Laaksolahti, who called bullshit on all my bullshit. I hope there’s not that much left of it.

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