Design Well-Informed Improvisation

Two Universes

You wake up in a small, enclosed glass cube. There’s a bed, a toilet, a radio playing music, and other bare essentials, but no door. You have no idea why you are here or what’s going on.

After a few minutes of looking around your tiny space, a calm yet creepy electronic voice begins speaking. The voice explains that you’re part of a testing program, and a moment later a door-sized, orange-tinged portal opens.

The beginning of portal

Portal, developed by Valve Software in 2007, is a first-person puzzle-platform game where you’re running around with a gun that shoots… doors. The handheld Portal gun allows you to create a doorway by placing both an entry and an exit portal. These portals can only be created on certain types of surfaces, and only a single portal pair may exist at a time. Using a combination of these portals, your beloved companion cube, and your brain, your character will experience a series of puzzles in test chambers where the goal is simple: get out – don’t die.

That’s the literal minimalist description of the Portal universe, but it explains little about how you’ll survive that universe or what makes it fun. To understand the universe where Portal exists, you have to play it, and then you’ll discover two things: it is a wildly entertaining place, and, while it is a game, it’s a game full of well designed lessons that teach you how to learn.

The First Universe

Portal is a nerd fantasy. You’ve got this gun and when you blast a wall with it, you literally rip spacetime wide open with an entry portal. Blast another wall and there’s the other half of your portal.

How. Cool.

That’s the beginning of the cool and the simplest part of the game. As you progress through the increasingly complex puzzles, Portal does something even cooler. It teaches you the game, it teaches you how to improvise solutions to the puzzles, and it eventually makes you a master of the Portal gun and its associated physics — without a single page of documentation. You learn about the Portal universe intimately, but you don’t notice the learning because you’re too busy playing.

Here’s how…

Sandbox Learning

In addition to not knowing what the hell is going on in terms of the plot, the first time you play Portal, you have no idea how to play it. Like all games, the initial levels teach you the very basics: how to move, how to pick up an item, and how to use items to get things done. Yes, there is a heads up display indicating how to move, but it’s up to you to learn. Oh look, when I put the cube on the button, it opens the door… to where? The plaques at the beginning of each level seem important, but I don’t know why. Why do I feel something sinister is going down?

The mystery of the player not having a clue what the hell is going on is the initial incentive to learn. It’s the desire to discover the story that situates the player in the Portal universe. It’s a difficult balance to strike in designing a game or application. How much do you explain versus how much do you let them discover? Too much explanation and you get this:

iPhoto's iPad Help Vomit

Too much reliance on exploration and they may never discover what they can actually do. I’d include a great example of a game that was designed in this manner, but I can’t and that’s the point – you never played the game enough to understand and remember it.

Atomic Chunks of Understanding

Subsequent test chambers continue to clearly demonstrate additional rules of the Portal universe:

  1. Place a cube on a big red button to activate a switch.
  2. Portals have two sides. One end is blue and the other orange. You can enter and exit from either.
  3. Nothing can be carried with you from test chamber to test chamber.

The discovery of these rules is paired and reinforced with increasingly complex puzzles that continue to teach the player about the increasingly foreign physics inside of Portal. What happens when I enter a portal that’s on the floor, but exits on the ceiling? Which way is up? Success is not measured with points, timers, or headcrabs. Success is measured by the satisfaction you receive when you use the mechanics you’ve incrementally learned to solve the puzzle and exit the chamber in a not-dead state.

Testing, Testing, Testing (And the Second Universe)

As the game progresses, the increasing complexity of the puzzles introduces a bevy of hazards, including high energy pellets, goo, and turrets. The goal remains the same: get out – don’t die. This is a tricky inflection point for any game: the arrival of the puzzle which is no longer a straightforward challenge, and I believe Portal’s developers have solved for this moment in two ways.

First, Valve play tests the hell out their games. They are intimately aware of when a chamber is too laborious, too complex, or introduced before the player has learned the lessons they need to satisfyingly solve the puzzle in a reasonable amount of time. This is essential testing that must be performed again and again to find a delicate balance providing a sense of progress and accomplishment with just enough challenge.

This is a critical inflection point where the user is weighing the following: is the amount of investment I’ve made to date worth banging my head against the screen trying to figure out what to do next? An application like Photoshop doesn’t do this type of testing because they know you’re going to be committed to figuring out the challenge because you plunked down $700 for the privilege of owning Photoshop.

Yes, I’m going to compare Portal and Photoshop. Yes, they reside in two entirely different universes with entirely different motivations. This is about how these two universes should collide and that means what I’m really talking about is gamification. There’s a reason I didn’t mention this until paragraph 17 because there are a lot of folks who think gamification means pulling the worst aspects out of games and shoving them into an application. It’s not. Don’t think of gamification as anything other than clever strategies to motivate someone to learn so they can have fun being productive.

See, whether you’re developing a game or an application, you want to your users to experience…

“The Moment”

Inevitably, you’re going to need to make a split-second decision in Portal. The floor will literally be vanishing from under your feet and you’ll have no time to consider your options; you will just improvise. It’s these moments of well-informed improvisation that I believe are Portal’s greatest accomplishment and best design. See, while you were busily having fun you had no idea that you were becoming an expert in the ways of the Portal universe. You now have experience using each of the individual tools and their behaviors to be able to combine them to handle the unexpected. The result: you are now able to effectively deal with novel and unknown situations.

It’s incredibly satisfying to sneak out of a tight spot by performing an action you didn’t know you could do, but created instinctively because of your experience.

That’s how I want to learn. Don’t give me a book; I don’t want a lecture, and I don’t want a list of topics to memorize. Give me ample reason to memorize them and a sandbox where I can safely play. Test me when I least expect it, shock me with the unknown, but make sure you’ve given me enough understanding and practice with my tools that I have a high chance of handling the unexpected.

Mastery is Well-Informed Improvisation

When someone raises their hand in that design meeting and suggests gamification, you have my permission to stand up, walk over, and poke them in the eye. But just one eye. While it’s likely they are merely parroting a buzzword they heard from someone else, it’s not pure buzz. Games like Portal have something to teach anyone interested in the motivation surrounding learning.

A video game has a very different goal than Photoshop. A video game is designed to be pure entertainment, while Photoshop is a tool by which you get work done. A game designer knows that if a game isn’t both immediately entertaining and usable, the folks sitting in front of the Xbox 360 are going to stand up, toss their controllers on their beanbags and declare, “Screw it.” Worse, they are going to tell every single one of their friends about this gaming disaster because they feel stupid for wasting their time and money on something that was supposed to be fun, but turned out to be lame. This is game death.

Photoshop’s goal isn’t entertaining unless you think the national pastime of bitching about Photoshop is a sport. Photoshop has no points or leaderboards because Photoshop is a tool and the perception of tools is that you must be willing to supply blood, sweat, and tears in order to acquire the skills to become any good at using them.


Make a list. Tell me the number of applications you use on a daily basis where there is a decent chance that you’ll end up in a foaming at the mouth homicidal rage because of crap workflow, bad UI, and bugginess. Is Photoshop on that list? Yeah, me too.

The plethora of online Photoshop tutorials demonstrate its power and its flexibility, but I believe they also demonstrate its poor design. Think about it like this: what if each time you plunked down in front of World of Warcraft, you had to spend an hour trying to remember, wait, how do I play this?

Great design makes learning frictionless. The brilliance of the iPhone and iPad is how little time you spend learning. Designers’ livelihood is based on how quickly and cleverly they can introduce to and teach a user how a particular tool works in a particular universe. In one universe, you sport a handheld Portal gun that cleverly allows you to interrupt physics. In a slightly different universe, you have this tool called a cloning stamp that empowers you to sample and copy any part of a photo.

Both are concepts easy to initially understand, but eventually tricky to master. One comes from a game and another comes from an application, but the universes and names aren’t important. When you master either, they both feel like magic.

Game designers have a different set of incentives to make their tools easier to learn via sandbox and atomically chunked learning. They may obsessively play test their games looking for user frustration earlier, but whether you’re leaping through a portal or creating masks of transparent elements in Photoshop, both use cases strive for a moment where you can cleverly and unexpected solve a seemingly impossible problem on your own.

Game designers and application designers might exist in different universes, but there is no reason one universe can’t teach the other.

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32 Responses

  1. Great article! I really enjoyed Portal as well and you’re 100% right about the learning process. It’s also the kind of thing you only notice after playing the entire game.

    Now the issue I see in gamifying a tool (like Photoshop for example) versus a game is that the game starts with a blank slate (user) whereas the tool doesn’t.

    Unless we consider we can hold Photoshop’s users’ hands throughout the entire process of learning about all atomic features, we’re comparing apples with oranges. A new Photoshop user likely sits down with initial expectations and goals far beyond his Portal player homologue (who sits down to have some fun).

    Attempting to translate the process directly to a tool such as PS is like showing a new Portal player the last puzzle (he’ll be really excited!), then throwing him in that puzzle and make him figure it out. He’ll probably have to go watch tutorials, just like the PS users do.

    You’re on to something here though, most tools have a lot to learn from games in terms of user experience and learning curve. Thanks for the good read 🙂

  2. How does minecraft fit into this dichotomy?

  3. I’d like to go on record and say that I’m sure Minecraft does fit nicely into this discussion, but while I have tinkered with Minecraft, I have not played it because it terrifies me.

    My fear is if I start playing it, I will never write another thing, get a divorce, and find myself homeless.

    But, yes, as a sandbox game, I’m certain there are important design lessons there.

  4. Lincoln Russell 12 years ago

    Minecraft is the Photoshop of games. It assumes you’re willing to use a wiki to figure out how to play. It’s new-user experience is awful and they don’t care because they already made an insane amount of money on it and Notch moved on.

  5. Leonardo Herrera 12 years ago

    Hm, Photoshop.

    Never get to learn it. I’ve tried it lots of times.

    Now, I remember a small application called Paint Shop Pro. It was so easy to use, and quite powerful. However, it got Photoshop envy and copied all the wrong lessons. Now it is just a footnote in the Corel zombie catalog.

  6. Oluseyi 12 years ago


    With applications, for the overwhelming majority of users, there is an immediate productivity goal most of the time when a session is initiated. “Playing around” just to learn Excel is not a common user scenario (outside of a classroom or training course). Under those constraints, how useful is “gamification” as an archetype, when games have the luxury of little purpose beyond learning to play and beat them.

    I sneer at most uses of the term “gamification.” It’s not completely useless – there are a few scenarios in which it can encourage or enable particular outcomes without patronizing the user – but it has much less to teach application designers about user experience than gamer geeks would like to believe.

    Business/productivity/application software developers need to get better at UI/UX design, yes. But they are working under very different constraints than game developers, very different tolerances, and it is those differences that make the auto-didactic design principles of the latter less than useful to the former.

  7. Great article! How do you feel about the gaming feature of MS Office 2010?

    Here is an example of a game that only relies on exploration: (or take practially any game from before 1995)

  8. I disagree totally on Minecraft and I think it fits into the “Portal universe” that Rands describes pretty well. Yes, there are plenty of things that it would be easier to do with the wiki handy but you can easily start the game and get into it with no instruction. Punch some stuff, get some dirt and wood, build a house, avoid the monsters. That’s it for the first day. You’ll _want_ to go get more recipes to make things easier but it’s nowhere near the Photoshop “Must find Youtube tutorial” for every little thing. It leads you in, you want to do more, there’s plenty more to do, then before you know it you’re building a replica of your hometown and have forgotten to eat.

    And to be nitpicky; Notch moved on but left a bigger team of great people to work on the game. It’s getting better all the time.

  9. The thing about Minecraft is that you can just mess about for as long as you like – You always respawn, you can often get to your old stuff, and you can have a lot of fun just exploring. By then you’ll have heard about all the cool stuff you can do as well, and checking out the wiki becomes the obvious next step.

    But yes, Minecraft really needs an introductory phase.

  10. Michael Beatty 12 years ago

    I would say that roguelikes in general fit into the “learn through exploration” (or “give them nothing take from them everything”) school of game design.

    Nethack is probably the ultimate example. A flowchart of nethack gameplay is a million different paths, and all but one of them end in varied and creative player death.

  11. Bark Golgafrincham 12 years ago

    Great, great article. I firmly believe that game developers have a fundamental understanding of usability that business software developers rarely contemplate. I wrote about it in the blog linked to below… My four year old zips around Roblox and invites friends and sets up “private servers”, but grown ups can’t enter an order into SAP withou a week of training. Fail!

  12. Great article.

    I don’t like your Photoshop analogy though.

    It’s like saying: this hammer and chisel should be easy to use. I better be able to hammer out the Nike of Samothrace in 30 minutes or this things going in the damn garbage.

  13. I think Photoshop should always strive to be more elegant, but a lot of what you’re talking about with your comparison to Portal is the learning experience, as opposed to the experience of working with it.

    My personal philosophy on interface design is that apps should strive to be as usable as musical instruments. The ideal is that you can rely on muscle memory exclusively without having to stop and think or fiddle around. The more intuitive and obvious, the better, but those qualities should be subservient to keeping the interface fluid and direct.

    Compared to other image editing apps, I think Photoshop does fairly well in this regard. Adobe’s hotkeys, along with their cursor and icon language are some of the most sophisticated in the industry. The thing is though, no matter how elegant the interface, the more complex the toolset is, the longer it will take to learn. Just because it takes a long time to learn to play an instrument doesn’t mean that Fender and Baldwin should build gamey tutorials into them. There is a whole industry dedicated to music education. Likewise, there is already an industry dedicated to graphics software education. I don’t think this is a bad thing.

    Having said that, Photoshop could be better. But I think comparing it to Portal misses the point. Photoshop isn’t bad because it’s hard to learn, it’s bad because it’s too abstract. There are too many modes too many processes that require dialog boxes and indirect manipulation. But this isn’t solved by incentivizing the learning process, it can only be solved by changing the whole interaction model. I think that adopting touch-based interfaces is a great opportunity for this kind of drastic rethinking. I look forward to getting an iPad with iPhoto so that I can see Apple’s take on it.

  14. Aaron Leiby 12 years ago

    I think Rasmus is referring maybe to – adding Achievements, etc. to word processing software, etc.

    Back in the 90s we had stuff like which I personally always found annoying since they actively kept functionality hidden until you had used the existing tools for a while. (It may have actually been one of their other tools, or something similar by another company, I can’t recall.)

  15. Bruce Bullis 12 years ago

    Excellent piece.

    I do think your ‘bullshit’ call was overly-venturesome, in one respect: one shouldn’t have to pay in precious bodily fluids to learn the _tools_ of the craft. But one should expect such tuition to actually _learn_ a craft.

    Playing Portal is an end in itself; Photoshop is (on a good day) a tool that enables heretofore-unachievable artistic expression.

    Expert users want very different things in their UI. Features which seems arcane or superfluous to many are a life-saver to someone. Take away someone’s favorite keyboard shortcut, and they start the next site [using Photoshop].

    Right or wrong, there’s a sense of entitlement that comes from buying an expensive product; “What do you MEAN I have to [do something first to unlock behavior] before Photoshop will output 6-color separations?! I want a refund, gimme your manager!”

    I hunted down the first time I’d seen something like what you described tried; Convolver.

    Within the Adobe stable, I think Lightroom does a remarkable job of introducing its key concepts to the user, then getting the hell out of the way. Ableton Live rewards creative experimentation exceedingly well—I can’t count the times I’ve wanted to do something, plinked around in the relevant parts of the UI for a while, and found “Yep, that’s just how I _hoped_ it would work.”

  16. Aaron Davies 12 years ago

    Too much reliance on exploration and they may never discover what they can actually do. I’d include a great example of a game that was designed in this manner, but I can’t and that’s the point – you never played the game enough to understand and remember it.

    sounds like Myst to me…

  17. I love the article but it made me think of how many Tutorials I have quit because I launched the application to do something right now not learn how to do it on another picture.

    Then I thought aha, I bet the system could guess what I was trying to do and help me with that… “I see you are trying to write a letter”… CLIPPY!!!!!

    There is something here though in making the process a) easier and b) about what you were trying to do in the first place.

  18. Byron Clark 12 years ago

    Borland’s Paradox database was very good with helping you get things done. When I would need help, pushing F1 would bring up help, usually in context with the explanation for the function or command. No hunting around like MS Excel. Boy, do I miss Paradox.

  19. Great post. Interesting that the Portal 2 map building tool was released this week also. A game that makes learning fun now makes content creation fun as well. Maybe someday Valve will release an enjoyable and intuitive piece of software that replaces PhotoShop as the de facto image editor.

  20. Ben Rosengart 12 years ago

    Be nice if the XCode team saw this.

  21. It seems to me that you could use this idea to slowly build an interface as a user becomes more familiar with it. In the case of photoshop, the interface would begin with nothing more than a canvas and a few tasks for the user to engage in. When the user completed those tasked, new tools appear for them to work with. Of course, there should always be the ability for a user to jump into the full-blown UI anytime she likes, but this also might allow for a user to stop the UI from becoming more complex than they wish. Maybe I just want to use the canvas and color adjustment tools for a few weeks before I get introduced to anything new. Additionally, this would help designers of these apps take a step back from their ideas and consider what the most basic aspects of the UI really are. After watching the interface build through a tutorial, a designer might be inclined to think that the canvas could do more just on its own. One of the greatest features of Acorn (a good Photoshop competitor) is not discoverable. You can change the resolution and size of an image by resizing the window while holding down the command key. It’s an awesome feature, but you really have to look for it to find it.

  22. Interesting article, but I thing there is a deeper parallel and benefits to be drawn if we examine “expert use” of games and business applications and not tutorials.

    Most business application users can be expected to use the application for potentally years and spend serious amounts of time with it. The initial learning curve of the first months is almost irrelevant when you look at something with the ubiquity and emplacement momentum of ms-excel for example.

    However, win you get to the “End game” the differences in UI design and accesability quickly become apparent. Look at a raid leader’s UI from WoW, they have timely, contextual, and deep access to a stunning amount of data. Multiple contextual communication lines to relevant people. There are some incredible UI design ideas that are being tested by essentially amateurs here, and many have been shut down for being TOO good, and making things too easy.

    Draw your own parallels to MS office….

  23. I think you are over simplyfying things a bit here. A stark difference between Portal and Photoshop is that the Portal designers get to manufacture the players goal. Let that sink in for a moment. It’s a huge difference.

    Due to this difference, of course Portal’s designers can use great game design to teach the user incrementally in a way that’s on the path to the goal for each level, never too hard, never too boring, rewards all the users “I rock” pleasure sensors, and importantly, is never “off task”.

    The designers of photoshop and other business applications don’t have that luxury. A photoshop user launches the app with some goal in mind (design a button for my iOS app, remove Granny’s pimple from the family photo, crop out my ex, put a Kardashian head on The Incredible Hulk…) that the designers cannot possibly fathom. And it’s any one of the 10,000,000+ things you can do with photoshop (so asking the user is not really going to work).

    Users get annoyed with even the most well done hand holding when it’s leading them down a path they have no interest in going down at the moment. So even the best tutorials and learning experiences in applications can be annoying since they don’t help you do what you want to do right now.

    The only path forward it seems is towards, simpler, single purpose applications that do a much wore limited

  24. Oddly enough, I’ve always felt that Photoshop was easy to use.

    But perhaps that was because I started by using version 3.0 – as a kid with plenty of time on my hands.

  25. gruntlr 12 years ago 5:55 into that video is a much more entertaining example of everything you’re trying to say here… and it’s some nerd from newgrounds. unless i’ve missed your point.

  26. gruntlr 12 years ago

    reread your article, i think i missed the point. link’s still relevant though

  27. When you hit that A-ha moment in Portal, you can finish a computer game.

    When you hit that A-ha moment in Photoshop (this might take a few years) you can literally make a career out of it.

    I don’t think Photoshop is hard to use but that’s because I’ve been using it for 10 years.

    Mocking the complexity of iPhoto on the iPad is unfair because it’s the first application trying to do something advanced on a touch platform with limited capabilities, no keyboard input, no mouse. They are exploring new ground which should be applauded.

    The people who had their A-ha moment with iPhoto for iPad now have a powerful tool. An application like Snapseed for iPad may be easier to use but it also doesn’t have as much features. If you only have 1 feature, an app is going to be simple (think the first iDVD).

    What is the best way to make an interface learnable? A certain crowd will want documentation, books and videos. Another crowd wants to be guided within the application.

    I think most of it depends on whether you’re going to do something 100 times or once. If I’m playing a game I want to be guided by the game. If I’m cropping a photo in Photoshop I want to be able to hit “C” for the cropping tool because I’m going to do that a gazillion times in my life.

  28. Timbo Jones 12 years ago

    I sure hope the day comes when this gamified process of teaching hits education. I think kids could learn a lot of the basics, solve big problems and find more relevant challenges through video games.

  29. i share your ambivalence about gamification. On the one hand, understanding how people naturally work and learn and designing to engage that makes for sublime experiences. On the other, most people use gamification to trick or cajole people into behaviors, rather than engage them meaningfully. So – gamification as a ploy or as a gateway. Hypnosis or self-actualization. As in most things, intention matters.

  30. I think that the key difference is that Portal starts off easy and steadily turns up the difficulty. Imagine if Adobe added an official “game” or tutorial that would slowly walk you through all its features and made a game of it. That could be a good start, and if I knew that they did this I might even consider buying it.

  31. Regarding Minecraft, the version they’ve done for X Box have reduced that reliance on wikis.