Dustin DiTommaso has spent nearly a decade chasing the perfect blend of form and function, while tackling wicked problems as an Experience Design Director at Mad*Pow. He’s particularly drawn to mobile platforms and touch interfaces, multi-channel experiences, customer lifecyles, transformative design, game layers and healthcare solutions.
Dustin’s diverse past clients include ESPN, Time Inc, Harmonix, Aetna Insurance, Oxford University Press and H&R Block while his work has been recognized by respected organizations such as Yahoo!, Macworld, and MITX.
See him at Big Design 2011 presenting Beyond the Badge: Engaging with Game Design Thinking.
Your talk, Engaging with Game Design Thinking, reveals the tools that game designers use to motivate players. How are these tools different from what other designers typically use?
There are a couple of big differences between the way User Experience designers and Game Designers define and approach ‘engagement.’ In broad strokes, Game Designers create interactions that challenge the player and require them to think critically and solve problems as opposed to traditional user-centered design where we want to make every interaction as easy for the user as possible – see Steve Krug’s book, ‘Don’t Make Me Think!‘ In this vein, User-Centered Design aims to remove any obstacles that get in the way of users achieving their goals and tries to make it impossible for them to ‘fail’ at what they are doing.
Game Design on the other hand, intentionally provides obstacles for players to overcome and occasionally fail at. These challenges when served at the appropriate difficulty level immerse, focus and motivate players to continue interacting with your game, service or product.
There are certainly more differences between the two design approaches which I’ll hit upon during my talk.
It seems like more game elements are creeping into non-game products and services. How long do you see this trend continuing? Will we ultimately end up in the crazy, gamified world that Jesse Schell envisions?
Well, we are definitely in the middle of a hype cycle with gamification and I think we’re sitting somewhere in the ‘Trough of Disillusionment.’ On the one hand, we have game-based marketers and gamification technology vendors selling it as a panacea for increasing profits and on the other hand we have detractors – video game designers and behavioral psych folks who see that sales pitch as exploitation and the mechanics behind the techniques as unfair Skinner Boxing.
That said, the current process of adding a layer of points, badges and irrelevant achievement awards cannot/will not last. The more systems superficially add these mechanics the sooner we, the users, will become adverse to them. There IS value here. Game Design Thinking is a tool we can use to effectively solve engagement problems and add value. However, more work needs to be done to refine the methodology of the discipline before it’s rendered useless or ends up in Jesse Schell’s nightmarish gamepocalypse world.
Overall, what will people get from your presentation that they won’t get anywhere else?
I think it’s a bit of a call to action. As designers, we can all affect the direction applied game theory takes as we incorporate the techniques into our toolkit. It’s up to us to design effective, meaningful, and engaging frameworks that truly support rather than exploit the people using our creations.
In addition, my research and practice aims to find that optimal balance between user centered design and return on design investment – an epic quest to create sustainable, meaningful interactions for users and also satisfy business goals.
Your career has had you working for some diverse clients. Tell us a little about how you arrived where you are today. Is there anything you would do different?
The work I’m doing today with Mad*Pow is the work I’ve always wanted to be doing with the kind of company culture I’ve been hunting for since I started my career, so I’m really lucky there.
My journey to Mad*Pow started with a brilliant, little 5 person MIT based interactive company called Botticelli Interactive. We did tons of forward thinking, high art meets science interactive projects with a focus on audience engagement, immersion, and learning. We also built early platforms for social networking communities and video sharing ala YouTube. Unfortunately, we were way ahead of the curve when we were building these and the company eventually collapsed. From there, I consulted and bounced around traditional advertising and marketing gigs, got fed up with the shallowness and lack of creating meaningful work, did a stint designing educational media, got fed up with the barriers to innovation and lack of aesthetic importance, ditched that and finally started consulting on my own terms. Shortly after, I met Amy Cueva on Twitter, did a speaking engagement together and joined the team a few months after.
I don’t think I’d do a single thing differently. I’ve been lucky enough to have opportunities to learn from great people, be part of rewarding design challenges as well as incredibly frustrating situations to formulate my own theories of what Design is, how that process works, and what the outcomes should be.
Who has most influenced you professionally and how?
We have a great collaborative culture at Mad*Pow and I learn from the folks around me on a regular basis so it’s great to be influenced and inspired by people I respect and get along with.
If I were to pick a single person that has influenced me the most, it would be my first boss and founder of Botticelli Interactive, Ellen Sebring. Ellen is a true pioneer in interactive media and it’s amazing to see the design tenets she so naturally considered a decade ago become things we all talk about today as essentials for Experience Design. Ellen understands how to create meaningful art that connects, inspires and teaches the audience that interacts with it. I would not be the designer I am today if it were not for her and I can still trace activities and thought patterns in my process today to what I learned and observed from her when we worked together.
Bonus Question: Android or iOS?
Let’s just say I’m an incurable Apple fanboy.