All Work and No Play

By Gretchen Anderson

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Why don t we love the products we use for work as much as those we use for play? True, there are Crackberry addicts. But is having a highly efficient monkey on your back the same as loving your Xbox, or discovering a great Podcast?Can we make our tools more fun by making them more like playthings? And what can we learn from our toys that will make our work more engaging, productive and satisfying?


1. Serendipity Rules
At work, we think we know exactly what we re looking for. When we play, we often seek out things we don t know about. I can find DVDs on Netflix based on what my friends like, broadening my viewing habits far beyond the new release wall. Flickr shows me photos related to a random word. And random actually feels just right. With ever-increasing options to choose from, any other method of selection might actually feel overwhelming. Serendipity and affinity are also coming to the workplace. OSX s Spotlight and Google Toolbar already threaten to make browsing folders obsolete. Instead of lists of cryptic filenames, I can find files by almost any criteria I choose.

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2. It s Just a Game
Too often, work feels like a do or die situation. The things we play with are more forgiving and let us mess around without fear of failure. Both professional and hobbyist musicians have embraced tools like Reason or Ableton Live because they can easily respond to and evolve their ideas and motifs, or manipulate samples—at times stumbling upon new possibilities they hadn t conceived of. Most importantly, playing music with Live really is like playing, not operating the computer. Propellerheads Reason emulates real-life music tools, inviting people to interact directly with the music instead of typical software controls. Flip the instruments around and easily re-wire them together. Pulling wires is far less intimidating than wading through a series of dialog boxes.


Video games, where the journey is the destination, are another place we can find inspiration. Players really work to finish a video game because they enjoy the story or the quests, not to get it over with. Some gamers even feel a twinge of regret once they ve won and there s nothing more to explore. This exploratory approach holds a lot of possibility for the working world. Professional products that help people easily run different scenarios and discover possibilities will encourage a deeper engagement with our work, not just re-circulation of the same old reports.

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3. I Just Gotta Be Me
When we play we are free to be anyone we want. Creating and expressing this personality can be central to the emotional experience of playing. But at work, we often just fill the role that s expected of us. Why shouldn t we bring some of ourselves into our professional tools?

Cell phones already have custom ring-tones that can be as amusing or as irritating as the people who download them. Konfabulator Widgets deliver targeted bits of functionality that users call up as needed instead of wading through some bloated application to use a single feature. Maybe someday we ll be able to have it our way, even at work.

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4. More Than Meets The Eye
As a kid, Transformers fascinated me. Robots turned into cars that turned into planes. Each was different, yet the same. As the number of gadgets we have available grows, we can t just keep clipping them to our belts (provided you even wear a belt). Maybe we can call on the Transformers for inspiration?


Consider the Sony Ericsson S710a, a phone that swivels into a camera. The transformation improves ergonomics of the device for the two different tasks in a small space.

Perhaps we ll see more chameleon-like devices that are both more fun and less awkward.
We ve just begun to explore how we can change the professional world to reflect our more personal, playful lives. Clearly, playing and working are different. But bringing play practices into our 9-to-5 lives can make work more interesting, and promise to help us work smarter, better, and faster too.

Now all we need to do is get those CEO types to find their inner child.

Gretchen Anderson is an analyst at frog design's San Francisco studio.

Read more frog Design Mind. The column appears every Monday on Gizmodo.