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Why work as a designer at Improbable?

24 July 2017

Nicolas Holzapfel is a designer who also heads up Improbable’s Design team. He is a fan of interactive narrative games.

Why work at Improbable as a designer? Speaking for myself, I joined the company to justify all the time I spent creating modpacks for Sid Meier’s Civilization. Whilst my job title is “UX designer” with a focus on the information-architecture and design-interaction ends of the spectrum, I recently started managing the team too (which means I leave my colleagues to it and steal all the glory!)

From the website to SpatialOS’s integration with Unity 3D, Design is responsible for the appearance and interaction flows of Improbable’s many interfaces. We also work on the look and feel of the company’s marketing communications, such as conference presentations, handouts for industry events, and company swag.

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Design at Improbable

There are four distinguishing characteristics of design at Improbable. The first is our user base of engineers. A key aspect of good design practice is immersing yourself in the experience of your users. This becomes more challenging when those experiences require years of training to engage with – but that’s part of the challenge.

Secondly, there’s the practically unlimited range of scenarios our product can be used for. This means it’s wonderfully challenging to find a single representative workflow to home in on.

…it’s liberating to be pulling something truly original out of the void.

The next is a fascinating one – we’re designing solutions to problems that have never been solved before. When you’re designing for something as familiar as a bank account or a checkout experience, there’s always a temptation to skip user research and rely on your existing knowledge to find opportunities for innovation. At Improbable, that’s not an option. SpatialOS is a new kind of product and while that reduces the number of sources we can look to for what does and doesn’t work, it’s liberating to be pulling something truly original out of the void.

Lastly, the people here are incredible. Everyone is highly motivated about the product, pleasant to work with and overflowing with enthusiasm for supporting design projects. Frequently they spot opportunities for improving the UX which makes design much easier. They constantly inspire us to push ourselves harder.

Life by Design

Recently, I’ve been mapping out where various planned account management features could live within the SpatialOS web app. This will allow us to ensure that implementing things feature-by-feature doesn’t cause future navigation headaches. It’s not the most “sci-fi” work I’ve done for Improbable but I love the planning aspects of UX design.

More typical design work on SpatialOS includes planning how the UI of the Inspector could better visualise our concepts. For example, how do you help explain something as complex and particular to our product as the workers’ control of entity components? In this case, I feel that the Inspector is like a game in itself – one where you play a god observing and manipulating your world. I think of SpatialOS workers as “cyber archangels”, holding up the fabric of the reality you’ve created.

With this kind of thinking I hope that eventually the interface will evolve into something that non-technical game designers can use too. This has been a key part of my motivation since day one.

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The Design team with Nic on the right.

While the Inspector work is among the most satisfying, I’d say that my biggest achievement at Improbable was actually a series of very straightforward meetings with the Web team managers and Engineering team leads. We simply got together and agreed some design processes. It wasn’t particularly challenging, and is entirely reliant on other people to implement, but I think it was probably the most impactful thing I’ve done in the long-term. Successful design is more about organisational structure and culture than it is about individuals.

Games as design inspiration

My association with gaming comes from being a fan of interactive narratives. Even the bad ones give the illusion that you’re really inside a story and not simply a passive observer. This has always been very compelling for me. I’ve found that I can’t enjoy games if there isn’t some kind of story attached to them. I know it’s time to take a break when I start dreaming I’m the game’s protagonist – I’m thinking of you Grace Nakimura from The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery.

It’s becoming a cliché that designers should also be storytellers, but it’s fair to say that there’s a certain overlap between interactive gaming narratives and design. Just as it’s easier to tell a story in a linear genre like film, it’s easier to understand and design an experience by thinking of a single persona in a single linear journey. However, the best designs have to make the leap into multiple journeys and perspectives that can take many turns. Since design hasn’t yet been replaced by a swarm of AIs on a cloud-based distributed computing platform, the trick is identifying which journeys to focus on!

Successful design is more about organisational structure and culture than it is about individuals.

A recent favourite is Telltale Games’ Walking Dead series (I’ve just downloaded the third season). Of course even the interactivity of Telltale Games are something of an illusion. Under the exhilarating veneer of choice is a linear narrative with only one or two meaningful decisions. For now, that’s the only way you can shove masterful storytelling into a gaming format. One day I’d love to play a game that expands your sense of the world in the way that great art does, without the vehicle for doing that being linear and predetermined. SpatialOS has the potential to make a contribution here!


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