Playable systems: 3 principles for ethical product design

Alexis Lloyd
4 min readMar 31, 2020
Photo: Jorge Royan / Wikimedia

Originally published on cog + sprocket in April 2019.

One of the reasons UX design is such a compelling practice to me is that, rather than designing static artifacts, we design systems that shape the possibilities, expectations, and constraints for how people engage with the world.

That work, to shape how people engage with the world around them, carries a lot of power. (And as we all know from Spider-man, with great power comes great responsibility 🦸.) Increasingly, we are surrounded by digital products and experiences that abdicate that responsibility — that focus on short-term profitability over creating products that work well for the people (and societies) that use them.

So, what kinds of systems should we be creating?

I’ve been working with a framework that I call “playable systems”. Playable systems are ones which empower the people who use them. I use the term “playable” because I think that empowering products are ones that afford virtuosity, in the way that a musical instrument might. They can be easily approached by beginners, but can be mastered and played in highly complex ways.

How do you design a playable system?

The three principles of “playable systems” (this is what I’ve got so far, but there may be more!):

1. A playable system keeps the human in the loop

When we design with technology, we are often designing ways to automate tasks or decisions. However, it is critical that we don’t automate agency away from the user at the moments when they need it most. For example, FitBit came under fire last year when it released a period tracker that didn’t allow women to enter irregular periods outside of its assumed “normal” range. My favorite extreme anti-pattern is this video of a person unable to turn off his Nest Protect even though there was no smoke in his house (spoiler: he eventually shoves them all into coolers in a desperate attempt to muffle the noise). Whenever we automate a decision or make an assumption about what a user will want, it’s important to allow for human override.

2. A playable system is a…

Alexis Lloyd

Ethical design and weird machines.