Playful Design — Design for pleasurable, playful and enjoyable experiences
Did you know that there is a framework to design for playfulness? It’s called PLEX . About a year ago I first found out about Playful Design reading the paper “An Exploration of Designing for Playfulness in a Business Context”¹ and I applied the framework on a project that turned out to be a great success. So I’m excited to explain the concept and benefits of Playful Design with a brief digression on human psychology. Moreover I describe the influence of Playful Design on user experience and how Playful Design can be evaluated.
The importance of ‘Play’ — Human Psychology
As far back as 1795 the poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller noticed the playful nature of people as a profound part of their behaviour:
“Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.” ²
It wasn’t until later that his observations were conceived under the term “homo ludens” that describes the scientific examination of play in a cultural context. Therefore play is not only a behaviour of humans and part of their culture but also an instinct. That’s why play should be seen as a play-character of culture.³
Simply put, play is in all of us no matter how old we are or which culture we are influenced by. Play amuses us while it’s also part of our behaviour. For that reason it is important to be mindful of the factor play when designing a product. CEO and Chief Designer Oki Sato from the architecture and design office Nendo explains this quite well in an interview:
„It‘s always about solving problems in a very pleasant, fun way. […] Of course function is important but in the end it‘s always about emotions“ ⁴
Learn more about my Design Philosophy here.
What is Playful Design?
Playful Design (also referred to as Playful Interactions or Designing for Playfulness) describes the evocation of playful behaviour or else the creation of a playful state of mind. This concept can be applied to anything, including serious or difficult topics.¹ Because the possibilities are nearly infinite, there is no single rule for achieving this playful behaviour or state of mind, but rather different design approaches:
- Utilization of game mechanics
- Implementation of elements that are associated with play and fun⁵
- Creation of simple, minor actions which provide enjoyment while the user can perform them impulsively with little effort⁶
These approaches for the design of playful interactions might seem rather general or even superficial — and they kind of are. However combined with the Playful Experience Framework (short PLEX) they are a really good starting point.
The Playful Experience Framework and Questionnaire
PLEX is a field-tested system that consists of 22 playful experience categories. It provides a foundation for the design as well as the evaluation of a product. The latter is measured with the Playful Experience Questionnaire (short PLEXQ). But first here’s a list with a short description of each category:⁶
As you can see not all of these experiences are pleasurable like “suffering” for instance. It indicates that playfulness experiences aren’t necessarily perceived as pleasurable. For the design of a positive experience it helps to avoid addressing those categories. Yet, depending on the product a carefully designed ‘negative’ experience can make the subsequent experience feel stronger. In mobile games for example the experience of loss can indeed support a great experience by boosting the incitement of the player.⁷
The Playful Experience Questionnaire is as much in its early stages as the framework itself. It offers a way to evaluate your product in regards to the playful experience. Instead of the 22 categories, the PLEXQ focuses on only 17 categories as “Eroticism”, “Fantasy”, “Simulation” and “Sympathy” displayed an insufficient reliability in their testings. The Questionnaire consists of three items for each playfulness category:⁷
Designing for Playfulness in UX
User Experience consists of the hedonic quality (= emotional experience) and pragmatic quality (= functional experience). As there are literally millions of digital products on the market, a good experience has become a fundamental precondition and expectation of users.⁸ Therefore the emotional experience has the potential to set a digital product apart from others. In that regard a pleasurable experience can be a differentiating factor. There are four types of pleasures which influence the pleasure elicited by a product: the physical, social, psychological and ideological pleasure. These four types provide the designer with a wide range of opportunities to design for pleasurable experiences. Moreover pleasures and enjoyable emotions help motivate the user to interact with the product, enhance learning and unfold the experience of a wider range of emotions.⁶
The Playful Experience Framework gives designers guidance for the creation of a product for pleasurable, playful and enjoyable experiences. Especially in user experience design the PLEX Framework is a very valuable tool, even if only used for experimentation or inspiration.
I’m curious, have you worked with the PLEX Framework already and if yes, what were your experiences? Tell me about your story — firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Lucero, A., Mekky, S. (2016). An Exploration of Designing for Playfulness in a Business Context. San Jose, CA: CHI EA ’16. https://doi.org/10.1145/2851581.2892332
 Schiller, F. (1795). Ueber die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen. In F., Schiller (Ed.). Die Horen (1st ed., pp. 51–94). Tuebingen, Baden-Wuerttemberg: J. G. Cotta
 Huizinga, J. (2013). Homo Ludens. Vom Ursprung der Kultur im Spiel. In: B., König (Ed.). Rowohlts deutsche enzyklopaedie (23rd ed., pp. 7–8). Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag
 British GQ (2019, March 21). Japanese designer Oki Sato on his playful approach to design. Retrieved from https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/video/bc/japanese-designer-oki-sa- to-on-his-playful-approach-to-design
 Salah, A. A., Schouten, B. A. M., Göbel, S., & Arnrich, B. (2014). Playful interactions and serious games. Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Smart Environments, 6(3), 259–262. https://doi.org/10.3233/AIS-140261
 Arrasvuori et al (2011). Applying the PLEX Framework in Designing for Playfulness. Milano, Lombardei: DPPI’11. https://doi.org/10.1145/2347504.2347531
 Boberg, M., Karapanos, E., Holopainen, J., Luccero, A. (2015). PLEXQ: Towards a Playful Experiences Questionnaire. London, Great Britain: CHI Play 2015. https://doi.org/10.1145/2793107.2793124
 van de Sand, F. (2017). User Experience Identity. Mit Neuropsychologie digitale Produkte zu Markenbotschaftern machen, Munich, Germany: Springer Gabler