• Weeks 389-390

    29 June 2020

    Another couple of weeks with my head down on Easington.

    It’s a challenging project to talk about, because of NDAs. But that’s somewhat the point of weeknotes: noting not only what I did, but how, and why. The job isn’t to share the details of what I was up to: it’s to share the parts I felt worth sharing as insights into process, or thought, or for me to remember in the future.

    The project has moved to a new section of exploration, which is involving less prototyping of working code, and is more about explaining ideas, possibilities, and illustrating processes. Some of this fortnight’s work has been finding ways to do this that Aren’t Decks.

    Slide decks aren’t inherently dreadful. They have a lot to recommend themselves as formats to encapsulate and preserve information. They combine images and words relatively well, they are often terser than long prose documents, and emerge not as a ‘primary’ artefact - “here is my research paper” - but as synthesis. That means they’ve gone through the mill a few times and are condensed, compact versions of an idea.

    But. The “distribution deck” is still very different to a presented deck - or even a writer walking you through the deck they will later distribute. Decks are relentlessly linear, which makes conveying ideas that may only ‘click’ after prolonged exposure challenging.

    A good narrative reinforces itself when it ‘clicks’ into place. The ‘aha’ moment for a reader shouldn’t be a single moment of discovery; it should also reverberate through each step of a narrative, revealing how they set up this particular ending. That may sound flowery and poetic, but it’s often true of research or design presentations: everything up to the reveal is preparing you for it. Of course, you are then either carried forward by the speaker without a chance to revisit it… or have to flick backwards through the deck.

    This is not really how thinking works. The moment something clicks may be different for different readers, dependent on how they think, where their attention is, what ways of transferring knowledge work best for them. Less linear formats let people pace their discoveries, repeat segments in more natural manners than ‘rewinding a tape’, and make re-examining content through new lenses more natural.

    In short: what are more interactive ways of delivering R&D that convey the experience of discovery, and a depth of understanding, better?

    One thing that came up as we tossed this idea over was Ben Eater and Grant Sanderson’s work on explaining quaternions. Try the first video to see what I mean. It may look like a video, but it is, in fact, a choreographed interactive page. There’s a timeline, and narration, and the narrator has their own cursor… but it turns out they are playing with a webpage, and you can play with it too whilst they talk. They even pause to let you have a fiddle. And you can continue to explore when they’re finished. This is a technically complex way of delivering content (and it’s also technically complex content!), but it radically changes the learning process compared to a static video.

    I am not making anything so sophisticated. But I am exploring formats more similar to Hypercard decks or hidden-object Flash games than just a PDF of a slide deck. To that end, I’ve been working with Phaser a fair bit. Ignore the ugly website: Phaser is, effectively, a Flash-like game engine for HTML5, via Canvas and WebGL. For me, it resembles Flixel a lot: an object-y, sprite-y game engine that lets you write ES6.

    I mainly fell on this as the easiest way to play with the idea I had. As it turns out, I could probably do a lot of it in the DOM with modern Javascript, but there’s something about using a tool designed for games, rather than documents, that changes how I work a little, and it made building the prototype I was working on relatively swift. The prototype delivers information, but it also was a way of prototyping content delivery. Already we have something that has pacing, “beats”, and can be replayed or re-explored to meaningful results.

    I am certain we will end up delivering a deck as well. I’m working on one now. But letting people explore an idea, rather than just reading about it, seems like an avenue worth pursuing further.