Our world is increasingly tooled and automated by computers yet when many of us sit down to “work” on the machine we perform a remarkable amount of drudgery before getting to the creative meat (or tofu). The act of working on the computer machine should be as instantly engrossing as playing a video game.
I’m not talking about the “gamification” of work but rather how a well designed video game, whether it’s Candy Crush or Left for Dead, efficiently puts the user in a state of immersion, intense focus, produces intrinsic enjoyment, and provides fast, objective feedback on their progress.
When you load up a video game it knows where you left off, what you need to accomplish, what choices are available to you, meticulously tracks your actions, and most importantly tunes the challenge so it’s neither boring nor too difficult. Combining these elements together puts the user in a psychological state of sharp focus and total immersion in the present task. Positive psychology calls this state Flow. It’s exactly what should happen when you sit down at your workstation to write a novel, edit a film, or in my case, develop a video game.
When logging into your workstation it should: tell you what you need to work on, present you with the data you need, track what’s been done, and show you some measurement of objective feedback, all with near zero effort from you. This is a remarkably different experience than drilling down through a rain forest of folders, renaming files to something meaningful, mindless transcription of information into a data format, and logging what you just did into an email or project management system.
I have spent much of the last two years thinking about this issue while building an enterprise asset pipeline at High 5 Games, where I serve as Technical Art Director. Working closely with our genius talented Pipeline Technical Lead, Evan Harper, we have built a variety of tooled workflows for artists and developers where putting the humans in Flow is the prime directive.
Flow is not a luxury in the kind of production we do, it’s a business requirement. In 2014 we made a stunning 100 games for multiple platforms, and we do it at the highest entertainment value in the business. Our people must be highly focused and able to accomplish their work with minimal effort.
A business that is greased heavily with Flow will be operating at the highest levels of product quality, at the lowest cost, at the largest volume, in the shortest turnaround. This means that tuning the Holy Trinity of cost, quality and time finally becomes predictably impactful rather than an act of desperation. Tuning the Trinity before Flow is achieved has mixed results at best. Most of us have seen the 11th hour attempts at throwing more bodies at a project to get more work finished, or handing out fake due dates to make humans work faster, or desperately buying a bunch of expensive hardware/software to magically increase quality. It’s a waste of energy-time-money if your operations have poor Flow quality.
Flow is a business requirement in many fields. In live broadcast production, such as news or sports, the difference between a human fully engrossed in their task and one that is wrestling a computer into behaving could be a soccer goal that was not televised or the wrong teleprompter script being displayed to a news anchor.
Rather than using a sea of traditional mice and keyboards you see a whole ton of hardware controllers and software that do not exist outside of a broadcast control room. All this fanciness helps create a fluid connection between the computer as a tool and humans that need to rapidly make creative decisions. What is currently my favorite hardware controller of All Time is a heavily modded Nintendo Power Glove by animator Dillon Markey.
A more mundane example of computers enabling Flow is Square. I often chat with the merchants at my local farmer’s market, and am a huge lover of Lynnhaven Farm’s various goat cheeses. Lynnhaven was one of the first vendors in the market to use Square and it struck me how much more time they spent not shuffling for change or wrestling with a traditional credit card processor than the other vendors. This allows them to spend their sales energy on the creative parts; extolling their champion goats, new flavors they've concocted, and otherwise keeping their customers engaged instead of waiting, waiting, waiting for their turn.
Most of us in the universe of digital content production employ the same general use computers everyone else does and they are not tooled out-of-the-box for making the human users a creative beast. Everyone gets to customizing their workstation with domain specific software such as Adobe Photoshop. And perhaps will add some specific hardware that helps the Flow come out like Wacom tablets, highly color accurate monitors and, fancy video cards.
This is not enough! Your workstation still has no idea what you need to do, where you left off, what information you need and has no ability to process data without you telling it exactly what to do. Computers are fast and dumb until you make them fast and smart(ish). What will turn your workstation into a creative machine is software that’s written specifically for your workflow. The software might be a brand new application or often times is an extension to an application you already use.
Tooling your workflow in this manner does require time. Maybe a little, often times a lot, and also needs some programming skills, sometimes rudimentary and other times very advanced. In the interest of not wasting time/money when tooling workflows I ask myself a simple question:
Is this task creative?
Automate the task away. Automation generally means that a chunk of a workflow has been handed to the computer machine and does not require much human attention until it spits out a product at the end.
It’s very likely that when people perform this workflow manually it happens slowly, with a high margin of error, and will eventually turn the human into a misanthropic zombie. Don’t let this happen. Computers don’t have feelings and are exceedingly good at doing boring crap really fast.
Tool it so the task is neither too difficult nor too boring nor too slow. Humans loooooooooove using interactive tools that make impossible things possible and the boring tedium fast and easy.
Acting on this simple test will leave people with a variety of tasks that keep them in Flow, along with a high degree of iteration and turnover. Being able to seamlessly switch between interactive tools and automation is the difference between craft production and mass production. Interactive tools allow people to continuously impart their creative judgement into the task, whereas automation entirely offloads processing from the human to the computer on a massive scale. The computer is the only machine invented that can fluidly swap between these paradigms (I’m very curious to know if there are non-digital machines that can do this, please comment if you know of any!).
Go forth! Learn some programming, or find a developer that understands your problem domain and make that workstation creative!