Prototyping: This Is Why We Have Nice Things

Innovation lives in the prototype.

At Inherent Games, we had a serious problem. We wanted to teach people the meaning of words—MEANING—but we didn’t want to use flashcards. That is, we didn’t want to show you the word apple in Spanish and then show you a picture of an apple. That’s not fun.

We wanted fun.

So, we came up with a pretty basic concept: let’s teach people word meanings through actual, physical networks. After all, words are ‘connected’ in several different ways. For example, some words are superordinate to other words (think fruit to apple). Some words are synonyms (think ball and sphere). Words can even be related in their physical relationship to each other, like whether or not they physically belong together in the real world (think chair and table).

Brilliant! Let’s make a game using semantic (meaning) networks!

We made a prototype and took it to a local high school.

Prototype I

Prototype I was a distaster.

We put together a network of words with different relationships to each other and expected players to memorize the network. We would then quiz them on their knowledge of the network. Because quizzes are fun, right?

Prototype I. Not our finest hour.

It bombed hard. Our users hated the prototype.

At the time, this made us sad. Now, it makes me very happy. We thought that we had invented something amazing, and that belief was immediately blown out of the water. This sparked our creativity.

Prototypes II-IV

For prototypes II-IV, we got more dynamic. We wanted to treat the networks like they were neural connections, so the design even include neurons and firing synapses.

The idea was that the user would be presented with three words. Two were random words, and one was a target word.

Players could press the target word and then ‘travel’ along a neural pathway, and their goal was to consistently choose the word that was connected to the previous word.

Prototypes II-IV. Still lacking.

Before you get all judgy, know this: it was more fun that the first prototype. It was dynamic, and it had promise. Of course, it also had all kinds of problems.

Our play testing sessions revealed that players had no idea where to begin. Three words were thrown at them, the target (or the one we wanted them to press) and two random words. But they didn’t know the words, so how on earth could they separate the target from the random words?

As I write this, it seems incredibly stupid that we didn’t catch this as we were designing the game. But, when you’re designing something, you simply don’t see those huge gaps. YOU understand the game, so everyone else should as well.

Prototyping helps eliminate this blindness.

We went through several iterations of this idea, and then we hit a wall. It wasn’t working.

We needed a big idea.

Nano Nano

Prototyping semantic networks gave rise to innovation: players should BUILD the networks.

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Nano Nano. The player builds semantic networks.

So we re-thought everything, and more innovations came:

Players needed a translation button! It would be a crutch, and they could use it any time they were feeling overwhelmed (but it would only last a small amount of time).

Players needed a clear target word! What if the whole game was embedded in a story, and they needed to fill in words from the conversations?

Players needed to visually see different semantic connections (synonyms, superordinates, physical contact). So let’s color code them!

The result is Nano Nano, now up on the App Store.

While it sill needs a few iterations, it is the result of lots of game prototyping.

Users informed our decisions, and prototyping gave rise to innovations that we NEVER would have come up with on our own.


This is why we have nice things.

The Gamification of Language


Language is naturally playful. It therefore lends itself to gamification in a lot of different ways.

At Inherent Games, we took this idea to an extreme. Our goal was to teach language concepts through gameplay. Not boring flashcards. Actual, legit gameplay. This required thinking about language in an entirely new way.

Let’s start with some basic language concepts:




Asleep yet?

Exactly. Learning nouns and verbs and yawn are critical to learning a language, but no one—NO ONE—wants to hear about nouns and—well, you get the idea. So we needed to gamilfy some really boring concepts while trying to teach them.

In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that people understand abstract notions—even categories like nouns and verbs—in concrete terms. Think of this way: Your brain naturally creates bins for abstract things, where nouns go in one bin and verbs go in the other. So why not treat these categories as physical objects?

Nanos were born.

Rather than EXPLICITLY teach categories, we would let players play with concrete objects and look to see if they IMPLICITLY learned to group those objects/words.

Here are some examples:


In gameplay, the player matches like shapes together, and when the shapes match, they balloon up so that the player can pop them. This frees more space for more nanos/words to drop down so that the player can build up a network (see future post) and complete the level.

This is but one idea of millions as to how applications can gamify an abstract thing like language. But there are LOTS of abstract things.

Even dealing with a mobile device’s interface is a pretty abstract thing—is it a window to the text, or do we touch the text?

The idea to treat abstract concepts as concrete objects is built on decades of research in Linguistics and Cognitive Science. This website will continually present new ideas of how to do so. Spoiler alert: A lot will relate to words.

Go Time.

There’s a huge gap between Linguistics and User Experience research. This site aims to bridge that gap.

UX could be dramatically changed through considering language on two dimensions:

People have strong, embodied mental representations—as evident in the language they use—and design decisions should adhere to these representations.

The language users employ when describing their experiences can yield insights into how products should be changed to optimize user experience.

Let’s start with an example.

English speakers readily understand time along a left-to-right axis. This is based on cultural conventions like writing, calendars, and timelines.

Despite this fact, blogs and websites continually adhere to a top-to-bottom progression of time, with the most recent above and the oldest below. This is not how English speakers naturally or conventionally think about time. It’s a modern imposition. recently employed an outstanding example as to how video queues could employ a left-to-right progression.


Notice the timeline at the top of the screen. The videos follow a left-to-right progression, with each video identified as a ‘stop’ along the timeline. This layout beautifully takes advantage of English speakers’ natural space-time topography, or their understanding of time along fine-grained physical axes.

Contrast this with YouTube’s approach.

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Ignore the fact that the Flight of the Conchords are clearly crushing it and hone in on the video queue on the right side. The next video to be played is in the upper right, and future videos are below. In other words, the queue makes use of a vertical, future-down timeline.

Though this progression is perfectly sensible for Mandarin speakers (who happen to conceptualize time along a vertical axis), it is not particularly natural for English speakers.

In addition, because teamcoco’s approach is a more natural way for English speakers to think about the progression of events (and videos), it simultaneously gamifies the videos, such that each video is a natural stop on a journey, and the user wants to complete the trip.

But this is just a hypothesis, and it leads me to this proposed UX study: Utilizing a natural left-to-right axis as opposed to a top-to-bottom queue, such as those above, leads to users more frequently completing all videos in the series.

Who wants to run this study with me?

Well played, Coco. Well played.