An interview with Joe Lamantia


EuroIA is the primary European Information Architecture conference. In 2011 it took place in Prague, The Czech Republic.

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Ahead of this year’s EuroIA conference I caught up with experience architect, strategist and all-round nice guy Joe Lamantia. We talked about designing for experiences, games design, Killzone and monasteries.

Steve Baty: Joe, you’ve been working in User Experience design for many years. What is it that first got you interested in the discipline?
Joe Lamantia: Waaaaay back in the day, I wanted to be an absent-minded professor. I’d always been interested in the transformations that emerge when you bring dynamic cultural, technological, and social layers together, and disciplines like media theory and cultural studies seemed like a good spot from which to watch all the action.  Then the birth of the Web presented a perfect opportunity to participate in the creation of a new medium from the inside.  In terms of aspiration, what could be more rewarding than having a hand in building the world we all inhabit in the future?  I find that it is more fun to create than to critique, so I stayed on the ‘creating’ side of the balance every time I came to a career decision.  In retrospect, looking at my writing and speaking, whether on user experience or ubiquitous computing, it’s become obvious to me that I’m in between the creator and critic camps. I like to do both. So far, I’ve had opportunities to follow through on this synthesis, and I hope that continues to be the case.

SB: The connection between experience design and game design has been gaining interest in recent times. What is it about game design that we can use to inform the design of other types of experience?
JL: I wouldn’t say I have an insider’s view of game design, since I’m not a professional, and the only game I designed was 20 years ago.  (I used to make my friends play; the fact that some of us are still friends is a testament to the strength of the friendships, and not the game!)  The two things I try to take away from game design are a sense of wonder at the amazing diversity of experiences that people crave and want to engage with, and a broader appreciation of what people will happily accept as a natural part of those experiences.  At the more tactical levels of methods, design patterns, codified best practices, etc. the biggest lesson from games seems to me to be that many of the hoary old truths of experience design that are rooted in established disciplines like human factors / usability and information science, are easily trumped by considerations such as emotional and social aspects.  (Err, in all but life-threatening contexts, perhaps.)  I don’t mean to throw out the baby with the bathwater – properly minding our foundations is critical to creating good experiences – but there are wider horizons out there for how we should be working, and what we work with.  Lazzaro’s language of choice is a good example.

Why not borrow from game design to add richness to what seems a very hum-drum type of chore?  People take pleasure in mastering even the simplest tasks. Thus the rewards of ritual; say when cooking using traditional tools & methods such as whisking everything by hand with the just right amount of manual dexterity. We can design for the emotional rewards that come from the different levels of accomplishment and knowledge for even simple tasks.

Take the design of interactive voice response systems: I’ve observed that people who use the same IVR repeatedly often make a game out of going through a menu of choices as fast as possible by speaking memorized choices before the system prompts them with a question, once they know the timing and the choice trees well enough.  Why not take this into account by offering the option of issuing a string of several commands up front that will take you directly to the choice you need, and then recognizing you for getting it right?

SB: You’re recent article for Johnny Holland presented an overview of the work of Lazzaro. What is it about her work that resonates with you most?
JL: Nicole’s work directly connects the way that designers create experiences – our materials, processes, outlook on what’s possible, etc. – with the emotions that these experiences inspire or encourage.  Her language for design is close to fundamental, since it works at the level of choices.  There’s no ‘middle layer’ of abstraction that Lazzaro’s design language has to work with or through.  For example, we’ve learned much about the psychological and emotional impact of design decisions about elements such as language, typography, color, and line weight via research in cognitive science, linguistics, the vision system, etc..  But remember that these design elements are often heavily coded by culture and context; at different times and places, the people experiencing these elements will have different feelings about them, and the experience as a whole.  Designers have to work with these elements as they are mediated by cultural and contextual layers.  Lazzaro’s language of choice addresses a deeper level that is less dependent on context and culture.  If someone has the choice of fragging you or working together with you, very little of the emotional impact of that choice on the experience you have is determined by cultural and contextual factors.

SB: What are the parallels between the design of the social mechanics in games that we can draw for other social environments?
JL: Relationships are one of the four basic types of fun Lazzaro identifies, which means that we should be able to directly translate these ideas into the design of enterprise social environments.  Groups of humans will always have work that needs to be done. Why not structure the working experiences to directly provide social rewards in the same ways that games do, in addition to the usual pay or other sorts of incentives?  Looking further afield, new models for economic and cultural production like co-creation and distributed business (and we’ll see if social business catches on) all depend directly on well-designed social mechanisms for their basic functioning.  Far from being a game element, social mechanics that encourage feelings of cooperation (or competition!) are indispensable for the new ways that we’ll be working and creating in the future.  Here perhaps we finally see potential for cracking the glass wall that separates the commonly understood purview of experience design from activity and effectiveness at the levels of organizational structure and culture [that some of our leaders in the field have been pushing industry to recognize].

For a good historical example of how this all comes together, I think there’s lots to be learned from the monastic orders – Christian and otherwise.  These experiences were structured by mechanisms designed to create mixes of the different sorts of emotional rewards Lazzaro identifies, in addition to the fundamentals of providing food and shelter for their members.  Recall that the original monks were hermits who avoided society; the rise of the various orders reflects a substantial change in the basic character of the experience offered.  We have different language for the core attributes now – value proposition, brand promise, experience theme, what have you – but as designers of social environments, we could use the analytical power of Lazzaro’s model to examine the historical evolution of the monasteries, since all the major orders were carefully designed to create a certain sort of experience, each distinct from the others.

SB: For EuroIA you’re presenting a case study on Killzone. Can you tell us a little about that game?
JL: Killzone is a popular first-person shooter style game with a science-fiction setting, created by an Amsterdam-based studio called Guerilla Games, which is owned by Sony.  The Killzone family is known for offering an experience that’s rich in environmental detail such as graphics and physics, as well as an extensive character creation and advancement possibility space.  We’ll talk specifically about Killzone 2, looking at some of the many social elements that this release includes.

My role in the presentation is describing how Lazzaro’s language points the way toward the hybrids of game and social experience that Killzone exemplifies.  Reinoud Bosman -  esteemed former colleague and experience architect par excellence – takes the spotlight by looking at the structure and design of the Killzone experience in detail. Reinoud was directly involved in the design of those social elements, so his perspective is – pardon the pun – first person.

SB: Thank you for the interview.

Joe is one of the speakers at the EuroIA 09 conference, being held in Copenhagen (Denmark) on September 25 and 26. The theme of this year is “Beyond Structure”.

Steve Baty

Steve Baty, principal at Meld Studios, has over 14 years experience as a design and strategy practitioner. Steve is well-known in the area of experience strategy and design, contributing to public discourse on these topics through articles and conferences. Steve serves as Vice President of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA); is a regular contributor to; serves as an editor and contributor to Johnny Holland (, and is the founder of UX Book Club – a world-wide initiative bringing together user experience practitioners in over 80 locations to read, connect and discuss books on user experience design. Steve is co-Chair of UX Australia – Australia’s leading conference for User Experience practitioners; and Chair of Interaction 12 – the annual conference of the IxDA for 2012.

2 comments on this article

  1. Nice article guys. Looking forward to hearing more about your presentation for EuroIA, Joe. I was chatting with Eric Reiss last night and it sounds like it will be an amazing experience! :)

    If readers would like to hear more from Joe we had a conversation last year about his views on “Ethics and the Web”


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