Monday, December 15, 2008

Fixing what ain't broke

A short while ago, Hasbro forced the removal of a Facebook application called Scrabulous. I made my views known at the time. Since then, we addicts have had to look for other ways to scratch that itch.

There is an online version of Scrabble (not sure if that link will work, since it goes to an app within Facebook), but it's most unsatisfactory. It's clunky. The interface is bleagh. It's not available in the USA and Canada. And it doesn't notify you when it's your turn to play.

The other option is called Wordscraper (once again the link may not work). But things keep changing. First, it was the board layout that was both different and changeable, as a result of which some fairly mediocre words could rack up stupendous scores. There also seems to be an attempt to go all 2.0 on us, since you have the power to design your own board layout. I don't like this bit. I like the rules of a game to be constant, so that I can hone my skills within those constraints. I would hate to head out onto the squash court to find that my opponent has been allowed to redesign the court for the game, and I am faced with a completely different layout from that I am accustomed to playing on.

The distribution of the letters is different, as are the points values of many of the letters. When you have known all your life that there are 12 Es in a game, and that a Q is worth 10 points, it is disconcerting to run out of Es when only nine of them are on the board, and to see your opponent score 12 points for playing a Q.

The most recent change, which has got my most regular opponent and me grinding our teeth is that we suddenly find ourselves faced with racks containing 8 letters, rather than the usual 7. You would think that would open up a whole range of additional possibilities, but we have found otherwise. I have heard snippets of research (which I admit that I have never followed up) that the human mind tends to work well with visual groups of seven. I have no idea if this is the case or if this the reason Scrabble's 7 letter-racks work so well. What I do know, is that, trying to play a 'bingo' (making a word with all the letters on your rack, for a 50-point bonus) with 8 letters is far more difficult than with seven - and I have yet to manage it. We are playing much lower scoring words than usual.

Now, I suspect that the problem here is that the designers of the app are trying to stay one step ahead of a copyright/patent breach. When we're designing learning solutions, what's our excuse? Do we keep changing things, too - just for the sake of making them different, for keeping the user on his/her toes?

Do we have a valid reason for delivering this module in a different format and using different navigation than we used for the last one? If the answer is yes, good on yer! If the answer is 'well um', I'd suggest putting yourself in the user's shoes and revisiting the overhaul. Whose interests are you serving?

Regular readers of this blog know that I am all in favour of changing the way we do things, if we find a more efficient approach, and that I have no patience with 'this is the way it's always been done'. But equally, change just for the sake of change, just to be different, isn't really helpful to anyone.

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