Saturday, September 29, 2012

Operating experiences

At a recent ops evening, I realized that there is a big difference in the experience of a session that is dependent on how familiar one is with a railroad, layout or group of people. What made me consider this is that we had a guest operator that evening who is an experienced and well-known modeler and operator familiar with the prototype of the layout we were operating on, and I bet his experience was completely different than mine.

I've been operating on this particular layout for a few years, and I have worked a yard job several times now. This week was the first time I was able to operate this job 'in the zone' and not really have to put effort into what I was doing, but rather I found myself concentrating on how I was doing it.

I'm familiar enough to now know which trains do what, how they effect (or don't effect) my job, where the yard limits are, where industries are located, what to watch out for and when it is good to interface with other jobs, etc. Because of this, I was able to plan my work. Not only think about things in terms of what order should I do them, but also how should I get this from here to there, what makes sense to do at the same time I do that, how can I use that run around section most effectively, how can I keep working when I know there will be other people in the yard, etc. It made for a smooth evening and the satisfaction level was high.

Now I imagine our friendly visitor was having just as much fun as I was, but I'm betting for different reasons. He was not familiar with the schedule nor methods of doing things, and had a crew member working with him to help smooth over these things. It may have been a bit of a disjointed experience, since he had to break from operating the model several times during the night to get instruction and feedback on what was going on. He probably wasn't in the zone.

But, he was probably experiencing a different sort of enjoyment that stemmed from his greater knowledge of the prototype (he knew what the characteristics of the trains were better than I do), the prototype's procedures and translation into our operating rules, how this section of the prototype fits in relation to his layout (he models the same prototype), etc. On top of this he was in the throws of the interesting and challenging situation of learning new things, being around new people, and seeing everything on the layout for the first time. This all combined for an equally enjoyable evening to mine (unless he was lying), but his was a completely different experience. I'm guessing his evening was more exciting than mine, but that mine was probably a deeper overall experience.

So what might be learned from this bit of thinking? Several things leap to mind in terms of how a session and a layout are created and even how a layout may evolve its methods and operations over time. The obvious thing is about creating job situations that can fit different levels of experience and how one translates that to regular operators as well as for visitors. Explaining a few key things to a newbie can enhance the deeper satisfaction of a first session, and new items for old hands can bring new challenges and learning back into the picture to keep sessions interesting. The dissemination of knowledge about how to operate a given job on the layout could be gathered into a document (such as tips and tricks on how to operate the yard), that could be useful and added to by guests and regulars alike.

There are many more things I could think of around this idea of crafting an experience, but the point here is that we can approach model railroading as 'experience design.' This is a field of design that concerns itself with how users/ occupants/ customers experience a place, product, web site, etc. It is concentrated in the effort to invoke a certain type of feeling in the user to make bring them satisfaction or pleasure with the interaction in a certain way.

I think many modelers already subconsciously think this way without calling it experience design, especially when thinking about designing panels, waybill systems, etc. and probably more in terms of usability (interface or interaction design) versus emotional reactions. The design of the layout room can probably be thought of in these terms as well, with many modelers trying to get a feeling of the back woods by using paneled fascias or by using old time graphics and typography on their printed materials and signage. But I'm willing to bet that not many are consciously looking to create a certain emotional reaction or experience in a concerted manner with operating jobs. It would be interesting to approach things through this lens, and it is something that I will try to keep in mind as I am creating my own operating sessions.