Model Trains and the Design of Interactive Systems

Every year for about 40 years, my grandfather set up his American Flyer model railroad set during the Christmas holidays. The set sat on a 10′ x 6′ platform about a foot off the floor and, while not huge, had a pretty interesting variety of trains, cars, houses, and paraphernalia running on two looping tracks. It’s very post-WWII; one of the freight cars even carries a rocket that launches.

The whole set-up has a chunky panel that contains the controls for the set: everything from the main power source to the whistle to the button that fires the rocket and everything in between. Some 25 controls, all told. My grandfather determined when you were ready to drive the trains, which was usually around when you were 6 or 7 years old. Smaller kids could blow the whistle or lower the Semaphore Man, but not actually drive the trains themselves, which involved not only controlling the speed of the trains (usually two trains were running at any given time) but also how the trains switched tracks. Switch a train to the wrong track and you’d get a collision and that would be bad, probably resulting in losing your train driving privileges for the rest of the year.

The set would not have been as fun without the controls. If the trains had just driven themselves when you flipped a switch, the set would have been fun for about five minutes, but because you could drive the trains and control the environment of the set through the lights and whistles and small bits of interactivity like loading the coal into the coal car, it entertained us for hours. There was enough variety so that no matter what your skill level, you could still do something, even if it was just blow the whistle.

I’ve been thinking about the train set because in its simple way, it relates the creation of larger systems. “Interactivity” isn’t just watching something move (a la a Flash animation), it’s being able to affect what is going on in a meaningful way (play is meaningful). It’s providing enough entry points to a system that beginners can immediately affect it and enjoy it, while advanced users can more fully utilize the system. It’s making enough parts, seen or unseen, to provide a variety of interactivity to make the system interesting.

One level my cousins and I never really got to was putting the train system together, designing the shape and functions of the set for the year out of the pieces provided. That, I think now, would have really taken the train set experience to a new level: that of collaborative and experience design. The industrial designers who originally made the train set built in enough flexibility so that you could put the pieces together in many different ways. It was up to the hobbyist (designer) to decide what was the shape he (and it was usually men building these things) wanted the set to be in. He was limited only by the unchangeable parts (what Dewey would call the form) in crafting his aesthetic. He would put these forms together to create a new form, one that would hopefully be pleasing to the user, fulfilling intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic needs.

Few of the things we use or the systems we’re forced to exist in are as pleasurable as that train set was to me when I was young. Perhaps the toys of our youth should be dusted off and reconsidered; they might have much to tell us.

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