Why should UX designers care about games? (Part 1)

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  • Last week I tweeted this question out to the world.  Here are some of the great responses I’ve received so far, and with more coming in every day it looks like I’m going to have to make it into a series!  If you’d like to contribute to the next installment, just follow and tweet me.

    Kara Behnke
    Technology, Media, & Society PhD Program, University of Colorado Boulder
    User experience designers must pay attention to games because the gaming industry has been perfecting UX design for decades. In fact, effective UX design is the heart of the billion-dollar gaming industry. Why? Games are structured information systems that guide users’ actions and give them tools they need to reach specific goals. These systems provide users with immediate feedback on their choices and give them the support they need to progress forward to reach those goals. But game developers also know that UX design is not just about feedback loops and beautiful icons–it’s an art in and of itself to perfect user experience design. The greatest games are so effective at immersing users (players) in the design that players don’t even know they’re interacting with UX design–usability (game play) is intuitive, feels natural, and flows unconsciously. Players know immediately when UX works or doesn’t work in a game; they expect nothing but perfection. Therefore, developers know that effective UX design makes the difference between the AAA blockbuster hit or a million-dollar flop. Future UX designers would be wise to pay attention to the methodology and many hard-learned lessons from the gaming industry. Why relearn what’s already been learned?
    Shirley Man
    UX Designer / Program Manager, Electronic Arts (EA Tech)
    Game designers and researchers face the same challenges as UX practitioners, and they have been solving these problems with similar approaches.


    Cross-platform games need to have responsive and adaptive front-ends; levels and maps are carefully crafted to give gamers a sense of orientation and progressive disclosure; in-game tutorials and hints need to provide just enough information to get gamers up to speed without overwhelming them; immersive user experience can be achieved by means of believable animations, audio, physics, lighting, camera angles and effects; gameplay mechanics, controller schemes and user satisfaction are tested and measured using a variety of techniques such as playtesting, eye-tracking, telemetries… etc.


    If UX designers want to apply game design elements (aka gamification) to their work, they need to go far beyond just the use of badges, progress bars and leaderboards.

    Cheryl Platz
    Senior User Experience Designer, Microsoft (Server & Tools Division)
    Games have acted as a graceful interface to complex systems for decades. Game designers take these complex rule systems and layer interactions on top of those rules in ways that can be tremendously rewarding. Think of the SimCity games – teaching people the difficulty of city planning in a way that delighted players. Here at Microsoft, those moments of “delight” have been an increasingly important goal (yes, even at Microsoft) and I look to my experience with those games when designing for complexity.
    There is a tremendous amount we in user experience can learn from the world of game design: guiding human behavior, teaching new concepts, storytelling and communication, and the joy that humans find in progressive mastery. For those using natural interfaces, games are even more critical. Speech recognition has been in some games since the era of the Nintendo 64. Gesture in some form has been around since the Wii. The natural interface language “spoken” by our users will be learned within the context of gaming.
    Of course, not all games do things ‘right’, but we can learn from the good and the bad. “Gamification” as a word may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but this is something deeper – understanding the “why” and the “how” behind successful games, not just a paint-by-numbers approach to game mechanics.
    Cindy Ritzman
    Senior Graphic Designer, DomainTools
    Formerly Marketing Creative Director of WildTangent
    Gamers have shorter attention spans. They expect action and interaction. Certainly not inaction!
    Whether gamers are looking for  hidden objects, exploding jewels, racing cars, shooting missiles or killing zombies, every gamer expects some sort of immediate feedback for the choices he/she has made. 
    I’m not implying that UX Designers should build in a points to encourage users to click buttons and turn tasks into games. 
    However, I do think that UX Design should bring in the dimension of perceived time and immediate visual feedback as a design tool. Keep forms simple. Don’t overcomplicate choices. Ensure pages download quickly and work on the platform/browser the audience is using. Don’t make someone feel like he has to jump over a bunch of hurdles to accomplish an obviously simple task. Help keep a process moving until that goal is accomplished. Provide help along the way.
    If a user can’t immediately engage with a website, chances are that user won’t return. And  most gamers feel the same way about their favorite games: they enjoy playing by actively accomplishing goals within rules that are understandable.
    Companies who are tempted to collect customer data (with no benefit to customers), force customer to wait through splash screens, make customers read meaningless gobbledegook, make check-outs torturously slow and labyrinthine, and design pages that don’t work seamlessly across major browsers are the real losers.
    Kris Rockwell
    Developing an engaging user experience (UX) is, obviously, a crucial component of building a successful game. The entire experience is what keeps the player fully engaged and any bit of weakness often leads to negative reviews and poor ratings. The use of proper game mechanics, storytelling and all contribute to the experience and can draw a player in and keep them playing (evidence World of Warcraft, Skyrim, Angry Birds, etc…). UX designers can easily draw from the game development “toolbox” and use these mechanics to build applications/experiences with similar effect provided that they are used properly and carefully considered during the design process. Much like building a game, however, these design elements are best implemented from a ground up approach rather than trying to “bolt them on” after the initial design has been completed. This approach will ensure that the game elements are embedded in the overall experience as opposed to being added as an afterthought that may serve to annoy the users rather than engage them.
    Łukasz Tyrała
    Senior Interaction Designer, Pride and Glory Interactive 
    Games are about having fun. Some are complex, hard to master, contain hundred of pages to read or require lightning keystrokes; but all strive for low entry point, an easy to learn interface and perfect execution. Not all are for everyone, but anyone will find something for one’s self.
    Epic games make you smile, even when you think about them 10 years later. Some people change their wallpaper awaiting release of a sequel or stay awake until sunrise figuring out how to finish a level they are playing. All of that is true because games are all about experience.
    Gamification might be a buzzword, but fun is an emotion that most of us strive for. Game designers do not care about KPIs, conversion rates or databases full of e-mails. They care about fun, and so should UX designers working on websites and applications – at least for 50% of the time spent on a project.
    Sebastian Deterding
    Designer and Researcher, coding conduct
    To me, the rising interest in UX circles in games is driven by a deeper shift “from usability to motivation,” as Joshua Porter once put it: Especially online, business models transition from one-time transactions with consumers to continued participation of “produsers” contributing ideas, UGC, data, word-of-mouth etc. to your service – hence, companies need to motivate these contributions. Second, the core offering of many new product categories is facilitating motivation (think health, wellness, self-management, sustainability, employee engagement). And as utility and usability are increasingly commoditized, experience, emotion, motivation became the new market differentiators.
    In parallel, our understanding of motivation itself shifted. As popularized by the likes of Dan Pink or Teresa D. Amabile, time and again we see that intrinsic motivation – the joys innate in an activity – is more important and sustainable than extrinsic motivation. And what intrinsic motivation drives the most passionate users? Here I take my cue from Kathy Sierra: It is not enabling them to do something (utility) or making it a little easier (usability) – let alone coupons or sweepstakes (extrinsic motivation). It is growing their competence in achieving the deeper goals they pursue with your product. In short: “Don’t design a better X; design a better user of X.” Don’t give me a better camera – give me the experience of becoming a better photographer. 
    This, it turns out, is at the core of what makes playing well-designed games fun. As game designer Raph Koster puts it: “Fun from games arises out of mastery.” Solving a puzzle, crossing a chasm, shooting an alien: Games are machines for producing interestingly challenging interactions that give rise to feelings of progress, competence and mastery. So as UX designers, we should care about game design because it shows how to design such intrinsically motivating interactions. It teaches us that motivation is no magic sauce you can ‘just add.’ Gameful design, as I like to call it, is restructuring an interaction into a tight loop of goals, actions, and feedback around the innate learnable challenge of what the user wants to get better at in using your product – scaffolded over time to afford lasting depth, variety, and a continual sense of achievement and progress.
    The best we can take from game design are not patterns (by their nature transient, commoditized, and encouraging magic sauce thinking), nor methods (iterative prototyping is – or should be – as innate to UX design as to game design). It is, to follow Jesse Schell and Bill Scott, “lenses”: Ways of looking at our design, questions to ask of it, like “How does it unfold over time?”, or “How is autonomy supported?” There are many sources for learning how to design for motivation. But when it comes to mastery, game design is arguably the richest wellspring we have.
    Jonathan Shariat
    User experience designer, www.uitogether.com
    Before the iPhone and before the wheel, we learned how to survive by playing. Play is nature’s way of making learning enjoyable, just as a lion cub learns how to hunt as it wrestles its siblings. By studying games we can extract those mechanisms that turn learning into fun. Usually learning new software is the very opposite of fun. Games not only mitigate that pain but replace it with joy. For User Experience Designers, play is studying natures own, perfected, human interface. 
    Ale Muñoz
    Interaction Designer, Designit
    In a former life as a game developer, I learned a couple of things that I try not to forget in my current job as a UX designer. Obvious stuff, but interesting stuff anyway:
    Simple = good. Too simple = bad
    There are really simple games that are truly amazing: Tetris, Lemmings, Canabalt, Tiny Wings… They are easy to understand, yet take some time to master and never get old. They are timeless because extreme care was taken when choosing features and tuning difficulty. They keep the player in the flow zone. Make them a bit more complex and the player gets frustrated. Make them a bit simpler and the player gets bored.
    Likewise, the line that separates a “beautifully simple interface” from an “interface for dummies” is thin and easy to cross. Simplifying interaction requires great thought and extreme care.
    Games are memorable
    Ask gamers for their favorite old games and you’ll get a long list of classic titles: Mario, Pacman, Donkey Kong, Monkey Island…
    Do the same with users of desktop applications and you’ll get blank stares.
    Games are experiences that we remember. They make us feel joy, anger, excitement, fear… in a way that most computer interactions don’t. In a sense, they are truly “User Experience”, whereas Interaction Design is mostly “User Usage”. Whenever I’m designing an interaction, I try to ask myself:
    > Will anybody remember this in six months?
    If we try to not only design interaction, but also try to craft a memorable experience, we’ll increase our chances of emphatizing with our users and creating great design.
    Ana Escontrela
    Senior Interaction Designer, Tuenti
    UX design is about building relationships between products and users. It’s not just about how something should work, but what it means to the user’s life. Building a relationship means creating a unique connection between users and product. 
    So far, UX designers have learned to understand the user’s thinking and behaviour. But we have missed a key part of the puzzle: how do they feel? Because video games are focused on creating pleasure, they already know how to create memorable experiences and unique bonds with the user.
    Connecting the dots between the two fields doesn’t mean translating game elements, it is more like transferring principles. In fact, some dots are already connected. If you take a look at Nielsen’s heuristics you’ll find some points in common regarding the interface design. So, what have we missed? 
    It is *the gameplay principles* (storylines and winning strategies) that are such great tools for empathising with our users. Think about the possibilities of adding this layer to craft the workflow, at first run and with tutorials or complex tasks that involve several actions. Connecting every piece of our design to create a story definitely makes it more valuable. So, let’s play!
    Ana Redmond
    Founder, Infinut.com – Learning with Kids
    For the last year, I have been building kid’s educational games at Infinut.com. I used to build enterprise and consumer web apps. Many aspects that seem specific to game design can help make other apps friendlier. 
    Designing for the novice and expert
    Games start with a low entry criteria, and gradually increase difficulty level for the player, keeping their engagement throughout. Enterprise apps usually have only two levels – tough and expert.
    Feelings matter
    Angry birds does not hide the birds emotion. We feel good getting rid of the pigs. Enterprise and consumer web apps today mostly hide any sense of achievement. When I hit the confirm button on an e-commerce site, I feel that sinking feeling of spending hard earnt money, instead of the joy and anticipation of a new thing coming my way.
    Advocate for the player
    That one seems obvious. But, so often, we end up adding more and more to please everyone, that we fail to please the only person that matters – the end user. After you design your first game, you’ll have a much stronger voice for the user. Try it.
    Binh Tran
    Freelance Visual Designer
    Games have always been one of the main sources of inspiration for me as a designer. Revisiting the older games from the past reveals insights on how to engage, motivate, and delight with simplicity and with strong storytelling (Legend of Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario Bros., to name a few). More complex games such as simulation (SimCity and Civilizations series) and role-playing games (EVE Online, World of Warcraft) are great examples of dashboard interfaces and control panels.
    What makes games important to UX designers is that most of the elements that are crucial in our line of work (UI, interaction, storytelling…) have been designed, tested, and improved a very large and extremely engaged audience/community. The success of games is testament to their effectiveness.

    One Response to “Why should UX designers care about games? (Part 1)”

    1. […] I came across these comments from various experts on what UX can learn from game design, where this response by Sebastian Deterding, a designer and researcher particularly stood out. He […]