What gaming can teach UX

by Samantha Thompson
18 May 2016
11 min read
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What gaming can teach UX

‘Cross-pollination’ is one of the newer additions to business jargon you may have heard of recently. At its core, the term attempts to capture the idea that fresh perspectives and different skillset can be invaluable for solving old problems in new ways. For example a game of soccer might inspire a project manager to think about handling their team in a new, un-thought of way. The experience, however unrelated to the project manager’s everyday job, provides a wealth of knowledge to pull from that’s not limited to the industry they work in or the people they work with. To unashamedly use more business jargon, this thinking is ‘outside of the box’ of project management.

As a user experience architect / analyst I’m responsible for thinking about and researching new ways a website can help a user. How can we make it easier to use? How can we set their expectations? How are they going to know what to do next? And do you know who else thinks about these things? Game designers. Somewhere between the second row of a block of chocolate and a point-and-shoot game on the PS3 it started to dawn on me that I was seeing a different solution to similar challenges I‘d faced at work.

Challenge No. 1: On-boarding 
Websites are becoming increasingly more advanced users cannot only do more, but there are hundreds of ways that they could possibly go about it. Users need to get up to speed quickly to gain the skills, knowledge and behaviours necessary to effectively use a website. But as web designers, how do we do this in a way that’s engaging enough to hold the user’s attention whilst not detracting from the (much more exciting) service the website offers?

Game solution: Show, don’t tell.
Video games have the same challenges to solve. Buttons and button combinations do wildly different actions from game-to-game and the user needs to learn what to press in order to play and ultimately enjoy the experience. The game I was playing jumped me straight into the storyline and immersed the on-boarding into the gameplay itself. I learned to play through playing by completing one common task at a time in a guided and structured environment without the pressure video games rely on. It’s important to note that the on-boarding process was quick, easy to achieve and only taught the bare essentials.

Mass Effect: On-boarding through one task at a time, and all immersed within the game’s storyline. Learning through playing.

Cupertino: A good example of ‘showing’. Cupertino guides through one task at a time, just like the gaming example. With these skills, the user will be able to effectively use the website.

Google: This is a good example of ‘telling’. How many of you would take the time to read the fine print? How many would just swipe madly right to skip?
Challenge No. 2: Help provision
Good user experience experts will be able to identify areas within the website that users may have trouble with. It could be a particularly curly question on an online form or a fantastically clever, but not-so-obvious interaction needed to complete a task. How do we provide users with help on these very specific elements on the page without making them feel inept? Wherever possible be exceptionally sensitive when providing help - the very last thing we want to do here is to treat the user as stupid and leave a long-lasting sour taste.

Game solution: Just-in-time-help
Video games have a very fine line to walk regarding the difficulty of a task in-game. Too difficult and users will become frustrated. Too easy and users will become bored. Either side of the spectrum risks users abandoning the game. So in the instances where a task becomes too difficult for some users, what do video games do to help them along, and how do they do it without making it too easy? The game I was playing provided a hint at the point where I hesitated, or took a longer time than average to complete a task. The longer I took, the more specific these hints became. This meant that I was never distracted by help I didn’t need (or want) and I was given help just when I needed it in the context of my problem.

Mass Effect: With the press of a button the user can display a subtle arrow that directs them towards their current objective / where they’re supposed to go. This help is provided only within context of the task the user is aiming to complete, and only when the user requests it.

This form helps the user know when a username is available exactly when they need to know that information – when they’re creating one.
Challenge No. 3: Personalisation
Personalising your website to serve up content that’s relevant and interesting to the user is arguably the number one thing you can do to increase and sustain user engagement. Personalisation at its best proves to the user that they are being considered as an individual (not a faceless customer) and begins to build a positive relationship between the user, the website and your brand. At its worst, unwanted or ‘unaware’ personalisation makes users feel as if their information has been stolen from them, irrevocably tarnishing their perception of the brand. So how do we create a personalised experience without coming across as product-pushing data-thieves?

Game solution: Opt-in character creation
Video games have more than stepped up to the task of personalisation to drive user engagement. It’s now possible for users to create their own character within a game by choosing an appearance, selecting attributes and even a back-story. All of these choices made by the user then feed directly into the gameplay dialogue and actions – thereby creating an experience that is completely personalised to the user. What stops this from being creepy is the fact that the user was given the choice to personalise their experience, and they can clearly see what action (going through a character creation process) resulted in the game becoming personalised. For example, even if research indicated that the majority of users named their characters after themselves, if the game had pulled my first name from my PlayStation account and named my character without my consent, it would feel incredibly unsettling stumbling across this when playing.

Dragon Age: It’s not uncommon for gamers to spend hours creating a character, fostering user engagement before the game has even begun.

Vasque: The website treats the user as an individual and communicates in a conversational way… but did Jack knowingly give the website his name?
I was initially surprised to find that video games and websites were facing similar challenges, but in hindsight it makes perfect sense. Both rely heavily on providing a great user experience in order to attract and retain their primary audiences. The perspective that video games bring in - that websites could benefit from taking note of – is that playing games is an activity that users complete within their free time purely for enjoyment. These are tough conditions to survive in. If a banking website or app doesn’t provide a fantastic user experience the user will struggle, but they’ll continue using it because they have no alternative or the alternative (waiting in line at an actual bank) is worse. If a video games doesn’t provide a fantastic user experience the user will simply stop playing it.

Next time you find yourself stuck in a rut, take a step back, get ‘out of the box’ and start cross-pollinating. You might realise that some of your ‘little hobbies’ might have given you knowledge and experience that is far more valuable than you thought.

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