Friday, October 12, 2007

Usability is Usability Everywhere

On Next Generation, Blake Snow wrote an article called Videogame Usability 101: Ten Features Every Videogame Designer Should Embrace.

Having worked as an information architect, I noticed some similarities between Blake's 'features' and Jakob Nielsen's ten general principles for user interface design.

And why not? A lot of what makes a game is its UI. I'll quote both authors here in tandem to tease out the similarities between their two lists, and add some of my own commentary.

Nielsen's heuristics are listed in order, with Snow's analogous features beneath each. My own words are in italics.

Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
5. Never let a camera get too close to a player or bump into a wall.

Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.
This usually isn't much of a problem in games, since the player audience - and thus the language they understand best - is identified early in production.
User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
4. Always let players skip cut scenes no matter how important they are to the story.
10. Always let gamers get in and out of gameplay as they desire (otherwise they'll just turn the console off).
Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
MMOs are so new, conventions are still being debated on. The industry could stand to nail these down. For example, I never know which slash command logs me out of an MMO. Is it /camp, /quit, or /exit? Why not support all three?

Error prevention
Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
1. Never ask a player if they want to save their game.
8. Never use insipid, indefensible enemy attacks.

Recognition rather than recall
Minimize the user's memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
2. Always say "press any button" to start a game.

Flexibility and efficiency of use
Accelerators -- unseen by the novice user -- may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
3. Always let players remap controller buttons to suit their preferences.
7. Always give players full control of accessiblity options.
Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
6. Never make use of every controller button just because you can.
Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
Games do this with gestures more often than words. For example, when you enter a room, the camera glances up at the object you need to interact with to solve the puzzle. Or, key features of the game environment will move in a particular way, or change their appearance on mouseover. Features like these suggest solutions before problems arise, leading to less player frustration.
Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user's task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.
9. Always present in-game tutorials, FAQs, and help menus for newbie gamers.

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These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.