Anti-Buzz: User Training

by Andrew Emmott on December 27, 2011

in Anti-Buzz,General,Software

The Buzz: Video Games speak their own language, and not everyone understands.

The Anti-Buzz: Video Games actually live and die by being easy to learn and understand.

If you are a parent, it seems likely that at some point this holiday season your children received that greatest gift of all: video games. There could be a series of articles on how the gaming industry drives advances in consumer electronics. The most obvious avenue is graphics; it would not be hard to convince you that as game makers sought to make their games more attractive than the competition, you gained the ability to turn your X-Rays into 3D models of your patients’ mouths.

In this post-holiday calm, it seems likely that you are either watching children play some sort of electronic game, or you are playing those games yourself, (or both). If you catch yourself wondering what the value of such activity is, I’m going to give you something new to think about: the gaming industry is on the cutting edge of user interfaces.

Even in academic circles, a lot of attention is given to studying how users interact with their technology, and how that interaction can be improved. User-friendliness is something I wrote generically about a while ago. What gets missed by both users and developers alike is that the gaming industry is a ruthless proving ground for exploring user-friendly interfaces.

If you think about, it makes sense. If video games don’t appeal to you, you might dismiss them as confusing or absurd, but in reality, much as games might compete over graphics and try to out-pretty each other, they are also competing to be easy to understand and learn, (This is not the same as being easy to master or easy to complete – just easy to dive into). With hundreds of app stores and flash libraries out there, another game is just a click away, so if yours is unnecessarily annoying, or trips over itself, you will lose your audience.

Gone are the days of the instruction booklet. Today, games teach you how to play them, often very gradually. This is referred to as “player training” and it models exactly what other software developers wish they could do with their products: train their users. Games do have some psychological advantages over, say, practice management software, but at the end of the day engineers too often ignore what game developers achieve in regards to user-training and intuitive interface design.

A rather famous and easily digestible example of player training is the game Portal, which might be the game that gets you into gaming as it is short, exercises your brain in unique ways, and very gradually teaches you how to play without you realizing that it is teaching you how to play. In fact, the game is so short that it is sometimes joked that the game is actually about player training because by the time you learn everything, the game is over. The real reason I mention this game is that it comes with a DVD-style developer commentary that provides what might be some of the best consumer-digestible insight into what I’m talking about, and it affirms the notion that game developers are very concerned with how accessible their game is to the user. Portal is almost “User-friendliness: the Game” except apparently the game also has something to do with portals, I guess.

Depending on your background as a gamer, this article may or may not resonate with you. It is just one of many such blog entries by game developers discussing the planning that goes into making their games. The quick summary is that the game “cheats” on behalf of the user, correcting small mistakes for the sake of making the game more intuitive and playable. This is hardly the first game to do such a thing, but this developer’s articulation of the philosophy is somewhat profound: Take input from the user, figure out what they want, then make it happen. This translates pretty well to software development in general.

The idea isn’t as simple as it sounds. In fact you might be asking, “Isn’t that what all software does?” The answer is no, it doesn’t. What software does is take input from the user, interpret that input very literally according to a strict set of rules about how that piece of software works, and then makes those things happen. The idea is that sensible intuitive things should happen in reaction to your input. This is, admittedly, much easier to implement in a game than it is in practice management software. Most of the time, a game developer can make assumptions about what the player’s goals are, (hint: the player is trying to win). A user’s goals in Dentrix are not always clear. Practice management software is orders of magnitude more complex than a game, and your use of it is pretty open-ended. Inferring what you might want to see happen is something, that, well, still requires a lot of research.

I attended a lecture on research being done to improve typical GUI components and this came up. It is usually easy to guess what button/scrollbar/text field the user means to click on, but there are a lot of objects that the user rarely uses that litter the screen, and this obscures how to make good guesses sometimes. On the other hand, I’m amazed at how my big fat fingers can mush into my iPod and it figures out what I want. It’s all a work in progress.

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