Recently, we see a growing interest to game usability from both major developers and startups. How to find experienced designers? Where to learn the basics? Can an ex-game designer become a UX developer? Looking through the FAQ from UX newbies, we suggest some tips to success in this challenging career path.
- Look at references – and beyond
When the mobile gaming market was rapidly gaining momentum, My.com’s game development team started analyzing popular projects. One a week they would choose a top product or something with an interesting story – and went deep looking for answers.
Here are some examples. This is product A — try to identify its key success criteria. This is product B — its profit curve went down after an update. Why? Here’s project C — without stable traffic its earnings instantly drop. What might fix it? We’ve since adopted a habit of studying other products on the market. Later, I realized that you are simply useless as a developer without this skill.
If you constantly deal with students with zero design experience, you’ll notice that they tend to fall into the trap of reinventing the wheel, wasting a lot of resources on what’s already been done a hundred times. Sometimes they come up with solution that is not too bad, but a bit too quirky: if a user isn’t familiar with it, there’s a risk that it won’t be understood or appreciated.
On the other side, sometimes one or a few top products implement an innovative idea that is immediately being copied by other developers. That is how user patterns evolve. However, if you don’t jump on this train and ignore the innovation, you might be left without a decent tool at best – and at worst, your customer loyalty take a hit. Take this as a rule: always know what’s going on in top 100 grossing products in detail. As the market is fluid and products are constantly changing, never stop to learn.
- Go deep
The idea of getting to the bottom of things is basic for UX design, but in fact, the way people follow it leaves much to be desired. A lazy developer can only execute things, getting and completing ToRs. Although that could turn into waste of time of a whole team, not just financially drastic, but also boring for a user. Even game designers often look at problems merely from mechanics and monetization angle, finding the right levels to pull, passing the bar to the architects, and considering their job done. ToRs, on the other hand, are often designed to combine things that can’t be combined, or provide a basic scenario that needs simplification.
Prior to commencing work, try to understand the task better than its author. Ask questions, get inside their head if you need to. And never accept any suggestions on visual design: that’s your job. You might take note of interesting ideas, but don’t unconditionally do everything that you’re asked to. You need to work closely with the feature’s author to achieve the expected result together. Of course, your ideas, especially those that don’t quite match the ToR, should be discussed and justified in advance. Ultimately, you’re supposed to make a project better, not worse.
Get yourself into the habit of drawing each new task on paper. There are a number of questions you should learn to answer first. What’s this window for? What purposes does it work for? Which ones are primary and which are secondary? What else can be used to solve these problems? How do similar micro tasks look in other game windows? Do you need to break it down into smaller steps so it’s more comfortable to work with? Where did we come here from and where will it lead us? And so on and so forth. The list can be expanded depending on the complexity and unique features you’re working on.
If we know one thing for sure, it’s that if you try to keep it all in your head, you can only vaguely imagine whether you chose a right way. Don’t be shy to talk to yourself on paper.
Recently our team was developing a global macro feature for Juggernaut Wars — clan battles. As usual, we made our wireframes using simple graphic editors, but quickly realized that our scenario didn’t fit not just one monitor, but even two or three. It turned out impossible to capture it all entirely and look for potential errors, or better structure and optimize data. Then we had to print out mockups and deploy a small scale UX War Room. It’s not just how we do things – all UX designers in the top global companies take the same approach. This cheap method pays off 100%, and nobody has yet invented a better solution.
Recently, one of our colleagues was struggling with a simple task that gave her no peace. Hitting a dead end and switching to something else, she’d return to the same problem again, but no solution seemed optimal. Finally, she gave up and armed herself with a stock of pencils and felt-tip pens. What do you think happened? The answer came in less than ten minutes. Turned out, the solution was on the surface, she just had to draw it to get a close look.
- Take a step back
If you don’t use a product that you create, you’re a bad designer. Your game is constantly changing and evolving like a living organism, so all of your achievements might sooner or later become obsolete or deficient. When you immerse yourself in a problem, you merge with its errors as well, your vision gets distorted. Then again, sometimes the deadlines of the build’s launch, a useless frontend or other circumstances force you to agree on potentially vulnerable solutions that you’re not completely sure of. This can only mean that there are no past tasks for you. All of them are current. Why? Because a client’s developer can always find a way to break things that worked before. Because when game designers come up with a feature that affects almost every existing block of the game, you don’t have the right to forget about a single one. Because you are growing yourself, and in six months your best idea might seem nonsense. Because users don’t think the way you do, and somehow end up “falling off” at the 25th level. Whether you like it or not, you’ll always have to go back to what’s already been done, even if the product line manager is against such an iterative approach. Negotiate! Of course, your task is only to understand this need, not to abuse it.
- Look for like-minded people
Two heads are better than one. The human factor has always been and will continue to be an integral part of creative development rich in errors and potential risks. No matter how strong your expertise may be, you can never see the results of your work from the ‘outside’. It is extremely hard to stay unbiased, especially when the solution was achieved through hard work: not everyone can find the courage to nix their creation and start from scratch. Not everyone is able to see and admit their mistakes, so try to surround yourself with like-minded people who understand the specifics of your work. Exchanging knowledge, opinions and the best practices is priceless, even though you won’t ever find this concept in any textbook.
- Learn the platforms
No matter what platform you prefer, try to be versatile. I have repeatedly faced situations where users of one platform don’t understand an interface solution borrowed from another – simply because it’s new to them. Always consider the features of different devices: they can open up additional opportunities or, on the contrary, narrow them. Of course, you’re making a single product, so you’ll have to find a middle ground here. But if your own heuristics are limited solely to a single platform UX, you risk making irreparable mistakes.
- Consider your options
Each ToR tells its own story of allocated resources, deadlines, opportunities and priorities. Similar problems you face should be addressed differently under various circumstances. Don’t try to pass things on to your line producer: the only thing they can tell you is that the job had to be done yesterday. It’s only you who can truly understand the problem in depth, along with its risks and possible solutions. A professional knows how to turn lemons into lemonade better than anyone else. Therefore, if you can afford spending a week to find a solution for problem A, but you only have two hours and a one-armed designer to find a solution to a similar problem B, you have to adapt to it.
- Don’t be a robot
UI design embraces a common set of principles and rules, but designing human emotions is much more subtle and deep. The ability to schedule a moment when a player breaks out in excitement, greed, or an incredible sense of pride and satisfaction, distinguishes a great UX designer from merely a good one. If all of your windows in a game are beige, and at some point a green pops up, you need to perfectly understand why you did that and why a window like that can disrupt a player’s perceptions. Don’t be afraid to look out of the box. Believe me, sometimes it’s better to neglect a rule to give the user a much needed motivational boost.
The main aim of any UX designer is to find a balance between the real user experience and the solutions that make this experience evolve. In the end, you are the tie between the raw mechanics and the end product which will be served on a silver platter. Follow the general principles, but stop thinking inside the box: next thing you’ll find yourself on top, and the results won’t take long.
This article is written by our UX expert Olga Lisenko