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Demystifying UX

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

Over the past decade, the term “UX” has become ubiquitous across many industries. I find myself uttering those two letters at an alarming rate on any given day. My inbox contains no shortage of emails from sources like Linkedin begging and pleading for applicants to fill a variety of UX positions. But what is UX really?

UX is an abbreviation for “User Experience” which seems pretty straightforward. But it is a deceptively simple term for what encompasses a broad variety of disciplines and applications. At its core, User Experience is just a matter of how people interact with the things we make. But consider for a moment the colossal quantity and diversity of things people have created: it’s nearly impossible for an individual to mentally conceptualize even a fraction of our many creations.

As such, UX designers typically form expertise in a field relevant to their education or professional background and become specialists for a specific type of human interaction. Few, if any, institutions offer degrees or courses in what could be called “UX” but many disciplines translate well into specific applications of the field. Graphic designers, computer scientists, engineers, medical experts, architects, and many others can find their niche in designing physical and digital goods that are both pleasant to interact with and effective in reaching their practical goals.

Where Does UX Come From?

Consider the history of human products. For most of recorded history, all goods were individually-wrought pieces, often specifically for use by the creator or to the preference of a patron or customer. The Industrial Revolution made it possible for goods to be made efficiently in great quantities at less expense to both the producer and the consumer. Consequently, products had to adopt a “one-size-fits-most” philosophy and lost the personal touch and individual attention to quality.

Today, we live in an age where we still have to mass produce products for an ever-increasing and ever-demanding human population, but many producers have come to realize there is demand for intelligently-developed goods. Compare many household, kitchen tools and appliances as they existed in the early Twentieth Century to those of today. Rather than clunky, heavy, metal implements, we now have ergonomic handles, smart refrigerators, more advanced materials and coatings, and clever new technologies to increase comfort and efficiency. These exist because at some point, someone asked the question “how can we make the experience of using this device faster, safer, and outright better?”

Near the end of the Twentieth Century, the world was changed by the Information Age. Not only did physical goods exist, but digital goods and software came to be. Just as mass-produced physical products evolved over the decades, so too did those in the digital space. I can personally recall being a child in the 80’s and 90’s using software that, quite frankly, sucked. It was a chaotic wildland of frustrating software operating on a plethora of radically different devices. The user experience was inconsistent, unreliable, and degraded. At the time we didn’t know better. Things were so new there was not a precedent or universal standard to reference.

To launch a game, one would have to enter in a specific text command on a black MS-DOS screen. At some point, Apple and Microsoft decided to appropriate a novel concept pioneered by Xerox: a graphical user interface (GUI). A GUI, now more commonly referred to simply as a user interface (UI), paved the way for people to visually interact with software. This opened the doors to so many more users and made it possible for humans and software to perform a robust number of functions, often simultaneously. Software user experience had been vastly improved, and yet it still remained rough around the edges for a number of years.

When smartphones and apps became massively popular around 2007 (especially with the introduction of the iPhone and later the iPad), the standard was raised again, and many came to expect consistent, easy-to-use software. Global software leaders such as Apple, Microsoft, Google had the massive resources to research, test, and implement products that would receive wide adoption.

Many entities wishing to create software started to realize the need for employing specialized individuals in the position of a User Experience Designer. Although it could be said that such a position has existed for much longer, it was at this point that it became a matter of expertise rather than an incidental consideration of developers in other positions. Not all have the same resources for the same deep, involved research as the industry giants, but what it really takes is a small number of intuitive, insightful individuals to think about the relationship of the user and the software, implementing solutions based on their experiences and empirical observations. A savvy UX designer working as an individual can create a clever solution to a problem that may someday find its way into global adoption.

UX at Filament Games

At Filament we create enriching learning experiences. Our products serve everything from for young, developing minds in K12 to adult learners in professional settings. Our users occupy the full socio-economic spectrum, come from diverse cultures around the globe, and operate at different levels of individual comprehension. When we make software we must consider the learning objectives of the project as well as the enjoyability of the experience to meet these users’ needs.

Making games is a unique challenge with different considerations than something like a website or informative app. A website exists to provide information and content as efficiently, directly, and clearly as possible. A game must be paradoxically intuitive to use while also obfuscating some element of information so that the player can learn, overcome, or infer their own answers to generate their own, unique narrative of the experience. Developing UX for learning games is further exacerbated by the fact that the game itself is more than an entertaining passage of time, but gives insight or comprehension to a subject or concept.

Likewise, it would be easy enough just to make a mere sequence of multiple-choice options and call that a “game.” It would certainly be easy to design the UX around that scheme but, to most players, it would be a pretty lame “game” at best. At worst, it would further enforce mere rote learning rather than acting as a fun channel for growth and comprehension through experimentation and exploration.

The UX must be designed so that the players have the tools they need to interact with the software by their own agency, but with enough instruction (referred to as “scaffolding”) to alleviate any potential confusion or barriers to entry. Different game designs and different learning objectives can lend themselves to a full spectrum of UX complexity. In some instances, very minimal interface is required and the actual user interactions may consist of a few, simple clicks, taps, and/or drags. Other times, the game may require a complex system of interactive panels, graphs, menus, and a variety of interactions.

Whatever the case may be, the goal is to eliminate unnecessary complexity and to reduce the number of steps it takes to perform any given function, reducing on-screen clutter, all while being robust enough to give the player all the tools they could possibly require (within the reasonable limitations of the game design). This requires a good intuition and insight into where possible problems may arise, but even the most experienced and talented of UX designers can be tripped-up as complexity increases or when new and unprecedented interactions are required by the overarching design.

Common considerations in learning game UX include:

  • Prioritizing the most important elements to be the most visible or directly accessible element in sight..
  • Reducing time and effort to perform any given function (reducing frustration).
  • Providing access to expected options and settings such as beginning a new game, audio/video controls, saving progress, and exiting the application itself.
  • Providing scaffolding so the player understands both the context of the game as well as how to interact with it.
  • Ensuring accessibility to users with any special needs.
  • Ensuring optimal performance of UI elements.
  • Creating a cohesive aesthetic throughout the game, ensuring that UI is consistent with the quality and style of illustrated or 3D visuals.
  • Creating UI and other assets that work within any technical constraints or hardware considerations (such as touch screens versus mouse and keyboard).
  • Eliminating confusion or unintentional misdirection.
  • Avoiding any instructional content or iconography that may carry vague, unintended, or even offensive meaning to players of different cultures.
  • Providing an experience that meets the learning objectives while still being fun and engaging to players.

Speaking to My Own Experience

My personal background is in Graphic Design, as is the case with many UX designers. Graphic Design is a field focused on communicating ideas and information through a (primarily) visual medium. In decades past, the role of a graphic designer involved the creation and stylization of physical, usually printed goods. As the internet became ubiquitous in everyday life, the demand for graphic designers shifted towards Web Design. Around the new millenium, businesses realized that their online presence was just as important, if not more, than their physical presence. In the present day, Web Design is just a narrow niche of the many ways people interact digitally with goods and services, so the field was broadened into UX.

I often suffer from the same forlorn feeling that many graphic designers do: the sensation that UX just isn’t as pleasing as creating “traditional” design. Wouldn’t it be so easy if we could just make static images that don’t have to move around or perform functions when people click on them? It certainly seems like life would be so much simpler that way. But consider just how society delivers and consumes information these days: that is, overwhelmingly through digital means. Dwelling upon this gives me a certain sense of pride in being a UX designer. When you witness people fully utilizing your creations it feels as though you possess a superpower or special sense to comprehend and create real, working things.

As the populace uses software and devices throughout their lives, many do not give consideration into just how much effort and forethought is involved in making them run so smoothly. It is easy to overlook or take for granted when something works in a pleasing, efficient manner. Typically, people do not give thought to UX unless something familiar changes (not necessarily for the worse, merely different from routines and habits) or is so poorly designed from the get-go so as to frustrate or confuse. Many underestimate the challenge of creating good UX. The world is full of competent users but to be a competent designer takes a real comprehension and attention to details that are often overlooked. Browsing through the Steam web store, it is possible to see thousands of shovelware games created with UX as an afterthought.

Even the best and biggest developers can trip and stumble (myself included). Humans are remarkable beings that can be hard to predict. Sometimes a good theoretical design does not perform to expectation in the wild as users try to cut corners or seek new and unexpected ways to use a particular piece of software. I can recall one of the earliest signs that I was cut out for UX was back in my teenage years. I was a frequent user of DeviantArt and I can recall they made some fairly radical changes to their navigation bar. It probably made sense to the web designer as it was intended to better organize menu functions. To me, it was outrageous as it nested many features I frequently used under dropdowns rather than leaving them immediately available with a single click on the page header at any time. To my friends, I was overreacting and being irrationally angry about such a minor change, but to me it felt like an online portal which I so beloved had been utterly destroyed. In hindsight, maybe that was excessive teenage drama, but I also would like to justify that it is just that passion for the minor details of usability that qualifies someone for success in UX.

In my own work I have witnessed a variety of successes and failures from my beginnings at interactive advertising agencies to where I am now. It is remarkable to observe how different types of people have different reactions and approaches to the software I am involved in creating. I have seen big business executives fail to use a trade show interaction activated by a literal giant red button on screen with arrows pointing in its direction and labels explaining “TOUCH HERE TO BEGIN!” Likewise, I have attended playtests full of eager second graders and have been amazed to see them jump into complex concepts and interactions I had worried might go above their heads. I have seen them begin in earnest without barrier to entry and flourish within the gamespace: not only having a fun time, but also immediately grasping the concepts and learning objectives we set out to convey.

At Filament we continue to create remarkable learning game experiences, often developing interactions to teach concepts that have never been presented in such a format and lacking any precedent to design around. Visual Interaction Designers (Filament’s very own, special title for UX designer) are here to iterate on internal and client-driven concepts to shape our games into refined, final releases. We’re not a giant research institute with a multi-million dollar budget to give exact, scientific data to player behavior, but our talented team has a solid grasp of what makes the experience of playing a game feel so good. Our individual backgrounds, education, playtest observations, and personal trial-and-error allow us to continue learning and growing as we take pride and confidence in the products we create.

 

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