Joakim Achren

"Joakim Achrén is the CEO of Next Games. He specializes in mobile entertainment, metrics development for player acquisition, engagement and monetization and big data architectures.

No matter how big and smart our brains are, we humans are still lazy when it comes to thinking. Joakim Achrén, CEO at My Next Games company, is here to illustrate how embracing the inherent laziness of players can actually improve your games. And we will be adding some metric sauce here and there…

Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think came out in 2000, yet it is still regarded as one of the best website usability books around. It’s been the best resource for me in usability since I read it for the first time in 2006. The book is subtitled “A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.”

If you haven’t read the book yet, you should. At least right after you’ve read my thoughts on how to apply the approaches to game design. I will tackle some of the most important chapters in the book and point out how to apply them. Here goes!

Chapter 1. Don’t make me think!

This is Krug’s first law of usability. It means that if you are given a web page, like an online store, you’ll quickly browse the page. If you need to think about what you are seeing, you are using the site in a way in which you question what you are seeing. If the site has good usability, the person won’t need to think and can immediately spot what they’re looking for.

Krug points out that when designing a page, there are several compromises that need to be done to achieve the perfect usability. Usually the end result is the obvious result. Buttons should look like buttons and links should look like links.

The same applies to games. Look at the way the player interacts with your game, start off with the buttons you have in the game. Do they look like buttons? You might think that they need to fit the theme of the game, but can they look even more like regular buttons and still feel like they belong?

Although glossier than your average button, Candy Crush Saga's buttons still look like, well, buttons
Although glossier than your average button, Candy Crush Saga’s buttons still look like, well, buttons

Also think about the text you are putting into the game. Less is better, so try to reduce your text by 50%. If you manage to do that, go and reduce another 50%.

Useful metric: interaction rate with UI elements 

To keep the UI simple, you can set up a metric that tracks the user’s interactions with the user interface. Track where the user touches the screen and when so you can make a 2D user interaction heat map on every game screen. This will show you how the users navigate the UI, and can help you strip the interface of any redundant elements. On touch devices this can also be used to see if the users have trouble interacting with the buttons, which would indicate that the UI is too small or too crammed.

You could also track how long it takes the player to press a button, once they are presented with the main game scene. That will give you an indication of accesibility. If the users spend a long time on something you thought was simple and easy to understand, then maybe your interaction flow needs to be simplified even further.

Chapter 2. How do we really use the web?

Krug believes that people are not using web sites, they are “browsing through” them. People go to a website and they just pick what they first see. If that doesn’t please the eye, then they’ll pass on to the next thing, until the right thing is found.

People don’t use time to assess what the designer of a site had in mind. People are busy and want to cut the chase as quickly as possible. In games, this would translate into getting the player to the fun parts as soon as possible.

In the case of games, the first time user experience counts a lot. If people don’t enjoy the game in under one minute of playing, they will quit and go spend their time on something else.

In your game, you need to “cut the chase” as soon as possible, but just keep in mind that you shouldn’t overwhelm your players either. People will learn your game, even if you teach it in small pieces. A well organized and enjoyable tutorial will help with this. Teach your players new things, but do it with lots of fun and simple interfaces. Also, avoid text where possible.

Angry Birds never uses text to educate its players
Angry Birds never uses text to educate its players

Useful metric: first time flow

 Players (and especially mobile game players) have very little tolerance to clumsy and lengthy tutorials. They install a game to play, not to be schooled. Generally, you’d want a short and easy tutorial, but that is a more difficult challenge than most developers realize. The tutorial is sometimes overlooked until the very last moment before launch and suffers in quality because of that. Setting up metrics to examine how players respond to the tutorial is beneficial for the current game and any other games you might make in the future, as you can reuse the collected feedback.

Set up a metric that measures how long the player takes on each step of the tutorial. This will give you an indication of what steps are the most complicated, as well as a total completion time. The data could then be compared to retention data from the same player to see if you have successfully incentivised him or her to play the game. If the players do not even finish the tutorial, then the tutorial’s design has failed and the data will show you exactly where the player gave up. You can then use that data to redesign the tutorial with focus on shortening and simplifying it.

Chapter 3: Billboard Design 101

Here Steve Krug goes into visual hierarchies, taking advantage of known conventions, like visual areas, making interactive stuff seem obvious and how to minimize noise. The point is to give the user all the useful information, in such a way that the user can actually read all of it with ease.

Krug wants us to keep design on a common sense level and use very general user interface design. I think it should apply to games as well. A HUD game that has lots of information on game resources, with lots of buttons, can easily create a mess for the player to navigate through.

Among other things, the Dead Space series was appreciated for the minimalist HUD placed on the character's suit. It did not intrude in any way.
Among other things, the Dead Space series was appreciated for the minimalist HUD placed on the character’s suit. It did not intrude in any way.

Chapter 6: Navigation

Krug believes that navigation on a site will always be hard for a first-timer, but once the users return, the path is much smoother and they already know where to look for things.

Navigating on a website can feel tedious if all the navigation elements are scattered all around the page. Having all the navigation on the top is a good start for organizing things. It’s also a good practice to keep the user up to date on what the current page is with a title displayed on top.

Krug’s navigation principles apply well to games. Most free to play games have a virtual item shop where you can buy clothes for your character or buildings for your city. As a player, you should be able to navigate from one shopping area to another and move up and down the hierarchy with ease.

Farmville has a breezy shop with self-explanatory categories
Farmville has a breezy shop with self-explanatory categories

Useful metric: Interface navigation patterns & task success ratio

If the player has problems navigating the game, they will become irritated and might stop playing altogether. Designing something to be easy to navigate is a challenge and designers often fall into the “what works for me, works for everyone” trap. Having as many eyes  as possible on the game during development is a good start. But the end user is the real judge and metrics can help you find out what the end user thinks.

The need for easy navigation is directly influenced by the game’s complexity. A complex game makes navigation harder. So using metrics to track for interface navigations is most relevant in complicated games with multiple screens. To track the user navigation patterns, you can set up metrics that collect data from what screens the user go to and from how long they stay there. This will show how the players use the different screens and switch between them. The designer can thus tell what screens are used the most and in what sequence. Based on that, the designer can decide if it is necessary to make navigation smoother between sections or to move elements around.

Such metrics can also be used to determine if a user accesses a section without taking any actions. That indicates that the user can’t find the information or action that he was looking for, and that might mean that the UI design should be revised.

Chapter 8: Why most team members have arguments about usability and how to avoid them

Krug highlights how different departments of a company view their website, and how they’d want their message to go through. Everyone wants to focus on different aspects. For example, the business people want to drive the focus directly to the revenue-generating content, whereas the designers would want to focus their creation efforts on something visually appealing.

Nobody is right and nobody is wrong in what should be picked as the focus. Website visitors are all different from each other – some need visually attractive content while others can go with minimal visual appeal. It is all about testing and seeing which design fits best for the site’s intended market .

This applies to games as well. Each game should be rigorously tested with actual users while still under development, so that opinions and arguments inside the team can be tempered by a third opinion.

Chapter 9: Usability tests for 10 cents

Krug points out that usability testing isn’t that interesting for companies in general, and most of them don’t do any. Usually the reasons are that people either don’t have time, don’t have the facilities to run the tests or just wouldn’t know how to interpret the tests.

Krug’s methodology for running a cheap but effective user testing session goes as follows:

  • Test with three or four people rather than 8 or more
  • Almost anyone will work so try to grab a few people from around your building, friends of your friends etc.
  • Use any office or meeting room for the test. All you need is a quiet place.
  • Decide what you are going to show and run tests continuously throughout the design process
  • Tell the results to your team immediately after the tests

In games, it is beneficial to get play testers who will be your actual playing audience. Look at the target market for your game and bring the right people. Remember to test early on in the development, to grab the low hanging fruit from the findings of the tests. Usually you will spot lots of obvious problems.

Chapter 10: Usability as common courtesy

Krug talks about how all users of a website have goodwill and optimism to find what they’re looking for when they first arrive on your site. With each virtual bump, the optimism gets drained away and at some point the user leaves the site.

Here is Krug’s list of common things that negatively impact user goodwill, translated to game design.

  1. Hiding the information that people are looking for
  2. Punishing players for not doing things your way
  3. Asking for information that you don’t really need
  4. Annoying and jiving the players
  5. Putting too much ‘sizzle’ (i.e. Flash intro) in the way
  6. Game looks amateurish

And here are some ways to create positive goodwill.

  1. Knowing what your players are looking for and making it easy to find
  2. Showing your players what they are looking for
  3. Saving steps; for example, in the tutorial, if the player decides to leave and return later, ensure that they won’t need to start it all over again when they return.
  4. Putting effort into your game
  5. Making it easy to recover from errors
  6. Make texts comfortable to look at by using images and breezy paragraph styles

In games, try to make the player feel comfortable at all times. One important thing that you need to look into is when does the player close the game? You need to build you game in a way that enables the player to feel comfortable in putting the game down for a while.

God of War II was a great game, but players were not comfortable quitting it because autosave only worked for current game sessions and actual save points were miles apart. Blunder or intentional game design decision?
God of War II was a great game, but players were not comfortable quitting it because autosave only worked for current game sessions and actual save points were miles apart. Blunder or intentional game design decision?

That’s about it. There is of course a lot more in the book. You should definitely read it yourself at some point.

Joakim Achren

"Joakim Achrén is the CEO of Next Games. He specializes in mobile entertainment, metrics development for player acquisition, engagement and monetization and big data architectures.

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