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Usability Breakthroughs: Four Techniques To Improve Your Game
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Usability Breakthroughs: Four Techniques To Improve Your Game

September 10, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Torque's Eric Preisz and two Full Sail usability center PhDs offer four techniques to help make your game more accessible -- even if you don't have access to a giant lab and dozens of focus testers for feedback.]

Usability is a crucial factor when attempting to reach large, diverse audiences with a game. A commonly stated rule-of-thumb is that if your player doesn't understand the basics of your interface in two minutes, they'll stop playing your game. Therefore, good usability is critical to game success.

When it comes to designing usable games, it is critical not only to understand how your target audience experiences your game, but also how other groups of individuals not in your target audience will react to a product (professionals call these "core" and "fringe" users).

For financial and quality reasons, increasingly usability work on games is being done by specialized user experience centers with broad access to large diverse groups of potential users and whose team members have extensive training and experience in usability assessment methods.

This is a rare combination of factors, however, and means that such user experience centers are typically located in and around universities, and at the few large game companies that can afford an in-house usability center.

Although this makes it harder for many game studios to get access to these groups, user research teams can pay for themselves quickly in several ways including: keeping a development team working together for a common achievable and prioritized set of goals, alleviating investor concerns about customer targeting and focus, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of development tools, and most importantly, improving user experience within a game environment.

An early focus on usability on game projects is financially critical -- research shows that the top four reasons for development going over budget are all related to unforeseen usability problems and 80 percent of the cost of patching and maintenance on software products is due to unmet or unforeseen user interface needs.

Unfortunately, cost, location, and personnel availability often make it difficult for small to midsize studios to set up or even get access to user experience centers. While not every game company can afford the services of a professional user research team, every game can benefit from the basic techniques these groups use. Many of these techniques are simple and cheap enough to be implemented by developers and artists directly.

In this article, we'll introduce four usability ideas, a simple methodology, and discuss pros and cons for each. These concepts and methods can be understood and implemented without specialized knowledge, and can pay dividends both during development and after a game ships.

Think-Aloud Technique

Methodology. In the think aloud technique, the gamer sits down to play the video game while a user experience team member is seated nearby to listen and take notes. The user is given specific instructions that as they play the game, they are to say out loud the reason they took each action. This allows the team member to document both their actions, and what the user was thinking as they took them. The team repeats this with multiple gamers to get multiple perspectives and viewpoints.

Example. During a recent test, a player chose to try to load a gun with a water bottle by dragging and dropping the icon for the water bottle (a blue-gray tube with a narrow end) onto the icon for the weapon, saying "this looks like a bullet, so it's probably ammo for the gun." Their actions, and their spoken-aloud explanation, made it clear that the icon for the water bottle was confusing and needed to be redesigned.

Positive aspects of the Think-Aloud Technique

  1. Team members are able to understand what a player is thinking. This allows them to find and document areas of the game that caused problems, often with multiple players.
  2. This technique works well in an iterative design and testing process. Research has shown that 75 percent of interface design problems can be discovered using a handful of participants (around five). With an outcome that fast, results can be generated in a single day and passed on to the development team for fixes.
  3. Other team members (like developers, artists, and producers) can watch and immediately see firsthand when there are problems with the game. This saves time and helps them to understand why the fixes are important. Allowing developers to see a product in action with players is extremely powerful when the player makes a mistake or takes an action that developers never took into account.

Problems with the Think-Aloud Technique

  1. Many players have no problem talking while they play, but some will have problems with this. Uncooperative players (intentional or not) can cause frustration and lost time.
  2. "Thinking aloud" doesn't come naturally to players. In a natural setting, gamers rarely verbalize all of things they are doing in a game. It's also possible that in trying to explain what they're doing, they may make up reasons that are different from the actual cause of a behavior.
  3. If it's hard for some people to walk and chew gum at the same time, you can imagine that it's hard for many people to play a game well and talk about it at the same time. Often they focus on one or the other, with less than ideal results. You can try to fix this by asking them what they're doing or thinking if they stop talking at some point.

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Andre Gagne
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I'd like to reiterate something about naturalistic studies (or any form of user studies): lock the game designers in a closet so they don't interfere.

Allowing players to fail is the most important part of it in terms of improving the game.

Kriss Daniels
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I thought zynga/activision/ea had established that the users are stupid?

In fact the ideal customer is stupid and rich.

Sure some of them are smarter than the average bear but if you want money you need to appeal to rich dum dums.

I hear apple has the best supply of such folk.

With that in mind cant a developer just hang around outside the nearest apple store to recruit the best possible subjects?

Hell you only need one, just watching them flail around confused for a few minutes is always invaluable feedback.

Adam Prall
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Haha that's great I'm one of those stupid rich Apple developer people and you couldn't be more right about how dumb we are!!! I wish I was smart like other people and loved to spend 47 hours a week developing on a platform that needs to be restarted every day to be stable and supports absolutely zero usability features natively, except for barely USB-compatible keyboard drivers 12 years after their adoption!! Haha I'm such an idiot. Oh wait never mind I'm not.

Kandarp Patel
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You might want to reevaluate since you totally misread kdaniels' post.

Mark Venturelli
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What amuses me the most is not the gigantic level of retardation that usually empowers your trollish posts - it's the fact that you proudly sign your trollings with first and last names (and a picture!), which is quite an uncommon trait for the troll species as a whole.

I don't know if that makes you a better or worst specimen, but I guess that polarizing it in such a manner would just diminish your fantastic talent for dumb insults. I respect you for that.

Christopher Braithwaite
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Great article! This is very useful information. I would like to see some references to the research cited though.

Chad Hoover
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Great Article guys.

Ruslan Valeev
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We've done several usability studies on games and found that 1-on-1 think aloud usability sessions work best. There are some ways around the challenges that you describe - if the moderator is good, they can really make the participant talk. The game can be stopped every so often and the person can be asked a series of questions. By the time you are on 6th person, you usually have a pretty solid story to tell: feature A sucks, feature B can be really improved. The other methods end up introducing too many biases - expert's bias, or group think in the focus group scenario.

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Emanuel Montero
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Great article! Another important usability method is metrics analysis. In this month game dev magazine Chris Pruett wrote a very interesting article about tuning gameplay with simple player metrics. And there're also metrics that can be applied from early stages of development to measure software quality.

Rob Allegretti
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That info on Nielsen's Heuristic Evaluation is possibly the most useful piece of information I have gotten from Full Sail in the last year.

This is a good set of procedures. I can't help but wonder if they're so simple why so many top-quality game designers don't practice them? Sitting in a group of people playing the same game it QUICKLY becomes obvious which features were not properly quality tested. Important features like the reticle on an FPS game being too transparent, or the wrong color - or strange delays before or after jumping or colliding that make continuity a struggle.

Rune Skovbo Johansen
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A variant of the think aloud technique is to have TWO gamers sit down and play the game together. It can be one playing and one watching, and they can take turns doing the playing. The trick is that it can feel much more natural for them to talk about what they are doing and thinking about in the game when they're two together - especially if they know each other / are friends - than telling these things to just the observer.

They can also ask each other questions when in doubt ("I wonder wonder how this item can be used?"). This helps in a natural way to put words on things that are confusing. This doesn't work as well in the single gamer variant, because the observer is normally not allowed to help figure things out (that would defeat the point), and asking questions can be awkward and unnatural when not as part of a two-way conversation. Having two people be in it together helps fostering a natural ping-pong of verbalized ideas between them, which is exactly what is needed.

Pablo Mera
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Yes, I was thinking the same thing. Two people who know each other can get much more information from one another than a stranger who's watching your every move (kinda creepy anyways). It also lets the developer watch from a distance without tainting the gaming experience making the player uncomfortable or interrupting the action.

Christopher Braithwaite
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But then you're actually testing *two* people playing the game instead of one. This approach is merely the think aloud method applied to two gamers cooperatively playing a game rather than an improvement over one player and a professional observer.

Jordan Lynn
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Well, you have a couple problems with two participants.

1) If one person has a very dominant personality, the other is more likely to agree with the first person's opinions rather than stating his or her own;

2) If the point of usability testing is to find the problem areas for your game (frustrating controls, excessively difficult puzzles, etc), then having an extra person to assist in figuring out these issues can hide them from you- the developer needs to see where and how people are getting frustrated. I'm not saying testing two people shouldn't be done- I'm warning that it shouldn't be done exclusively.

Also, when I test people one at a time, I create a dialogue- it's hard to explain in this amount of space, but it is very possible to create an environment where the think aloud process feels like a conversation with the researcher.

Nicholas Lance
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Excellent article! I think that it is easy for small game companies to feel that usability testing is beyond the scope or budget of their projects. It's nice to see some simple ways to improve games that take minimal time, effort, and cost. Keep up the good work!

Maykel Braz
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In almost all cases, people don't mind about usability, which is a great mistake and lead to a great problem after deploy / sales. This article show us how usability is important and provide four great ways to improve this aspect of our games. Thanks so much for share this one with us!

Ian Livingston
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I know I'm late to the party here, but I wanted to make three quick comments.

1) I'd like to comment on the 3rd problem with heuristic evaluation. This was an issue I was struggling with while working with an indie developer. To solve the problems of subjectivity and the lack of quantifiable ratings I developed (and published) a heuristic evaluation technique that assigns a weighted severity rating to problems based on the frequency that similar problems were observed by video game reviewers. You can find (and download) the paper here:

2) I think usability evaluation is actually very accessible to indie developers, and a really good avenue that should be explored. Some of these techniques are very cost effective, and provide great focused feedback for indie developers.

3) While Federoff's work is very interesting, it is a bit outdated now. Anyone interested in heuristic evaluation in video games should look up the works of, D. Pinelle, H. Korhonen, H. Desurvire, and C. Koeffel.