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Usability Breakthroughs: Four Techniques To Improve Your Game


September 10, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4
 

Communicating Usability Information

Once you have usability information to share with the dev team, there are a few things that might help you to present it so it has maximum impact. Remember that every feature is somebody's baby, and nobody wants to hear that their baby is ugly. If you're too critical of a feature or mechanic of a game, you may find that the devs responsible for implementing fixes to the problems you found are uncooperative or unwilling to make the changes needed.

Instead of doing a big presentation, it's often better to write up a short report on what you've found, distribute it to the dev team, and then ask for questions. Criticizing a feature in front of the whole development team may cause those responsible for it to become defensive and uncooperative. Writing up a short report (or even a bulleted list with examples) allows them to look it over on their own without pressure and ask any questions they have without feeling that they're being criticized or "put on the spot."

When you report your findings, the difference between getting cooperation and opposition from a dev team member can be as simple as the words you use, or the way you explain the problem.

Using negative words like "broken," "problem," "unusable," "confusing," or "odd" can upset the devs responsible for those features and lead to a lack of cooperation or even long drawn-out arguments.

It's often better to talk about features that "need attention" or "could be improved." Silly as it sounds, poor word choices can lead to internal conflict on teams, and conflict can lead to delays in the development process, costing the team time and money.

Do yourself a favor and pick your words carefully when talking to developers or artists about usability issues -- after all, it isn't their fault that they're not the target audience. Every game has usability issues at first, and finding them is just another part of the development process.

When describing usability issues, it's almost always better to "show" the problem rather than "tell" about it. If you have video of users making a mistake, that can be the best possible way to get a developer to recognize a problem and get behind fixing it.

During a project involving a major appliance manufacturer, a confusing interface on a refrigerator often led to test users having problems using the ice maker. The engineers involved in the product were skeptical of the report and blamed the user experience team for exaggerating the problem -- until they saw a video of the reactions of several actual users dumping ice down their shirts by accident while using the device.

Even if you can't get video of a problem, a detailed description of each of the cases where the issue occurred is more compelling than a general statement that the problem exists.

Finally, if you can calculate some basic statistics on problem rates, that can also help emphasize the importance of an issue. Saying "40 percent of our users tried to load the water bottle into the rocket launcher when they were asked to find the ammo for it" has a lot more impact than "some users confuse the water bottle with the rocket launcher ammo."

Summary

This article is intended to help development teams without access to user experience professionals apply some basic usability assessment techniques to improve both their development process and the quality of their finished games. The techniques discussed in this article can be productively employed during preproduction, development, system test, after game release and beyond. In fact, typically the earlier they are applied, the better the result.

The difference in cost between identifying usability problems during preproduction versus during alpha or beta can be huge, with some estimates ranging as high as 100x the cost to fix usability problems identified post-release as during preproduction. Early and effective usability testing can not only improve the quality of the final project, but can also result in real and significant savings by the studio throughout the development process.

Deciding which usability techniques to use can be a challenge. As in most aspects of game development, the amount of available time and the cost of procedures are often the deciding factor in which (and how many) usability techniques are applied to the development process. In addition to the limited number of techniques presented here all usability techniques have strengths and weaknesses that should be evaluated before a single approach is decided on. Often a combination of techniques yields the best results.

Development team members (developers, artists, and designers) taking on the role of usability testers should remember a few important points. The goal of this process is to understand the system from the perspective of the player.

This means team members must be willing to step outside their usual role and take their ego out of the equation. Often users will have trouble using features that seem intuitive to developers, or may dislike features of the game that developers are personally invested in. This type of player reaction may be upsetting or irritating to development team members.

In these cases, it's tempting to blame the player or attribute their confusion to stupidity or laziness. Developers must try to remember that no matter how much they like playing and building games, unless they are building a game intended only be played by game developers, they are not the same type of people as the intended user of their product.

The knowledge and attitudes that make them good developers also make them different from the majority of game players, who typically do not think as developers think or know what developers know. Ignoring problems that players have with a game because "the users are stupid" only hurts the studio in the long run, when end-users choose not to buy the game or criticize it on the internet.

As studios begin to focus more on early and effective application of usability testing as a means of cutting costs and enhancing product quality, it may become harder for smaller studios to remain competitive in this area. Outsourcing usability to user experience groups or developing equivalent capabilities in-house is one solution, but in the absence of professional usability support, development teams can still benefit from usability testing methods through a user-centered mindset and the use of techniques such as those identified in this article.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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