Engaging the User: What We Can Learn from Games

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As an Interaction Designer, I’m perpetually impressed with the continual design success inherent in most video games. We are taught to know our users by understanding their goals, leveraging mental models, and taking ourselves out of the equation in order to design useful and appropriate interfaces. And although a user-centered design approach is invaluable, I can’t help but wonder how game designers just seem to nail it time and again for what are large and diverse audiences.

Now, I have to confess that I’m not a hard-core gamer. I dabble on occasion, but mostly prefer to watch others play, as well as keep abreast of the industry. What is clear to me, is that the experiences are immersive, the storylines compelling, and the business itself, well, huge! So, just what is it about the domain-formerly-known-as interactive entertainment that makes it so engaging?

First, Knowing What We’re Up Against

Let’s be honest, doing your taxes using software as a service or completing a registration form isn’t exactly as enjoyable as a Halo LAN Party or rocking out in Guitar Hero. Gaming has a clear advantage here. This focus on the act of gaming is also very different than using traditional software, where the completion of a task leads one closer to a desired outcome or goal. Software is really just a means to an end; nothing more than a tool for most.

The game play journey on the other hand, can be as important to the user as achieving their goal of completing the game. A good experience needs to be rooted in an emotional dialog with a good story. One could even argue that the interactive component introduces another dimension altogether, thereby perhaps even making it more emotional as compared to a passive experience like watching a film or reading a book.

The sheer amount of time users invest in playing is also a major difference. Gamers can spend tens of hours practicing and honing their skills. That said, it also means that early stages are especially important because users won’t continue playing unless the experience is perceived as worthwhile.

New Media Culture, Meet Everyone Else

In the last few years, gaming has become much more widespread, having made tremendous inroads into Mainstreamville. You’d be hard-pressed not to find a console as the living room entertainment hub and the incredible success of the Nintendo Wii has contributed greatly.

The generation that grew up playing early video games is now also leading the way in designing experiences and their backgrounds have unmistakably influenced their work in the way of incorporating traditional gaming mechanisms. The gap between previously sovereign digital platforms has indeed converged, and they are now inextricably intertwined.

What that means, is that everyday users are now bringing mental models from what used to be segregated digital arenas to the interfaces we design. As Interaction Designers, it is our responsibility to understand that, so as to then be able to imagine and create designs users can intuit more easily. (I’d even go so far as to state that embracing this convergence actually makes our jobs that much more interesting, but more on that later).

OK, so gaming is popular and some really smart folks have begun to take the field seriously. Why should we care and what does all this mean? Well, there are interactions we can leverage (a kind of gamesmanship, if you will) in our day-to-day design work. Although we’ll need to set aside some of the advantages discussed earlier, there are still general principles we can learn from and borrow.

Everyday users are now bringing mental models from what used to be segregated digital arenas to the interfaces we design. As Interaction Designers, it is our responsibility to understand that.

Useful Game Design Techniques

In assessing some of the research out there and coupling it with my own experience, I’ve tried to corral some of the themes that emerged. Here is a collection of nine techniques with examples of how they might be applied.

The Edge and Back: Taking users to the very edge of their perceived comfort zones can have amazing affects. (Actually, this technique applies in all walks of life, but I digress). Video games tend to get harder as a user makes progress, meaning they’re also always getting better.

This technique can arguably be interpreted as being similar to what’s known within the user experience field as Progressive Disclosure. Exposing users to increasingly complex or advanced features as they gain familiarity with an application is powerful stuff.

Degree of Difficulty: Most games allow you to choose how challenging you want the experience to be. Some games even allow for practice tutorials and playable demos.

Complex systems that require a degree of mastery come to mind here; things like software for architects, which can do everything from actual 3D modeling, to budgeting for building materials. An embedded example project – much like the examples included within Adobe’s design products – also help users get started. (Can you imagine software that allows users to first choose their ability level; perhaps even incrementally increasing the level of complexity as they gain confidence?)

Power to the User: We all like to be in control and video games are empowering. As protagonists, gamers feel like they’re in command of their virtual world. This is actually pretty remarkable considering that most games are designed with a pre-determined outcome – albeit some more loosely than others. It’s that perception of being in control that is the real magic here.

On the web, examples can include giving users the freedom to come back to a registration process when they don’t have a specific piece of data available at that particular moment; or, allowing for partial completion of a profile (e.g., LinkedIn), potentially providing incentives to complete the process later.

You Are Here: Giving users constant status updates as to where they stand in their virtual world is something games do incredibly well. For example, being able to instantly access a level map at any time is very reassuring.

Translating this to web design can be as simple as using breadcrumb trails and status indicators during registrations or checkout flows. Bigger picture stuff can perhaps include encouraging exploration by showing users what percentage of an application’s features they have encountered up to that point (i.e., “Oh, I see that I’ve only been using this percent of the app; I wonder what else it can do?”)

“Tell Me What I Need to Know When I Really Need to Know It”: Providing users with information at the moment they need it most is something video games do a great job of. Games offer up useful tips that the user can dismiss or opt-out of entirely.

Having users learn through actual usage is key and inline links to contextual information/ help content is probably the most common application here. (see als: The iPhone is Not Easy to Use, by Fred Beecher)

Task Accomplishment and a Sense of Accomplishment: Traditional usability testing generally involves capturing metrics like: “Did the user accomplish Task A: Yes or No?” and the paths taken. However, when game developers test their wares, they also try to gauge the overall experience (i.e., Was it fun? Was it hard? Was it easy? Was it too easy? Would the user play again? Why or why not?) This focus on the large canvas logic – in addition to the usability of game play mechanics, of course – provides incredibly rich data that can be the difference between success and failure.

The takeaway here is to make sure stakeholders don’t become mired in the details around the success or failure of specific tasks and loose sight of whether the larger concept makes strategic sense.

Shared Experience: Capturing and then presenting issues that users encountered can be a wonderful way of educating the ones that come thereafter. The MMORPG EverQuest has a great deal of support available, but the game is designed to encourage “soloing” early on – meaning a user goes off to explore by themselves to gain experience. As the levels become more challenging however, “grouping” is encouraged so they can learn from one another in increasingly complex environments.

An interesting example of leveraging collective knowledge can be found within TurboTax, which uses their “Live Community” feature to bubble-up the most common questions during specific tax preparation steps. Answers from previous users and tax experts are displayed to the right of where users are working.

Sensory OptimumLoad: (Versus, of course, sensory overload, which is not a good thing). The highly interactive nature of gaming and the engagement of the senses is part of its allure. However, well-crafted games unfold their stimuli gracefully, allowing for a gradual period of acclimatization. Consistency is also a critical component because these interactions ultimately become a language the user relies upon. System feedback – in the way of visuals, sounds, and haptic controller vibrations – are an ongoing dialog.

As mentioned earlier, when users first encounter an interface, they bring their “baggage” in the way of existing knowledge from previous experience and conventions. They either expect things to behave a certain way; or, have to draw upon related experiences to try and make sense of them. This speaks to a need for standardization within a product, which hopefully also leverages established domain conventions.

FunNess: And lastly, having some fun is always good. Doing something that’s fun means it’s engaging, which in turn makes learning about it easier. Understandably, not every interaction can be a barrel of laughs, but there are plenty of ways to inject some creativity here and there.

Language and tone-of-voice is a simple way to make things a little more interesting. I recently encountered a mundane Terms & Conditions checkbox interaction that playfully stated: “Our lawyers make us do it.” That one sentence put a smile on my face and made me think a bit differently about the company. (see also JohnnyTV: Designing Humanity Into Your Products, by Bill DeRouchey)


As we have seen, convergence among what have historically been very siloed experiences has now expanded the universe of options Interaction Designers have to choose from. The challenge of course, is that the next-generation of experiences will not only need to be both useful and appropriate, they’ll also need to engage users more than ever before. My final words of advice in that case: choose wisely, be creative, and don’t be afraid to inject some fun. All in all, I’d say things just got a lot more interesting.

Top image: Wii promo photo

Marc Sasinski

Marc Sasinski is a User Experience Lead with Citrix Online in Santa Barbara, California. His previous experience includes working for a User Research and Design consultancy in Chicago, Illinois with clients ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. Marc also holds an M.S. in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.

17 comments on this article

  1. Good article. I think also something games have in their favour is the high level of input tolerance. Even if it’s your first time playing an FPS and you’re way off aim and walk around like a drunk … you can still move and function. Unlike a business application UI which requires a more logical and ordered approach. In a game you can take an infinite number of routes from Point A to B. In an application you have to click the right button in the right location on the screen to trigger the right process.

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  3. Jason on

    @NathanielB: Actually, the entertainment software space is very competitive and flooded with choices. If I hate one shooter, I can always play another. Hence usability and user experience is actually quite important here. When it comes to office productivity choices, if you work at a large company you don’t likely have many software choices so there are probably fewer pressures to get the user experience right.

    @MarcS: Don’t forget that game user research (usability, playtesting with real “users”) is a growing field within game development. I’m a game user experience consultant myself, and I conduct both usability and playtesting research for my game development clients. It’s not really a “technique for design”, but like the relationship between editor and writer, we tend to mesh nicely with our content creation counterparts.

    Also, as an aside, thanks for the article. It’s one more post I’ll need to send to an old boss who never believed me when I said we could learn from games how to make our statistical software user interface better :)

  4. Sounds like the dream job Jason :)

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  7. David Locke on

    Traditional software applications are games. The user has a goal. That goal is achieved through successive troubleshooting loops. Each loop moves a user towards or away from the goal, so there is a score in some sense.

    The goal requires movement through a geography. For learners, these troubleshooting loops uncover and fill out the user conceptual model. These troubleshooting loops are where skills are acquired. Those skills are organized by levels. You use a wizard (correctly), when it is used to insulate a user from the details of a task, details that are probably spread throughout the menu structure.

    You could say that learning is scheduled in a traditional app just like it is in a game. Guided discovery reveals a single aspect of an application at a time.

    Collaboration can be built into a traditional application just like it is in a game. Features>Tool Tasks>User Tasks>Activities>Work Design>Work>Work Product, so goals lead to additional goals. And, goals require working across layers, spaces, rooms if you will.

    Traditional applications also accumulate data over time. You can consider use to be capture and pursuit games where data gets entered at certain rates or arrival times. Decisions arrive. Observations get oriented. Sensor data fused. Decisions lead to projects, or processes, or a long series of tasks or activities.

    Framing a traditional application as a game is a decision. Once made metaphors and parallels abound.

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  10. Hey Marc, can you ask Product to add tetris to GoToMeeting? I think it would make people more, like, engaged.

    Seriously though, great article. It would be interesting to dissect a video game organization & see how they break down design roles to produce engaging products. I’m also curious about what education & background these designers have, and how they differ from our brand of interaction design.


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  12. davidicus on

    this article pretty much nails it. i think the game industry is immature, in that developers’ internal processes and graphic design sensibilities are underdeveloped; however, it knows how to keep players engaged, and i think Marc has hit all the important ways.

    a couple things that came to mind while reading:

    i’m not sure why software tools have to slavishly follow the sterile dictates of modernism. it’s helpful in some ways, but others need to be questioned. beauty makes things more usable, and visual fashions change quickly. check out web trends. often, more architectural aspects are consistent and minimal, but watercolor and torn paper can be the style on top. if there’s one thing i’ve learned from working in games, it’s that a stunning visual can go a long way to drawing out an emotional reaction.

    can’t tools be emotional too? sure, there was a time when carrot-peelers just needed to be functional and efficient, but now we see they can have bright colors, interesting textures, and even faces.

    i’m a fan of games with adaptive difficulty–the experiential ones, not the puzzle or skill-based variety. surely this would be powerful in regular software too. in games the enemies are often chasing, avoiding, or shooting at the player, and they typically adapt their tactics, speed, and accuracy. define your enemies as lesser-used features or type size or whatever you come up with, and it’s easy to determine how users could more easily conquer them.

    accomplishment is everything in a game. it makes them addictive, and that’s a prized adjective. most software exists to reach goals, but i’ve used plenty where the goal could be explicit, and each milestone more rewarding.

    and, all software could use more particle explosions.

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  15. Even if it’s your first time playing an FPS and you’re way off aim and walk around like a drunk … you can still move and function. Unlike a business application UI which requires a more logical and ordered approach. In a game you can take an infinite number of routes from Point A to B. In an application you have to click the right button in the right location on the screen to trigger the right process.