Ask a UXpert: How Can You Integrate Game Design Concepts into the User Experience?

by Oliver Lindberg

posted on 03-28-2018

Games often create intense, emotional experiences. And so it comes as no surprise that game designers use approaches and practices to create engagement that can be applied to digital product and UX design, and in particular, interaction design. In fact, some designers argue that nearly everything we should know about crafting an experience can be learned (and learned better) by studying game design.

We invited five designers and UX strategists to explain how games can inspire user experiences and how to integrate concepts from the world of gaming into a product’s UX. Here’s what they’ve come up with.

Catt Small

Play up thoughtful complexity, emotion, and feedback

One thing game designers excel at is balancing simplicity with complexity. By measuring the value complexity adds to an experience, you can determine whether or not to add friction. For example, if there is an overwhelming amount of necessary data on a page, hiding some of that data when the page loads and showing it only when requested by the viewer may provide a more positive user experience.

Good games also focus on the emotions players should feel. UX designers can utilize a technique called journey mapping, or the process of documenting how a user feels while performing a set of tasks. This technique enables designers to locate pain points of existing experiences, avoid potential pitfalls, and find areas within a project where the brand can be expressed through animation, copy, and easter eggs.

Another important concept is responsiveness: visible and audible feedback from a system. Many game designers refer to this as ‘game feel’ or ‘juice,’ and it is often expressed by shaking the game’s camera, playing sounds, and changing the scale, transparency, as well as color of objects. One example from a user experience is Facebook Messenger’s Like button: holding it down increases the size of the emoji, and it shakes when the button has reached its maximum scale.

There are many more ways that game design can inspire user experiences, but these are a few of my favorites. I hope gamification continues to become less popular. Games are so much more than points and badges!

~ Catt Small_, product designer and game maker

Dori Adar

The clearer the goal, the better the engagement

My core belief is that every system with goals and rules, be it the stock market, a board meeting, or your drive home, is already a game. Sometimes you just have to tweak some parameters to allow for more playful use.

One of my favorite examples that it sticks in my head, mainly because it’s somewhat awkward, is the gamification of the urinal. A urinal — a system with one clear goal and one clear rule. Apparently, some men were not very successful at playing that game. To help them play more accurately, a smart designer decided to put a sticker of a fly on the urinal. All of a sudden, players had a very clear target in front of their eyes and their performance had significantly improved.

This short and quirky story can teach us something about the ways people interact with systems. The clearer and more explicit the goal is, the better the overall engagement. Therefore, when I’m integrating game features into non-game products, the first thing I ask myself is “how do players win here?” and then make sure to transcend the answer, as vividly and explicitly as possible to the players.

~ Dori Adar, game designer, public speaker, and educator

Stephen Anderson

Learn from scrappy prototypes

The most striking contrast between product design and game design is in the devotion to playtesting. With games, you test whatever you can, as soon as you can. You learn whatever you can along the way. Have an idea for a game? You get it on the table as soon as possible, sometimes within a few hours. The earliest versions of a game may be nothing more than scribblings on blank index cards, but this is perfect, if it is just enough to begin learning what works — and what doesn’t.

Concepts such as the minimum viable product (MVP) or ‘Lean’ are supposed to be about embracing this learning mindset — starting from a place of humility, ready to learn all that we don’t know. In practice, we rarely test the thing — even a rough, primitive version — early enough with the people we expect to someday use it. And, we almost never leave enough room to learn from or respond to the tests we do run. There’s an implicit process here, in which we: (1) gather all this input, (2) synthesize it, (3) start to translate that into something coherent, and (4) then test. If this sounds familiar, here’s a challenge: Let users play with a semi-coherent version of your product within the first week of a project kickoff. Then, include users as co-designers throughout the entire design and development process. Go for at least 100 ‘playtesting’ sessions with your app idea or software before anything is publicly released.

~ Stephen Anderson, designer, speaker, and consultant

Elsa Bartley

Games can help us make heroes of our users

One thing video games excel at is teaching you how to play them and how to become their expert user through a process of exploration and retrial until you understand the underlying systems. Games engage you with a shared understanding of there being a challenge, and a need to learn and evolve.Think about your users, new and expert alike, how they operate differently and how you’re going to help them transition from beginners to specialists and even to advocates.

Linear games control the learning curve: each level gets a little more difficult, based on what you achieved on the previous level. But non-linear games need to make their complexity transparent: these enemies are too hard, you don’t have the parts for this puzzle. It’s about enabling the user to understand their own progress and whether they need to explore/learn more. The key here is the user must feel like they can still progress, so the complexity feels like a chance to develop rather than a barrier to their objective.

Signposting in non-linear games is fundamental to helping your users explore and engage their curiosity: that flashing object looks interesting or that light in the distance. In UX we often have to deal with complexity, but by carefully highlighting and directing attention we too can help a user with a journey, without enforcing a linear journey on them.

As user experience professionals we aim to understand user journeys and design accordingly, but when we can find opportunities to enable our users to explore, we can make them feel like heroes.

~ Elsa Bartley, senior UX designer and co-organizer of LadyCADE

Melinda Jacobs

Use game mechanics to bring users closer to your narrative

Games are extraordinarily successful at creating engagement and triggering states of flow. The nature of games — often fictional narratives that introduce artificial rules and conflict — requires designers to pay attention to the full journey of the user to make sure they remain challenged, curious, interested, engaged, and ultimately successful throughout the entire narrative. It’s no surprise we want to bring this state of engagement into all experiences we design.

When designing an experience, start by laying out the journey of your user. What’s the reason for the experience? What’s the story you’re telling? And what’s the process (the journey) you’re facilitating? Is it renting a car? Booking a hotel? Tracking calories? All experiences have a narrative that drives them and a journey the experience facilitates. Once you have this mapped out, just as games do, look for challenges the user will face, pitfalls you want to help them overcome, and missed opportunities you want to help them see, or reach. Using artificial limitations or conflict, as games often do, can be useful in guiding the user passed challenges and pitfalls. If you’re afraid a user may drop out before a process is complete, a simple progress bar or step indicator can resolve this. It’s not because progress bars always drive completion, but in most cases it helps the user understand what they need to do in order to achieve success. It gives them a context to their environment. The application of context can often drive motivation.

~ Melinda Jacobs, founder and managing partner of digital experience agency Subatomic

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Topics: Creativity, Design

Products: Creative Cloud