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Original author: 
Thomas Joos

  

As a mobile UI or UX designer, you probably remember the launch of Apple’s first iPhone as if it was yesterday. Among other things, it introduced a completely touchscreen-centered interaction to a individual’s most private and personal device. It was a game-changer.

Today, kids grow up with touchscreen experiences like it’s the most natural thing. Parents are amazed by how fast their children understand how a tablet or smartphone works. This shows that touch and gesture interactions have a lot of potential to make mobile experiences easier and more fun to use.

Challenging Bars And Buttons

The introduction of “Human Interface Guidelines” and Apple’s App Review Board had a great impact on the quality of mobile applications. It helped a lot of designers and developers understand the core mobile UI elements and interactions. One of Apple’s popular suggestions, for instance, is to use UITabBar and UINavigationBar components — a guideline that many of us have followed, including me.

In fact, if you can honestly say that the first iPhone application you designed didn’t have any top or bottom bar elements, get in touch and send over a screenshot. I will buy you a beer and gladly tweet that you were ahead of your time.

My issue with the top and bottom bars is that they fill almost 20% of the screen. When designing for a tiny canvas, we should use every available pixel to focus on the content. In the end, that’s what really matters.

In this innovative industry, mobile designers need some time to explore how to design more creative and original interfaces. Add to that Apple’s frustrating rejection of apps that “think outside the box,” it is no surprise that experimental UI and UX designs such as Clear and Rise took a while to see the light of day. But they are here now. And while they might be quite extreme and focused on high-brow users and early adopters, they show us the great creative potential of gesture-driven interfaces.

Rise and Clear
Pulling to refresh feels very intuitive.

The Power Of Gesture-Driven Interfaces

For over two years now, I’ve been exploring the ways in which gestures add value to the user experience of a mobile application. The most important criterion for me is that these interactions feel very intuitive. This is why creative interactions such as Loren Brichter’s “Pull to Refresh” have become a standard in no time. Brichter’s interaction, introduced in Tweetie for iPhone, feels so intuitive that countless list-based applications suddenly adopted the gesture upon its appearance.

Removing UI Clutter

A great way to start designing a more gesture-driven interface is to use your main screen only as a viewport to the main content. Don’t feel obliged to make important navigation always visible on the main screen. Rather, consider giving it a place of its own. Speaking in terms of a virtual 2-D or 3-D environment, you could design the navigation somewhere next to, below, behind, in front of, above or hidden on top of the main view. A dragging or swiping gesture is a great way to lead the user to this UI element. It’s up to you to define and design the app.

What I like about Facebook and Gmail on iOS, for instance, is their implementation of a “side-swiping” menu. This trending UI concept is very easy to use. Users swipe the viewport to the right to reveal navigation elements. Not only does this make the app very content-focused, but accessing any section of the application takes only two to three touch interactions. A lot of apps do far worse than that!

Sideswipe Menu
Facebook and Gmail’s side-swiping menu

In addition to the UI navigation, your app probably also supports contextual interactions, too. Adding the same two or three buttons below every content item will certainly clutter the UI! While buttons might seem to be useful triggers, gestures have great potential to make interaction with content more intuitive and fun. Don’t hesitate to integrate simple gestures such as tapping, double-tapping and tapping-and-holding to trigger important interactions. Instagram supports a simple double-tap to perform one of its key features, liking and unliking a content item. I would not be surprised to see other apps integrate this shortcut in the near future.

An Interface That Fits

When designing an innovative mobile product, predicting user behavior can be very difficult. When we worked with Belgium’s Public Radio, my team really struggled with the UI balance between music visualization and real-time news. The sheer number of contextual scenarios and preferences made it very hard to come up with the perfect UI. So, we decided to integrate a simple dragging gesture to enable users to adjust the balance themselves.

Radio+
By dragging, users can balance music-related content and live news.

This gesture adds a creative contextual dimension to the application. The dragging gesture does not take the user from one section (news or music) to another. Rather, it enables the user to focus on the type of content they are most interested in, without missing out on the other.

Think in Terms of Time, Dimension and Animation

What action is triggered when the user taps an item? And how do you visualize that it has actually happened? How fast does a particular UI element animate into the viewport? Does it automatically go off-screen after five seconds of no interaction?

The rise of touch and gesture-driven devices dramatically changes the way we design interaction. Instead of thinking in terms of screens and pages, we are thinking more in terms of time, dimension and animation. You’ve probably noticed that fine-tuning user interactions and demonstrating them to colleagues and clients with static wireframe screenshots is not easy. You don’t fully see, understand and feel what will happen when you touch, hold, drag and swipe items.

Certain prototyping tools, including Pop and Invision, can help bring wireframes to life. They are very useful for testing an application’s flow and for pinpointing where and when a user might get stuck. Your application has a lot more going on than simple back-and-forth navigation, so you need to detect interface bugs and potential sources of confusion as soon as possible. You wouldn’t want your development team to point them out to you now, would you?

InvisionApp
Invision enables you to import and link your digital wireframes.

To be more innovative and experimental, get together with your client first and explain that a traditional wireframe is not the UX deliverable that they need. Show the value of interactive wireframes and encourage them to include this in the process. It might increase the timeline and budget, but if they are expecting you to go the extra mile, it shouldn’t be a problem.

I even offer to produce a conceptual interface video for my clients as well, because once they’ve worked with the interactive wireframes and sorted out the details, my clients will often need something sexier to present to their internal stakeholders.

The Learning Curve

When designing gesture-based interactions, be aware that every time you remove UI clutter, the application’s learning curve goes up. Without visual cues, users could get confused about how to interact with the application. A bit of exploration is no problem, but users should know where to begin. Many apps show a UI walkthrough when first launched, and I agree with Max Rudberg that walkthroughs should explain only the most important interactions. Don’t explain everything at once. If it’s too explicit and long, users will skip it.

Why not challenge yourself and gradually introduce creative UI hints as the user uses the application? This pattern is often referred to as progressive disclosure and is a great way to show only the information that is relevant to the user’s current activity. YouTube’s Capture application, for instance, tells the user to rotate the device to landscape orientation just as the user is about to open the camera for the first time.

Visual Hints
Fight the learning curve with a UI walkthrough and/or visual hints.

Adding visual cues to the UI is not the only option. In the Sparrow app, the search bar appears for a few seconds, before animating upwards and going off screen, a subtle way to say that it’s waiting to be pulled down.

Stop Talking, Start Making

The iPhone ushered in a revolution in interactive communication. Only five years later, touchscreen devices are all around us, and interaction designers are redefining the ways people use digital content.

We need to explore and understand the potential of touch and gesture-based interfaces and start thinking more in terms of time, dimension and animation. As demonstrated by several innovative applications, gestures are a great way to make an app more content-focused, original and fun. And many gesture-based interactions that seem too experimental at first come to be seen as very intuitive.

For a complete overview of the opportunities for gestures on all major mobile platforms, check out Luke Wroblewski’s “Touch Gesture Reference Overview.” I hope you’re inspired to explore gesture-based interaction and intensify your adventures in mobile interfaces. Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile. With interactive wireframes, you can iterate your way to the best possible experience. So, let’s stop talking and start making.

(al)

© Thomas Joos for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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I sincerely believe that the user experience community should add game design to its toolbox of competencies. If we’re truly committed to creating satisfying user experiences, then there’s no reason why games, which can satisfy people so richly, should be excluded.

Operating successfully in the games domain means learning a new set of competencies, and I don’t want to oversimplify the challenges of designing high-quality game experiences. However, if you’re in a position to jump in and start designing, then I can at least offer a primer to help you steer clear of some of the most common mistakes.

1. Games Should Be Games First

Trading off the quality of the player experience in favor of some real-world objective is always self-defeating. This is the recurring problem with “gamified” designs, which too often just cynically tack points and leaderboards onto a product that is fundamentally gameless. First and foremost, a game needs to be enjoyed.

Schwab MoneyWise’s It’s Your Life game has a noble mission: to convince people to save more money for retirement and other long-term objectives. It’s Your Life presents players with a number of choices between spending and saving money over the course of a simulated lifetime. At the end, players get a letter grade on how well they did.

A screen from Schwab's It's Your Life game
At each step in Schwab’s It’s Your Life game, the choice that will lead to a winning outcome is pretty obvious.

The problem is that the designers were much more interested in hammering home their message than creating an actual game experience. If you want to win the game, then the right choice each step of the way is to save your money and not spend any of it. Ever. On anything. You can earn an A+, the highest possible score, if you:

  • Skip college,
  • Never move out of your parents’ house,
  • Never get married,
  • Never have children,
  • Never travel or take any vacations,
  • Work indefinitely past the age of 65,
  • Die alone with a lot of money and no one to leave it to.

I’m sure the designers reasoned that someone playing through the scenarios would elect to do meaningful things with their life, but they set up the scenarios so that doing nothing with one’s life while saving vigorously would be the surest way to win. Even though It’s Your Life is packaged as a game, the designers didn’t commit to it being experienced as a game.

2. Play Test, Play Test, Play Test

Games are highly dynamic experiences. The flow of events changes from moment to moment, and each decision a player makes can lead to a multiplicity of outcomes. Most games are also programmed with an element of randomness, so a player never has quite the same experience twice. Multiplayer games throw even more unpredictability into the mix.

As a result, the designer directly controls not the gameplay, but rather the underlying system in which play unfolds. Without actually seeing the game in action, you cannot reliably anticipate how it will work. Mike Ambinder, an experimental psychologist at game developer Valve, puts it in scientific terms: “Every game design is a hypothesis, and every instance of play is an experiment.”

Be prepared to put your game under the microscope again and again, and to adapt the design to make it more enjoyable.

3. Games Don’t Have To Be For Kids

With a large market catering to them, kids have the latitude to be very discerning consumers of games. Marketing campaigns pushing big-budget titles already crowd out one another, so you’ll find that just getting a young gamer’s attention is a tremendous challenge. You can’t assume that kids will want to play your game just because it’s a game.

And these days, kids are the minority of people who play video games. Eighty-two percent of gamers are over the age of 18, and 29% are 50 and older. Grown-ups are sometimes more receptive to playing games outside of the mainstream, and they have more disposable income to spend on games (i.e. if you plan to sell your game).

Only 18 percent of game players in the U.S. are under 18 years old
Kids under 18 represent a small minority of game players.

This is not to say that kids cannot make up a portion of your audience. But if your game is clearly intended for young children — as announced in breathless starbursts, reading “Hey, kids!” and “Super-cool!” — then you will turn off the larger segment of gamers. So, consider targeting your game to an older age group while keeping it accessible to a broad range of ages.

4. Action Can Be Boring

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is an amazing action game. It also took years to make and a team comprising dozens of designers, artists and engineers at a cost of many millions of dollars. You’re probably not making Call of Duty.

It’s very difficult to sustain adrenaline-pumping excitement for long. If you do choose to make an action-based game on a small scale, you’ll find that you’re limited to very simple and short-lived scenarios, such as racing a car, throwing a basketball or shooting a spaceship. Taken on their own, these types of experiences tend to grow tiresome quickly.

You’ll find a lot of creative opportunity in games that make the player think through interesting choices instead of executing twitch responses. The card game Hearts, for example, is all about choices. Which three cards should I pass to my opponent? Should I play a high card or a low card? If I play clubs one more time, will someone else stick me with the queen of spades? Should I shoot for the moon, or will that prove self-destructive? Each choice is evaluated from one trick to the next, depending on the changing conditions of your hand and on new information about what other players have done. Even though Hearts can be a fairly long game, it holds the players’ interest without any laser blasters or lava levels.

The card game Hearts
Hearts creates excitement by presenting players with a lot of interesting choices.

5. Fit The Game Into The Player’s Lifestyle

Think about the real-life contexts in which people will play the game. Start the design process by asking:

  • Who are your players?
  • How much time do players have to give to the game, and how much of that time will your players actually be willing to give?
  • Will your players need to take a break from the game and continue it later?
  • Where will your players be when they’re playing the game?
  • What kind of hardware, software and Internet access will be available to your players?

Unisys developed a series of online games for the company’s sales team to send to customers as holiday greetings. A customer would receive a link by email to an online holiday card with a personal message from the salesperson. The card would then open into the game, branded with Unisys’ logo.

Screenshot of the Unisys mini-golf game
Unisys’ mini-golf game was designed to be a quick, nonintrusive diversion from the workday.

Because the players were receiving these emails at work, the games couldn’t require a significant investment of time to reach the end, so all of them were designed to last less than five minutes. And because many players would be accessing the game while sitting in a cubicle, with their computer speakers probably turned off, the few sounds in the games were not made essential to the experience.

FarmVille cleverly makes itself adaptable to the player’s lifestyle. Players need to dedicate only a few minutes at a time, during which they can plant seeds for crops that take different amounts of real-world time to harvest. Raspberries take just two hours, so they’re useful when the player is able to check in several times a day. Eight-hour pumpkins fit in well just before and after a workday. Artichokes take four days to harvest — better for players who are able to check in only now and then. These staggered growth rates allow the time commitment to be made on the player’s own terms.

Different crops mature at different rates in Farmville
The staggered harvest times for crops in FarmVille allow players to decide how much gameplay they can fit into their lives.

6. Create Meaningful Experience

Players have to invest their time, concentration and problem-solving abilities to the challenges that a game throws at them. There should be a point to these efforts, a payoff for their investment. When the game ends, players should come away feeling that the experience was meaningful.

A great example is the card game Killer Bunnies, in which success is ultimately determined by a card picked randomly from the deck. The player who holds the match for that card (the “magic carrot”) is declared the winner. No player has any control over which card is picked; the selection is completely random. But the gameplay does give players some control over which matching cards they hold. Players compete for carrot cards over the course of the game, and shrewd players will work to hold the greatest number of them before the game is over. The game says a lot about the players’ mastery of the strategy, tolerance for risk and skill at reading other people. Players come away from the game knowing that they had control over their chances of success, which makes the experience meaningful.

Picture of the carrot cards in Killer Bunnies
Players exercise some control over the outcome of Killer Bunnies by acquiring carrot cards, increasing the probability that they’ll capture the randomly selected magic carrot.

7. Don’t Cheat

Because video game rules are enforced inside the black box of the computer’s circuitry, there’s a temptation among designers to take shortcuts by letting the game cheat. Don’t give in to that temptation. Players will be able to tell when a game is cheating, and they will resent it.

Suppose you’re designing a blackjack game that matches a player against a computerized dealer. As the designer, you need to write a script to control the dealer’s actions. You want the dealer to be a little hard to beat but not impossible. One easy way to create challenge would be to let the script choose which card from the deck is drawn next. You would then program the dealer to pick a card that either wins or loses, and put in a randomizing function so that two out of every three times it picks a winning card. This also creates an easy way to allow players to change the difficulty, so that on a harder setting the dealer will pick a winning card four out of every five times, while on an easier setting it will win just one out of every three. How would anyone even know you’re cheating?

After playing the game a few times, you’ll see how. The dealer will do seemingly irrational things, such as hitting on 20 and magically drawing an ace. The deck will not seem random, because certain cards will tend to show up early and others will show up only after those preferred cards have been drawn. After several play-throughs, these patterns will become obvious. When players realize that a game is cheating, they’ll make the ultimate winning move by turning it off.

8. Skip The Manual

The best way to convince people that a game is worth playing is by letting them jump in and try it out for themselves. Presenting written instructions at the beginning of every new game merely creates a barrier to entry at the very time when you want to be most accommodating of players. Instructions can also become a crutch, used to justify unconventional and unintuitive choices in the interface.

The best place to teach people how to play a game is right there in the game itself. Tutorials have become one of the most familiar patterns in games. Ask yourself, “What’s the smallest amount of information the player needs to make the first move?” Then provide nothing more than that; you can get to the second move when the time comes. Playing is learning. If people are interested in the game, they’ll be motivated to fill in the blanks themselves by playing it.

Screen from Kanyu
In Bri Lance’s game Kanyu, step-by-step instructions on how to play are cleverly incorporated into the game’s storyline.

9. Make The Game Make Sense

Players need to understand why things happen in the game in order to feel that they’re in control. In game design, a sensible experience relies on some mutual understanding between the designer and the player:

  • When the player loses, the reason they lost should be clear. If it’s not, then the player won’t be able to get better at the game by avoiding the same mistake in future.
  • When the player wins, the reason they won should be clear. If not, then replicating the victory will be hard.
  • Every effect should have a clear cause. When something happens, the player should be able to see why it happened.
  • The object of the game should be clear. The player needs to know what they’re working toward.
  • The player should always know what actions may be performed. At every moment, visible or aural cues should be provided to let the player know what they can do.

10. Make It Easy To Try Again

Step back and think about the game as a discontinuous and iterative experience. When a player loses, cycling back into the game to try again should be instant and effortless. Even large commercial games with multimillion-dollar development budgets make the mistake of forcing a lengthy loading screen into that anxious period between a player’s loss and a second attempt. Stretching that space of time to the second, third or twentieth go-round inevitably tries the player’s patience. Games such as Braid and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time take a clever route around this problem by allowing players to rewind time to a safe point before their losing moment.

Playing To Your Strengths

These 10 guidelines will help you get started, but plenty of challenges lie ahead as you set about designing and developing your game, and you’ll need to learn how to manage them as they come up. One last piece of advice is to play to your strengths. If you have a background in designing conventional user interfaces, by all means use the skills and techniques that you gained from it. Wireframing, user testing, rapid prototyping, storyboarding, flow diagramming and other core skills all translate well to game design and can help you pull through the inevitable rough patches. When a game design issue confounds you, trust your instincts and ask how you would handle a similar problem outside of the context of the game. More often than not, you’ll point yourself in the right direction.

(al)

© John Ferrara for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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As the year draws to a close, we asked some A List Apart readers to tell us what they learned about the web in 2011. Together their responses summarize the joys and challenges of this magical place we call the internet. We need to continue to iterate, to embrace change, and challenge complexity to keep shipping. Above all, we must continue to reach out to one another, to teach, to support, to help, and to build the community that sustains us.

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