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The iPad may have started it, but the high resolution screen will soon be the norm. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired.com

The rise of high-resolution screens means that web developers need resolution-independent graphics or images look blurry. For photographs responsive images may be the solution, but for simpler graphics like logos and icons there’s an easy solution that’s been with us for some time — Scalable Vector Graphics or SVG.

A slightly blurry icon or logo on a retina display probably isn’t going to drive your visitors away, but if it’s easy to fix and can potentially save you some bandwidth as well, why not?

Historically, browser support for SVG has not been particularly good, but these days SVG images work just about everywhere, except older versions of IE. Thankfully it isn’t hard to serve up regular old PNG files to older versions of IE while keeping the resolution-independent goodness for everyone else.

Developer David Bushell recently tackled the topic of SVG graphics in a very thorough post titled A Primer to Front-end SVG Hacking. Bushell covers using SVG graphics in image tags, stylesheets, sprites and even the old-school <object> method. He’s also got a great list of external resources, including SVGeezy for IE fallback, the SVG Optimizer for saving on bandwidth and grunticon which converts SVG files to PNG and data URIs for fallback images.

Head on over to Bushell’s site for more details and you can check out some of our previous posts on SVG for even more resources.

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Android is an attractive platform for developers, but not all designers share our enthusiasm. Making an app look and feel great across hundreds of devices with different combinations of screen size, pixel density and aspect ratio is no mean feat. Android’s diversity provides plenty of challenges, but creating apps that run on an entire ecosystem of devices is rewarding too.

Android devices in various sizes.
There are hundreds of Android devices with different screen sizes and resolutions. (Image credit: Android Design. Used under Creative Commons license.)

At Novoda, we build Android software for brands, start-ups and device manufacturers. We often work with visual designers who are new to Android. The new Android Design site is the first resource we recommend. You should definitely check it out. However, there is plenty more to pick up! The goal is to create apps that people love to use. Thoughtful UX and aesthetically pleasing visual designs help us get there.

This article provides a set of practical tips and design considerations for creating Android apps. I’ve tried to include something useful whether you’re crafting pixel-perfect graphic assets, finding an optimal user flow or getting your hands dirty developing XML layouts.

Pixels

Visual design is hugely important in the perceived quality of an app. It might even improve usability. Most developers have some exposure to UI patterns, but developers with visual design skills are rare. They really need you. Delivering high-fidelity mock-ups, drawable resources (i.e. graphic assets) and guidance to developers is the best way to deliver an aesthetically pleasing experience to the end user.

Scale Nicely

Android is a platform of many screen densities. There is no set of resolutions to target, rather a density independent measurement scheme for graphics, widgets and layouts. This is covered in depth in a previous Smashing article and the official documentation, so I’ll just add a mention of this neat web tool for calculating density pixels.

Screen densities.
Optimize graphics for different screen densities. (Image credit: Android Design. Used under Creative Commons license.)

It’s not always practical to hand optimize graphic assets for each density. The platform can scale resources down reasonably well. However, it’s always worth testing designs on low-end devices and optimizing resources that scale badly.

Be State Friendly

Touch states provide important confirmation of clicks and selections. When customizing widgets such as buttons, it’s important to create drawables for all necessary states (such as default, focused, pressed and disabled). The focused state is essential user feedback on devices that support directional pad or trackball navigation.

Size is important too. Touch input is imprecise and fingers occlude the UI as they interact with the screen. Touch targets should normally be at least 45 density pixels in width and height.

Use Fonts

Android has two fonts: Droid Sans and Roboto. Roboto was released in Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4). It’s been compared to Helvetica, but it’s a little condensed, which is great for small screens. You’re not limited to Roboto or Droid Sans, though. Any font can be packaged within an app in TTF format (with some memory overhead).

Roboto font.
Roboto is Android’s new font, introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich. (Image credit: Android Design. Used under Creative Commons license.)

Use 9-patch Drawables

9-patch drawables allow PNGs to stretch and scale nicely in pre-defined ways. Markings along the top and left edges define the stretchable areas. The padded content area can optionally be defined with markings along the bottom and right edges. 9-patches are essential for creating and customizing UI widgets.

Draw 9-patch.
Create scalable widgets with Draw 9-patch.

It’s possible to create 9-patches manually, but the Android SDK comes with an nice, simple tool called Draw 9-patch. This makes it quick and easy to convert a regular PNG in to a 9-patch. It highlights the stretchable area and displays previews of the resulting drawable with different widths and heights.

Handle Design Legacy

Honeycomb (Android 3) and Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4) modernized Android’s visual design with the Holo theme. However, some device manufacturers have a poor reputation for keeping platform versions up-to-date. Some of today’s most popular devices will never be upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich.

Meetup screenshot.
The Meetup app makes everybody feel at home with separate Gingerbread (Android 2.3) and Ice Cream Sandwich widgets.

So what can be done? There are two options. Deliver the current look, feel and experience to all devices or use a separate set of widgets styles and drawables for Gingerbread and below. Both approaches are valid. Would your users prefer modern or comfortably familiar?

Showcase the Brand

Sometimes clients fear that sticking to recognized UI design patterns will make their apps less distinctive. I think the opposite is true. As patterns like the action bar become ubiquitous, they fade into the background. Users can spend less time wondering how to use an app and more time appreciating how elegantly your app solved their problem. That experience is much more valuable for the brand than a one-of-a-kind UI for the sake of differentiation.

Color navigation screenshot.
The original Color app had an online FAQ for the UI controls. Make sure that navigation is intuitive.

Branding can be expressed through design of icons, drawables and widgets, as well as in the choice of colours and fonts. Subtle customization of the standard platform widgets can achieve a nice balance of brand values and platform consistency.

Create High-Fidelity Mock-Ups

High fidelity mock-ups are the best way to communicate visual design to developer responsible for implementation. The Android Design website provides templates in PSD and other formats. It’s important to try mock-ups out on real devices to confirm that they feel right, with UI components sensibly sized and placed. The Android Design Preview tool allows you to mirror mock-ups directly from your favourite design software to an attached Android device.

A practical approach for mock-ups is to work against the screen characteristics of the most popular devices. Ideally, create mock-ups for each alternative layout required by screen size or orientation.

Polish

Attention to detail is key. Become involved in the development process to ensure that your designs are realized. As a developer, I would always prefer to work with active designers than those who deliver mock-ups and resources before disappearing into thin air. Designs need to be iterated and refined as the app develops.

Animated transitions provide some visual polish that many Android apps lack. Developers might not include such things on their own initiative. Make them part of the design when they make sense. Aside from transitions, animations are a great way to keep users distracted or entertained when the app needs to make them wait.

User Experience

Android has patterns and conventions like any other platform. These help users to form expectations about how an unfamiliar app will behave. Porting an iOS experience directly to the Android platform almost always results in a poor user experience.

Back buttons in Android and iOS.
Back is a platform affordance in Android. In contrast, labeled back buttons within the app layout are the norm for iOS.

The back button is the best illustration of the interaction differences between Android and iOS. All Android devices have a hardware back button or on-screen navigation bar (including back button). This is universally available as a feature of the platform. Finding a back button within an Android app layout feels weird as an Android user. It makes me pause to think about which one to use and whether the behaviour will differ.

Design User Flows

At the very simplest level, Android apps consist of a stack of screens. You can navigate in to the stack with buttons, action bar icons and list items. The platform back button allows you to reverse out of the stack.

The action bar mirrors a web convention, where the app icon to the left of the action bar usually takes you to the top level of the app. However, there is also the up affordance, intended to take advantage of structural rather than temporal memory. This is represented by a backwards facing chevron to the left of the app icon. This signals that pressing the icon will navigate one level up in the information hierarchy.

Up affordance.
The up affordance allows the user to navigate up an information hierarchy instead of going to the top level of the app.

The purpose of the up affordance might be subtle at first. Android apps can have several entry points in addition to the launcher. The Intent system allows apps to deep link each other and home screen widgets or notifications might take you directly to specific content. The up affordance allows you to navigate up the information hierarchy regardless of where you came from.

Try user flows on potential users with wireframes or mock-ups and iterate. Prototypes on real devices are ideal because they allow you to test in realistic mobile environments. This might seem like a lot of effort, but remember, you only need to try things out with a few users.

Be Platform Consistent

UI patterns are your friend. It’s much better to think of these patterns as tools than constraints. Users would prefer not to have to learn to use your app, so patterns provide familiar hints about how to navigate and interact.

Action bar is the most widely adopted Android pattern. It tells you where you are and what you can do. It’s a native feature of the platform since Honeycomb and the excellent Action Bar Sherlock library makes it available on older platform versions too.


An example of the dashboard and action bar patterns.

The dashboard pattern is also quite widely used. These grids of icons are usually presented to the user when they launch an app. Dashboards provide top level navigation and describe the primary areas of the app.


I worked on the Songkick app, where we used a dashboard draw out the content of the app with full-bleed images.

The  workspaces pattern can be implemented with the ViewPager component. This allows users to swipe screens left and right between content. This can be used in conjunction with tabs to provide a more fluid browsing experience with tabbed data.

ViewPager swiping.
ViewPagers allow users to swipe left and right. Page indicators or tabs make this navigation discoverable.

The ribbon menu is an emerging navigation pattern. This allows us to launch the user directly into content and provide the top level navigation in a menu, which slides in from the left side of the screen when you press up.

Ribbon menu
The ribbon menu is an alternative to dashboard navigation.

Tablet optimized apps often take advantage of multi-pane layouts. A single tablet screen can display the content of several separate phone screens side by side. Optimising for tablets can involve creating several alternative layouts for different screen widths. Sections of UI can be designed once and laid out in different configurations for different screen sizes. Multi-pane layouts help to avoid overly wide list items and sparse layouts.

Multi-pane tablet layout
The Economist news app uses multi-pane tablet layouts so users can explore the hierarchy of content on a single screen.

These are familiar and proven UI patterns. They’re the best tools for starting to sketch out your app layouts and navigation. However, they shouldn’t discourage you from trying something new. Just ensure that the app behaves predictably.

Design Responsively

Android is a platform of many screen sizes. The devices that I can lay my hands on in our office compose a spectrum of screen sizes from 1.8 to 10.1 inches (as long as we ignore the Google TV). With variable screen area, Android has something in common with responsive web design. There is no getting away from the fact that design and implementation of a responsive experience across the full range of devices takes a lot of work. Supporting every screen is the ideal, but there are also sensible strategies for coping with the diversity of the platform.

Knowing a little about your target users and popular devices can help focus efforts and avoid premature optimisation. A good default strategy is to target popular, middle sized phones (3.2″ – 4.6″) and then optimize as necessary with alternate layouts and user flows for particularly small (<3″) devices and tablets.

It’s always best to be orientation agnostic. Some devices have physical keyboards that require the device to be held in landscape. The on-screen keyboard is also easier to use in landscape. Text entry on touch screens is awkward an error prone, so let’s at least give our users the benefit of the landscape keyboard.

Understand Mobile Interactions

People interact with mobile apps differently from websites or desktop software. Mobile apps rarely have the undivided attention of a user and most interactions use touch input, which is not as precise as we might like.

Mobile interactions can often be measured in seconds. We recently developed a location-based app that allows users to check-in at bars. We counted the clicks on user paths such as check-in, considering whether each step could be avoided or simplified. We specify everything that an app should do as user stories. The most frequent stories should be as quick and easy to accomplish as possible. It’s particularly important in this scenario, because the user might be under the influence of alcohol…

Optimize First Use

First launch experience is crucial. Apps are often installed in response to a real world problem. If the first run isn’t satisfying then the user might never return. If the app requires sign up, offer preview functionality so that users get a feel for the experience. They probably need to be convinced that it’s worth filling out that sign-up form. Also consider using analytics to measure points where users drop off in the launch and sign-up process.

Many apps launch with a tutorial. This is usually an admission that the app is too complicated, but if you’re sure that you need one, keep it brief and visual. You might also want to use analytics to confirm that a tutorial serving a purpose. Are users that complete the tutorial more active? How many users just skip the tutorial?

Bring the App to Play

User experience considerations shouldn’t end in the app. It’s worth putting a bit of thought in to the Google Play Store listing to ensure that it’s immediately obvious what the app does and why the user would want it.

These Graphic Asset Guidelines will help you to create promotional material suitable for the various contexts and scales in which they appear. Some of these graphics are a pre-requisite for being featured too.

Layouts, Styles and Themes

Android has a visual layout editor and it’s getting better all the time. However, I still find myself developing XML layouts by hand. This section gets down to implementation details, covering some best practices for crafting maintainable and performant layouts. Visual designers might want to skim this section, but some awareness of implementation details can’t hurt.

The most general purpose layouts are RelativeLayout and LinearLayout. RelativeLayout should be favoured for efficiency, whilst LinearLayout is useful for distributing space between views using weights. GridLayout was new in Honeycomb. This is useful for creating complex layouts on large screens without nesting. Nesting layouts too deep is bad for performance and code readability alike!

Let the Framework Do the Work

The Android framework provides automated resource switching based on folder structure. This means that you can have separate graphic assets and layouts for different screen sizes and densities by arranging them in the correct folders. It goes much further than that. For example, you could switch color resources for different platform versions or even animation durations for different screen sizes.

Resource folder structure.
The framework provides automatic resource switching.

Since Honeycomb, it’s also possible to switch resources on available screen width in density pixels. This is a move away from the bucketed small, normal, large and extra-large screen size switching. It facilitates responsive design and allows multiple layout switching points (perhaps switching to a tablet-optimized layout at 600dp with another alternative at 800dp). It’s typical to have multiple layout files with different configurations of the same components for different screen characteristics.

State list drawables make being state-friendly easy. These allow you to specify different drawables for different states of a UI component in an XML file. As mentioned earlier, representing states properly provides important user feedback.

<selector xmlns:android="http://schemas.android.com/apk/res/android">

  <item
    android:state_focused="true"
    android:state_pressed="true"
    android:drawable="@drawable/my_button_pressed_focused" />

  <item
    android:state_focused="false"
    android:state_pressed="true"
    android:drawable="@drawable/my_button_pressed" />

  <item
    android:state_focused="true"
    android:drawable="@drawable/my_button_focused" />

  <item
    android:state_focused="false"
    android:state_pressed="false"
    android:drawable="@drawable/my_button_default" />

</selector>

Extract Values

It’s good practice to keep layout XML clean of explicit colours and dimensions. These can be defined separately and referenced in your layouts. Defining colours and dimensions separately promotes visual consistency and makes things easier to change later on. Extracting these values allows switching of dimensions on different screen sizes, orientations and platform versions. This is useful for tweaking padding for small screens or increasing text size for readability on large screens, which tend to be held further away from the face. Perhaps res/values/dimens.xml contains:

<dimen name="my_text_size">16sp</dimen>

whilst res/values-sw600dp/dimens.xml contains:

<dimen name="my_text_size">20sp</dimen>.

Use Styles and Themes

A good technique to keep layout XML maintainable is to separate the styling concern from the positioning concern. Every View in a layout needs to have at least a width and height attribute. This results in a lot of boilerplate, which you can eliminate by inheriting from a set of base parent styles.

<style name="Match">
  <item name="android:layout_width">match_parent</item>
  <item name="android:layout_height">match_parent</item>
</style>

<style name="Wrap">
  <item name="android:layout_width">wrap_content</item>
  <item name="android:layout_height">wrap_content</item>
</style>

<style
  name="MatchHeight"
  parent="Match">
  <item name="android:layout_width">wrap_content</item>
</style>

<style
  name="MatchWidth"
  parent="Match">
  <item name="android:layout_height">wrap_content</item>
</style>

Recurring sets of attributes can be moved into styles. Widget styles that occur almost universally throughout the app can be moved into the theme. If a particular type of button always has the same text color and padding, it’s much cleaner to specify the style than duplicate these attributes for each occurrence.

<style
  name="MyButtonStyle"
  parent="MatchWidth">
  <item name="android:padding">@dimen/my_button_padding</item>
  <item name="android:textColor">@color/my_button_text_color</item>
</style>

We save four lines of attributes when we add the button to a layout. The layout file can be concerned with just the positioning and unique attributes of widgets.

<Button
  android:id="@+id/my_button"
  style="@style/MyButtonStyle"
  android:text="Hello, styled world!">

You can take this further by overriding default button style in a theme and applying it to an Activity or the entire app in the AndroidManifest.xml.

<style
  name="MyTheme"
  parent="@android:style/Theme.Holo">
  <item name="android:buttonStyle">@style/MyButtonStyle</item>
</style>

<style
  name="MyButtonStyle"
  parent="@android:style/Widget.Button">
  <item name="android:padding">@dimen/my_button_padding</item>
  <item name="android:textColor">@color/my_button_text_color</item>
</style>

Optimize

The include and merge XML tags allow you to drop reusable sections of UI into your layouts, minimizing duplicate XML when the same set of views occurs in multiple layout configurations.

<include
  layout="@layout/my_layout"
  style="@style/MatchWidth" />

A relatively new addition to the Android Developer Tools is Lint. This tool scans the resources in a project and creates warnings about potential performance optimizations and unused or duplicated resources. This is incredibly useful for eliminating clutter as an app changes over time and it’s certainly worth checking lint for warnings regularly during your development process.

Debug

Sometimes layouts just don’t turn out how you expected. It can be hard to spot bugs amongst all those angle brackets. This is where Hierarchy Viewer comes in. This tool allows you to inspect the layout tree of an app running in the emulator. You can inspect the detailed properties of each view.

Hierarchy Viewer.
Inspect your layout trees with Hierarchy Viewer. Those colored dots can tell you about your layout performance.

Hierarchy Viewer has a couple neat tricks for visual designers too. It allows you to inspect screens in zoomed pixel perfect mode and export the layers of a layout as a PSD.

Conclusion

So you’ve been introduced to the platform and the tools. What next? Ultimately, the best way to get a feel for Android is to use it every day. The most satisfying app designs have a few things in common: platform consistency, attention to detail and clean visual design. The first two, at least, can be picked up by using and analysing existing Android apps.

Android has come a long way in the last few years. The platform and the apps have become gradually more refined. Functionality is not enough at this point. There are almost half a million other apps out there, and users want polish.

Resources

(jc)

© Jamie McDonald for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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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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Howdy, folks! Welcome to the new incarnation of Smashing Magazine’s Q&A. It’s going to work like this: you send in questions you have about CSS, and at least once a month we’ll pick out the best questions and answer them so that everyone can benefit from the exchange. Your question could be about a very specific problem you’re having, or it could be a question about a philosophical approach. We’ll take all kinds.

We’ve done a bit of this kind of exchange before with a wider scope, so if you enjoy reading the Q&A, check out my author archive for more of them.

Designing For Email

Andrejs Abrickis asks:

“Sometimes I face trouble with HTML email design and the proper CSS code. It takes quite a lot of time to make it cross-client compatible. I would like to know your opinion about the best CSS reset that could help to speed up email newsletter development. Is there any good tool for testing HTML emails?”

First and foremost, I recommend keeping emails very simple. Ask yourself what the primary message of the email is and how well the current design of the email is serving that. Could it simply be text? Would it be better if it was text? I find that’s often true.

If you are certain you need to make an HTML email, I’d again error on the very simple. An idea I’ve been toying around with is making the email design the size of a portrait smartphone layout. That constraight forces you to think about the message again, enforces simplicity (and as a side bonus, will look good on both mobile and desktop clients). When is the last time you got an email and thought: “Man, I wish this email was more complicated!”

HTML Email Boilerplate
HTML Email Boilerplate provides a template of sorts, absent of design or layout, that will help you avoid some of the major rendering problems with the most common email clients out there — Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo Mail, etc.

But you wanted to know about cross-client compatibility and testing. Do check out the HTML Email Boilerplate. It was created in the same spirit as the HTML5 Boilerplate in that it addresses all the various quirks across email clients and gives an example of a very minimal structure by which to start. I’ve tried to use it as is, but I have to admit that I found it a bit too much for the simple email work I was doing. More complex and varied emails will certainly benefit from it and it’s also certainly a great reference for snagging quick problem-solving bits of code.

The two simple rules of thumb for HTML email development are:

  1. Use tables for layout. This is still the most sturdy layout method for cross-client.
  2. Inline style everything. Any other CSS support is spotty.

Designing using inline styles is a big pain in the butt, so I’d recommend developing with a <style> block in the <head> for your CSS. Save that as your development copy, and then just before deployment, run it through MailChimp’s Automatic CSS Inliner Tool which will do the dirty work of inline styling everything for you.

Speaking of MailChimp, you might want to consider just using their service to build and deploy emails. Their templates are already cross-client compatible (plus they have a testing service). Their designer tool is easy to use and helps you through the process. Not to mention, you get all these other huge benefits like better deliverability that you can’t get on your own, statistics, support, and many more features. Sorry if that sounded like an ad, but I’m all about using services that make our lives easier and better as developers.

MailChimp isn’t the only service on the block either, Campaign Monitor is also great, and do great things for the developer community, including maintaining this epic chart of CSS support for email clients.

Campaign Monitor HTML Email Reference
CSS support on Campaign Monitor.

Type On A Grid

Maxime Parmentier asks:

“I was wondering how you keep a consistent line-height in every element of your page? It’s much more difficult than it sounds in practice. Any tools or techniques that you can recommend?”

Often times that practice is called maintaining a “baseline grid.” Here’s a demo from a Richard Rutter article. And another demo from a Wilson Miner article. I’ve played with it myself a bit.

Dave Rupert offers a talk about responsive design, where he discusses how ems are useful for baseline grids because they are based on ratios. He also talks about how they are particularly good in the math-ridden world of responsive design. Here’s an example by Dave of type lining up nicely to a grid that also accommodates some of the weirdness of different-sized headers.

Baseline Grid
View this example.

There is a book by Khoi Vinh all about grids (including type grids) called Ordering Disorder: Grid Principals for Web Design. Khoi teaches all about grids but is clear that you don’t have to be dogmatic about them. Breaking the grid sometimes is OK, as long as you come back to it. I think one nice metaphor he mentions is about syncopation in music—the rhythm is broken on purpose during a song, so that when it kicks back in, it’s noticed and feels good.

Centering And Resets

Smarajit Dasgupta asks:

1. What is a decent browser-compatible way to center floated (or inline) elements like buttons and links in flexible (or unknown) width scenarios?

2. What is your preferred CSS reset in the HTML5 age? Do you still advise the usage of the great Eric Meyer’s reset, which pretty much strips all the browser-induced styles for elements? Or do you use something such as normalize.css or write your own on a case basis?”

1. Inline elements are easy to center, as they respect the text-align value of the parent, which you can set to center. So say you have a bunch of anchor links in a row, you’d just wrap them in a nav element and apply the center text alignment to that (like this). If you need them to behave a bit more like block level elements (e.g. be of a set width or height), you can make them display: inline-block; and they will still stay centered (like this).

Unfortunately you can’t center a floated element. I’m not surprised really, as the “what happens if” scenarios surrounding that are too many to count. But just for funzies, let’s say you had two columns of text and you wanted to “center float” an image between them, meaning that the text in the left column would wrap to the left, and the text in the right column would wrap to the right. You can “fake” this by positioning two elements half the size (might as well be pseudo elements, because they have no semantic meaning) on the right-side of the left column and left-side of the right column. A picture is easier to understand:

Floating Image
The floating kitty demo.

Then you would place the element in the space that makes sense (probably with absolute positioning). More about this idea here.

2. I like normalize.css. I don’t like the idea of stripping things away just to put them back. So my process is to take a copy of normalize.css, not remove anything, but change some declarations to my liking (which still ensures consistency, because you are being explicit). Then include that in my global style sheet like I would include a reset, and go from there.

Opacity Blues

Chris Klein asks:

“How do I stop inheritation of opacity? I can’t use another png with 50% opacity and higher z-index above it as the layout has to stay 100% liquid. Also, I tried to insert spans between the box with opacity and the following boxes—but the opacity still is inherited to all other boxes it follows. Even if the following boxes claim opacity: 1;, it doesn’t matter, inheritation goes on.”

There are a lot of little bits in there that make me wish we could look at the exact layout you’re working with. If the backgrounds in question are flat colors, just use RGBa or HSLa. These are both color value types you can use to declare an alpha value, which essentially means “what percentage transparent is this color?”. For instance rgba(255, 0, 0, 0.5) means “50% red”. This makes a lot more sense than using actual opacity on element, which as you know, affects everything inside (not just the background).

As you also know, opacity affects all child elements and you can’t fight against it by setting a child element’s opacity higher (the child does have full opacity by default, it’s just within a parent that doesn’t). It is like that for good reason. We would be much worse off if, in order to fade out an area of a website, we had to select theoretically infinite child elements and fade each individually.

If the background in your design isn’t a flat color, you can join the club for wishing there was a background-opacity property. One thing you may want to try are pseudo elements. Leave the main element at full opacity, but apply ::before and ::after selectors that you position as needed and apply opacity to those. Nicolas Gallagher has a demo of that.

Pseudo Element
The Jupiter oppacity demo.

Border-Radius On Images

Donovan Hutchinson asks:

“Why isn’t it possible to directly apply border-radius to an image? And is the best approach to use a wrapping div?”

It is possible! You apply it just like you think you would:

img {
  border-radius: 10px;
}

Border Radius
Border Radius demo.

I think there was some confusion on this for a while, because in the not-so-distant past, Firefox 3.6 required the use of -moz-border-radius for rounded corners, and that implementation didn’t work on images. IE9 was the first version to support border radius and it does so un-prefixed and perfectly fine on images so even IE isn’t a concern here.

If you absolutely need Firefox 3.6 (and down) support (1.55% global usage and falling fast), yep, like you mentioned, you can get it by using a div instead and setting the background-image of the div to the src of the image. You would do that in your template wherever it spits out that URL (or if that’s not possible, with a bit of jQuery):

$("div.avatar").each(function() {
  var el = $(this);
  var url = el.find("img").hide().attr("src");
  el.css("background-image", "url(" + url + ")");
});

Spotting Bad Code

Michael Zanzini asks:

“How can you tell if your CSS code smells? What are the signs that the code is sub-optional, or that the developer hasn’t done a good job? What do you look for in the code to determine how good or bad it is?”

The most obvious way to tell: does the website look all screwed up? Then it’s bad CSS. If the website looks perfect, then it passes the first test.

The next thing I’d look for without getting too down and dirty is the formatting. I wouldn’t care about trivial things like tabs or spaces or spacing after selectors, but instead general cleanliness and consistency. Does it look like they have a style that they adhere to, or is it sloppy and random? Clean code is a sign of a respectful developer. It’s not proof the code is good but it’s a good start. Mind you, you should be looking at the authored CSS, not deployed CSS, as that could be altered during a build process.

After those rather obvious things, you’ll have to get mentally more into the code. Read through it. Do the selectors look nice and rational (e.g. nothing too ridiculously specific like .article #comments ul > li > a.button)? Does there appear to be an awful lot of repeated code (e.g. the same complex box-shadow declared 15 times)? Is it absolutely enormous (e.g. 100k would be be absolutely enormous, as a check)?

The last thing I might do is try and test understandability by running a personal test. Assuming that you are half-way decent at CSS yourself, think of a small task you might need to do on the website. Adjust the colors and spacing of a particular header. Try and do it. Was it easy? Good. Was it hard to figure out? Not good.

Submit Your Question!

Keep up the great questions, folks! Got a good one? Submit your CSS question via our form, and we’ll pick the best for the next edition. So long!

(jvb)

© Chris Coyier for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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