Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

9 May, 2008

Intuitive isn’t, just like this title
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:14 AM

I recently came across a wonderful article on “Intuitive Interfaces”. Executive summary: people don’t really mean “intuitive” when they use that word to refer to interfaces.

They don’t mean it when they talk about games, either.

The article’s main point is that when people say “intuitive”, they often really mean “familiar”. The author stated that when people say they want a “better” interface, they still want something familiar. No matter how much more efficient a new interface is, if it is not “intuitive” (that is, familiar to the user) then it is not an improvement. Many people consider the learning curve to figure out a completely new and improved interface not to be worth the effort.

The reason I found this article so interesting is because I see the same thing in games. In the past, people lamented because games weren’t “innovative”. The problem was that if someone did do something innovative, it usually failed if it was too different. People still wanted an element of the familiar in the game, something that related to their previous game-playing experiences. This lead to the contradiction that giving people the innovative and even improved gaming experience they claimed to want would often result in failure because it usually wasn’t familiar enough.

The article sums up this contradiction as: “Intuitive = uses readily transferred, existing skills.” This is why you have “standard” interfaces for different types of games. For example, all RTSes have a menu of build options in one corner of the screen. Left-click usually selects a unit, and right-click moves the unit to a location. Any RTS game that does not follow this convention will be seen as confusing and not “intuitive”, even if the control scheme is better for one reason or another. Unfortunately, once you start following certain conventions, you are limited in how far you can push your design outside what has come before.

The other reason I found this article interesting is because it is from 1994. It’s funny that people have still been incorrectly calling interfaces “intuitive” for all these years. In fact, one of the first few posts on this blog was about “intuitive interfaces”, or the myth of these beasts even existing.

What do you think? Are interfaces really “intuitive”? Or, do most people really talk about familiarity? If familiarity is the key here, how do we push the envelope to include something different if people only judge things based on how it fits their previous experiences?

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  1. I think that we’ll see a lot more surprise hits in games that appeal to non-gamers. After all, people who don’t play games normally also don’t have preconceived notions about what a game SHOULD be. When something truly innovative comes around, even if long-time gamers reject it, new gamers won’t mind the learning curve because it will exist no matter what.

    Your RTS example is especially vexing for people who are fans of Total Annihilation. It’s hard to pick that game up after years of playing other RTS games because the controls are slightly different.

    As far as intuitive == familiar, ask any longtime Mac user to use Windows, or the other way around.

    Comment by GBGames — 9 May, 2008 @ 6:12 AM

  2. In my experience the first thing people do when they try a new MMO is try to convince the live team to turn it into the last one they played. That’s how you get from Star Wars Galaxies as released to what it is now. But I think that’s a natural tendency for people in general — life rewards solving the same problem repeatedly in different contexts. It’s how we make a living.

    I think the way out of it is not so much good design as good marketing, though if the marketing works you still have to deliver the goods design-wise. People have to be convinced of the validity of new challenges if they’re going to bother with them. I think MMOs are a lot like sports in this respect: it’s hard to introduce anything new when there’s already something entrenched in the culture that matters. Americans just don’t buy into the validity of soccer, and the rest of the world thinks American football is pointless. There’s nothing wrong with the design of either; it’s just a matter of having a critical mass of support in the culture and then suddenly it’s perceived as worthwhile to learn.

    Comment by mcj — 9 May, 2008 @ 6:26 AM

  3. The great thing about standards is that there are so many of them…

    While it is quite accurate that most people’s “intuitive” is shorthand for “familiar”, that isn’t necessarily a problem. After all, too often “innovative” is just short hand for “different” rather than actually providing any real improvements.

    Take, for example, the fad of camera manufacturers to try and invent their own methods to copy images from the camera to your computer. A hundred and one different UIs to accomplish the same task, when the simplest approach – just treat it as a hard drive – is ignored. Admittedly, copying from DCIM/Misc or where ever hardly is “good” UI compared with the single-button offerings of the vendors. But here “better” UI is less useful than “familiar” UI. Familiar UI is good because it reduces the number of different interfaces I need to remember. I need to remember how to move files on my hard drive anyways, the camera copying interface is the rare exception.

    Games are in an interesting position with respect to UI because so often part of the gameplay is the poor UI. I could make better UI for Super Mario brothers that, for example, simplifies timing my jumps, but that affects the game play which relies on difficulty in timing the jumps existing.

    The lesson for game designers, I think, is configurability. A UI element is either part of the game (It *is* supposed to be hard to target one creature in the fray) or it is not (Which mouse button you move the units with). The latter should conform to standards wherever practical and be configurable in any case.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 9 May, 2008 @ 3:00 PM

  4. Interesting perspectives on the matter.

    mcj wrote:
    I think the way out of it is not so much good design as good marketing[...]

    Yes. The design way to put this is to “manage user expectations.” I’ve been listening to the developer’s commentary on Portal, and it’s interesting how they worked to get users used to the idea of using portals. Little ways of enforcing how a unique gameplay feature works given that most people probably haven’t experienced it before.

    Brask Mumei wrote:
    A hundred and one different UIs to accomplish the same task, when the simplest approach – just treat it as a hard drive – is ignored.

    Most cameras use removable media, so you can slip out the card and plug it into your computer to use this type of interface. Bonus: no custom camera cable to lose.

    The lesson for game designers, I think, is configurability.

    The problem with configurability is that it makes the experience different. I prefer ESDF instead of WASD for movement, and in MMOs this means I have to remap a lot of keys that are placed within easy reach of the left hand. As a result, I often can’t respond to questions like, “what key is it to respond to someone?” For me it’s “T”, since I remapped “R” to turn right. You also have to do extra coding for remapping keys and saving users from making stupid changes that screw themselves.

    I’m not saying that configurability is a bad thing, but it does bring its own set of problems to the table.

    My further thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 May, 2008 @ 3:21 PM

  5. Another look at game interfaces…

    My post last week about how a real newbie experiences a game ( spurred some interesting discussions about interfaces. Instead of posting a long comment, I figured I’d post some actual content on the blog about user i…

    Comment by Psychochild's Blog — 26 January, 2009 @ 7:48 PM

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