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UI: Accessible Functionality

Posted by Jon Wood on Jan 30, 2008  | Comments

UI: Accessible Functionality -

Today, NetDevil's Steve "Istvan" Hartmeyer submoits this new developer journal looking at the user interface in the upcoming Jumpgate Evolution.

Most developers are well aware that user interface can break a product. Sadly, it doesn't usually "make" a product. Players don't often think, "Wow. This UI is really well-executed!" If the UI is really well-executed, it's most likely that players hardly notice it at all. The trouble happens when the interface gets in the players' way, or is found inadequate. A game can be beautiful and have great features, but if the interface annoys, irritated players tend to simply pick something else to play.

Obviously, user interface has to be taken very seriously during development, which can require quite a significant investment of time and effort. Every feature needs a good interface, but there's a seeming infinity of presentation methods. How should we as developers decide how to build each interface component? There's certainly more than one way to approach the problem, but for Jumpgate Evolution, our team has elected where possible to let the players themselves guide us.

For a game that hasn't been released, such a pronouncement might sound ridiculous, but we're working to accomplish this very goal from three different directions. First of all, we're driven by the need to make the displays and controls very accessible and easy to use. Information must be available where and when the player needs it. Key choices must be practically self-evident. Frustration must be minimized, especially in the first fifteen minutes of play, when the new player is deciding whether the game is interesting or not. To learn how to do this, we test very frequently, in focused sessions lasting about fifteen minutes, using someone who has never seen the game before. We watch everything they do, asking them to tell us what they are thinking about as they do it. This teaches us what they are trying to do, where they are looking, and what they are, astonishingly enough, not seeing. We have found repeatedly that even though the information a player needs may be there, placed in a very obvious way from the designer's point of view, the player still may completely miss it. As UI designers, watching these tests can be brutal, agonizing, even maddening. Our response to the input that comes from the tests, though, is really simple. When the tests show us that things are being missed, we change those things. In this manner, many parts of our user interface are being adjusted every week, as we strive to make sure that needed information is clear and noticeable, and that it ceases to be intrusive when it's not needed. We’ve already gone through three major design iterations as well as scores, possibly even hundreds, of minor adjustments and it's not finished yet. Nearly every day we change some part of the UI again, little by little moving closer to our stringent accessibility goals.

Read it here.