The terms "user experience" (UX) and "user interface" (UI) are often used interchangeably. In actuality, UX refers to the entire player experience and most importantly, how the player interacts with a game. UI refers to individual elements like subtitles, adaptive controls, and text-to-speech features that feed into the overall UX. It's the classic design adage of form (UI) follows function (UX). Ivana Randelshofer, user experience (UX) supervisor at Ubisoft Dusseldorf, is an expert in UX design and this year at Devcom, presented her talk, "Interactive Cognitive Art," which focused on the importance of informative, sleek, and accessible user experiences.
As a 10-year UX veteran, Randelshofer is familiar with the challenges of turning complex data into meaningful and accessible game interfaces through her work on For Honor, Anno 1800, The Settlers, and Uplay. She's a fierce believer that players should be able to enjoy seamless gaming experiences without any frustration. In addition to her work at Ubisoft Dusseldorf, Randelshofer is also working on her PhD in UX and Human-Computer Interaction, and teaching interaction design and UX at various international universities. Following her talk at Devcom, we spoke with her to learn a bit more about the challenges of designing a user experience.
Could you give us a brief summary of your talk?
Ivana Randelshofer: A picture may say a thousand words, but data as information does not always speak for itself. Videogames often struggle with an increasing amount of information that has to be available to the player at the right time. While huge, flow-breaking HUDs were tolerated in the past, today clean, immersive, and minimalized approaches are often a must-have across many genres. The challenge for developers is to make sure information is always accessible, conclusive, and understandable, so players can make fast and correct decisions.
Intuitive design shortens the time in decoding information, and thus fosters player control and empowerment. My talk is intended to explore different methodologies on how to make complex data comprehensible by users. Cognitive Art initially described infographics such as maps, train schedules, graphs or diagrams – visualizations that were meant to inform, rather than to simply be pretty, decorative art. The science behind creating such information displays offers many valuable approaches on how to visualize complex data and focus on the relevant pieces of information that actually help people understand and making decisions.
How do you filter out what information needs to be explicitly stated (like with a number or bar), and what information can be more subtly communicated (like the direction that enemies are shooting at you)?
IR: In cognitive neuroscience, we know that the brain processes information by various channels in different brain areas. This means text gets processed in different areas compared to pictures, sound, and language. The more areas in the brain get activated while processing information, the faster and better this information can be accessed and understood and ultimately learned by the human. Therefore, my approach is to encode information within multiple channels, as much as possible, so it is not limited to either a heads-up-display with text or a representation in the game world. I strongly believe that information should be communicated to our players as a coherent experience, by interfaces, signifiers, and feedback within the game world and also by sound and music.
And talking about majorly diegetic information displays in-game signposting, for example, while being trendy and fancy, this is obviously not possible in every genre. So here, context is the key; what kind of genre are we talking about, what are the best practices in this genre, and above all, what do our players/users expect and feel most familiar with?
What are the most common challenges with designing UX?
IR: The main challenge I regularly encounter is the lack of understanding of UX as a standalone discipline and area of expertise. In most cases, it is used as a synonym for user interfaces, and the main problem comes with placing those two fields of expertise within a project's timeline. While user interfaces can be designed during actual production, user experience and the functionality of features has to come first, ideally no later than in early pre-production. Otherwise, UX might be reduced to a rather limited troubleshooting, with uncertain outcome for the project.
For me, this confusion about UI and UX caused multiple difficulties and challenges in the past, when trying to introduce user research or any kind of iterative processes to development teams. I often got approached in later production phases, when it was too late to establish processes or frameworks, or even elaborate on user needs, when most features have already been decided and were already in development too. Luckily, this is not the case with all projects I worked on – currently, I am lucky to work with teams that have a good understanding of the needs and benefits that come along with the area of user experience. However, I see this topic still as one of the major areas of improvement in the future, to make sure that UX professionals are able to use their skills accordingly at the right time within the development process, and positively impact the outcome and reception of the game.
Do you see the role of a UX designer as authoring an experience? Or creating as many tools as possible to give the player the ability to shape their own experience?
IR: I believe it is a mix of both approaches. Similar to game design, we are not in control of the whole decision-making process throughout the game for every single player. Just as game design creates the main mechanics of gameplay and sets the rules, we as UX professionals have our own framework of methodologies that we apply to the product, to make sure all relevant information is accessible, conclusive, and understandable to our players. We have to think about presenting the right amount information at the right time so we don't overwhelm the user, and support their decision-making process.
While every individual is different, one of the main responsibilities of UX is to get to know our players as well as possible, for several reasons. First of all, we want to create a game that appeals to the right audience, as it is never possible to create something that will work for everybody. Second, we need to make sure we create a connection between the players and the developers, so we as developers know exactly who we are developing for. This helps us all to have a bit more control over the overall experience that we deliver to our players, because we can anticipate their needs and design for their expectations.
How can UX design take more universal steps towards building games that are accessible to all players?
IR: In general, I think it's best to avoid the idea of creating a game that will meet the expectations of "all players" and rather focusing on the "right players" for the "right game." However, there are some universal approaches to make products, systems, and games more accessible for users.
Having knowledge about human factors and cognitive ergonomics helps a lot, because those disciplines deal with a general understanding and utilizing of cognitive or physical limitations and capabilities of the user, such a working memory, attention, perceptual habits or processing information in general. Apart from that, the usage of design heuristics is a useful tool as well. Next, would be the accessibility, designing for visual impairment and color weaknesses would be relevant. But it also might be focusing on standards and consistency of control mappings; expected usage of controllers, buttons, and keys, or with touchscreen devices; identifying areas of good accessibility that are within the reach of our fingers in a most natural way, but do not obstruct the playing experience as such.
How has your education and teaching experience translated into and helped your professional work?
IR: I believe that a constant education and knowledge exchange with others is crucial in the field of UX, because technology changes rapidly, and so does the interaction of users with that technology. My actual professional background comes from Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), a discipline of which UX is just a part. Before joining Ubisoft, I worked at a HCI research facility focused on user research and robotics, so having dealt with technology and user-interactions beyond videogames has helped me to see the importance of combining various disciplines in my daily work. I am still closely linked up with research facilities outside of the gaming industry, and try to follow trends in HCI. Not only on an industry level, but also an academic one, because seeing the "beyond state-of-the-art" research is very inspiring, even though it is often not accessible for industry products yet. But it certainly helps to keep the big picture on what we might expect in the future in terms of UX or system interactions.
I am also currently working on my dissertation in HCI, and have a specialization in areas of Envisioning Information, Cognitive Ergonomics, and Neuroeconomics. I find it intriguing and incredibly useful to know not only what kind of approaches and principles work, but also especially why they work. How does our brain process information? How does attention work, and how do we make decisions? Those fields are not really part of the regular job description for a UX Designer, but apart from the fact that I personally find those disciplines fascinating, having knowledge about them has changed the way I think about and approach problems and design challenges in my daily work.
I believe that HCI, and therefore UX as a scientific discipline, has to be based on research, testing, and qualitative and quantitative studies and findings, rather than personal opinions or gut feelings that every one of us obviously has, and can therefore argue about. And in my experience, the more research and results you can bring to a discussion, the more people are willing to listen to you and accept suggestions. So in many cases, and especially in the field of UX, science is your best friend.
For more interviews from Devcom, check out our interview with 3D Artist David Shelton.