A simple way to define and understand User Experience

A practical guide for any kind of design project

I’ve written before that, in game design, user experience should always trump features.

But to get that right, it’s critical that the whole team is aligned on what exactly the User Experience is – a challenge that’s too often overlooked. In my experience, this lack of clarity is almost always what leads to sloppy and poor quality products (in my case, specifically games).

So, at our studio, we set out to define a framework to help us get it right – something that will help multiple teams working on different games approach UX in a consistent, systematic way.

It’s pretty simple :

Who is the User ?

Ask yourself this question before you even start putting the first scribbles of your design. Do not proceed with any design work before you have a clear answer.

The user is a human being – a creature of emotions. The user is a person – your friend, your mother, the guy who sells you cigarettes, the nice lady behind the checkout counter, your annoying neighbour. They have likes and dislikes, dreams, aspirations. Empathizing with them is crucial – design is impossible without it.

Here are a few simple questions you should answer :

  • When and where will they play my game?
  • What kind of device will they use to play?
  • What kind of Internet connection do they have?
  • What do they aspire to?
  • What makes them happy?
  • What makes them annoyed?
  • What other games do they enjoy? What games do they dislike? Why?
  • How old is my player?
  • Where do they live?
  • How do they commute?

You could frame more questions specific to your situation. The more questions you answer, the better you will understand your user – helping you take design decisions correctly and quickly.

What is the experience?

I define experience as “the emotional state of the user at any point when she is engaged with your product”.

Think about this for a minute.

The user experience is not limited to when the user is actually actively engaging with your game (or any product) — you need to think about the user’s state of mind before, during and after he uses it. How does the player feel before downloading your game, when she looks at the App Store page or advertisement? How does he feel between play sessions when thinking about your game? After completing your game? Good designers think this through — ignore this and you risk delivering a weak user experience that makes users quickly forget about your game and move on once they finish their first session.

Experience is the emotional state of the user at any point when she is engaged with your product — before purchasing it, while using it, in between sessions, after using it. Think it through.

List out the specific emotions that you want your players to feel at each stage. It may also be useful to frame these as phrases that may go through the player’s mind.

Also remember — focus on what the player feels (emotions) and not what the player thinks (thoughts).

Some examples :

Before getting the game

  • Anticipation (I’ve been waiting to play something like this)
  • Excitement (This looks like it will be awesome)
  • Familiarity (Oh, nice! Another game like Pac Man, which I love)
  • Curiosity (This looks interesting, I wonder what it’s about)
  • Surprise (WTF? That looks nuts. Let me try it)

While playing the game

  • Stress (Oh my god this is insane I’m going to die)
  • Fear (What’s around the next corner?)
  • Relaxation (This feels nice and relaxing to play)
  • Caring (I care about and want to help characters / people in the game)
  • Mastery (I want to get better and more skilled at this)
  • Challenge (I want to achieve difficult targets the game sets for me)
  • Competition (I want to be better than others at this game)

Between sessions

  • Impatience (I can’t wait to get back to my game)
  • Anticipation (I wonder what will happen in my game when I am away)
  • Kinship (I wonder what my friends are up to in the game now)
  • Obsession (Hey! I just got an idea I want to try when I get back to the game)

After playing the game

  • Fulfilment (Wow. That was a great experience. I’ll remember it)
  • Anticipation (I hope they make a sequel. I want more)

It’s important to identify the core emotions that will drive your user experience. Don’t focus on more than one per stage. Too many and your experience will be diluted, lacking character.


Remember that you need to define BOTH the player AND the experience. A design that evokes a particular emotion for one player may not do so for another. Something that makes a hardcore player feel challenged and masterful may evoke feelings of frustration and failure in a more casual player. A feature that makes a casual player feel safe and relaxed may be boring to hardcore players.

Once you’ve identified and put down your core user experience values, spend time with the team and internalize them so everyone is aligned.

At every stage during your project, keep checking if your game fulfils your user experience values. Don’t be afraid to make changes until it does.

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