Design lessons from video games

Or, maybe we could be trying a little harder

As a disclaimer: don’t even bother getting in touch with me if all you saw was the phrase “video games” and now you wanna start some kind of flame war. It’s happened before and I am 100% over it.

Okay keep reading for hot design tips.

Games and ~digital products~ alike start off the same way: someone, somewhere, opens up the Thing, does not know how to use the Thing, does not know why the Thing is cool, and needs to somehow become halfway decent at navigating the Thing.

Old-school games like Baldur’s Gate 2 had a very literal tutorial section, where you’d play a facsimile of the game while an NPC would give you fourth-wall-breaking instructions. It worked, but it wasn’t terribly exciting.

love 2 LEFT-CLICK on stairs

Over time though, game studios have come up with delightful ways of disguising the tutorial into the actual game. Recently I played Firewatch, which is absolutely wonderful. It opens not with the first-person gameplay you’re expecting, but with a text adventure. The only thing you can do at the beginning is click on text. And that’s easy! Look at you go, playing the game. Slowly they mix in the first-person element, building more and more complex interactions: click on text > walk around > choose between multiple text options > use your compass > read a map… Each time you do something new, you’re not really learning so much as naturally interacting with the game and having a good time.

at this point, you know to click on the orange text, even though they never told you what to do. they also didn’t tell you how much you were going to cry

It works so well that you don’t even notice anything special is happening. Many digital products haven’t caught on to this, even though they need tutorials, too. It may surprise you to know that no one was born knowing how to use Facebook.

Perhaps the best example of a tutorial in software is Slackbot: at least back in the day (it didn’t do this when I joined a new Slack group recently), Slackbot would show up as the friendly NPC, guiding you through the app. It had personality and it made things more fun, but it was still an NPC telling you to LEFT-CLICK on the stairs.

I like you but I don’t love you, Slackbot

I know no one wants to design or code this but why not instead make the app so simple to use at the beginning that you barely have to give any instructions? Don’t give me a bunch of text to read, don’t give me an NPC treating me like I’ve never logged on before: just let me use the damn Thing.

Many apps barely have any tutorial. I tried out Peach recently, and never before have I felt like such an out-of-touch Old. And I’m 24, living in San Francisco. I’m literally the target audience. They do have a vague tutorial on how to use their magic words or whatever, but it left me with more questions than answers. Why, Peach?

Before anyone gripes that onboarding is already so tedious to work on: you know what, if Mass Effect 2 can have me start the game by running around a spaceship while it’s on fire with no actual instructions… you can probably simplify your dumb app enough that I can start using it with confidence and without needing any hand-holding. Why is it easier to navigate a BURNING SPACESHIP IN SPACE than something like Peach? God I hate that app.

this fucking RULES though

Anyway, at one point, the User is using the Thing. They’ve gotten past the tutorial/onboarding, and they’re ready to make a huge mess.

Designers talk about the “happy path”: the ideal way someone should use an app. We like to pretend everyone has a big, nice friend group, and they’re going to take quality photos, and their name is short with no accents, and they don’t care about privacy because see the aforementioned nice friend group, and they are ready to generate some great content to make you money!!

Well have I got some news for you.

We design for the happy path, and then we design for all the edge cases (aka, everything), but that whole dichotomy is wrong. There is no happy path. Happiness is a social construct. Instead, it’s a complicated maze, with each path being no better or worse than an other, and all of them are completely valid. It’s kind of like The Stanley Parable.

even when they give you an actual happy path, it’ll all go to shit

Technically, there is a happy path in TSP (two if you count this literal one). But you’re also allowed to deviate from the story and the instructions as much as you want. You can kill yourself like at least 4 different ways. You can escape the game world entirely. You can enter NEW game worlds. You can choose to hide in a broom closet. You can leave the narrator behind and live your own truth. You can do… anything.

What makes TSP so fun to play is that the creators have truly thought of everything. Any decision you make is correct in the sense that the game will adjust to accommodate that.

While no other game has a decision tree as complex as TSP’s, there’s still this idea that you can make your own choices and set your own path, and it’s all valid. Dragon Age lets you be a religious nut or an angsty elf ready to kill all humans, or someone else entirely. Even Kentucky Route Zero, which has a fairly linear story, lets you make decisions and decide how the world subtly changes.

you even get to choose the lyrics to a song: see it in action

This kind of flexibility and respect for the player’s autonomy is something we could use more of in design. Forget the one happy path for the one perfect user. Design for everyone and all their wacky choices.

A few months ago, my grandma wanted to sign up for Instagram so she could look at my photos and stay in touch. The problem is, she doesn’t have a smartphone. Also, she lives on the other side of the world. I ended up having to make an account for her on my phone because—even though you can look at photos and follow people on www dot instagram dot com—for some reason, you CANNOT make an account unless you have a specific kind of phone. Then I had to email her instructions to guide her through the app because it made no sense to her and I wasn’t there to help (and certainly, neither was Instagram). In short, they made one thing clear: “Oh, we’re not for you.”

You could say this is a question of empathy, but that word has been so overused in the design community that I think we should do the merciful thing and take it out back to give it a quick, painless death. So don’t think of it as empathy. Think of it as a decision tree in a game. What are all the possible choices someone might make? Here are some examples:

  • what if someone gets distracted during onboarding and stops
  • what if someone wants to be secretive
  • what if someone hates taking photos of themselves
  • what if someone wants to save drafts for later
  • what if someone doesn’t want to see certain things
  • what if someone doesn’t do any of the suggested actions
  • what if someone wants to get through this quickly
  • what if someone wants to take their time

The biggest lesson though is that design is everywhere. Even a plunger was thoughtfully designed with human interests in mind (“eww, poop”). There’s really not much difference between a mobile app and a game, or even a physical product. In all cases:

We need to minimize the amount of time users spend learning and maximize the amount of time they spend doing.

We need to think of our user flows as circular labyrinths, where each path is valid, rather than as one perfect path with unseemly edge cases.

We need to respect people’s time, intelligence, and curiosity.

Most of all, we should probably spend more time playing games and less time reading Medium articles.