How playing board games made me a better product designer
This post is adapted from a workshop I gave at Chegg UX week 2016, a unique UX conference within Chegg to share ideas, add energy, and inspire each other.
Take a break from technology. Learn and get inspired by user experiences that are beyond the screen. Like many of you, I stare at a screen for many hours a day. That’s what you’re doing now as you’re reading this. To get eyeball breaks after work, I play board games with friends and family.
Sometimes when I’m in the weeds of a design, I remind myself to step back and remember that a “user’s experience” does not stop after they interact with the piece I design. The user experience encompasses all the touch points your user has with your company just like a board game. Whether I’m new or a veteran to a board game, the experience as a whole is pretty exciting. As a UX designer crafting products, I can’t help but see the parallels in both worlds.
UX and boardgames both:
Balance needs and enjoyment
Most board games come with an instruction manual, but I find reading them to be the most boring part of starting a new game. My goal at this point is to learn as fast as possible so I can start playing. My preferred approach to learning a new board game is to have a person explain it. That person must be able to explain it succinctly and clearly. Luckily for me, I’m married to the world’s best board-game-rule-explainer so I can ask questions as I go. At the same time as I’m learning the rules, I’m likely multitasking to be a good host by prepping snacks for the table and figuring out what music to play in the background.
I’ve played board games that take no time to learn. These tend to be casual, social games and are likely to have game dynamics that most people are already familiar with. I’ve also played games that take about an hour or more to learn all the rules. Battlestar Galactica anyone? Battlestar Galactica took me about an hour to learn with a group and about 5–6 hours to play. Of course, I knew this beforehand because it had the average game duration printed right on the box and the complexity of the game pieces during setup was clear in setting up that expectation.
UX parallels: product onboarding
- The first time someone arrives to a product, remember that they have a goal to accomplish. They might be trying to accomplish this goal while multitasking.
- Onboarding, like game rules, should not feel like an extra step. The timing, amount of information, how the user will interact with your design will all play a factor. I often question if “onboarding” is even necessary and if the design inherently already satisfies the information the user needs to get started. If it is needed, it should teach the user quickly without friction, while making the whole experience enjoyable and not seem like a chore.
- Set expectations clearly and be honest upfront about what is expected of the user.
Empower users to be in control of their experience
“Ok, so how do I win?” — That’s one of the first things I ask when I learn a new game. The fundamental part of playing a board game is to evaluate all the choices you have and make your move. Some of the factors I think about when deciding my next move:
- In order to win, I need to understand the options and constraints that are available to me on my turn.
- Each option will give me feedback when I try it. I can see if it helps me get closer to winning.
- I need to understand what other players might do in response to my move.
UX parallels: empower users
- Focus on the elements of design that will enable the user to get closer to their goal at specific moments. Prioritize the options. It is easy to fall into the trap of adding more options because we want the make sure the user has flexibility. This can quickly become overwhelming. The fun challenge of being a designer is to figure out what can be omitted. Once something is added to a launched design, it can be difficult to take away.
- Options should be clear before the user decides to take the option. Reduce barriers by doing the thinking for the user. Prominence can play a large part in this and be fine-tuned with design style, color, size, timing, and placement. Your goal is to help guide them to make their decision faster with minimal effort on their end.
- Clear feedback should be given to users after an option is chosen. This will help them understand if what they just did helps them move towards their goal.
Every point of contact a person has with a product is an opportunity for design to shape the number of choices shown and to empower the user to be in control of their experience.
Leverage existing mental models
Once I start to get the hang of a game, I immediately start recognizing familiar game mechanics from previous games played. For example, the last game I learned was Gloomhaven. In Gloomhaven, you choose a character that’s yours to customize throughout the entire game while you team up with your friends to fight monsters. To me, this game was extremely similar to a game I had played in the 90’s called Diablo. With that connection, I was able to quickly understand the rules and play the game without hesitation.
UX parallels: mental models in product design
- People come with mental models and learned behaviors from previous experiences. This will shape what they expect when they interact with a product.
- Even if a design has novel aspects in its solution, leveraging existing design patterns and conventions can help make the experience more familiar and intuitive. No need to reinvent the wheel.
Elevate the experience
Whether I win or lose — I come away after playing a game with an overall feeling. Even though I might have lost a game, did I still have fun? Will I play it again? What will I remember about it a week later? Will I recommend it to my friends?
One of my favorite games that I have played over a hundred times throughout the past 7 years (coincidentally) is 7 Wonders. In 7 Wonders, you are a leader of one of the ancient civilizations. You have to build and advance your city by obtaining resources on your own or by trade, and investing in military and technology. The most accomplished civilization in the end wins. Here are some of the reasons why I think this board game is an elevated user experience:
- The game is flexible. It can easily expand from 2–7+ players without affecting the average duration of the game of 30 minutes. In 7 Wonders, the game mechanic of drafting contributes to this efficiency. Players draft their hand of cards and also take their turns simultaneously. There is rarely a dull moment where you would need to wait long for another player to finish their turn.
- It has high replay value. It’s difficult to list out every single thing that adds to 7 Wonders’ high replay value for me, but here are a few that come to mind specific to the gameplay. Every game of 7 Wonders I’ve played is a vastly different experience, even if it’s played with the same group of people. The differences can be the type of strategies used or how the winners secure their victory. There are also different ways to win: your civilization can win with the strongest military, or have the most advanced technologies, or be the richest. Most importantly, there is a desirable balance of skill and randomness needed to win the game.
- There is a thoughtful, polished rich theme that permeates through the entire game. It comes out in the consistency in design details of the game mechanics, visuals, and game pieces. It leaves you with a lasting experience you can’t stop talking about to your friends and family. You might even try to convince them to play the game so they can experience the fun you just had.
UX parallels: elevated experiences in product design
There is no magic formula to “elevate” an experience. It is about identifying opportunities where it can work without feeling forced. Some questions to keep in mind:
- What will be remembered? Immediately? A week later? Are there any negative or positive experiences that can be the single most salient memory of the experience?
- What is the user’s state of mind from start to finish? Do they arrive stressed out or relaxed? What can be done to improve their emotional state?
- Do we want the user to come back?
- What is the story they will tell their friends about their experience, which ultimately reflects the company?
These questions are ones that I apply to designs I am working on. Sure, I can create designs to get the users from A to B, but that’s not enough. At Chegg, we are conscious about the whole end-to-end experience and what can we do to elevate the experience to create something memorable for the user.
The next time you play a board game, think about the UX of the game itself and see what you observe. Hopefully, there will be things you’ll notice that inspire you to be a better designer.