Illustration by Bruce Flow

What video games can teach enterprise software about UX

Serious lessons from fun software

A few years ago, a friend and I started an indie game development as a side hustle. We created mobile games. By night, I was the graphics and UX designer in that project. By day, a software developer working on complex enterprise applications. I felt like a nerdy superhero.

Before the project, I didn’t know much about UX, and certainly zilch about making video games. I jumped into the deep end on purpose, because I wanted to work on something more playful than serious business software.

The company crashed and burned for a multitude of reasons. I do not regret it one bit. The ordeal taught me a lot. Particularly, it force-fed me the fundamentals of user-interface and interaction design.

I could no longer bring myself to work on monolithic business software that was a pain in the neck to use. At that time at work, I had too little influence to steer the UX direction. It inspired me to switch jobs.

Now, I develop prototypes in the design department of a multinational tech company. The department exists to improve the UX of enterprise applications.

The indie game side hustle opened me up to the idea of drawing lessons from other software industries to apply them to enterprise software. With regard to UX, there is a considerable amount that enterprise software can learn from video games.

It is obvious what we can learn through the lens of graphic design or from the aspect of gamification. If we zoom further out to a meta level, there are significant approaches that we can appropriate from the video game industry.

Considering UX as the main desirability factor

The holy trinity of innovation is desirability, feasibility, and viability. Desirability is what drives customers to purchase products.

In the video game industry, purchasing decisions are made by individuals. If they crave a game badly enough, they will buy it.

In enterprise software, the purchasing decision is made by a few key decision makers. The silent screams of the actual end-users who tolerate bad UX rarely reach the key decision makers, if at all.

The distinction here is that desirability has different meanings to those two purchasing groups.

The desirability of video games hinges on great UX. Games are bought because of the experience they offer.

When purchasing business software, key decision makers evaluate points like the feature set, maintenance costs, and current system landscape. The only impression of the UX might be a simple 30-minute demo.

As a result, it is easy for UX to take a back seat in enterprise software development. Enterprise software vendors are conditioned to believe that they do not have to invest much into UX. A large chunk of their sales can be attributed to the company reputation, vendor lock-in or technical features of the software.

Previously, only enterprise software behemoths can provide complex technical features. Due to the shift in the IT landscape, particularly with the power of cloud computing, nimble smaller competitors are closing the gap at an amazing speed.

When technical capabilities are no longer a differentiation factor, the attention of key decision makers on the purchasing side will shift more to UX.

The gaming industry has long grasped the vital role of UX in desirability. Enterprise software vendors who continue to ignore this will wither away, sooner or later.

No need to RTFM

In the enterprise software world, it is not uncommon to have product manuals that span tens or hundreds of pages.

Reading enterprise software documentation is often are little more interesting than watching paint dry. We cannot blame the users if they do not “read the f*cking manual”.

When a frustrated customer creates a support ticket, the technical support employee will usually first check if the issue can be solved with the help of documentation. It is a primitive practice that incurs costs on both customer and vendor side.

In the same vein is the subject of training. Participants are billed thousands of dollars for a week-long classroom training. The trainer goes through the mundane demo material, which the trainees have to emulate. Monkey see, monkey do.

Would you purchase an Xbox game if you had to read 50 pages of manual, go for a week-long training and create a bunch of support tickets?

It is not uncommon to see explanations of icons in product manuals. Or to have trainers decipher unnecessarily confusing screen flows in classroom sessions. These absurdities would never see the light of day in the video game industry.

When software vendors invest in building intuitive UX, the need for documentation, training, and support can be vastly reduced. Imagine the amount of money and nerves that can be saved.

Some approaches can be directly adapted from video games to business software.

For example, the user is eased into the controls by starting out with the basics. As the game progresses, complexity is gradually introduced. The complexity is also immensely contextual.

Games offer tutorial levels where the player is guided step-by-step to achieve a simple objective. At each step, a short but fun explanation is displayed. Concepts are broken down into consumable nuggets.

Purposefully improving the UX with the aim of reducing the necessity for documentation, training, and support is a win-win for both the customer and the software vendor.

The end-users can have a more tolerable, or perhaps even enjoyable experience. Due to the improved employee productivity and less need for training, the purchasing company saves money.

The software vendor has to spend less on documentation, training, and support infrastructure. The product will have a more favorable reputation in the eyes of the customers.

Feelings as a barometer

Think about the last time you clicked through the screens of an enterprise software product. How did it make you feel? There is a real possibility that you might have felt the need to bang your head against the cubicle wall.

Now think about the last time when you were playing a game on your phone or console. Chances are, you had a smile on your face.

Video games are engineered to immerse players in specific emotions. This is evident when we look at the different genres. If you play horror games on your large screen TV in the dark with surround sound, you will have goosebumps. If you assume the character of Batman, you will feel like a crime-fighting badass.

Regardless of the genre, video games generally fun and exciting to play. They make players feel relaxed, satisfied and recharged.

Some would argue that business is a serious undertaking and not comparable to video games, therefore there is no place for a fun and delightful UX. This logic is flawed.

Yes, it is true enterprise software products are created to help us accomplish serious tasks. That is exactly the reason we badly need the UX to make things easier for the users. We should stress users with extra layers of complexity and difficulty.

Perhaps it would be unrealistic to wish that enterprise software UX can provide the same adrenalin rush when you blast zombies on screen.

What we can realistically do is at least tackle the sources of negative emotions. Anything that causes users to yell expletives at the screen should be removed. You know, culprits like confusing controls, information overloading, unnecessary complexity, and frustratingly slow UI response times.

Only when those glaringly obvious issues are addressed, should we proceed to add bells and whistles to the UX. Micro-animations and haptic are satisfying, but they have very little effect if the fundamentals are not fixed first.

Gauging the feelings of users is a great indicator to check if our software is doing what it is meant to do in the first place. If a user can quickly and painlessly accomplish a task, he will be happy. Plain and simple.

The next time you do user testing, pay attention to the body language of the users. Are they knitting their eyebrows together? Are their lips pursed? Are their hands open and relaxed? Body language can provide valuable hints that you might have missed from verbal interviews or on-screen behavior.

It is time to go back to basics. We can learn from the gaming industry by making the emotions of end-users a top priority. It tells us whether our software is doing its job.

Time to wake up

The bar for UX in the enterprise space is low compared to other software industries, for example, the gaming industry. It is almost as if it is excusable to provide bad UX in enterprise software.

The increasing significance placed on UX in the business world is not just a fad. Hiding behind other differentiating advantages and continuing to churn out bad UX might still work in the short run. But it is just a matter of time before the consequences come back and bite us in the behind.

All things considered, life is too short to make software that is a chore to use.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +393,714 people.

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