Can User Centered Design help games? (GameCamp report)

by Alistair Gray on 18 May 2011

As a card carrying geek, I attendedGameCamp 4 over the weekend (other conferences are available). It was an ‘unconference‘ where any attendee can put their name up on the board to do a talk/discussion if they wish. I decided to run a half hour slot called ‘User Centered Design – Can it help games?’.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the turnout. The attendees seemed almost entirely people who worked in game development and had heard of UCD but had some questions or reservations about it. I’d say about 1/3 of people there had actually tried using UCD methodologies (albeit to varying degrees of success). It was fantastic just to see how many people were interested in the topic – a really good sign that the games community are giving the approach the attention it deserves.

We had some really interesting discussions (thanks to all who attended!), and lots of interesting questions were brought up, so I thought I’d repeat them here, along with some shortened responses:

  • What is User Centered Design (UCD)?
  • When should UCD methodology be applied to game development?
  • What is the best method to adopt?
  • Can UCD work with Agile development?
  • Do users really know what they want/what’s good for them?
  • Doesn’t UCD stifle originality and creativity?

What is UCD?

UCD is a series of methods used to aid design. The primary purpose of these methods is to keep user needs, behaviours and goals in focus during the design process, so that user requirements, opinions and feedback are taken into account throughout. The main aim is to help ensure you produce a product that customers like and understand better than if they weren’t consulted – leading to a more successful product.

When should UCD methodology be applied to game development?

Different UCD methodologies are best applied at different points in the design process – research/discovery, analysis, design or testing. The choice of method depends on what the goals of each stage are, and what kinds of materials you have available (a rough concept, storyboards, a paper prototype, a working beta, etc).

For example, at the very beginning of a project you might try some ethnographic research to find out whatusers behaviours are, what the context of game play might be or find any gaps that a game could fill. Throughout the design process it might be useful to have some personas of your  target audiences to help development teams keep the real users in mind (interestingly, quite a few people in the discussion had already tried using personas for game development). Towards the end you can get a huge amount of value out of usability testing a working prototype, to make sure users are able to play the game without encountering any ‘unintended’ challenges.

If you are considering UCD for an existing project it’s never too late!

What is the best UCD method to adopt?

It is entirely dependent on where you are in the design process, and your situation. User testing is the most commonly used method – particularly in the game industry. I’d strongly recommend this for any game – ever. If you’re just looking to see what UCD has to offer you user testing is possibly the quickest, most cost efficient method to try out.

Can UCD work with Agile development?

Yes, with a couple of provisos – the UCD design needs to be at least 1 cycle ahead of development. The UCD team should also be involved in any discussion around changes to the design (as a result of finding issues in development) to ensure the experience remains coherent – they need to stay involved through development iterations, which means attending stand-ups and being available as much as possible to meet the changing needs of an Agile project.

Do users really know what they want/what’s good for them?

To be honest – no! UCD isn’t just listening and doing what the user says, it’s about listening to the message behind what they say. You’re looking at their behaviour, and potential gaps for design.

As Ford said – “If you asked what people want they’d say faster horses”. But really, people just wanted to get around quicker – so solve that problem.

Doesn’t UCD stifle originality and creativity?

This was a common question. The answer’s no!

UCD will help you find out what your players want/how they behave. It will also tell you if your new idea is able to be understood/used by your players. If not, you need to know asap and reconsider – is it understood properly? Does it need to be introduced more clearly? An original idea that works will test well. If it doesn’t work, UCD will help you work out why.

A couple of people mentioned the worry that innovative ideas will be pulled from designs if they test badly. It’s possible, but I’d counter with the argument that it’s best to find this out early, and a good UX designer will be able to find a solution to a poor result, rather than pulling all the work entirely.

I hope all who attended GameCamp enjoyed themselves, and thanks to all who made it to the talk – it was great to see so many of you there and I’m looking forward to the next one!

Have you tried UCD in your games development, or as a user, do you wish any of your favourite games had undergone UCD!? Let us know, we are always interested to chat about what is going on.

Also, if anyone has any more questions then feel free to ask below and I’ll get back to you…

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