Thursday, December 10, 2009

Design Decisions by the Percentages

I've learned a long time ago in hockey about the concept of "playing the percentages". What this means is that a certain action or play will have a particular success factor over others given the situation. For instance, in a power play when a team is shorthanded one person, one of the best (high percentage) ways to get the puck into the neutral zone and out of your zone is to shoot it off the boards or the glass. The only risk here is having an unpredictable bounce off the glass and the puck stays in the zone. The alternative is to shoot it out in the center through a gap and risk the puck staying in the zone with the opponent quickly covering any gap. One last alternative is to actually carry the puck out of the zone in risk of shorthanding your defense further if the puck-carrier makes a mistake.

So how does this apply to the field of UX?

Well, if a certain play has a specific percentage of success, something that can be measured, it can also be applied to making design decisions - could it not?

The reason why I'm exploring this concept is because we're currently developing a U.I. Pattern Library. (Here's a case study.) And because we're rapidly developing these patterns, there will be some that need to be used immediately and thus cannot be tested right away. So we need to explore all options for a solution to a pattern. There are indeed some patterns that are "straightforward" but then there are those requiring a little more work. And with this work, we need to figure out the best solution. How better to do this than by design by the percentages?

The fact is, most UX designers and analysts have basic knowledge to design based on past data and experiences. (e.g. We know when to use radio buttons instead of checkboxes.) The caveat is that an untested pattern may be completely wrong, especially if after testing, we find out the user behavior and expectations are mismatched. By designing by percentages, we mitigate enough of the unpredictable and also keep cognoscente of our decisions and how they came to be. (This also means that there needs to be documentation that will log these decisions.)

So how can this be used immediately? To me, it's more of a concept I keep in the back of my mind. I think of alternatives and go through a cognitive walkthrough to anticipate what the user may interpret and thus behave when interfacing with the product. However, doing just that may not be as rigorous as some might like. To make is rigorous and more apparent, documentation can accompany each decision made along with alternatives and why they were not chosen. While it can take long to do, at least when the patterns are tested afterwards, the assumptions can be referenced and validated/invalidated.

In the end, this concept is not 100% correct though it does give you progress because you're spending time worthy on exploring the pattern probabilities. To adopt Bill Buxton's axiom that you can only design the framework and not the user behavior, design by percentages can at least get you one step closer to designing an effective framework that gets you eventually closer to influence user behavior.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Video game review - Need for Speed Shift for PS3

I've rarely written about video games. Usually, I just like to play them, experience them and just enjoy it. However, there's this one game I recently bought that haven't met my expectations, and I'm ready to return it to the store. Electronic Arts just released Need for Speed: Shift. It was a big deal in the E3 gamers expo with better graphics and supposed better gameplay. It was suppose to match the caliber of Gran Turismo 5, GRID and Dirt. Let me just say - it doesn't. NFS:Shift follows the formula that the Gran Turismo series uses. Beautiful graphics and theatrics in the beginning so that the petrolheads of the world can salivate over, awesome music and even more awesome exotic, high-performance cars. NFS:Shift even has features to modify your vehicle so you can go with any kind of paint scheme you want and upgrade your car to perform better. Sound familiar?

Where NFS:Shift fails is in several areas:

1. From the start when the game is trying to determine the level of play and control settings, you are sent through a trial by driving a car on a course. If you do well, they may increase your level by reducing the number of computer nannies controlling your car and set the artificial intelligence engine to a higher level. If you do poorly, the game piles on the computer controls to a point where you don't actually drive your car anymore. Guess how I did? And this was very disconcerting because I had played driving games since Gran Turismo 2 (GT2).

For a good 15 to 30 minutes I was looking for the settings to change the level of play and rid myself of most of the computer nannies.
As for the cause of this poor performance? The controller settings forced me to use a specific set of buttons for certain controls instead those I was acclimated to on Gran Turismo. Perhaps this is their way of forcing gamers to buy the overpriced steering wheel control that has a flimsy ergonomic infrastructure to support it. (Yes, I know I'm not being nice.)

2. EA put what's called, "EA Messenger" in a horrible place where it can be easily pressed by accident and pause the game. This feature is activated by the same mechanism as the accelerator (the right thumbstick) by pressing on it (R3). Unfortunately, because of this new paradigm forced upon me on the controller settings, I've actually crashed my car because of where this function is located. Obviously, there wasn't enough usability research done to foresee such an instance. 3. Loading the game is an extremely boring process. I've counted that I had to press the "O" button ("X" on NA consoles since, mine is a Japan console) 5 times to load the game all the while watching different progress bars do their thing.

Why couldn't these processes be done automatically and without my knowing? Wow me with your car graphics and not your system messages.

All in all, I really wanted to love this game, I really did. Driving the new cars make this game addictive - but each and every time, it also makes me wince because of the lack of respect of these three crucial things in the user experience. Back to GT5 for me.

Here are my recommendations for racing games for the Playstation console, best user experience listed first:
2. GT5 Prologue
3. GT4
4. GT3
5. Colin McRae 2
6. Colin McRae 1
7. WRC
8. DiRT
9. Ridge Racer 5
Dead last perhaps umpteenth million NFS:Shift