2017 in Review

When I started this blog I had a goal to write regularly, but building a habit can be challenging to design. I'm hoping to create that habit this year as I reflect on what I've done in 2017.

2017 in Numbers

3 books - one of my goals in 2017 came much later in the year and was inspired by my job. My boss asked me to lead a book club for our team, and that got me thinking about all the books that I've wanted to read and what I could do to grow as a UX designer. 

These were the books I read: 

  • Hooked by Nir Eyal - this was for my team's UX club, and it's one that I've reached for in regularly since I've read it. Hooked is about how habits are formed and what designers can do to get their products to become a habit. There were a lot of game examples that I enjoyed, such as Zynga's Farmville; the variable rewards come in the 'produce' grown and the investment with deliberate timers to stop the players from progressing too far in one shot and brings them back to invest more time. What I really appreciated about it was the warning about using our powers as designers for good when creating products for users
  • Playful Design by John Ferrara - I've had this book sitting in my digital collection for a while and I wish I had read it before I started my master's thesis. This book had great anecdotes and examples for balancing game design and UX, and the tips about playtesting helped me evaluate my own practices and think about where UX research practices could be effective in testing games. It was written before the rise of XR, but it has some good ideas that I want to pull into my practices.
  • VR UX: Learn VR UX, Storytelling & Design by Casey Fictum - if you want a primer on VR and tips for thinking how to design for it, this was a great and fast read. It goes over the landscape of options in the VR space and how that could affect design as well as 3D design tips such as how to reduce motion sickness. 

2 conferences - I got to attend two conferences last year, both of which were full of great content and left me feeling inspired. 

  • The Games UX Summit - I was so excited when the first one was announced... only to discover it was right when I was presenting my thesis project. So you can imagine how thrilled I to hear they were doing an extended one in Toronto (if you follow me on Twitter you definitely saw my excitement). I wrote up a summary of some of the key things I learned here.
  • Oculus 4 - I was so fortunate to win a ticket to OC4 from SH//FT, an organization that supports diversity in the AR/VR industry. I met a lot of incredible women who are doing some amazing work in the space and learned first hand from creators about the challenges of designing systems and experiences in 3D space. 

2 game designers collaborated with- this is the thing that I am most proud to have been a part of. I had the chance to work with some friends on their games on the side as I was settling into my job, and it stretched my skills in different ways. I'll do a longer piece about my experiences here, but I learned so much from it and hope to do more work like that in the future: 

  • But Not Tonight, Clio Davis - Clio is one of the people responsible for getting me into games, and she's an incredible game designer who has games from tabletop to escape rooms. She created an RPG for a contest, and I offered to run a playtest for her to get practice my playtesting skills and also think about how to set up a play test and recruit testers. It was a nice way to mash up games and design thinking and pushed my approaches to testing in general as well as running a game. 
  • Feast, Sharang Biswas - like Clio, Sharang is another person who encouraged me to get into games. When he calls I know that I'm in for an interesting experience, so when he asked me to do the print work for a game he had made I immediately said yes despite my lack of experience in doing graphic and print design. We talked about everything from moods and fonts to content and wording, and collaborating with Sharang was one of the easiest things to do. Feast went on to win the Dark Horse award at IndieCade last year and has gone on to do amazing things, and I'm so proud to have been a part of it.

Lessons from 2017

2017 for me was a balancing act. I moved back to Chicago from New York, started my first agency job, and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my career and how to balance my creative interests. There are many small lessons I took away, but the big one of the year was to take a few risks.

Why not try something I hadn't done before? Sure, I hadn't done print work or an in depth play test. But even with all the generic advice about taking risks, it didn't really hit home until I was staring at a screen analyzing font choices or copy for Feast. Nothing I did was 100% error free - in my playtest for Clio I realized how underprepared I was for the role of running the game. But having those experiences left me with something new to add to my design practices, something that wouldn't have happened if I said no.

The same approach paid off a little with meeting people too - when I was in Toronto for the Games UX Summit, my first instinct was to keep to myself. Approaching people is not easy for me, but I came to Toronto wanting to learn from people in the games UX field. Since that requires using my words and making the first move sometimes, I decided to test my boundaries.

It was completely worth it. I met some amazing people who still boggle my mind with that they've done and who I'll hopefully run into again someday.

So professionally and personally, I'm hoping to push myself to try new things. Will I still be sweating bullets? Absolutely, but I hope they'll pay off as much as the chances I took in the last year.

Goals for 2018

Learn something new daily - It seems pretty generic, but if I plan to grow as a UX designer and a games UX designer there's a lot of ground to cover. I already have a long list of books related to games and design to dig through this year, and I've started digging into this guide to get back into some development and learn Unity. 

Collaborate with more people - I loved working with Clio and Sharang on their games, and while I would certainly like to do my own game work (my thesis notebook is currently sitting on my shelf begging me to pick it back up) collaboration has been a big motivator for me to do something new.

I'm hopeful for what 2018 will shape up to be, and if it goes according to plan this year will be the year where I actually document it more thoroughly.

I can't wait to see what's next. 

The Human Element of Games: Lessons from the Game UX Summit

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn

Do you remember your first hobby? The one that you’d stay up late doing, or that made you feel like you belonged? I want you to imagine if you couldn’t do that hobby. Let's say you couldn't participate in it because you can't move your body a certain way or see/hear as well as other people. To make it easier for you would cost more money and time for the people who make your hobby possible. How would you feel?

Now imagine if someone said that if you were bad at this hobby you were somehow less of a person… or that you should kill yourself for how bad you are at it. How does that make you feel?

This is the reality for quite a few people who play digital games.

Games have been around since some of the earliest known civilizations, and video games are one of the most popular forms of entertainment today. But for something that's so fundamentally human they can often be exclusive, from the in-game content shown to the culture around gaming itself.

Incorporating the human element into products is a challenge that user experience (UX) designers tackle regularly - our job is centered around finding the humanity in and advocating for users (or players). We do research to understand who the users for a product are and what kinds of challenges they face with the tools they use in order to build better products and experiences. 

So how can UX design be applied to games?

I spent the first week of October attending the Games UX Summit in Toronto, which tackles this question and other design challenges in the video games industry. This is the second time the conference has been held, hosted this year by Ubisoft Toronto. Around three hundred and fifty people from around the world - Finland, Brazil, Russia, and more - came to Toronto to learn more about games UX over two days. Each day had a general theme that designers from all parts of the games industry shared about: the first centered around toxicity in games, a topic that’s been at the forefront in the industry recently; the second on accessibility, one that can be looked over at times. 

Here’s what I learned:

Players make mistakes too.

Are there players who enjoy being cruel to other players? Yes. Are they the majority? No, and as UX designers we can use design thinking to find ways to make sure that players are rewarded for making gaming a positive shared experience. 

Toxicity has been a hot topic with Gamergate exposing the harassment female players and creators experience online, but it’s a problem that is way more complex than I first thought. For one, I assumed that the players who say nasty things to others online do it all the time and are just not nice people. 

But according to Riot Games’ Kam Fung though, it’s often just a one off moment. When he asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d ever said something rude in the heat of a moment in a game, a large number of people sheepishly raised their hands. Kam pointed out that we are biased to see the bad in others more easily than in ourselves, which leads us to believe other people are the problem. He proposed a different way of tackling the design challenge of community interactions: 

How do we reward players for good behavior and allow them to reform for bad behavior?

That’s the million dollar question, one the entire games industry is committed to finding solutions to. At Twitch for example, data scientist Ruth Toner combines data science metrics with UX thinking to analyze points where abusive behavior occurs and build tools that help streamers and moderators manage channel comments without it becoming overwhelming. There was inspiration from sources outside of games: Ben Lewis-Evans from Epic Games used lessons from his time in road safety to effectively reinforce positive community behavior through what he called the Three E’s: Education, Enforcement, and Engineering.

Looking beyond games, reduce toxic behavior is a design challenge that many brands and industries will face as they grow their communities and build brand loyalty. Thinking about how to reward positive behavior will reach the larger audience who behave within community standards and create more success rather than tackling negative reinforcement only.

Accessibility is a requirement, not a feature.

At the start of her talk, Alex Neonakis from Naughty Dog told us about when she approached the development team to add more accessibility features to Uncharted 4. They told her “this is too much work, maybe next time.”

It wasn’t said with malice - making games is a business after all - but it still broke my heart. I’ll admit that accessibility isn’t one of the first experiential goals that comes to mind when I design. But after hearing the stories that several speakers shared, it’s something that I think I and many other people will find much easier to include in our processes. 

Bryce Johnson, Microsoft

For one thing, designing for accessibility isn’t designing just for a specific group. One of the principles of Microsoft's Inclusive Design Toolkit is “solve for one, extend for many”, a principle that designer Bryce Johnson demonstrated. He asked us to imagine designing for someone with just one arm; the design could enable someone who is temporarily disabled (someone with a broken arm) or in a situation where they can’t use both hands (a parent holding a baby) to be able to play as well. 

A real life example? Closed captioning is a feature that supports hard of hearing players but is very commonly used by others. I use them myself because I often have to play with the sound turned down to not disturb other people and sometimes have difficulty with characters’ accents. There are a multitude of scenarios that are solved with closed captioning, and all it took was solving for one. 

There are also steps that designers can take when designing their interfaces, from adding visual indicators to pair with audio cues to replacing button mashes to holds for fine motor control considerations. Some may not be the prettiest of fixes but can make all the difference in a person’s experience, like adding a reticle in the center of a screen to reduce motion sickness. As someone who gets motion sick at the drop of a hat, I think it would be really nice to play games without needing motion sickness medication or a bucket on hand. 

Blind gamer Steve Saylor said during a panel on inclusivity and accessibility that if he sees accessibility features in a game, he feels they’re made for him and he will become that game’s biggest advocate. If games can access an audience with this much passion, then accessibility needs to become a key experiential goal and deliberately integrated into design and development processes moving forward.

Yes we still need to talk about inclusion and diversity.

Accessibility is just one factor to consider when designing for inclusivity. Diversity and inclusion is an ongoing discussion in games, but a lot of what people are writing about is about being in the industry. We also need to consider it in the players we design for, and there is a lot of opportunity to apply UX processes to encourage this in game development. 

Let's start with looking at our users: the game players. Players often identify or get sorted into two categories: “hardcore” and “casual”. Each term carries a weight to it, and this can lead to people being excluded from games based on the way that they identify can often lead to them, or even self-excluding.

During her keynote, Kongregate CEO and co-founder Emily Greer talked about how platforms were perceived in the late 90’s/early 2000’s as being targeted to certain genders. 

Emily Greer, Kongregate

The platforms on the left are considered to be ‘hardcore’, the ones on the right ‘casual’.

You can see where I’m leading with this right? But in a study done in 2016, about 41% of gamers identify as female across the board - that’s not accounting for differences across game genres, which was studied by a separate group. Categorizing gamers into “hardcore” or “casual” creates labels that can be inaccurate, prejudicial, and harmful.

To move away from this, Emily proposed different classifications: novelty seekers, one-game hobbyists, true casual, and game omnivores.

    Emily Greer's proposed classifications of gamer types

    What I really love about these terms is they feel much more human and take into account more nuances than the current system does. These shouldn’t be used as personas, but instead offer a different approach that I think should encourage us to retire the ‘hardcore’/‘casual’ classification.

    In addition to changing the conversation about how we view players, we need to make games themselves more diverse. One of the opportunities available is to make more diverse characters, something that Mitu Khandaker is tackling using artificial intelligence at her startup Spirit AI. She said “character creation screens show how we define/categorize people. Think carefully about how we expose models of [them].”

    Advocating for users is a core piece of user experience, and that means advocating for everyone - I'll now be evaluating my work to see if anyone is being excluded from participating in the experience at all stages of development. There are far more benefits to doing so, including solving for edge cases that may not have considered initially. In doing so, there could be an opportunity for delighting users or extending use of a product/experience. 

    UX may be the new kid, but designers want to be part of the team

    Games UX is a pretty new field, and designers in every studio are facing the challenge of being included in the game development process. Designers have to build trust and respect with our teams so that we can be included in the process, but this is a change we can’t enact on our own - we hope that other teams will advocate for us too. But to get there, UX has to do a lot of the initial legwork to build the relationships and investment needed.

    Almost everyone who gave a talk emphasized how important it was to communicate with development teams in order to generate ideas from diverse sources and get stakeholders from every discipline to buy in. But the first step to getting there is to demonstrate the value of design, and getting a seat at the table is often an uphill battle. David Candland from Bungie showed us a few things he was asked during his career:

      David Candland, Bungie

      Sound familiar? Everyone in attendance thought so - the entire audience groaned or chuckled at these quotes. Designers know that UX isn’t just a gate that needs to be passed or a service to be added, but we need to prove that.

      How do we combat this? Creative solutions and communication.

      When he was working on Destiny, David didn’t want to talk down to players. He instead relied on visual cues and animations to teach features rather than text so that the players wouldn’t feel like they would have to face another hurdle in order to continue to play. Reducing the UI elements in Destiny led to much cleaner interfaces while still conveying the necessary information, and this came about through continued conversations with stakeholders to get buy in on design decisions. 

      Pointers on how to get UX a seat at the table from Kabam's Ellie Moon 

      So what does that process look like? It depends from studio to studio - Ellie Moon and her team created a new process at Kabam as they designed Marvel: Contest of Champions and offered some great pointers for how to build that process elsewhere (shown on the right).

      Although it’s still an uphill battle to get UX a seat at the table, many places are starting to recognize the value and are forming their own design practices. Some game studios lean heavily on their player communities for input on design, while others are refining their processes to include UX upfront.

      Regardless of company or industry, it’s important to find ways to build trust between UX and development teams so that the organization can maximize the benefit of what UX brings to the table. 

      There is no “us” and “them"

      That’s the biggest lesson I learned from these two days: whether we play or make a game, the passion we all share is the same. The challenges presented during the Games UX Summit are ones that will not be solved overnight, but UX designers have an opportunity to use design methodologies to think about in how games are made and experienced. The future for games UX is bright, and I'm excited to see what's next.

      Launching Design, Develop, Play

      It's been a little over a year since I graduated from ITP, and one of the best habits I learned there was to write about everything I'm doing. Whether it was updating on my work in progress, brainstorming new ideas, or doing a post mortem on a project, I wrote about it. 

      Writing is imperative to being a UX designer - John Maeda pointed out its importance in the 2017 Design in Tech Report. It's a skill that's needed in multiple contexts: within UX design itself (content design), in the design process (documentation and design deliverables), and in the larger communications to collaborators (every interaction with teams you work with, from status updates to design reviews). 

      This blog is hopefully going to be a way to practice writing in all three concepts.

      Design, Develop, Play, Fangirl been my tagline for a while now and is a pretty solid summary of what I do: user experience, high fidelity prototyping, and game/play centric projects that are more often that not themed along pop culture topics I'm passionate about. You can catch the Fangirl part on Twitter; this space will have the same enthusiasm but serve a different purpose in that the focus will be about the making-of of my side projects. 

      I'm excited to see where I go from here, and I look forward to any feedback along the way!