Sunday, July 06, 2008

Switches and dials, thresholds and evaluations

I spend a fair amount of time playing games, of various sorts -- a lot of computer games, mostly of the RPG genre, as well as card games (Magic and traditional) and some board games. One thing that strikes me is the similarity between the design decisions made when building games and those made when constructing other sorts of UIs, such as web sites or applications. When you are dealing with the interface between humans abstracted into an interface layer of some sort, whether it's a set of rules you read, the instructions on a card or the placement and nature of buttons on the screen, you're dealing with variations on a theme: how does one person understand what they can and cannot do to interact with the context they are in to produce results?

When I am thinking about the controls available to users, I conceptualize them using a framework I call "switches and dials". Switches are on/off states -- something is in play or not, available or not, alive or dead, and so on. In a website or application context, these are things like whether or not you offer search, or the ability for users to save a constructed navigational state. At the most basic level, a switch is a threshold -- you are on one side or the other. In World of Warcraft, for example, you must have purchased the skill that allows you to use a given weapon before you can equip it.

Dials are indicators of degree -- things that may occur in increments, such as points of health, chance to dodge and so on. Often, they're linked to switches -- in World of Warcraft, once you have purchased the ability to equip a given weapon, you still have to build up your skill rating with it.

This leads me to framing user decisions about whether to like a given component or system in terms of threshold and evaluation considerations -- which features or functions will make or break a user's decision to use a web site or application at all, and which will influence it.

There is, of course, a pretty big difference between switch/dial in game, site or app design and threshold/evalution in user preference, but there's enough similarity in concept for me to link them in my mind -- and isn't my mind what blogging is all about? :)

An example may help. For me, the ability to see screenshots of a piece of software is make-or-break; even if downloading it is free, I still want to know what the thing looks like, After all, I am going to have to uninstall if I don't like it, and that represents an investment. So no screenshots is a threshold for me. Once we get past that, then I'm looking at the content in the screenshots, and we're in evaluation territory.

From the other side of the equation, deciding whether or not to put screenshots on the web site is a switch.

Okay, what's the reason for all of this? When making decisions about what to put into or leave out of your game (site, application, etc) consider what part of the decision-making process it occupies for your end-user, in addition to thinking about what it means to your design intent.

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