What can UX learn from gaming?

User experience (UX) has become increasingly critical to consumer engagement as brands compete for attention and customer expectations soar. John Reynolds’ explores why brands are turning to the gaming industry for a guide on best practice.

Tomb Raider and Super Mario have zapped all pretenders in the world of video games, captivating millions of gaming fans worldwide and turning them into phenomenons. And the thing about phenomenons is that they don’t go unnoticed. Instead, they are scrutinised and dissected by other brands seeking similar results.Key to these games’ success is user experience (UX); the unfl inching engagement between user and the game.And when it comes to UX, video game makers are top of the leaderboard, so it’s little surprise that it’s not only fanatical fans who deify these games, with brands of every hue looking to take inspiration, or to simply pinch ideas. Loyalty schemes, fi nancial services companies, sports brands, social media heavyweights... they are all at it, mining the gaming sector for the ultimate UX. So why are brands craning their necks to the gaming industry? According to Matthew Godfrey, UX architect at Jagex, the country’s biggest independent developer and publisher of online games including War of Legends and Runescape, it’s not rocket science. Instead, he says, it’s just that games developers do it better than the rest. “UX is fundamentally about making things simple, intuitive and understandable for players. In doing so we must understand the needs, goals and motivations of our target audience and design our products with those in mind. “If we can seek to remove confusion and ambiguity from the equation it allows for a state of flow and in turn lets them focus on having fun.” So there you go, it is all about making it easy for the consumer. But perhaps Godfrey is being a tad self-deprecating. Yes, nobody wants a clunky or complicated interface when using their mobiles, desktop or tablet to interact with a brand, but it’s not only the simplicity that other brands covet from video games. They also covet the immersive storytelling of video games, the beautiful graphics which lead gamers to be hooked for hours if not days, and in recent times – for better or worse – the whole overarching gamification aspect which they believe can be easily transfered to their own brands.McDonalds, Tesco, Asics, Nike, Nectar Air Miles - these are just some of the slew of brands to have used gamification to varying degrees in an attempt to elevate their consumer appeal, while social media platform Foursquare’s entire raison d’être was initially built on gamification. Observers believe that, done in the right way, gamification can add something fresh to a brand.Chris Rourke, managing director of software consultancy Uservision, explains: “People like getting the satisfaction from achieving something – whether that be getting a personal best in a video game or having made your LinkedIn profi le closer to 100 per cent complete.” One sector whose UX has inarguably benefited from a glance across the gaming arena is the financial sector, jazzing up an industry which can be dull and monotone.Use your Tomb Raider skills to plan your pension. For Standard Life, gamification of the brand has helped it scythe through what can be complicated information and make it more customer-friendly. According to Kristin Kramer, user experience and design manager at the fi nancial services company, there are sharp parallels between the UX of managing one’s finances with games such as Tomb Raider, Super Mario and Xbox’s Kinect.Central to this is “giving control” she says, whether it be to the customer or the gamer, so as to show that they are running the game or buying and managing financial products.In Tomb Raider, the game allows the players to skip introductory tutorials and they are taught moves as they make their way through the game. Likewise, in financial services, Kramer argues that some customers don’t need hand-holding, so there is no need to frustrate them with too many questions. Similarly she sees a link between Xbox Kinect and the financial services industry. Kinect has arguably made gaming more accessible to a wider audience by taking the Wii content and removing the need for a controller. In retirement planning tools, Kramer points out, you can offer charts with slides so that people can directly manipulate the parameters (eg age and pension contributions) that will affect their final pension pots, for example. Away from financial services, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Kickstarter, the go-to crowdsourcing site for creative projects, and the gaming industry. Like the gaming industry, it provides different tiers of awards depending on the level of engagement, though it steers away from the personalisation aspect common in video games. Graham Dobie, interaction designer at digital content creators Chunk, tells us: “While treating customers as individuals is commonly useful in terms of storytelling and personalisation, sometimes it’s better to involve them as part of bigger whole, and treat them as part of a community. Kickstarter’s language is aimed at you being part of a greater whole that makes things possible.”Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is those brands aimed at a younger demographic which reap better results, particularly fun-loving brands. Daniel Harvey, director of experience design at SapientNitro, certainly thinks gamification simply lends itself to some brands, pointing to the work the agency carried out on Unilever ice-cream brand Paddle Pop.He says: “Some brands are in a position to truly make games a unique part of their brand experience."At SapientNitro, we’ve worked with Unilever to produce some games for its Paddle Pop product. The brand’s cartoon mascot lion, his friends and their storylines gave us the right brand permission to make a fun, easy, game for the eight to 12 audience.”Which brands need to take hold of the controller?Despite the multitude of brands to have tried improving their UX by taking their lead from the gaming industry, there are plenty others not paying heed but who really should, according to experts. For Haran Ramachandran, digital director at M&C Sports & Entertainment, those particularly in need of scoring extra points are brands that already have a global following but are inexcusably failing when it comes to UX.He opines: “Premier League football teams are among the most followed on social media – the Twitter or Facebook pages of Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool confirm their social clout. However, this social safety net can lead to complacency and laziness in UX.“People like getting the satisfaction from achieving something – whether that be getting a personal best in a video game or having made your LinkedIn profile closer to 100 per cent complete.” Chris Rourke, Uservision To paraphrase Field of Dreams, why build it if they’ve already come?“It’s not easy for sports teams, as the sort of content fans really want is probably not feasible. But there needs to be a balance between basic and higher production value content to make for a passable UX.” But it is not just a one way street, according to Jagex’s Godfrey, who argues the gaming industry can learn from home entertainment and appliance products when interacting with consumer.He observes: “I start a process from my desktop in the morning, get a notification on my mobile when on the bus to work and review the progress of the process from my tablet when at the office. I think more and more games will try and reach out to players in different ways, spanning all walks of devices and these varying contexts of use so as to create a fully immersive, always connected gaming experience.”So it seems that the video games industry is still the template for rival brands to follow when it comes to UX. Brands will always crave simplicity and absorbing content. But, while the rewards are bountiful should they get it right, there is a clear danger for those who misfire. David Braben, founder of games maker frontier, leaves us with this thought: “It is dangerous if they don’t carefully consider how they are doing it, and how the audience receives it. If they see games UX as being full of bright colours and animated buttons, they are doomed to fail.”This feature was part of The Drum's UX Guide, sponsored by E3, in the 25 October issue. You can buy a copy here.

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