User Error and Design Error

I really want to write about design that is forgiving of error, but a more basic point in The Design of Everyday Things keeps interfering: much user error is design error. If users keep doing the same things wrong, there is probably something about the design that is encouraging them to do the wrong thing. That is not their fault. Problems that keep arising are design problems; fix them, work around them, or admit that the problem is too hard for you. Do not blame users unfairly.

Veteran players forget this. You know what to do because you have done it twenty times, and maybe the current design even feels intuitive because you know what the developers were planning, how the system has evolved over several years, and how it interacts with or mirrors other systems. You will hear people decry the ignorance of newcomers; why can they not go through a simple 20-step process across only four screens where only two of the commands are undocumented? And look, if you just install these two mods, rebind these keys, and change these settings, that dungeon is easy mode.

This relates to my refrain from Gordon Walton that hardcore gamers will crawl through barbed wire to reach the fun while most of the market will not put up with that crap. There are virtues in that, as it allows quicker iterative development and lets players get a closer connection to the game and its development. But it means having an unpolished game with sharp edges and pitfalls. The new guy did not expect pits of broken glass on the path to the picnic. That you know the workarounds does not mean that there are not things to be worked around. That someone does not want to learn them all does not make him lazy, at least not in a bad way; I pay to play, I get paid to work.

Anti-social behavior in the game is also designed in. If players keep doing the same horrible things, game design probably encourages it. If the game rewards sociopathic behavior in groups, you will see more of it. Designers do not intend to reward people for acting against the interests of their groupmates, but game designs certainly do so.

If the players are not playing your game how you want them to, you should look at what the design encourages them to do. And remember that other design issues may also be giving people trouble in playing your game at all.

: Zubon

11 thoughts on “User Error and Design Error

  1. Syncaine

    Is it still a design issue if ONLY new players struggle with X? Lets assume the majority do find feature X unintuitive for the first 10-20ish hours, but the vast majority of players find X not only intuitive, but critical to the game after that.

    Still a design problem? Or just new players being new?

    In a single player game which lasts 15-50 hours, I’d call it a problem. An MMO you play for hundreds/thousands though?

    (this of course assumes you can’t ‘fix’ X for the first 20 while still retaining it for 20+)

    1. Randomessa

      How can you be sure that it’s not just habit by that point, or a form of Stockholm syndrome? How can you be sure that *anything* in a game that one despises at first, but grows accustomed to after an extended period of time is not such a case?

      And of course I would argue that if you’ve grown accustomed to something after 20 hours, you cannot see how it can be “fixed” for the first 20. Because duh, it works! It’s so clear!

      I am not arguing that this is certainly the case, as I’ve worked with many a design program that was obtuse, but that obtuseness was necessary to the amount of flexibility and control over the product that it provided to advanced users.

      But then, that’s for work. I think the above are good questions to ask regarding *games*.

      1. Syncaine

        It might be habit sure, or perhaps the player going INTO the game has a certain habit that his current game does not support (endless WoW examples here).

        My overall point though is that even if the majority of your players initially view something as a ‘problem’, I don’t think that automatically makes it one. Could it be? Sure. Most likely? Yea maybe. But 100% of the time? Nope. And it’s that approach that leads you down the path of ‘sameness’ that is all too common in the MMO genre.

        1. Randomessa

          Well, if I understand what I’ve read of your comments about the variety of MMOs of old, what made them different was *what* you could do in them, not *how* you did them, was it not? I.e. user interface does not necessarily equal gameplay and vice versa (I realize that the UI is a pretty integral part of the way Darkfall is played).

          Could FFXIV, for example, not have the same *content* without obfuscating its UI in unexplained menus upon menus, or would it necessarily be WoW just because of its UI? Is it FF because of its story and gameplay, or because of its obtuseness? Is the UI content?

          1. Syncaine

            Yea can’t talk about FFXIV, but one of the examples I was thinking of was UO/DF looting. I don’t think ANYONE initially looks at it and say “oh this is great, I love drag/drop for everything”.

            Get past the first month, and yea, you see why drag/drop is not an ‘ancient’ way of doing it, but a massively important part of the game in terms of balance, combat, and player skill.

            Once you have seen that, it makes the auto-loot of WoW look ancient in terms of what it brings to the table (assuming that in WoW it ever mattered how quickly or what you loot)

            1. Zubon Post author

              We are agreeing here. There is no “100% design error” claim above, just “probably” and “usually.” And the Darkfall example is one of arguing over a conscious design decision, not over error. If people cannot figure out how to loot in Darkfall, that is a problem; slow looting is a balance feature in full-loot PvP, although I can see how that may not be intuitively obvious to a new player.

              One item from a future post that this one preempted is that “powerful and flexible once you get used to it” can trump “easy to learn” or “intuitively obvious.” Sometimes we need new standards and to re-train intuition. But the gain needs to be large to make it worth overcoming inertia.

    2. Dblade

      People learn to text on phone keypads after all. We still use QWERTY keyboards designed to slow us down because of typewriters. I still remember life before dual analog controls, controlling the aim of a fps with the dpad or shoulder buttons. People can get used to anything.

  2. Coppertopper

    You make a good point. The connection between what you want to happen on screen as you’re playing a game and how to make it happen ideally should be obvious. Something as simple as talking to, or handing something to (illustrated well in the South Park WoW episode when Kyles dad is trying to hand him the sword in game), or inviting another player who is standing right in front of you…if when your cursor falls on that person and it doesn’t become immediately obvious (at least the first couple times in game) how to do that – that’s a design error.

  3. Lee

    Ugh. I cannot tell you how times I have ran across this at work:

    Developer: Users keep screwing this up. They must be slow in the head.

    Me: That portion of the UI is not very intuitive.

    Developer: It is very clearly defined in the documentation.

    Me: If they have to go read the documentation, you have already failed.

    Developer: *boggle*

    Me: Look, you can tell me to RTFM and it’s fine, appropriate even, but those people out there have to come to me to have me sort their Excel spreadsheets for them.

    Developer: That’s not my problem.

    Me: If you were designing a UI for technical people to use, I would agree. But you knew from the start who your userbase was. Make it work for them.

    Developer: Well, we have already used up all of our development hours for this project. You need to put in a request for an upgrade and we’ll get to it once the new budgets are approved and the hours are allotted.

    Me: We never signed off on this going live. You just released it without our ok.

    Developer: As I said, we were out of hours for this project.

    Me: So you released a jacked up piece of software that is going to cause slow-downs and re-work, lowering our productivity and morale?

    Developer: Are you still talking?

  4. Katherine

    You can code a game to show people that being nice to each other is the best option? I thought that required a serious amount of effort put into moderation – after all, that is the only way I’ve seen it done before.

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