Isn’t it fun when you mention a problem and the solution is already in the works? Last week, that was my mention of manuals and digital distribution, where the manuals are there, just not immediately obvious when you don’t care enough to look very hard. This week, it is my next bit from The Design of Everyday Things, preempted by Guild Wars 2.
One of the difficulties in making intuitive interfaces is that some things require complexity. It is not always possible to make something powerful, flexible, and simple. If you need 200 options, you have problems whether you have 200 buttons or 10 buttons with a combination of toggles or whatever. There is no simple way to present 200 options.
One solution is to hide some options. That is why most “options” menus have an “advanced options” menu, although that is rarely of help to me because the option I want to change is usually somewhere under “advanced” (as are many cool toys that you never knew you wanted). One non-computer example cited did that with a flip panel — less common options were hidden under a plate so you did not see all the buttons at once. Yes, putting a fig leaf over half the buttons can potentially improve how intuitive the interface is.
But what would be even better would be if the options auto-updated according to your needs. My phone at work does this, and I tend to demand more of my games than my phone. This needs to happen in a structured fashion, so that you are not chasing commands or having buttons change on you in the time it takes for you to push them, but we already have some good examples, dating back to adventure games that automatically do the right thing when you click or use something. (This can be done badly, if the multi-use button does things unexpectedly.)
But as I suggested in the opening, Guild Wars 2 is already doing this. Change weapons, and your power bar updates. Go into Death Shroud, and your power bar updates. Summon a pet, and your power bar updates. I was so used to needing several power bars for all my abilities that it never struck me to want my 0 key to update from “summon bear” to “command bear to attack.” Is it potentially easy mode if, when you are set on fire, a big button pops up offering to let you use that water you picked up? Maybe, but you would think that would be an immediately available option for your character, because in real life you do not need to rewire your brain to lunge for water. Do I have any evidence that Guild Wars 2 is going to do this well? No, but I endorse the idea, even if it takes a few iterations to make it work as intended.