The game industry moves fast. What was considered state-of-the-art ten years ago looks dusty and old today. (And that's just us game developers. HEYOOOOO.) But it isn't just the technology that moves fast -- the role of UI design has, surprisingly, been something that's seen a lot of evolution in the industry. Having spent the last ten years of my career transitioning from UI designer to UX designer, I've been interested in how the role of user experience designer has found a place in our industry, and where it's similar to and different from the role that UX designers play in non-game industries. More specifically, I've been following with interest the discussion among non-game-industry UX designers that "UX is not UI," and finding that the evolution of UX from UI within the game industry has created a unique type of UX designer that really does seem heavily tied into UI design.
UX in games: the UI Designer evolved
Ten years ago, the role of the UI designer hardly existed at most game companies. UI was something that everyone at a game company knew their game needed, but few gave much thought about until late in the project, when most of the game systems were thought to be in place. It was rarely seen as a specialized task with a full-time in-house employee working as a UI designer. And so the job usually went to an artist and engineer on the development team, who were commanded to go forth and make the game's UI, usually under the direction of the game designer. And because UI was always the job that absolutely no one wanted to do -- who would choose to do UI when there are flashier things like textures, environment art, and effects to make? -- the unfortunate souls usually picked for this task were the most junior artist and the most junior engineer, who were in no position to complain.
As games became more complex, UI became more complex with it, and more effort was needed to create good UI. Game companies began employing UI artists, artists whose speciality was in creating UI. These artists usually had some kind of graphic design background, or at least had worked primarily on UI on past projects. The game designer was still the primary designer for the UI, but a dedicated UI artist could give a cohesive look to it.
It's no coincidence that as the web evolved and required people specialized in creating usable, well-designed web sites, games also evolved and game developers began to see a similar need to make their game UI more usable. Something that was actually designed. Everything that everyone used so commonly in day to day activities by this point -- the Internet, games, smart phones -- was driven by user interfaces. Just as Web Designer was now a job description, UI Designer was becoming a common job posting in the game industry. Game developers were beginning to look for people specialized not just in making a UI that looked good, but who could actually create one that was well-designed.
Then, a few years ago, the term UX design began to surface in the game industry. It was something that some people may have heard about when it came to the design of things they used every day -- Apple's User Experience Design department had certainly helped with that. The general public was beginning to grasp what good design was in the every day products they used. UX designers were already doing work outside of games, and they were doing jobs that didn't always have to do with UI design -- they were designing products like smartphones or cars, or designing experiences like theme parks or museum navigation.
But if you'd read any of the job postings that were turning up for UX Designers in the game industry, the job description was inextricably tied to UI. The role of the UI designer was now evolving into the role of the UI/UX designer: someone who not only designed the individual screens that made up a game's user interface, but designed the entire navigational flow of the UI, and ensured consistency and usability within the UI's interaction design, visual language, and more.
One problem, though, was that a lot of companies didn't quite know what a UX designer actually was. They just knew they needed one. They had a vague idea that UX design might have something to do with UI design, but very often their knowledge didn't go beyond that. I personally ran into several instances of companies approaching me and telling me that they needed my services as a UX designer, but upon talking to them it turned out that they were looking for a UI artist. (In one case, a company actually told me that the position I'd be interviewing for was "UX Artist". This said everything about how little they really understood the concept of UX design.)
These days, some game companies get it, and they know mostly where the role of a UX designer fits into their organization. Some are still working this out.
"UX is not UI!"
Today, UX designers are working in many different industries; in some of those industries, they're heavily responsible for the interaction and experience of a company's customer-facing web presence. And in some other industries, they're focused not on UI but on product design or experience design (as in theme parks or museums, mentioned earlier). In the game industry, they're working on making the UI as easy to use and friendly as possible.
But UX is not UI, and UX designers outside of games are, right this very minute, passionately trying to convey this to the people that are looking to employ one. It's a common misunderstanding across most industries that UX designers are glorified UI designers -- that we just create wireframes of UI that get translated into final UI screens (whether that's for a web site or a game UI).
But true UX design is far more than that, and in fact UX designer Erik Flowers has created a fantastic chart that shows exactly what UX is all about, contrasted with what people perceive it to be. The essence of the argument is that UX design has always been far more than the wireframes, the end product of UX design that most people actually see. It's about user research, prototyping, and many other tasks that lay the foundation for the wireframes that people think make up UX design.
As a UI-designer-turned-UX-designer, this is fascinating to see and learn from, because in my industry, UX design is the legitimization of UI design. Where UX designers outside of games are saying, "UX is not UI!" UI designers in the game industry are saying, "Yes! You guys finally get that good UI is good UX!" UI design in games has, for so long, been swept under the rug as a last minute, non-important task, and the appearance of the position of UX Designer among game company job postings is a sign that game companies are finally understanding that game UI design has to be given more thought and planning than mere button art.
Game Design IS UX design. Except when it's not.
When I've discussed the role I think UX design plays in the game industry, compared and contrasted with the role of UX design in other industries, I get a common reaction from my colleagues who are lead game designers on their projects: "We don't need a UX designer, because that's my job."
And they're right. Except in the cases where they're not.
A game is different than a product like a car or a TV or a smartphone. The design of a game -- its rules, its fun factor, its balance -- is different than the design of the navigation into and throughout a game. UX design is User Experience design, and of course how the game itself plays is a part of the user experience; if it's poorly balanced, for example, the player will generally have a poor user experience.
But this is different than getting a poor user experience because the UI was designed with inconsistent visual language in the interface, or with no adherence to common UI convention and affordances, or because the flow through a particular piece of UI was too complex and didn't use good visual design and layout to help the player understand what to do and why. And there's no reason why a game designer -- someone who's skilled at the numbers behind a game's balance, who knows about how to make a game fun -- should have any experience or skill at designing interface interactions, or have any background in graphic design that would allow them to create a well-designed interface visual language, or have a deep understanding of affordances and how they contribute to a positive user experience.
In the face of this argument, most people would say, "sure, but that's why we hire a UI designer. Any UI designer worth their salt will be able to do this." But you'd be surprised at how much of a unicorn a UI/UX designer, someone who has all of these skills, turns out to be. Someone who excels at the visuals of graphic design and can make beautiful user interfaces isn't, by default, good at knowing how to do good interaction design. It's a completely different skill set. And they're also not necessarily skilled at distilling complex game mechanics into a complete navigational flow of many user interface screens that are easy to use, easy to understand, and feed out the right amount of information at the right pace. And then there's prototyping and testing to ensure that the UI you think you designed well actually is designed well -- it's not a skill that's generally taught in graphic design courses.
Conversely, someone who excels at prototyping, designing large-scale UI flows, interaction design and information architecture isn't necessarily going to have killer visual design chops in Photoshop.
If you can find the person that's top-notch in all of these areas, you've found a UX Unicorn, and you should probably insure them heavily and possibly start a captive breeding program. In fact, in researching this article, I found that the concept of a UX Unicorn is so prevalent that there's a ton of stuff already out there about it:
So we shouldn't expect that our killer-Photoshop-visual-chops UI designer is also a top-notch UX designer, or that our UX designer is also capable of making incredible-looking interfaces that rival other games out there. And we shouldn't expect that the game designer has an entire set of interaction design skills that are top notch, because their job is to make a great game. This is why having all three roles on a game project is a great thing.
Think of the role of the game designer and the UX designer as the characters in Top Gun. The game designer is Maverick, the hot-shot pilot that actually gets you there and shoots down the bad guys. The UX designer is Goose, the one that has the handle on the current battle situation and gives you the knowledge you need to get the primary job done. If Maverick had to do both, how would he have been able to get rid of those MiGs and win Kelly McGillis in the end? Sometimes you've got to rely on the expertise of people around you that are skilled in areas you aren't in order to get the job done well.
The intersection of game UX design and non-game UX design
We're reaching a point in the game industry where the role of the UI designer is evolving into that of the UX designer, and some crossover is beginning to happen between UX designers in and out of games. But we UX designers in games still have a lot to learn from our non-game brethren: namely, user research and prototyping.
As someone who was always more of a UI designer than a UI artist, the bulk of my work always focused more on the foundation of the UI rather than the aesthetics. I planned, designed, and created the UI, but almost always worked with an actual artist to make it look good. In doing this, I was a hybrid, and became known as having a skill set that was hard to find in the game industry: I could do light coding and heavy scripting, and had enough art skills to create a UI that was often considered "plausibly shippable" -- something that could likely be shown in previews and something that would be good enough to playtest and work with, but wasn't something we planned on shipping the final product with.
Essentially, I was doing UX design without realizing it: I was designing and prototyping my UI, but sometimes working with someone who was more skilled than me who could make it actually look good. And in fact, for most of the second half of my career to date I was doing the job of both a UX and a UI designer, but having to split time between the two without being able to adequately focus on one or the other due to scheduling constraints, and the fact that the job is really that of two people.
What I also didn't know was that I was doing prototyping at a stage that was later than it should have been, and I wasn't doing enough pre-planning and research ahead of time. And in talking with other people in the game industry, both UI designers and non-UI designers, I was learning that few other game companies were doing extensive UI prototyping at any stage. And as I studied the field of user experience design that I was beginning to get exposed to, I learned more about prototyping and how to get the most benefit out of it.
I've since learned that one of the best things we game-UI-turned-UX-designers should be stealing from our non-game-industry comrades is the concept of early rough prototyping. My prototypes were often in-engine whiteboxes of UI that was extensively designed to the point of almost being fully baked, leaving little room for change without a whole lot of work.
Now that I'm focusing almost entirely on UX design, I'm discovering the value of early throw-away prototyping. Instead of building actual UI in-engine, I'm taking hand-drawn sketches or quick wireframes done in Illustrator, using apps like Field Test App or Prototype on Paper, and putting usable prototypes on my mobile device and handing them to people for testing. Some of these tests are formalized with outside testers, but much of my early testing is guerilla testing -- it's me taking my iPhone into the company kitchen and asking anyone who comes in that's not on our project team, whether it's the receptionist or the CEO, to do a quick one-minute usability test.
For some of these tasks, it's useful to use other methods from traditional UX design, such as personas or scenarios, and user research. If I'm defining the user experience for the crafting interface of an RPG, I'll develop two or three scenarios to guide me. These scenarios might define a player type (casual or hardcore) and a typical goal that this player type might want to accomplish in this area of the UI (the casual player might want to simply get a better weapon than the Rusty Axe they started the game with; the hardcore player might want to craft items with specific properties and resistances to fit their play style).
In other cases, I may decide to use user research to help me with a UX task. User research is another traditional UX method that seems rarely used in game UI development, but has proven to be useful in some cases. When designing the best place for a set of buttons to go that I know will need to be easily accessible on a mobile phone interface, I might do a survey with questions that will tell me how people typically hold their phone for the type of game I'm working on. Or, better yet, I might even just bring a group of people in and watch them to get even better data.
Neither scenarios and personas nor user research is something that game UI design has ever really embraced formally -- if they were done, it seemed, it was usually in an ad hoc way. But they are methods that we can pull in and use now that we're growing up as an industry and embracing the concept of UX design.
There and back again
It's been interesting to see the field of User Experience design begin outside of games and make its way into my industry. But what's even more interesting is seeing that influence multiply and then make its way back out. Case in point: a recruiter recently contacted me on behalf of a car company, and they explained that they were looking for a UI/UX designer, but one who had specifically worked in the game industry, to work on the Heads Up display for a new car. Fascinating! Where UX design in games will go next, I don't know. But it'll be fun to watch.