The inaugural "This UX Thing" post is going to take a bit of an interesting turn right out of the gate, because I recently received an email from someone who probably didn't intend for it to be a public question. But the topic is so good and so common in our field that I think it's really, really important to address. So I'm going to paraphrase the actual question but keep the core of it intact:

Dear Caryn:

I'm really new to UX design (I've only taken some online courses) and I recently found myself put in charge of the user experience for the game my company is working on. This is REALLY SCARY, because I'm just an intern and now I'm the only UX designer here and I don't even know where to begin. I don't even feel like I know enough to know what I should start trying to learn. Help! What do I do?

- ScaredIntern

Okay, first of all, Scared, don't panic. 

Okay. Okay, I see that you're panicking despite my very clear and succinct advice just now. It''s okay. Just breathe, okay? Just breathe. Deep breaths. Nice. Deep. Breaths. That's it. Okay, feel better? 

I've got good news and bad news, and we're going to cover the bad news first. But stick around for the good news.

First, the bad news. I'm not going to lie: you've probably got a rough road ahead of you. It's not generally a good sign when a company decides to put the entire user experience into the hands of an intern with little to no experience in actual UX design, and with no mentor. The user experience of a game is literally how it's going to succeed or fail. It's the entire user experience, so it's kinda important. And it's all-encompassing, which means, really, that everyone on the team plays a role in shaping a game's user experience.

And that's part of the good news: you're not technically the only one designing the user experience. The art that the game artists create is part of the user experience; the environments that the environment artists build are part of the user experience; the game mechanics from the designers are part of the user experience. So you've got partners to work with.

So first of all, let's assume that you're not running for the hills even though this company didn't exactly show good judgement. You're going to make the best of this situation, because you can use it as a kind of self-directed UX design boot camp. 

The very first thing you need to do is pick up the very excellent book The User Experience Team of One by Leah Buley. It's so common for people to find themselves being the only UX designer on a team that Buley wrote a whole damn book about dealing with it. And by "dealing with it" I mean that she gives you actual practical things that you can do to actually do user experience design just by yourself -- things like informal testing, prototyping, and basic user research. But what's just as valuable in this book is the way she also works in ways to evangelize what you're doing so as to convince your team and managers that they should value UX design enough to get more people on your team doing it. Did you just do some research that uncovered some interesting facts about which parts of the game UI your customers find confusing? Put that stuff into a pretty pie chart with cool facts and then post it on the company fridge and in the bathrooms (you know, where people will actually read it). And probably the most valuable advice she gives in the book is this: don't ask for permission to do UX design; just do it. 

The next thing you need to do is find a local UX meetup. Meeting up with other UX designers is going to expose you to people's various processes and ideas so that you can start stealing them. Don't be shy about asking questions -- most UX designers have been where you are early in their career. As an intern, what you really need at this stage is a mentor, but since your company didn't give you one you'll need to learn from those around you instead in other ways.

But while you're reading the book and waiting for the next meetup, you still need to do some UX design, right? So you're probably still panicking that you don't have any real direction to go in yet. When I was working on games, my UX design work tended to be centered around mechanics of the game that needed to be expressed in the interface in a way that was clear and understandable. While not all game UX design is centered around the UI, the stuff that is is usually a nice, meaty, tangible thing for a beginner like yourself to use to get a handle on game UX design. So you'll probably start with a problem that needs to be solved for your game, such as these common examples:

  • How do we show players that they've just been invited to join a co-op game by a friend?
  • How do we make it easy and fun to use social sharing in our game, helping players evangelize our game to their friends?
  • How we make earning achievements feel really, really good?

Once you have your problem that needs solving, you should embark on finding the solution. With time and experience you'll find the process that works for you, but since you're a scared intern, here's a roadmap to follow in the meantime:

  • Research: look at other games that may have had to solve this problem as well. What games do it well? Which ones do it poorly?
  • Sketch: do some sketches of UI elements or other ideas that might be solutions. Don't edit them -- sketch the bad ideas as well as the good ones so that you can easily see what might work and what won't.
  • Collaborate: take your sketches with you as you grab a game designer, a programmer, an artist, and anyone else who might have valuable input and feedback on your solutions. Get a room with a whiteboard, lay out the problem space, and show them your sketches. Then make sure to have a whiteboard pen handy because the next thing that'll happen is that someone will say, "what if...?" And then suddenly you guys are doing user experience design. Relish this moment -- you're a UX designer now!
  • Refine: Refine the ideas and sketches you've gotten to this point into an actual idea that goes from start to finish and solves the problem. 
  • Prototype: Make a prototype to test the problem. This can take any form -- paper, HTML/CSS, full-on in-game prototype, etc. Whatever is quickest at this stage. 
  • Test it: test your prototype. Go into your company kitchen and bring something to make you look like you're working. (I'm not kidding; if you go into your kitchen standing there awkwardly with a clipboard or like you're waiting to pounce on someone, no one will talk to you and then you'll be That Weird UX Designer Person that people whisper about at the company holiday party.) When someone comes in, ask if they have just one minute or so to do a quick user test. Entire blog posts can be written on how to do this well, but I'll try to cover that later.
  • Evaluate the results: look at the feedback you got from testing. What worked? What didn't people understand? 
  • Revise and repeat steps as necessary: your feedback should tell you what you need to change, and now you can go back and make new sketches, new prototypes, or even do a whole new collaborative whiteboard session with your colleagues. Keep repeating until your user tests show that people fully understand your solution. 

While that roadmap might seem thorough, there are parts of it that you could write entire books on (and people have, such as the wonderful Rosenfeld book on prototyping called Prototyping: A Practitioner's Guide). And here I've framed the roadmap around "solving UI problems" which isn't the entirety of UX design -- you may instead need to be thinking in much grander terms for your game's user experience, such as how to make players want to get their friends to play, or how to make earning things in game produce a massive endorphin rush. But if you feel like you're in the deep end on UX design and don't know what to even grab onto, starting with concrete things like how to translate game mechanics into useable, understandable UI is a good, tangible rope to grab onto.

Hopefully this makes you feel a little less scared, ScaredIntern. If you're still feeling like you're sailing some rough seas, take heart in the idea that you'll probably come out of it with some really great sea legs, if you take the initiative. Good luck!

Thanks for sending in your question to "This UX Thing"! Remember, if you have a question yourself, send it my way at my Contact page, or you can hit me up on Twitter, and I'm happy to address it. Thanks!