Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Importance of “Why” in UX

This is my first attempt at writing a UX centered blog post, but I believe it’s likely long overdue.

Recently, I ran across Dan Willis’ blog, UX Crank, which I immediately fell in love with. Specifically, I was impressed with the relatively recent post of his, Build a Strong UX Foundation. It’s a topic I’ve thought quite a bit on recently, as I’m entering that phase of my career when I’m thinking more and more about how I can help newly christened designers be successful.

I enjoyed how he nodded to the issue of “UX” being a sort of wastebasket diagnosis of a profession, in regards to how our field loosely encompasses just about everything related to design. That inflammatory comment of mine could perhaps lead someone to think I’m dismissing my entire profession, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though strongly worded, I must admit, the analogy seems sound. (and yes, I know how dangerous analogies are, let’s not go there…) We, as a group, are continually stumbling around, trying to get a grip on what it is we do, why we need to do it, why people should listen to us, etc… And we can’t resist putting a label on that struggle. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I do the same sort of stumbling every week as I figure out how best to fulfill my role in a sea of overlapping disciplines. But despite that continual struggle, I believe we’re coming ever closer to an understanding with blog posts like Dan’s there. Specifically, I have to call out this statement:

Our real value has never been about picking the right template for the right challenge; our value is to fully define a problem from the user experience perspective and then to craft practical solutions that address that problem in specific and measurable ways.

-Dan Willis, UX Crank

This paragraph gets to the core of UX for me. It’s something I’ve personally thought on for some time now, actually. The real value isn’t in picking a template. I would take it further – it’s not about picking a tool or a process. Instead, our value is exactly as Dan says – “to fully define a problem from the user experience perspective.”

I have to admit, I feel a temptation to leave off the “user experience perspective” bit and just focus on the definition of the problem. But doing so would remove what makes us special, what makes us unique. It’s what separates us from product management. We take business goals and needs and focus them through the lens of a user’s needs. And we do this in order to enhance them and increase the likelihood of business success. That’s the “secret sauce” that’s not really all that secret.

But I was tempted to leave all of that out because, frankly, that first part is complicated enough on it’s own! Fully defining a problem is a hard thing to do. And this comes to the topic of my post. (Curse you, verbosity! I shall defeat you another day…)

If fully defining a problem is the foundation of a UX practitioner – which I believe it is – then there’s a very specific aspect to defining a problem that I would call out for any burgeoning designer. And that specific aspect is:


It’s a simple question and a simple concept, but also one of the easiest concepts to overlook. It’s the most important question to have an answer to, in any undertaking, and the most valuable bit of information to communicate to any team of knowledge workers (which we ALL are). It’s at the very center of our entire profession.

Yes, there are other details of a problem that are important. The regulars: who, what, where, how – those details are all very important. But they are all crushed under the imposing weight of why. Why? Because answering “why?” gives us intent, purpose, meaning… The rest is context. Useful, but greatly diminished without a foundation.

Years ago, a brilliant colleague/designer I work with, Sylvania Dye, first revealed to me the power of understanding why. She introduced various root cause analysis techniques, one of which was the 5 why’s, which was a quaint but wonderful beginning for me in my analytical adventure. I’ve since grown beyond that simple technique, but the essence remains. In any of my undertakings, I simply must have an answer to that question.

The true power of why is that it provides a simple, quick escape from the perils of shallow thinking. I define shallow thinking as any situation where you aren’t being deeply critical of yourself and your activities, not to mention the activities of those around you. For example, perhaps you are only designing solutions to symptoms, focusing more on aesthetic than experience, or simply trying to put lipstick on a pig. In each such scenario, simply asking why can easily break you out of self inflicted doldrums and unearth real design problems worth solving.

But here’s the kicker – asking why isn’t always easy. There’s SO many ways to ask such a simple question. Let’s say you’ve been asked to implement a big circular button. Asking “Why don’t we have a big circular button” isn’t going to get you very far. Asking “Why do users need this button” will. And from there, hell, ask whatever questions you need in order to get to that core WHY. You can be sure that something kicked off the desire for this button and you, as a designer, need to know what it was.

I can guarantee you, if you don’t know why you are implementing that big button, you aren’t going to be able to deliver the best possible solution. And it’s your job, as a UX designer, to really know why. You can’t take things at face value. You can’t make assumptions. You have to do your best to really analyze the problems in front of you and understand why they are problems and why they are worth solving.

To unearth those oft elusive whys, you may have to ask the question quite a lot and ask quite a lot of people. But you have to do it without making people look stupid. That’s vital, because I can also guarantee that someday, someone will ask you that all important question and you’ll respond by smacking your forehead, ashamed that you don’t have an appropriate answer. (Which is fine – when that happens, search deep down in your gut and find the answer. You’ll probably find one. There’s a reason good designers have instinctual reactions/ideas. But be willing to kill your babies if you find out they are just fluff.)

The main point is that it’s NOT the job of a UX designer to just implement what they are asked to implement and make it as shiny as possible. As Alan Cooper frequently points out, users don’t know what they need. Likewise, neither do your teammates in many cases. Hell, I don’t know what I need most of the time! It’s a normal thing. But it’s our job to make sure our team has done that digging, to find real needs, to get to the core of it all. Until we do that, our ability to deliver amazing designs is a crapshoot.

And I’m not saying that asking why is the one tool that will get you there. But I strongly believe it’s the start. And if I could encourage any budding designer to start doing one thing well, it would be both asking and answering that question. (For starters, you could ask “why would it be useful to ask why?”)

Of course, next up, you can ask ask all sorts of other crap. “What problem am I really solving here?” “How far do I need to solve the problem?” “How do I know if I’ve solved it effectively?” etc… But that’s all for another overly wordy blog post…

Dragon Age 2: Bi-Polar Hate/Love Rollercoaster

BS Rating with arbitary numbers: 6/10

You can now read further if you want to know why I didn’t particularly care for Dragon Age 2.

So, I can’t say my DA2 experience started off on the right foot. I was expecting to continue playing my previous character in some way, rather than being forced to play a specific character/storyline. This can probably be attributed to the fact that I’m just too busy to keep up with what’s going on in games, these days. So, rather than experiencing that major disappointment months ago when I could have read about their change in direction, I experienced it while reading the manual while the game installed. Needless to say, I went into the game with a skeptical eye.

Not many games can overcome a wave of early onset Alan hate. So it’s a huge indication of the quality of their writing and design prowess that BioWare was able to turn my disappointment around within that vitally important 5 minute period when I first start playing a game. But I remember my reaction exactly, when I finished designing my mustachioed mage hero. The story was intense and the gameplay was fantastic. Instead of a typical “go kill rats” story, it was a full blown James Bond opening, with epic battles and brilliant dialogue.

So, the writers at BioWare got to me again. Man, those guys, they are crazy talented…

After that, my high lasted quite a while. I’d say a good 4 hours of solid gameplay as my party explored Kirkwall. The characters grew, I learned new spells, met new people, got new loot. It was your typical wonderful BioWare RPG and I was thoroughly in love with it.

I ran all over town making money and building a reputation, so that I could invest in the grand expedition to the Deep Roads. I knew the Deep Roads from the first game and I really wanted to go back there – back where things actually mattered. I was so excited to get out of Kirkwall and start doing REAL things. The kind of real things with real impact on the real world (well, the real fantasy world anyway…). I was looking forward to seeing my impact from the first Dragon Age but also making new impacts with this character.

After much playing, I finally finished all the quests I could find and had more than enough gold to get to the Deep Roads. I was thrilled. We got in there and started killing Dark Spawn and it was fabulous. Treasure and glory awaited! 45 minutes to an hour later, it was done and we were back in Kirkwall, back where we started.

That’s when I got my first real glimpse of Dragon Age 2: Kirkwall Adventures. I wasn’t off on some glorious journey and I wasn’t going to see different parts of the world. Instead, I was going to take a brief romp in an uninteresting part of another world (which really is just repurposed graphics of the dwarven areas but I won’t go there… yet.) and then head back home. It was like taking a thrilling vacation to rural ohio, staying there for 4 hours, then driving back to my apartment to spend the rest of my weekend in my basement.

Except, now that I’ve returned to Kirkwall, I get to go into different buildings! And these buildings are entirely new, right? Not so much. Actually, they are all exactly the same, but some have doors that don’t open. Or sometimes I start out in a different place. Perhaps the designers hoped I wouldn’t notice?

And I’ve also grown, right? My character is a few levels higher. He has some new spells, some new gear. Yep. But the bad guys I’m fighting are more powerful too. Which is good, I don’t necessarily want to be a sadist who just runs around one shotting weak squishy things. But unfortunately, the meager amount of variety provided by new spells is counteracted by the balance between the enemies. Because they are stronger, the gameplay is identical to the last time I was in Kirkwall. And the bad guys look identical. So basically, I’m doing the same stuff, in the same place. Over and over and over. This continued until the very end of the game, more or less, and was the only thing preventing it from being a great game.

The saving grace for Dragon Age 2 was the writing and the characters. They were the only thing keeping me going through to the end. The storyline was interesting. even if the setting was not. The characters were engaging, even if what they were doing was not. If the writing was poor and the character interactions were dull, then I’d not even have finished the game and I wouldn’t be writing this long article. I’d have just posted “IT SUCKS” and moved on.

The writers at BioWare are brilliant. They need to be put up on a pedestal. I’ve actually read the Mass Effect novels, too, so I think that points out just how talented their people are.

But unfortunately, the writing can’t make up for the fact that the game itself was a miserable mess of content recycling. I can understand the motivation to re-use a few well designed environments over and over, but there’s a limit to how far that can go. The well designed environment quickly becomes normal and then even more rapidly becomes boring, when you have to repeatedly run through it in order to get to the story bits. Other companies have figured out a better sweet spot for content recycling – such as Bethesda with their Morrowind/Oblivion/Fallout games. Environments can look similar, that’s OK. But being identical makes things grueling. And trying to make them different by just locking doors – that’s insulting. I can see the map. I know there’s rooms on the other side of that door. I saw what you did there.

What made it worse is that the game consisted of 3 different chapters of the SAME content. I thought I had beat the game on multiple occasions, only to realize I had further to go. Which would have been great, if the environmental design matched the quality of the writing. I remember being sad when I beat the first Dragon Age, because I wanted more. When I beat Dragon Age 2, I felt relieved.

So, overall, Dragon Age 2 was a roller coaster ride, bouncing me between love and hate and leaving me with an averaged feeling of “meh.” The writing and characters were wonderful and the initial gameplay was brilliant. But unfortunately it was followed up with far too much repetition. A little repetition is fine, but they definitely crossed the line. I think the level of content recycling that they tried was a worthwhile experiment – they did find how far was too far. But unfortunately, it leaves me in the position of not being able to endorse this game. Not, at least, until it costs $25 or less.

So, that beign said, I must also point out that BioWare also wins a major respect points for standing up for minorities when it comes to the love stories in their games. I actually loved the fact that my mage could have a budding romance with the other male mage. Heck, it even got me a cheevo. Of course, my mage also had a romp with the lusty pirate lady. What can I say? Those characters… I loved ’em.

The 5 Minute Rule

For those who may read my upcoming dissections of the games I play, there’s a vital theme which will be repeated throughout. I call this my “5 minute rule.”

The rule is very simple:

If I am not engaged within 5 minutes of starting playing, the game is crap.

I feel I should explain my reasoning, since many people have disagreed with me, or even pointed out how many great gaming experiences I have passed over because a game failed this rule.

Games are entertainment. Specifically they are interactive forms of entertainment. But primarily, they are entertainment. As such, I expect one primary result from engaging with them: I expect to be entertained.

Unlike some gamers, however, I am a hard-ass about this expectation. I expect a well designed game to come out of the gates swinging. To capture my imagination and have me in awe of the creativity of the development team, right off the bat. If any game does not present a glorious bounty of fun in my initial experience with the game, then they already made a fatal flaw. How many more flaws will I find later? Time is a finite resource – I have other games to play, not to mention actual work to do. (And I’m pretty sure that at any given moment in time, my wife wants me to do the dishes.)

So, this rule has some slide to it and it’s not my ONLY rule. I can be partially engaged in the first 5 minutes and if minute 10 provides some sort of amazing gameplay experience that knocks me on my ass, you can be sure I’ll finish the game. I could be thoroughly engaged in the first 5 minutes, but find that hour number 2 is absolutely grueling, which leads me to give up on a game. However, if the first 5 minutes of a game is grueling and boring, then it’s CRAP. PERIOD.

So, let me give you an example of a game that failed this rule. This is the game that I consider crap and many people disagree with me. It’s a game that many people loved and I’ve been assured that I missed out on a really great game because of my 5 minute rule. Perhaps I should have paid some kid to play the first 10-15 minutes so that I could eventually get to a good game. Wait, no, that would be stupid as hell.

So what’s that game? Super Paper Mario. Why is it shit? Because I start a new game and have to deal with this crap:

That’s 5 solid minutes of bleeps, bloops, shoddy dialogue and absolute torture. I don’t need to endure such horrendous crap to be able to get to a good game. Oh, and you can’t skip it. You can’t say “Hey, designer who should have been a crappy kids novelist – I’d rather not have to look at your bullshit. Please let me play the GAME that I paid to play.” Nope, you’re stuck there. You can speed it up a bit, but that just further enraged me.

Besides, I have other good games I can play.

Zelda: Twilight Princess was similar. The first 30 minutes of that game was full of me NOT DOING COOL STUFF. No, lady, I don’t want to find your cat. I want to hit stuff. With swords. That’s why I’m here.

So there you have it: The 5 Minute Rule.

You have 5 minutes, game developers, to prove to me that your game is worth my time. I’m not willing to give you more than that.


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