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Capacitive Buttons Must Die

Capacitive buttons… They are those easy to touch little buggers that register a press simply from being brushed against. I hate them. So very much. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in the world of mobile device design. I’m continually surprised more people don’t complain about this. Maybe it’s just me. But every time I have to use these things, I get annoyed.

I had a Samsung Focus for quite some time and it sported these little demons. I’ve been using a Galaxy S3 in order to become more familiar with the world of Android. I’ve been playing with the Surface RT, to get acquainted with the new Microsoft platform. I’ve played with countless other Android devices on and off and played around with the Lumia 920. In each of these devices, I universally hate those buttons.

But why?

Well, to summarize: accidental taps and poor physical feedback.

Capacitive buttons image. Filled with the hate due to those stupid buttons.

Be very careful tapping anything at the bottom of the screen.

Capacitive buttons send a mixed message in the world of mobile design. People generally say that it’s best to put frequently used controls at the bottom of the screen, in the magical “thumb zone” where things are easily tapped. It’s no wonder that every platform places their keyboard in this space, since plinking away at keys is clearly easiest there. But you never want to put something in that zone which could either be destructive, or could significantly change your interaction state. For example, on iPhone, there’s a reason the send button for email is in the upper right – that’s a very, very intentional tap. It’s also quite final, so you don’t want to accidentally hit it.

Capacitive buttons violate all of these design considerations.  Many of them remove you from your active context and can sometimes be destructive (depending on how well someone implements their app’s state management). But worst of all, they rest within that mythical thumb zone and are surprisingly easy to hit on accident, due to their proximity to the screen.

Windows Phone actually doubles down on the proximity flaw. While sending text messages or emails, not only do they have capacitive buttons below the keyboard, they also have charms right under the keyboard. These charms can add attachments, send the email, cancel it, etc… And are only a few pixels away from the spacebar button. I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally hit the attachment button when sending text messages, back when I was on Windows Phone 7.

A screenshot of the spacebar button, next to cancel... It's a brilliant image.

Go ahead! Put the spacebar button right next to cancel! I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Oh, and what about accidentally putting your thumb on the Windows button, while using the Surface? I frequently rotated that beast and accidentally hit that thing. Or the back/menu buttons on Android? I have accidental taps less on Android, generally, but it still happens.

So yeah, accidental taps… But let’s not forget the physical feedback issue. Capacitive button feedback is so poor, most devices kick off their vibration to let you know you actually pushed a button. If it weren’t for this, they would be even less usable. Microsoft spent a lot of money advertising the satisfying “click” that their Surface RT makes when connecting the keyboard cover. But they figure a soundless vibration is ok for their home button? What ever happened to the satisfying feeling of a button being pressed?

But here’s the thing I don’t understand about these buttons… Why do they exist? What advantage do they have over physical, push buttons? I’ve never once thought “Oh man, I really appreciate this little flat surface that I can touch as a button.” Are they just supposed to be cool? Is it just for aesthetics and a simpler visual form? I am seriously baffled why anyone would make this design decision.

And I’m not the only one.

So yes. Death to capacitive buttons. Please. They have no reason for being and I’m sick of them.


So, I wrote this long ass rant. But my friend Nathan Rabe sums the whole thing up in two little tweets:

Physical buttons have 3 states: normal, touched, pressed. The third state is where the user commits to their interaction.

By removing the pressed state, capacitive buttons preempt the interaction, and assume every touch is the intent. I hate them.

Diablo 3 Tribute

Diablo 3 Tribute

A work in progress… I can’t play the game for another couple days, so this is the next best thing.

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.

Windows Phone 7 Thoughts

I did it. I wasn’t entirely sure I would be happy to do it, but I winced and took a blind leap. No guts no glory.

That’s right, I got a Windows Phone. I have been using my iPhone 3G for 2 years and absolutely love it, so it was a hard switch to make. However, the attractiveness of being able to easily develop my own apps for my phone was too difficult to resist.

I have been using the phone for a while now, so I feel like I can accurately describe my opinion of it. For those who want to just get my overall opinion and save themselves some reading…

Super Quick Summary

It’s a really nice phone.

Full blown review

Over the last two weeks, I’ve had ups and downs, but overall I’ve been quite happy with the phone. I don’t feel as though I’m missing a lot of functionality, switching from my iPhone 3G to my WP7 phone. Perhaps if I had the iPhone 4, I’d feel differently.

Main draw: Quick, useful displays of information.

The home screen, unlock screen, etc, all convey useful information. Rather than a simplistic app model, where I need to drill down into an app to undertake the simplest form of an activity, I get glimpses of the basics without any effort.

Let me give you an example. When I press the power button on my phone, I don’t just get missed notifications. I get a display of the next meeting I need to attend, in what room, etc… Then I also get to see how many emails I have, since the last time I checked email on my phone. It displays how many texts I may have, as well. It does all this with an appropriate level of UI footprint. IE: It doesn’t just fill the entire screen with text.

The calendar and email features are far better designed than the iPhone. And it’s all about the small things that are quite big in practice. For example, I don’t need to know how many unread emails I have. That’s fairly useless. All I need to know is how many emails I’ve received since the last time I looked. This little difference is the kind of thing that has an enormous impact on usage.

Another draw: Fluid interactions

I loved the gestures on my iPhone, but WP7 really has taken the gesture interface one degree further with the animations that they’ve created. Swiping down to the bottom of the screen doesn’t just pull the content out of view until it rubber bands back into view, such as it does on the iPhone. Instead, it actually shrinks the content to make the entire interface feel malleable and real. Again, a little touch that goes a long ways.
Sometimes these interactions can be glitchy, I have to admit, but overall, the phone feels very consistent and fluid. Going back to my iPhone, it feels fairly rigid in comparison.

Last but not least: Clean and simple

I quite like the Metro style. The glyph form icons in the toolbars, the clean typography, strong use of grids and the solid color tiles are a refreshingly simple approach to an interface. It’s not the giant wall of icons I’ve gotten bored of in both my iOS and desktop experiences. And as a UI guy, I can appreciate the breath of fresh air.

Big bunch of other strong points

  • Solid Facebook integration. I’m actually using Facebook more than ever now.
  • Xbox Live integration. I have some decent games, but more is needed before this is a huge draw.
  • Voice activated calling and web searches are SOLID
  • Bing maps are sexy as hell. I love how the map fades content in.
  • Panos and Pivots. These UI controls are wonderfully simple and scalable. They are great to interact with and very quick to learn.
  • Minimalistically beautiful UI. I know I already mentioned it, but just one look at the email reading experience and I’m sure most people will agree… it’s just plain hawt.
  • Good reception, battery life, etc..
  • The camera rocks. 5MP, HD video. I love that I can press the camera button when the phone is off, to quickly snap a picture.
  • Back button. At first, I didn’t think I’d like it or need it. However, I now understand how wonderfully useful it really is.
  • The Samsung Focus has a wonderfully beautiful display

So, what about the shitty parts?

This list is short, these are the only thing keeping me from saying “WP7 IS FREAKING AMAZING!” and trying to get everyone to try it out.

Voicemail SUCKS
Visual voicemail is a no shit affair, these days. It’s shameful that I now have to dial into a voicemail service and press number buttons to delete messages, replay, etc… I didn’t realize I was taking a huge step back in this arena when I switched to WP7. Had I known, I probably still would have switched, but I may not have been so intensely disappointed and frustrated when I tried to get to my voicemail for the first time. I seriously hope Microsoft has plans to include this in a future update. It’s almost as bad as having a smartphone that can’t copy and paste. (Oh, wait, it can’t do that either… hrmph)

No favorites list
I love that you just imported all my Facebook contacts and synched them up with the contacts that were on my SIMM card and whatnot… But now that I have hundreds of people in my contacts list, I need a “favorites” more than ever. I know, I can make it so that I don’t have anyone but people in my contacts list in my “People list” or whatever, but… Is it too hard to just be able to “Star” someone as a favorite and have them on quick dial? This is a pretty lame oversight.
Though, I am able to call by holding down the home button and saying someone’s name. So most times, I suppose this isn’t a huge problem.

Where is it? Come on.

Overly exact swipe behaviors
It doesn’t happen frequently to the point of consistent frustration, but sometimes the unlock swipe doesn’t fully engage. It engages enough for me to type in the first number or two of my password, but then it slides away and I have to start over. At times, there are little problems with the swiping gestures, like this. Another issue is scrolling vertically in a pivot or pano control. If you aren’t precise enough, you can sometimes pan left or right when you mean to scroll up and down.

It just feels like the phone could be a bit more forgiving of my fat fingering, overall.

Directions overlayed on the map
Don’t get me wrong, I love the map, but overlaying the “1,2,3” markers indicating the steps of my journey… that’s just plain frustrating. At certain zoom levels, it becomes a clusterf$(|<.

What’s next?

Overall, I really like this phone. There’s no chance of me going back to my iPhone 3G. This new phone has fully integrated into my work/home life and it does augment it in a significant way. So I don’t feel like I made a poor decision. And I can’t tell you how relieved I am that this is true.

So, what’s next? My dev community subscription has gone through and I’ve started work on some apps in my spare time. The tools available to make apps are extremely easy to use and I’m really excited to get going. However, I’m still not sure if WP7 will really take off or not. Regardless, I’m very happy with my phone and even if the community isn’t huge, I’m going to have a lot of fun making apps and games for it.:)

Guardian of Dreams

My latest game development project was actually completed nearly 6 months ago, but I hadn’t posted anything about it at the time. The game is named Guardian of Dreams and you can…

Play it here!

I had been working with a special team at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to create a Flash game to submit to the 2010 Independent Game Festival.
I was the sole developer for the game and also did quite a bit of the design for the gameplay. I’m very happy with how it turned out. We all learned quite a few lessons from the project, but I’d like to call out a few of my key lessons learned:

Don’t wait to start

When we first started working, I didn’t spend a lot of time figuring out Flash development before making our first prototype. Instead, I started developing a prototype in TorqueX in C#, since I was far more familiar with C#. I thought it was important to get a sense for our core gameplay concept and control mechanism – which is something I’ve picked up in my experiences as a User Experience Designer. What sounds fine on paper and what feels fine in implementation are very often 2 different things. This prototype ended up taking a few days of work, at which point we thought the core concept was solid enough to start working in Flash.

PushButton Components are teh Hawtness

PushButton Engine enabled us to rapidly create our game in iterations, through a very intelligent pattern of abstraction between the entities of the game and the logic applied to them. Ben Garney has this post on the advantages of their component system, so I won’t go into all the details. However, I will say that the component system allowed me to rapidly re-use and refactor logic without affecting large amounts of the code base. I was able to create new entity types through the combination of various components… And overall I was able to rapidly prototype and then iterate the game because of this pattern. It kinda reminds me of MVVM + Attached Behaviors in the WPF/Silverlight world…

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Pixie Dust

When the fairy in the game just flew about, without any particle effects, people were moderately amused, but generally bored.

Then I put in some fairy dust and everyone LOVED it.

This is just further proof that details count, a LOT. The little polishes and the extraneous, fun flair are not so little and not even remotely extraneous.

This is perhaps one of the biggest lessons learned. Details matter – they can be the tipping point between acceptable and delightful.

Test it early and often

Ok, I drink that kool-aid constantly because I do UX design in an agile environment. But it’s true. Prototype something, test it on real people, observe and iterate. Don’t design your perfect game idea completely, ahead of time…

If anything, we wasted too much time coming up with ideas and didn’t spend enough time making them.

I wish there had been unit tests

I have no idea how to do TDD in Flash, but if I could have done it all over again, I would have tried to do that. There were bugs and the bugs were hard to find… TDD would have probably ended up saving me time, in the long run.

Math is hard

Hey, I’m a UX Designer. I love making cool things, though. So I’ll learn what I need to in order to do it. But damn… Some of that math pwnd me. You programmer types are wizards. I really need to flex my math muscles more regularly.

“Specialization is for insects”

As the great Heinlein quote from “Time Enough for Love” goes… The only thing keeping you from doing something is yourself. I didn’t know anything about ActionScript 3, going into this. I knew general C based scripting, so I supposed I had a bit of a head start there. But I learned a LOT making this game and had a blast while doing it. I strongly recommend trying to program a game to any designer out there. The process helped me in my work, in that now I am even better at creating rich, interactive prototypes of software.


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