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“Don’t Make Me Think” (about the interface)
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“Don’t Make Me Think” (about the interface)
by Lewis Pulsipher on 07/23/12 06:58:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


A major objective of any game designer should be to avoid inflicting unnecessary frustration on the player(s).  In video games in particular it’s easy to find reviews that criticize the user interface for being difficult or fiddly or confusing.  But even manual games have interfaces.

Sometimes we can find good advice in disciplines that are not part of the game industry.  One of these is the Website design industry.  The World Wide Web is particularly susceptible to some of the kinds of problems that can bedevil video game interfaces. 

Web users tend to spend very little time on a particular page and are unwilling to expend effort to find information or to read the information they find.  Typical advice is to write half as much as you normally would and to use bullet points rather than narrative, because that’s the way most Web users read things.

And Web users as a group tend to be technologically inept.  They are poor at searching, frequently giving up if their first search doesn’t work, and rarely going to the second page of search results. ( .) In one test Jakob Nielsen found that “only 76% of users who expressed a desire to run a Google search were successful.

In other words, 1/4 of users who wanted to use Google couldn't do so. (Instead, they either completely failed to get to any search engine or ended up running their query on a different search engine — usually whatever type-in field happened to be at hand.) “  ( ).  For most anyone reading this, this would be very easy, but we’re not a group representative of Web users as a whole.

This is the caliber of people who are playing social networking games on Facebook.  Facebook is a great blessing to the video game industry because it enables technologically inept people to play video games.  Just as many people struggle to do a specific search at a specific search engine, many people struggle to do much of anything on the Web, but many have learned to use Facebook.  Apparently for many people Facebook IS the Web, as far as they’re concerned, and they rarely do anything on the Web outside of Facebook.

Nielsen is the guru of Web usability, and his Website ( has provided biweekly articles about usability for many years.  I think that anyone who designs video games should read many of these articles, nor will it hurt people who design tabletop games even though problems with the user interface are less common on the tabletop.

I’ve seen people who claim to know a lot about Web design praise Websites that are hard to figure out but pretty.  Pretty may be important for certain audiences, up to a point, but not for many purposes and rarely for serious purposes.  The same can be said for game interfaces.

There are also lots of Web designers who don’t test their sites, and that works about as well as game designers who don’t test their games – wretchedly.  Nielsen’s objective is to serve his market of people doing business on the Web, where a site that’s difficult to use can literally cost millions of dollars of business. 

His major thrust for Web usability is that you have to test your sites regularly with the intended audience while developing them, and he devotes many of his articles to discussing how he tests and also discussing his test results in terms of preferences for different age groups.  As with the games one of the most important things is to understand who your audience is.

Nielsen has written more or less scholarly books about Web usability, but I first recommend a small book by Steve Krug titled “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability”.  Of course Krug doesn’t mean no thinking at all from the user, he means don’t make people think about how they’re acquiring their information, don’t make them make decisions that could interfere with finding and consuming the information they’re looking for.  Once they find what they’re looking for, if they want to think about that, fine. (Warning: the book predates “Web 2.0", so the examples are seen as dated, by some.  But much of the point of “don’t make me think” is “don’t fool around with extraneous displays of cuteness”, a common failing of contemporary Web sites.) 

I’ve not read his more recent book about testing, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems”.  A look at Nielsen’s own Web site, which is very utilitarian but very easy to use, is instructive in itself.  Krug’s site ( is not quite as utilitarian, but still simple and straightforward.  (Keep the audience in mind, in both cases.)

Let me interject here, I don’t use the word “intuitive” because it has become meaningless, a sloppy replacement for the word “easy”.  If anything is intuitive on computers it’s because people are familiar with the task from other software.  There is nothing particularly natural about how humans work with computers.  The natural way would be that we would talk to the computer as though it were a human and it would understand, but we’re not there yet.  Another natural method is that we would think at the computer and it would know what we wanted to do, and that’s even further away.

When you think about it, games should be as easy to use as the Web needs to be.  The player should not have to think about anything except the actual decisions and challenges of the game.  They shouldn’t have to think about how to make their avatar move, they shouldn’t have to think about how to shoot, they shouldn’t have to think about keeping track of information such as the turn number.  The game should make this so easy that they don’t need to think about it.

“Don’t make me think” isn’t quite the same as K.I.S.S. - “Keep It Simple, Simon” - as you can have a complex game that nevertheless doesn’t make the user think about how to manipulate it and tell it what to do (e.g. chess).  K.I.S.S is akin to my favorite maxim about game design, "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Some games that require a lot of thought for success, chess-like games or “strategy games” may require more thought in areas other than the actual gameplay because the game itself is more complex.  Yet chess itself is an example of a complex strategy game with a very simple interface.  Hard to learn or hard to play well is quite different from hard to see and manipulate.  The interface is about manipulation, about "telling the game what to do", and about seeing the current state of the game.

Yes, chess is hard to learn for some people.  But the actual interface is very easy, pick up one piece from a maximum of 16, move it, then it's the other player's turn.  Could manipulation be much easier?  (Though for learners, chess pieces that illustrate their movement capability are even better, for example, .)

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Michael DeFazio
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Nice article, thanks. I haven't picked up Krug's book, but it's on the list :)

I've been doing my fair share of research in design and usability, and the books I've come to know and love are:

Edward Tufte's "Envisoning Information" (classic, i think his best work... not a "web design book" but rather a book about "information design"). even when to his seminar (well worth it imho)

Susan Weischenk's "100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People" great thoughtful tips on design mostly about "how people think" very good illustrative examples (not an exposition but rather concise points on how people process information)

Many Authors "the Universal Principles of Design" great for programmer types (like me) who are interested in concepts and want to be able to carry on a conversation with a graphic designer. Great illustrative examples (what to do, what to not do)

I tried liking Nielsen, he did some great work back in the day, but i find his recent analysis dated and (tbh) a little "trollish" and condescending (kinda like i'm smart, and everyone else is dumb). also his website (although intentionally spartan) still does very little to further his cause (especially when it directs you to all his "paid content" when you click).


Lewis Pulsipher
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Thanks for the suggestions. Nielsen's partner, Don Norman, wrote the classic "Design of Everyday Things," which game designers ought to read.

Michael DeFazio
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Yes, that ones on my list too. (it's mentioned quite a few times in Weischeck's and "Universal...")

forgoing playing games and reading/learning about design a while...i was amazed at how non-intuitive things generally are/were when i got back into playing.

skyrim's ui, while good looking... is a recent offender that really seems in need of an overhaul. (there are just too many ways to do the same thing, and none of them is intuitive) i hear the ui mod makes things better.

one game that i thought really nailed it was Castlevania Lords of Shadow, for as much stuff as they had going on (weapons, moves, mounts, lore, maps, etc.) the ui and controls are intuitive, easy to navigate, and aesthetically pleasing to boot.

Eric Schwarz
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Interesting observations. As usual, I think the key thing to take away is "intended audience." User interfaces are not one size fits all, and I don't think anyone can reasonably expect a game developed for a niche audience, like, say, a 4X title, to work the same way as a platform title like Mario.

Ultimately, when players pick up a game that is different from what they are used to, the will need to learn. This is not the fault of the developers and I don't think they should go to undue lengths to compensate for users who simply aren't familiar with a given type of game. While tutorials are useful, ultimately people will have to put in some effort to figuring things out if they want to transition into a new style of game - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Guitar manufacturers don't slap on "auto-play!" devices onto guitars to make it easier for people to learn the instrument - they expect that someone who buys a guitar will have the discipline to stick with it and put some effort into it. Entertainment is not all mindless and carefree, and creating everything with that express intent is an extremely limiting perspective.

That's why I think convention is more important than streamlining, accessibility and so on. We already have a huge convention - genre - for understanding how games play, so why not do the same for user interfaces? If you are making a game for an audience, the goal then is to make something that they can understand and enjoy quickly and easily - not to reinvent the wheel trying to improve on something that doesn't need improving. The best user interface is the one that we all know by heart, not necessarily the one that a UI designer decreed is "simply better" for one reason or another.

Axel Cholewa
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Well said. Examples are WASD, LeftStick=Move/RightStight=Camera, A/SpaceBar=Jump etc.

On the launch of new controllers (Wiimote, Kinect, Move) conventions have to be found first, of course. They usually come from games who offer the "best" interfaces which are then copied by other developers.

But conventions also change, and it's important that they do. I'm not sure when that happened, but at some point in the PS2 era racing games all of a sudden used the shoulder buttons for accelerations and brakes instead of the face buttons.

Nick Harris
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Inconsistency is the real issue. Take for example "Crouch" in some popular 360 games:

(B) - Call of Duty 4
(RS) - Battlefield 3
(LS) - Halo 3
[LT] - Mirror's Edge

Unfortunately, customisable controls are a rarity on console titles despite being common on PC versions of the same game. Why is this? Do developers think console gamers are stupid? When a game can be given a different set of button bindings, etc. why are the tutorials often incorrect and referring to the default layout? Why are players not allowed safe practise modes in which they can master the controls where the only threat is being unable to complete an objective within a time limit? Why can't more games be played against (or with the assistance of) "bots"?

More buttons and triggers is not necessarily the answer. However, the current 360 gamepad could evolve its design to become more ergonomic, whilst retaining backwards-compatibility. The face buttons could be split into pairs and relocated underneath the pad in concave pits so they could be operated by the ring and little fingers of both hands. The bumpers could become pressure sensitive and the D-Pad less erroneously squashy. A touch-sensitive camera "orb" (a recessed hemisphere with a dimple), would register when you intended to switch to 3rd person viewpoint and allow either a "chase" or orbiting "narcissistic" camera to be utilised. As with (RS) the orb could be clicked, perhaps to signal that you wanted an "over-the-shoulder" camera to change sides. The rest of the time your thumb would remain on the primary (RS) to provide the default 1st person, or "cockpit" view.

Control customisation, and greater consistency (such as saying you prefer Inverted Look and it only needing to be told once for all your games), help ease operational recall in discontinuous play (although a separately accessible tutorial / training mode will help refresh your memory), whilst redesigning the controller so you don't have to take your thumb off (RS) to stab at (A), (B), (X), or (Y) is less clumsy, less error-prone, more comfortable and more immersive - as you forget about what actions your hands are doing in order to express your intent.

jin choung
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a corrolary to this idea is "don't be different unless you're unequivocally (and somewhat vastly) better". it's like switching the gas and brake pedals for the hell of it.

Michael DeFazio
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imho Dark Souls (while great) suffers from poor UI and usability design... a good example of this is the equipment menu:

although equipment is of vital importance in Dark Souls, it takes 3 button presses (Start>, RB, A) to open...meanwhile the "gestures menu" (used less frequently/no effect on gameplay) takes 1 button press (Select>).

FromSoftware should "make the common case fast"...figure out a way to allow players to access and change equipment faster since it is more important part of the game.

...a good analogy for this would be having a car where (in order to close your sunroof) you would have to:
1) press a button
2) turn a lever
3) wind a crank
(sucks to be you if you are on the highway and get hit with a torrential downpour.)
meanwhile this same car would have a simple button for "interior mood lighting".

i realize that it is subjective when a person like me criticizes another's design (you could argue that they made it more difficult to change equipment by design). but my rebuttal to this is: would you rather the game emphasize and reward:
1) the players skill utilizing the mechanics within the game?
2) the players adeptness at memorizing and traversing a menu system?

Alexander Radkov
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Michael, I disagree that Dark Souls suffers from a poor UI, rather than making some things more difficult to access on purpose. Take multiplayer for example. You can equip a total of 4 weapons, two per hand, on your character, and switch between them by pressing one button. And that's it. No more weapons are allowed, because in a real battle situations you won't have enough time to go through your entire inventory, which the game captures quite nicely. (Same is true for single player, although it's easier to trick AI and buy some time to change weapons.) Gestures, on the other hand, are often used in multiplayer as greetings and means of basic communication, hence the need to access them fast.

Michael DeFazio
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i welcome debate, (i've played quite a bit of dark souls, so i'm familiar with the controls, i DO like the implementation of the quickswap menu... in addition to what you've mentioned being able to have "item slots" which is nice) ...just so i can be sure i understand your argument:

your point:
Dark Souls usability/UI and equipment menu is well designed because it adds realism by intentionally making accessing the equipment menu a multi-step process.

so an argument in line with this point is that you need to carefully choose equipment before you go into battle, since changing your equipment in the midst of battle is a recipe for disaster. (i derived this from your statement : "in a real battle situations you won't have enough time to go through your entire inventory, which the game captures quite nicely")

as an alternative to making accessing equipment/inventory through 3 button presses could use a single button to access the inventory, and have a pause animation getting into and out of the equipment menu. that way you get the same effect (adding tension to combat and making the assignments/preparation of items/equipment to slots an important part of the game.) And even out multiplayer (competitive) sessions, since you aren't giving any advantage to people who are "better" at rifling through the menu in the midst of a battle (i've commonly wanted to change rings when i get invaded, unequip my environmental resistance in lieu of something more offensive (blue tearstone, dragoncrest, dark wood grain ring)

my argument isn't that they made a mistake by making it a tactical decision to access your inventory in the middle of battle. my argument is two-fold:

1) on frequency - you use the equipment menu far more than the gestures menu (10x more would not be an overestimate...). that's a whole lot of extra button presses (3 button presses per access, 10x the amount of use of gestures) each time you want to get into and out of your equipment screen. fwiw i've played at least 100 multiplayer sessions coop and competitive and gestures while nice just don't add much to the experience

2) on importance - equipment is fundamentally a more important part of the game (than gestures), and therefore it should be given top billing (easier to get into and out of) than a part of the game (gestures) which is more cosmetic than functional.

feel free to disagree, this is just my opinion.

Nathan McKenzie
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I think there's a ton of wisdom to be found in the sources this article sites, and a lot to be gained from reading and thinking about them, but games, and why we play them, are complicated things.

qwop is memorable (and successful) because of its obtuse (but entertaining) interface. I still very fondly remember trying to remember what Wizardry's spells were (Calfo and Madalto!) and those in Infocom's Enchanter as well (Frotz and Rezrov!) when playing those games. The inertia in the player's body in Super Mario Brothers is exasperating (compared to, say, Megaman's perfect air control) and key to most of its gameplay. Mastering special move motions like fireballs in Street Fighter 2 is a tall order compared to a simple button press, but once they're in your fingers, there's a kind of magic there. All of these interface choices could have been replaced with ones that were more transparent, easier, and more in the "don't make the player think" vein - but all at a significant aesthetic and game design cost.

Which is to say, I think "When you think about it, games should be as easy to use as the Web needs to be" is too simple and misleading. For games, I'd more inclined to say "make sure that the challenging / ambiguous / confusing / difficult parts of the interface of a game are a focus of the game, and carefully chosen, intentional, well-scaffolded, well-framed, etc". If I had to achieve any kind of higher level navigation goals in qwop, I would be furious. But they framed the game correctly for a player like me, and so I've spent a happy half hour mucking with the thing. Remove the curious interface and there's no game left.

Lewis Pulsipher
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As with any kind of frustration in a game, it should be frustration the designer has deliberately chosen to incorporate as part of the gameplay. If the designer decides that a tricky interface aspect is desirable, it becomes a question of whether the gameplay design choice was good or not, as opposed to a question of poor interface design.