In this series about the ten usability heuristics, I have covered six heuristics on six different games, the last one titled Applying Usability Heuristics to Undertale.
This article is about the seventh heuristic: flexibility and efficiency of use, and how different games follow this heuristic. This includes designing with novice and expert users in mind and hiding shortcuts from inexperienced players so that experienced players can speed up the interactions. This can include things such as finding new routes or controlling an object using different methods, and allowing users to choose their ways of doing things - offering the appropriate experience for each level of knowledge.
Flexibility and Efficiency of Use
Users should have different ways to perform the same tasks. Some require more guidance, and others speed up the process with accelerators or secondary features. This idea guides customization and flexibility with discoverable and effective accelerators that do not obstruct core tasks.
People come from different places and experiences in life. Some are more tech-savvy than others, and some might already be familiar with the system being used. They have already learned how the system works or have experienced similar systems. We must consider how frustrating it can be for clear guidance and repetitive tasks to slow a user down. On the other hand, inexperienced users still need help learning along with clear options.
An excellent example from the real world is how we use a map of our hometown versus a place we visit. We know the shortcuts and the best way to avoid traffic and reach our destination faster without even using a map in our hometown. In a new place, we rely on navigation systems, google, or the good old paper map.
This balance of ease and complication is possible with two tips:
- Let users achieve the same task according to their preferences
- Speed up advanced users without impacting inexperienced users
Flexible Tasks: Let Users Shape the Way They Do Things
Adobe Premiere Pro is a video editing software. It has various features organized as panels that can be used for different video editing stages. If they were all open simultaneously, the screen would be completely cluttered. Since some features are unnecessary in those stages, frequent users adapt them to their needs at the time. If they are just cutting and piecing the video together, making colour corrections, or editing and adjusting the sound, panels can be resized or hidden according to user needs.
The main tip would be to allow users to customize the system, but users don’t usually take the time to do that. That might only happen with specific professional needs, so the most often used approach is to personalize the interface to the user - to remember parameters, save session settings, and default options according to the user role. This ensures that both the content and functionality are appropriate to the individual user.
We have Figma as a software tool for product teams in a professional setting with a broader audience and many different types of users. Usually, software like this also allows for a customizable interface. You might be prototyping or animating so different features are reserved for different actions and needs. Figma is a different example of minor customization, with session settings and feature adaptations that save space and time.
For example, the prototyping feature allows the creation of interactive flows. Still, prototyping can also be used for functions that require the same logic or are directly dependent on prototyping: animations, micro-interactions, sharing presentations, and test prototypes. This doesn’t occupy much space on the screen, which saves the user time customizing or opening a new panel/plug-in, and it also saves time by remembering the customization of your project.
Accelerators should make the task faster for expert users without making it unlearnable for novices. But that does not mean hiding things. Accelerators should be discoverable (and learnable) but not obtrusive.
The most famous accelerators are keyboard shortcuts. In some systems, they are described next to the button used to act. A novice user goes to the button repeatedly until they learn the keyboard shortcut and start to use it instead of the primary button - but if it’s forgotten, it’s always present.
In a way, it’s not only a faster method to perform a task but also a new one - becoming more efficient at using a system requires learning and adopting these accelerators. Again a Figma example, the most frequently used actions have the keyboard shortcut on the right to teach users, but the least used actions need to have it to avoid cluttering the screen.
Flexibility and Efficiency in Games
I will use different games for this article to illustrate the possible design solutions that perfectly fit this heuristic.
One game that’s a good example is God of War Ragnarök (2022). This game is an excellent example of good control customization and allows players to adapt it to their needs according to usability research and accessibility standards. Accessibility should always be in our minds when designing for flexibility. Besides “unlocking” playability for more players that otherwise might not be able to enjoy the game, remapping controls can make for a better gaming experience for everyone.
Facilitating playability is much more than re-mapping. It can also involve other settings open to configuration, like accessibility, audio, and HUD. For instance, fighting games are frequently used as examples of the need for control customization. Sifu (2022) is a fighting action game that requires a lot of precision and learning combinations to master Kung Fu techniques. On top of that, the bosses force players to fight in a particular way to defeat them. To do so, it’s necessary to keep checking the mapping and allow for remapping.
When the players go to the menu the default section is the Controls List, where users can check the combinations available and remap them. Remapping can make the controls closer to the player's favorite setting in a way that feels more natural or easier to them - in some accessibility cases, it can even be the difference between being able to play the game or not.
In a (quite difficult) game that provides so many combinations, it’s essential to allow customization of controls to make the experience smoother and closer to the gamer's mental map. In this way, the complexity of learning and engaging with the controller layout and combinations is shortened.
Same Action, Different Paths
In games, flexibility should allow for accelerators - quicker ways to perform important or repeated actions. Accelerators are heavily used in games that require speed and quick reaction time. Reaching resources quickly becomes central to playing the game and achieving goals.
A good example is shooters, which often involve equipping and changing weapons, using key resources (like to increase health or attack), drawing a weapon, or communicating with allies. Most games allow predefined (but customizable) accelerators like hotkeys that speed up these interactions.
A deeper layer of interaction to pay attention to is allowing customization of the equipment or resources shown on the HUD. Letting players customize the objects they want to see on the HUD ensures they reach their favorite or most often-used equipment faster and without mistakes. This is mostly done using the menu (or expanding a HUD element) or before the game starts if it's played by rounds.
It is important to give proper feedback, especially if a player uses an accelerator. When it's not possible to see the result of a selection, a message should be displayed to respond to that action. Sometimes opening a HUD element or a menu to do an action already gives the feedback the user needs. They can see the selection they are making - but accelerators don’t allow for that contextualized feedback.
Another good use of accelerators is for repeated actions. For example, turn-based combat games that require some strategy (even without the time stress added) still have accelerators. As players learn the abilities of their playable characters and understand each enemy's strengths and weaknesses throughout the game, it’s inconvenient to have to search the menu for interactions. Decision-making becomes faster when the battle strategy is quickly decided, and the game should support that.
However, the game should support both possibilities - the player still encounters new and different enemies through these games and might need to adapt strategy in the middle of the combat. Accelerators also reduce the frustration of having to perform more than one click or interaction on the controller (keyboard and mouse) for repeated actions, keeping up with the speed of thought of the player. It becomes way more satisfying as players memorize the controllers, with the feedback to their interaction becoming almost instant.
A Note About the New Year
I took a long break from writing articles because last year I joined the casual games company Arkadium, and I’ve been learning and growing a lot. I’m working on exciting new stuff that makes me super happy every day.
I’ve also been learning, reading, and watching as many talks, workshops, and YouTube videos as possible (I must admit, most of them by Celia Hodent). Most of my “real life” time is currently occupied by games, and I’m back to playing as much as I used to play many years ago.
This article, which took me months to review, is my comeback to writing more articles, now with more knowledge and experience.
And I for sure will share some insights and learnings from my work experience.
Wish me luck! ✨
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