Monday, 11 November 2013

The pains of user interface design

Designing good user interfaces is hard work. That is a given. Designing good user interfaces for multiplatform games doubly so. For us, multiplatform means everything from mobile phones to web browsers. This, together with limited resources, makes user interface design a real challenge. This blog post will start a series where I alight on a number of issues we have faced in terms of UI design. In this first post, I will not delve too deep into any specific UI issues. I will instead give you an overview of where we are coming from and how it affects our UI choices.

In the web design world, one of the biggest contemporary trends is response design. In summary, it is a change of mindset from “we need a desktop site, a browser-optimized version and a mobile app” towards “we need a website that works across all devices”. This is achieved using fluid layouts and a number of other techniques (see Wikipedia). Responsive design makes content a first-class citizen, a position it rightly deserves. As a bonus, this tends to lead to far less crippled mobile services (go find a handful of news websites. Now, visit their mobile sites and see if their comments functionality is still there).

The reason I mention responsive web design is simple: it has made the web far less device-oriented. There are other positives but for the purposes of this post, the moving away from designing for particular devices is sufficient.

In our minds, simply porting your game to another platform does not make it “multiplatform”. We see multiplayer games as games that do not build barriers between players just because they happen to play on a different platform. Games, where you can transition from one device to another, using one account. Games, where the device is really just an access point into the game.

We believe this “access point” thinking is the future of serious mobile games. Unfortunately, it also makes user interface design a far greater challenge than it would otherwise be. Now, if we had the time and resources to design the interface separately for each “access point” (desktop browser, tablets, mobile phones etc.), life would be easy. Alas, we cannot. We have to design UIs which work on the entire range of devices our games support. We must be mindful of available screen estate and make sure everything is readable even in the smallest displays. We cannot rely on hover effects because of all the touch devices. We must take note of platform specific features (e.g. the availability or absence of a hardware back button). Good thing we don't mind challenging undertakings.

In the next post, I will talk about some UI designs we have chosen and I will also go over some specific issues we still need to tackle.

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