Everything I need to know about usability, I learned at the arcade

(This article first appeared on IBM developerWorks.)

Peter Seebach ([mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net)

Freelance writer

June 2002

A program that is integral to the operation of your business can be hard to use -- yet you will use it anyway. A video game that is hard to use is no fun, and you won't use it. Forged in this crucible is an attitude that's common to most games: Usability is paramount. Productivity software should learn some of the same lessons.

Usability has been an issue for video games since the first user complained of a sore thumb. Because of this constant pressure, video games have generally been at the leading edge of usability. Ideas that test out well in video games are often incorporated into productivity software, but productivity software still tends to lag behind, ignoring usability lessons that have already been learned.

By necessity, repetitive tasks are streamlined in games. This isn't always true for productivity software; with the latter, it's anyone's guess as to whether a particular common task will be convenient at all. Game designers try to avoid designs that will result in players complaining of pain after a couple hours of play; designers of productivity software don't seem to consider this at all.

Similarly, "minor" interface problems in productivity software are simply treated as one more reason to design a workaround. In a video game, such "minor" problems can mean the difference between a positive review and a pan.


Video games demonstrate several important lessons about streamlining repetitive tasks. One of the first is the use of rational defaults.

Once, when I was using a finance program to enter a number of old records, I found that there was no way to have it enter a "repeating" item automatically. I always had to manually set the date to the next reasonable value by hand, because the software had no idea that a monthly item that last occurred on June 1, 1998, would next occur on July 1, 1998; instead, it would (when left to its own devices) enter everything on the same day, time and time again.

It took the better part of two days to enter a few hundred records into that system, because each record required me to re-enter a number of fields, even though they could have been generated easily by the software.

Video games try very hard to get the defaults right. In many turn-based war games, a unit can either attack or rest at the end of its turn. What's the default? To attack if there's an enemy unit nearby -- otherwise, it will rest. The default is almost always right. Many games simply favor a most-recently used strategy for guessing at defaults. This simple strategy is often a gigantic improvement over the user interfaces of productivity software.

For instance, StarOffice (version 5.2) seems to believe that I am keeping all of my files in a special new directory it has created for me. I've never been able to find a way to change this setting, so every time I start StarOffice and open a file, it presents a directory with no files in it, and I have to click the "parent directory" button three times to get to my directory of choice. Every time.

Streamlining also applies to repetitive tasks. One of the browsers I use provides a menu item to toggle JavaScript interpretation. Another provides a checkbox in a submenu off of a menu on the preferences panel. The first browser has, correctly, established that the task is (or might be) common enough to merit a menu item. The second browser makes it very hard to turn JavaScript on (or off), so that when I reach a page that doesn't work, I generally just give up.

Sometimes, a design mistake in a video game gets corrected in a sequel, or even just in a re-release. Working Designs, a company that specializes in translating role-playing games from Japanese to English, made a number of small changes to the user interface of the game "Lunar2: Eternal Blue," including using a most-recently used strategy for selections from lists. This made a huge and noticeable difference in the playability of the game.

Working Designs president Victor Ireland explained it this way:

"We have done this for items menus as well as save menus in other games. Since we're players as well as producers, these changes make the games more enjoyable for us as well as our target audience, and they cost very little from a time/programming standpoint."

Perhaps more developers should be following his excellent advice.


A lot of productivity software is nowhere near the level of reliability that you'll find with video games, especially console games. It's easy to blame this on hardware and software configurations, but that is also almost always wrong. Logic errors in a program are no easier to catch on a Playstation than they are on a Windows PC. Rather, because errors can be so much more expensive to fix on a console, those developers try harder.

However, video games are still held to a higher standard. Productivity software manuals are full of warnings to save your work frequently, because crashes can destroy your work in progress. Video games offer saving as a convenience to the user, who may want to go do something else for a while. Crashes are considered unacceptable in a video game; for some reason, though, with most productivity software, they're simply a part of the experience.

Reliability isn't just about crashing or not crashing; it's about whether the user can count on the program to behave as expected. A word processor that is unusable because its animated mascot requires loads of CPU time is not an improvement over one that doesn't run at all. Once again, video games lead the way on productivity: Many video games provide a number of options to allow the user to attempt to improve performance, but only recently did Microsoft offer an intuitive way to disable the paper clip.


Many video games are designed so that the user doesn't need to be taught how to play; the designers assume that the user will never read the manual. Modern games often feature some kind of tutorial before the game really starts, to expose you to the concepts you need to be familiar with in order to play the game well.

To be frank, productivity software is often hostile to new users. Help systems are either absent, poorly designed, or just plain wrong. Even companies like Apple, who have built a reputation for usability, can get this wrong; Apple's AppleGuide help system, for instance, won't let you read the instructions for performing a task unless you perform them as you read through them. Its mantra of "do this, then click 'continue'" is a distressing one.

StarOffice provides both a "standard" and an "online" view of a document. If you're in the online view, you can't edit page headers or footers by following the instructions in the manual -- but the instructions make no mention of this important distinction! If you don't happen to realize that the instructions only apply to the standard view (not the online view), you may not be able to put header and footer elements into a document.

Some of this may be a result of comparative complexity, but I think a lot of it is a result of attitude. The developer of a piece of productivity software already has a value proposition for you; he knows that using his software gives you a concrete value. The game developer has no such advantage: If the use of the game is not pleasant in and of itself, you won't play it.

Adapt to the user

Most games allow at least some level of user control over the interface. Most productivity software doesn't. Button bars are nice, but only a few programs allow the user to alter the keyboard equivalents. This ties back into the reliability issue; the ability to customize software (turning off unneeded bells and whistles) may make it much more usable. It was several years before Microsoft Office provided an obvious way to turn off the dancing paper clip -- a video game designer who tried a trick like that would never sell any games.

Most productivity software offers preferences, but time and time again the ones the users really want aren't available, or are very hard to find. I've watched three different computer professionals search menus for 10 minutes to find a way to turn off auto-correction in a word processor. This is just plain offensive. (Worse, there was no obvious way to make it stay off; it came back on in each new document.)


Game developers know that their audience will walk if a program is unusable, so they tend to produce programs that are -- compared to most productivity software -- paragons of stability, convenience, and user control. If productivity software developers made the same kind of effort, users would spend a lot less time cursing the names of the vendors they're stuck with.

This month's action item: Play a video game for a while. Does the interface appear to make an effort to conform to your usage patterns? Compare it with the productivity software you use. Is the video game easier?


About the author

author Peter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, some day, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than being designed to look impressive. You can reach him at [mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.