Video games may seem very different from websites or apps: they don’t usually have a practical goal (such as to inform people or help them create an artifact), but instead they aim to entertain. Yet, Jakob Nielsen’s 10 heuristics for user-interface design are applicable in both cases.
Let’s take a look at each of these heuristics and see how they apply to video games.
1.Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time. (Read full article on visibility of system status.)
Communicating system status is vital to helping users determine what to do. In video games, feedback is particularly important so that players know whether their interaction was executed.
For instance, in many video games, particularly action games, health or life meters are present. These dynamic meters display the player’s health status throughout the game. In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a video game on Nintendo Switch, the health meter is presented in the top left corner of the screen. There are 3 heart containers which can be filled throughout the game by consuming food and are decremented when the player incurs injuries during combat. The health meter is updated almost instantly once either of the activities mentioned above (and more) occur. This visual feedback is helpful to influence the next actions the player should take. For example, players with only half of a heart remaining in the health meter may wish to avoid combat until they’re able to secure more resources and increase their health, which would give them a better shot at surviving a battle.
2.Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order. (Read full article on the match between the system and the real world.)
Unfamiliar interface terms often confuse users and make them second-guess themselves. Users should be able to successfully navigate your interface without needing to look up terminology.
PlayerUnknown’s Battleground (PUBG) is a battle-royale game, or, in laymen’s terms, a large-scale player–versus–player shooter game that ends when one winner (team or individual) is the last one left “alive.” PUBG contains dozens of weapons that players can pick up and use throughout the game. These weapons, ranging in type from pistols and melee weapons to submachine guns and sniper rifles, align with real-world counterparts. For instance, the Beretta 686 Silver Pigeon in PUBG mimics a real-life weapon by the same name, frequently used for clay-pigeon shooting. For users with prior experience with similar games or knowledge of real-life weapons, this use of real-world names helps them select weapons fast because they don’t need to spend time familiarizing themselves with unique weapon terminology.
Comparatively, Apex Legends, another battle-royale game, uses unique weapon terminology. For instance, a semi-automatic sniper rifle was given the name “G7 Scout,” which does not exist in the real world (though the appearance may bare a slight resemblance to an actual physical weapon). Unique terminology increases cognitive load because users have to assimilate this new information into their existing mental model for a similar weapon while trying to stay focused in the game and remember what they were attempting to do in that moment.
3.User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
Chess, an iOS mobile game, allows users to undo their last move. This functionality enables them to correct a misplaced piece (perhaps due to a slip of the finger) or revise their strategy as an afterthought. Not only is this functionality available, it is prominently placed at the top right-hand corner of the screen, so it is discoverable to users (unlike the hidden gesture of shaking the device to undo, which is present in several mobile apps).
4.Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
No matter the console, users typically have expectations of what buttons do based on their prior experience playing other games. Years and years of game design have resulted in design standards, just like we see on websites and in apps.
Xbox gamers commonly assume that clicking the “A” button causes your player to jump because a myriad of games like Apex Legends, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), Fortnite, Star Wars Battlefront, and Lego Jurassic World follow this standard.
In contrast, the original Mirror’s Edge game did not follow this design standard and instead assigned the jump action to “LB” (i.e. left bumper). The placement of “LB” on the controller is the top left whereas the “A” button, commonly associated with the jump action, is middle right – a major change in placement.
We came across a 2009 thread on GameFAQs where several users commented on Mirror’s Edge jump control. Here’s one of the highlights:
“I am really enjoying this game and my only real complaint is the jump button … why would they give the jump function to such an awkward button…” -stabstone
When controls are not used in standard ways, players must spend time and effort to (1) learn how to perform each action; and (2) actively stop themselves from making the mistake of pressing the wrong button out of habit.
Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action. (Read full article on preventing user errors.)
Gamers, just like interface users, can get distracted and make errors. As designers, we must help players prevent unconscious errors.
Confirmation dialogs, like the one in Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo Switch, prevent users from accidental destruction. This confirmation is particularly important for irreversible actions. Before leaving an in-progress game, Super Smash Bros. prompts users to confirm that they want to leave the game and didn’t merely press the wrong button. (Note: even though confirmation dialogs can be effective, don’t over-use them because users might get used to agreeing to everything in order to surpass them.)
6.Recognition rather than recall
Minimize the user's memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate. (Read full article on recognition vs. recall in UX.)
Console games are often highly complex, with many context-dependent controls. In Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2), a western-style action/adventure game, players rely on horses to get around. (Note: users must find a horse or whistle to call their personal horse, as users aren’t always riding a horse in the game.) However, the only time players need to know how to interact with a horse is when they’re near one. RDR2 does a good job of minimizing the player’s cognitive load by presenting context-relevant controls (in this case, the controls for interacting with a horse, such as viewing its cargo) in the lower right area of the screen.
7.Flexibility and efficiency of use
Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
The power law of learning says that the time it takes to perform a task decreases with the number of repetitions of that task. In video games, unlike website usage, users don’t want things to be too easy — or else it isn’t fun! When gaming, we like a bit of competition; we don’t want an easy win. Therefore, games must build in features to cater to both novice and experienced users. However, users who have been playing a game for a while want to find secret shortcuts or accelerators that new users likely don’t know about.
For instance, players of Counter Strike: Global Offense (CS:GO) on PC can use hotkeys provided by the game to speed up interactions like switching weapons. Savvy players can also bind commands, thereby setting up controls exactly how they like them. This functionality makes it possible for users to create a setup that matches their playstyle, ending with a more comfortable and often more skilled experience.
8.Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
Video games, like interfaces, can house many different activities and presenting information about all of them can easily become overwhelming. Designers should take advantage of progressive disclosure and only display information that is relevant to the task at hand. Even then, in cases where there might be an excess of relevant information, we need to curate the material we share so that users don’t become overwhelmed with data that is rarely needed.
In Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch, the play screen is overlaid by relevant game information positioned to the corners of the viewport. For instance, in the bottom right corner of the screen there is a prominent display of what place in the race you are (in the screenshot below, I’m in second place) as well as a map of the track with the placement of the other drivers’ icons. The layout and display of this data is visually appealing and quick to interpret. Mario Kart’s usage of minimalist yet informative game-play screens ensures that players can stay focused on driving while using the overlaid information to supplement and enhance their experience.
9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
Effective error messages need to clearly communicate the error, reduce the amount of work users must do to solve the problem, and educate users along the way. These principles are true of interfaces and games alike.
Subway Surfers, an endless-runner mobile game, does a nice job crafting error messages. After users lose mid-game, they’re prompted with a dialog that reads, Save me! (Which would not be a good dialog prompt in a productivity app, but is acceptable in the playful context of a game.) To continue the game from the point at which they lost, users can either watch an advertisement or use game Keys (a type of game currency). If the user attempts to use Keys but does not have enough, an error message appears. The error message uses simple language to diagnose the problem (Not enough keys!), states how many Keys are needed, and provides a clear call-to-action: buy Keys. However, an even better design approach would be to avoid this problem altogether by disabling the option to use Keys (while still promoting the purchase of Keys) if the user does not have enough.
10.Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user's task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.
In games with complex interactions or with a high volume of interactions, it’s not rare for a user to forget how to do something. Cases such as these require accessible documentation, so that players can figure out what they’re trying to do and get back to playing the game.
PlayerUnknown’s Battleground Mobile (PUBG Mobile) on iOS keeps Help documentation accessible and visible in the top right corner of the game homepage. However, simply having a Help section doesn’t make finding what you need any easier; it’s also important that the help content is clear and organized in a thoughtful manner. PUBG Mobile did a nice job of organizing the Help content and the app even allowed users to search the Help documentation by describing their problem. On the main Help page, content was grouped (presumably) by frequency of use; there is even a Hot Topics section with the most accessed content. Additionally, the content structure is thoughtfully organized with numbered steps, action-oriented phrases, and parallel hierarchy. (Though, it would be nice if there was a secondary header along with the white space used to separate answer sections).
According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 43% percent of American adults say they often or sometimes play video games (including console, PC, and mobile games). As designers, whether we’re focused on complex workplace tools or mobile apps, we all need to stay informed about related fields. As mobile and desktop designers, there is a lot we can learn from our colleagues in game design (for example, how to keep players engaged for a long time), but there’s a lot we can teach them too.
From puzzles to racing, or sports to arcade games, there’s something out there for everyone. Next time you’re gaming, identify how one of Jakob’s heuristics was applied. Tweet us at @nngroup — we’d love to see it.
Perrin, Andrew. “5 facts about Americans and video games.” Pew Research Center September 17, 2018.
Hodent, Celia. "The gamer's brain: how neuroscience and UX can impact video game design." CRC Press 2017.