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Ideas Technology

Competing for Attention

Looks aren’t everything. But they do go a long way in engaging learners.

In 1979, a game designer named Gunpei Yokoi was stuck on a bullet train to Kyoto. Growing weary and bored on the long ride, Yokoi looked around the train for some way to kill time and noticed a fellow passenger fiddling with an LCD watch. Clearly just as desperate for a distraction as Yokoi, the man was punching buttons at random. That need for portable entertainment gave the designer an idea: Couldn’t commuters play games using the same technology?

From Boredom to Behavior Change

Yokoi brought the idea to his employer, who agreed it had enormous potential. If they handled it right, they could give the average person a new, more purposeful way to interact with technology. But first, they had to consider the ways in which that person would behave when bored, and what it would take to capture — and maintain — the person’s attention. Whatever Yokoi created would have to be as user-friendly as his fellow passenger’s watch, but also offer an experience beyond mindlessly pressing buttons.

A year later his employer, a toy company named Nintendo, gave birth to the Game & Watch series, a collection of portable game consoles. At first glance, each one looked similar to the others: Most Game & Watches had roughly the same dimensions (rectangular, between two and four square inches), and all of them — perhaps unsurprisingly — doubled as digital clocks. But from there, the consoles diverged.

Each Game & Watch offered a different experience, ranging from simple memory games like Flagman to Manhole‘s high-speed multi-level climbing action. Some even featured dual screens (vertically to bust safes, horizontally to play as a pair of now-famous plumbers), and all of them offered a variety of control schemes. You only needed “left” and “right” to help the series mascot juggle, while playing tennis with Snoopy required directional buttons and a “hit” button. The controls were simple and effective. But as multi-directional gameplay grew more common, Yokoi sought a way to cut down on buttons, yet to allow for more complex gameplay. He found the perfect balance with Donkey Kong’s cross-shaped D-pad, a four-directional lever that let gamers move in all directions without lifting a finger (or rather, a thumb).

Variety: the Spice of Great Gaming

With their portability, variety, and ease of use, the Game & Watch series gave the world something it didn’t realize it needed. The 59 Game & Watches Nintendo released (plus a 60th only available to contest winners) sold by the millions. And no wonder: With Game & Watch, Yokoi hadn’t just created a novelty; he’d reshaped his audience’s expectations of what video games could be, and effectively changed gamers’ behavior. Experiences once restricted to arcades, bars, and home televisions were suddenly sitting in pockets all across the world, easily accessible at any time — even on the train. Knowing gamers wanted more, Yokoi kept on innovating, and in 1989 he and his team released another revolutionary product: the Game Boy.

It was an instant hit. Interchangeable game cartridges meant players didn’t need to carry multiple Game & Watches. The green-and-gray pixel graphics were light years beyond the static artwork on any given Game & Watch, but still consumed power slowly enough that players could spend plenty of time gaming with fewer batteries. Most of all, the interface kept things simple. Four buttons (A, B, Select, and Start) and a perfected D-pad made even complicated games intuitive to play. In the end, Nintendo sold at least 118 million Game Boys worldwide.

Nintendo offered controls so simple and engaging, nearly anyone could pick up a Game Boy and immediately have fun. The bottom line? They understood that if you want a good experience, you need a great interface.

Those figures are all the more impressive considering the Game Boy’s slew of competitors. Between 1989 and 2001, Nintendo crushed offerings by everyone from toy company Tiger Electronics to industry titans Atari and Sega.  It didn’t matter if Sega’s Game Gear had full-color graphics and faster gameplay, or if the Atari Lynx could be played ambidextrously, or if the Turbo Express could turn into a TV. By 1997, the Game Boy’s chief North American competitor was its own little brother, the Game Boy Color (the Neo Geo Pocket Color did all right after its debut in 1999…until the Game Boy Advance arrived in 2001).

Many times, Nintendo’s rivals accomplished amazing feats of engineering, only to get beaten by a system with graphics straight out of 1989. Some companies focused on better visuals, only to disappoint players with minimal battery life. Still others tried to mimic Yokoi’s earlier successes by selling bare-bones games on the cheap, realizing too late that low price points couldn’t make up for boring gameplay or shoddy controls. They all missed the keys to Yokoi and Nintendo’s success: respect for simplicity and empathy-driven design. Nintendo offered controls so simple and engaging, nearly anyone could pick up a Game Boy and immediately have fun. The bottom line? They understood that if you want a good experience, you need a great interface.

UI that Gets Attention

At NogginLabs, we understand that, too. We’ve talked about it before, but it bears repeating: Your user interface (UI) should grab people. If your users struggle to figure out a confusing interface (or endure a downright unpleasant one), their experience will suffer. If users have to endure it for long, they’ll move on to something more engaging. You can’t neglect UI, no matter how confident you are about the user experience.

That goes double for eLearning. You can have the most interesting course in the world, but if your learners have to bang their heads against an interface just to figure out what they’re learning, their training feels like a chore, or worse — they may question whether they need the training in the first place. Nintendo knew this, so they made sure Game & Watch and Game Boy just worked. They worked so well, players barely even thought about how they worked. No matter how complex the games got, you only needed two thumbs and your eyes to enjoy them.

Our work at NogginLabs embodies those same principles. Okay, we don’t build gaming consoles (although we do employ plenty of gamers!). But just like Yokoi and his team, we know the importance of a control scheme that gets the learner interested and then gets out of the way. Bells and whistles can add a lot to a course — and we’re happy to employ them when it feels right — but we always start with an approachable interface that’ll help skeptical learners discover that learning can be fun.

Your user interface (UI) should grab people. If your users struggle to figure out a confusing interface (or endure a downright unpleasant one), their experience will suffer. If users have to endure it for long, they’ll move on to something more engaging. You can’t neglect UI, no matter how confident you are about the user experience.

That’s why we established our Four Pillars of Design. Our instructional designers and content producers brainstorm ways to make learning accessible. Programmers work with them to make their ideas a reality. Graphic designers pull it all together with stunning artwork. Throughout the process, everyone pitches in and collaborates, forming a push-and-pull that balances ideas, interface, and experience. We relentlessly test each course throughout the process, always asking ourselves: Will this hook the intended audience? Will the users want to learn? The end result: engaging courses that inform, change behavior, and win awards.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to head to eBay and dig up a Game Boy. And a copy of Super Mario Land. For, uh…research purposes.

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