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Podcast Episode 2: The Video Game Experience (w/ Veronica Zammitto)

UX video game expert Veronica Zammitto has brought her expertise to Electronic Arts for almost a decade. Hear her insights on engaging entertainment.

Words by Karen Eisenhauer

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Level Up Your UX Practice: Advice from a Video Game User Researcher

In this episode of The People Nerds Podcast, we sat down with Veronica Zammito, UX Strategy Consultant at VZ Research & Design, to immerse ourselves in the world of video game research.

For almost a decade, Veronica crafted UX’s seat at the table at Electronic Arts (EA). During our conversation, she shares what it means to “gamify” products, striking a balance between challenging and playable, and what it means to make a video game fun. Here are five learnings we had from the discussion.

Note: For the full episode transcription, click here.

1. Move beyond ‘efficiency’

For many products or services, the primary metrics we’re looking to meet with our products’ user experience may be ease of use, efficiency, or functionality. But the games industry is powered by another, less “functional” metric: fun.

Video games exist for fun and entertainment above all else. But Veronica reminded us that while that’s a core value in her industry, it’s a need that doesn’t disappear when users are doing something more functional or professional.

In fact, many of the desires that games aim to satisfy—such as agency, choice, power, or emotional investment in a compelling narrative—are all foundational human desires that transcend the entertainment space.

Think about what foundational human desires your product may help fulfill, beyond the functional tasks at hand. Then, instead of just thinking about how functional your product is, think about how well it’s doing to achieve those deeper emotional goals—and what in your user experience is getting in the way.

2. Put work towards defining ambiguous goals

It turns out that no single set of KPIs reliably track what makes a game “good.” So many facets of the experience exist that it’s complicated to get a 360 view. Video game researchers are often challenged with figuring out how to properly evaluate broad, abstract concepts, such as “goodness,” “satisfaction,” or “fun.”

Veronica deals with this in part through the use of theoretical frameworks of player satisfaction or game quality. These frameworks were created and tested using exploratory or generative research. For example, one framework she uses allows her to break “satisfaction” into more concrete categories like “player choice”, which can be used to generate more concrete tests for elements of a game.

Invest in generative research up front to try and explore the broader, more abstract goals of your product. Define your terms and break down what goes into them. Frameworks like these can help you evaluate something that is otherwise too tricky to pin down.

3. Difficulty and frustration are two different things

As UX researchers and designers, we want to make everything as easy as possible for our users. But not every task is easy—life has inherent challenges, which is usually what our tools and products exist to help with.

What we learned from Veronica is that players can actually revel in challenge, as long as they’re given the tools to complete it. Agency in the face of challenge can actually drive satisfaction.

What’s important is to distinguish between expected difficulty, and the frustration with the system. It’s okay for a player to struggle with beating a boss. It’s not ok for them to struggle with finding the resource they need in your menu design.

In Veronica’s framework, removing friction in a UI is the most foundational issue. Get the issues created by friction with the system out of the way before you begin to help the user with the challenge you actually anticipate.

4. Aim for “flow”

“Flow” is a state coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to define the sensation of being fully absorbed in an activity that all other distractors are disregarded. It’s this idea of being “in the zone.”

In games, players find “flow” when their skill is properly matched up with the challenge presented to them. Too hard and it’s frustrating or overwhelming; too easy and it’s boring and shallow.

Veronica suggests we can apply this theory when onboarding new users to a platform. Promote flow in your usage by surfacing the tools that match the challenge of the task at hand, without overwhelming them with so many options that they become frustrated. On the other hand, automate tasks that feel ‘beneath’ the user as they become more adept at the tool.

One of the key questions in the game industry is how to find that sweet spot of challenging, but not too challenging.

Imagine on one axis you have skill level and on the other there’s difficulty. As long as you are matching those same levels, the player gets into a channel called "flow." In that state, time often passes by without them noticing because of how immersed they are in the game.

Veronica Zammitto
UX Strategy Consultant at VZ Research & Design

5. Delightful details are more important than you think.

In games, every single part of the design works together for a cohesive, delightful experience. Careful consideration is put into every minute detail, including flourishes like transition animations and sound design.

Veronica pointed out that those kinds of artistic details can provide delight even in products otherwise more functional or serious. Although animations or extra artistic assets don’t necessarily “do” much functionally, they help create a feeling of delight and surprise in the user that will set your product above the rest.

Want to check out other episodes? Our first podcast features Dr. Paul Booth on the subject of fandom.

Karen is a researcher at dscout. She has a master’s degree in linguistics and loves learning about how people communicate with each other. Her specialty is in gender representation in children’s media, and she’ll talk your ear off about Disney Princesses if given half the chance.

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