Enterprise Playability, User Experience

Visual Environment

Video games often present players with a very specific, stylized visualization of an environment. That environment gives players a context in which to relate to the game and all of the objects in it. Visual representation and interaction with in-game items keeps players engaged with the game, and draws their focus into the activities they are participating in within the game.

Enterprise software, on the other hand, tends toward the abstract and metaphorical. Enterprise software designers prefer that anything that needs to be presented on screen fit within one of the widgets that are standard in the industry: drop-down lists, text boxes, buttons, data grids, radio buttons, and check boxes. These components make software design easier and faster. Enterprise software is often presented within a loosely defined metaphorical context: the desktop, the document, the worksheet, or the window. The connections between the real-world object and the software are few and generally not helpful. Knowing how to use the real-world object doesn’t help with learning to use the in-software object at all.

To resolve this disconnect between the real world and the user experience, an enterprise software designer can use the same strategy that video games do: Create a world within the software for users to enter. Give users a set of surroundings that are both familiar and helpful. Show them a world like the world they are working in. Users will be far more engaged, and will quickly learn their way around the software. Users’ experience in the real world will help them understand the software.

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Enterprise Playability

The Widget

Enterprise software’s standard widgets are quite usable. The fact that they are so common has given users the chance to learn how to use them quickly and efficiently. Their familiarity is a huge boon to usability. It’s a pity, though, that enterprise software designers don’t seem to be able to design any widgets outside of the standard set. They prefer instead to make sure everything anyone wants to do, no matter how counter-intuitive the connection may be, fits into a standard widget.

Familiar components may be usable, but they do not contribute to the overall usability of software unless they fit into context of the software. A data grid full of train schedules may look familiar, but it does not help users think about or understand trains, their schedules, or the complexities of managing a train station. A map of the train station could show where the trains are, where they are headed, and when they will arrive and depart. The visual context would offer an intuitive understanding of the situation, and ultimately a much more usable interface.

Rich context makes for an engaging interaction. It reduces the cognitive friction that occurs when a user tries to translate data presented in a standard widget into information that’s usable in the real world. It brings clarity to a situation, and in turn enhances shared situational awareness. If team members can all clearly visualize the environment they are working in, they can easily coordinate their actions and work out solutions together.

Enterprise Playability

Your Progress So Far

Progress Indicators

Most games have a constant and clear indicator of how you’re doing so far. If you’re playing capture the flag, you look around at the number of players on your team that are running free vs. captured, and you know immediately which team is winning. If you’re playing Monopoly, you count your money, your properties (mortgaged and otherwise), and your houses and hotels, and you can compare the vastness of your wealth and prosperity to the poor saps around the board.

In video games, you’ve got points, coins, stars, gems, experience, and levels — all to tell you how you’re doing. In multiplayer games, the players are ranked an important score or measure, and they can usually see their progress on that measure in real time while they play.

Game Objectives

Progress indicators tell you how close you are to a goal. Games have goals that tend to be very clear, and very well agreed-upon by the players. The goals are written into the rules of the game. One can’t expect to make much progress in a game of draw poker by working hard to collect only even numbered cards. The goals are clear, and failing to meet them means losing the game.

Often there is room for choosing which goals to meet and what you’ll do to optimize for meeting those goals. In fact video games often offer many paths to reaching the ultimate goal, allowing players to focus on any number of short-term tasks to achieve milestones along the way to achieving higher-level goals. Sometimes those milestones come in the form of resources or items collected, buildings built, or quests completed. Each of the milestones move the player toward an ultimate goal.

Rewards and Achievements

The rewards that games provide to players for making progress vary from game to game. Points are common, and sometimes come in the form of experience points (XP). Other rewards include coins, dollars, stars, gems, chips, and others that fit the context of the game, but provide similar collectable rewards. Players who collect these rewards can use them as a measure of who is winning a game, as a measure of progress toward “leveling up” (reaching explicit measured milestones), or to trade in for valuable in-game items.

Many games feature in-game achievements, which work a whole lot like boy scout badges, and are given out for completing specific tasks during game play. They tend to be awarded for completion of relatively large tasks, and often games offer a way to show off to other game players which achievements a player has completed.

Team Goals

Games also have a built-in mechanism for aligning the goals of a team. Team sports are well suited to this task: players take different roles, but all with the same ultimate goal. Team-based games work the same way, encouraging players to take different roles — and perform them according to role-aligned goals — in support of an ultimate goal that is shared by the entire team.

The massively-multi-player online role-playing game genre has done some impressive work with the idea of team goals. In some games, teams are formed on an ad hoc basis, often to perform a specific task which would be too difficult to perform alone. Players who in general have no interest in helping players around them — and even tend to ignore them — will go out of their way to assist team members, even those who have just joined the team and are completely unfamiliar. Team members will take specialty roles, and rely on other team members to play their roles. And when one team member is struggling, others will immediately step in to help the struggling team member, in an effort to quickly get the team back to an optimal condition for meeting the team’s goal.

With players all working for the same goals, and with clear indicators of each individual’s progress toward those goals — through points, items, or achievements — games keep players  focused on the task at hand and the rewards for meeting goals.