Games – Groundbreakers for User-friendly Software

Holger Diener
Holger Diener

Mr. Diener, doesn’t software ergonomics generally lead to greater user friendliness?

Diener: Software ergonomics unfortunately doesn’t explain how to develop user-friendly software specifically, it only defines the criteria used to evaluate software. User friendliness is always defined by the application context. You need to understand this in order to write good software. If an employee doesn’t like the company’s CAD program, he or she still has to work with it. When it comes to computer games, though, players have to like them straight away, or they won’t play them. Games developers therefore have to put far more care and energy into user friendliness.

Do the manufacturers of business software see things in the same way?

Diener: Almost all of them are convinced of the quality of their products. Developers know exactly how to use their software and can’t imagine other people having difficulties with it. But our usability tests bring quite different results to light: sometimes, important functions can only be accessed by key commands, or error messages are incomprehensible. It’s high time to take users and their requirements seriously.

And how are you tackling this issue?

Diener: We have developed ContextControl, the prototype of a game-based interface, that is, a user interface that uses game concepts. This does not mean that users use the interface to play games. Instead, like good games, it is based on the principle of different levels of difficulty. The levels can be adjusted to meet users’ experience or access rights, or to take account of users’ tasks. They make it possible to provide a modified interface for every user and every task. If a user never uses a particular word processing program to create websites or write invoices, for example, these functions can be omitted, and the user has a far simpler interface. With the help of ContextControl, every subtask within a work process has its own user interface, which provides exactly the functions required, when they are needed.

Can you give us an example that can be applied to business software?

Diener: If you look at a simulation game like SimCity, you can see a lot a parallels to tasks in government authorities or a large company: logistics chains need to be perfectly coordinated with each other, and the wellbeing of citizens needs to be taken into consideration. Because time is compressed in a game, this actually takes place more frequently in a game than in real life. In addition, the game absorbs people far more and very quickly gives them a good overview of the current situation. This is achieved by using useful metaphors and background stories in the game. In business software, the whole process, for example the “purchase order,” can be presented like a background story that reflects internal processes in the company. The user follows the “story” and automatically observes the defined rules. Individual functions, such as “create invoice,” are represented by icons or even with a background image of an invoice department.

Can familiar game “interfaces” – for example from Monopoly – be incorporated into the user guidance for business software to increase users’ enjoyment of the software?

Diener: It is possible if you find an analogy between the content of the game and real-life applications or controlling processes. For example, in one design of ContextControl we borrowed the playing fields from ludo. But it is not enough to simply integrate a game interface. The new system also has to be useable. With all the fun of “playing,” you still need to ask whether the use of game concepts really does offer more user friendliness. To ensure it does, we offer companies and developers tests in our Usability Lab.

For what type of applications is ContextControl particularly suitable?

Diener: In our trials, we were able to improve Microsoft Word and Excel, and also integrate training documents and help directly in the user interface. We had two versions of Word – one with and one without ContextControl – tested by users. However, we decided not to give Microsoft feedback about this, as Microsoft is taking another route and will incorporate similar approaches in VISTA. But other applications in the CAD sphere or in production can be adapted.

Have you ever looked at SAP software from this perspective? What would you suggest?

Diener: We have not yet looked at the SAP software in detail. But over the long term it is important to move away from the table metaphors and to take account of new ways of seeing and interacting. Possibilities to consider here include interactive simulation and graphical design such as that seen in games.

In what form is ContextControl currently available on the market?

Diener: ContextControl is a prototype and primarily serves as a platform for evaluating new game concepts in game-based interfaces. But we offer to test software systems and work processes for enterprises and developers and to integrate these in the ContextControl procedures.

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